“Out Of Gas” (season 1, episode 8; originally aired 10/25/2002)
Donna Bowman: After we wrote about “Jaynestown” last week and both, in our ways, expressed some disappointment that the whole episode wasn’t up to the standard of its most inspired plotline, I realized something about the way I approach television. For me, the best episodes are the most well-constructed episodes. I appreciate and enjoy a fantastic moment, scene, performance, act, or storyline. But I thrill to a complete episode that is structured creatively and executed with panache.
So I was over the moon for “Out Of Gas,” which manages to reinvent the whole “how the gang got together” episode by weaving it into an ode to the ship itself, the gang’s unlikely, adopted home. Throughout the hour we get beautiful juxtapositions between various pasts and the present, such as the pan down from Mal and Zoe walking through the hatch when Zoe is being shown the ship for the first time, their voices fading as Mal mentions he has the perfect name all picked out, to Mal in the present moment lying bleeding and alone on a grate. We see the basic plan of the episode all at once: While multiple flashbacks will take us through the origin story of our heroes, we’ll also discover what led to Mal’s and the ship’s present predicament.
This means that the flashbacks have to be multilayered. We won’t just be going back to the more distant past when the crew was assembled, but also to the immediate past when something went terribly awry. And at the same time, we’ll be moving forward to find out what happens to the stricken captain and his ship. Ambitious, to say the least. Yet “Out Of Gas” soars through the complexities of its structure without ever forgetting to deliver evocative moments, humor, and deeply affecting emotion. It’s a grand slam.
The predicament begins with a sudden fireball in the engine room, interrupting a family dinner where Simon doesn’t get a chance to tell what he claims are hilarious stories of medical hijinks. (Jayne, interrupting as Simon gears up: “Inara, she’s gotta have some funny whoring stories!”). After the crew gets behind the blast doors and opens the hatch, venting the fire out into space and starving it of oxygen, Kaylee discovers that the catalyzer is busted, and she can’t get it working and installed again. To make matters worse, the backup life support is gone, too, so without the engine running, there’ll be no air. “Sometimes a thing gets broke, can’t be fixed,” she whispers fatalistically. Mal sends off the two shuttles, loaded with four people each, on opposite courses in a last-ditch attempt to find help; he stays with the ship and monitors the distress signal he and Wash have managed to boost by rigging it to the navigation system.
And in the long-ago, Mal convinces Zoe to see beyond Serenity’s surface flaws to the freedom she represents. Wash (with giant mustache!) would be happy to accept the pilot’s job, if only Zoe can get past her reflexive dislike of him (“Somethin’ about him bothers me”). The genius mechanic that Mal has signed up turns out to be a serial womanizer and not exactly the hardest worker, but one of his “prairie harpy” conquests has the natural tinkerin’ ability to keep the rotors turning and the ship flying. Inara confidently predicts Mal will choose her as his shuttle’s tenant because she brings “a certain respectability… That’s something you can use.” And Jayne gets bought out from under the passel of bandits who are holding Mal and Zoe up, for the promise of a raise in pay and a private room.
All those slightly sepia-toned scenes from the past gain extra tragic oomph whenever we return to the events immediately preceding Mal’s injury, where the crew is gone and Mal is shivering in a blanket awaiting rescue. When a ship does pull alongside, it turns out to have a little too much in common to Serenity to be entirely helpful; it’s piloted by outlaws, too, and instead of passing along a spare catalyzer, they plan to take the entire ship. Mal gets the drop on them and sends ’em packing (“You woulda done the same,” they defend themselves; “We can already see I haven’t,” Mal contradicts them, pointing out that they’re getting out with their lives), replaces the part (after briefly and terrifyingly dropping it under the engine), then collapses before he can push the big red button Wash rigged up to recall the shuttles. But thanks to Zoe’s cussed insubordination, the shuttles come back anyway and Mal gets bundled off to sickbay to recover.
“Y’all gonna be here when I wake up?” Mal asks before getting some more rest in the now recovered Serenity. It’s a line that arises from the recurring shots of empty ship rooms and corridors that punctuate “Out Of Gas.” And we have our final flashback, all the way back this time to when Mal’s eye wanders off the ship the used-spaceship dealer is trying to sell him, and lights on that Firefly. It’s as if he started dreaming the whole series at that moment, complete with adventures and comrades and danger. It’s as if Serenity were the first recruit for his crew, or maybe the mate with whom he plans to start a new life. I love that finish, doubling back to Mal picking out the place where he’s going to become Captain Reynolds, caring more about the feeling of the moment than practicality; that’s also the way he recruits Kaylee and Jayne, you’ll notice. Noel, I know you’re a huge fan of this episode and I can see why. What impresses you more: the way it works as an episode of television, or the way it deepens and expands the history of these characters?
Noel Murray: Oh, the former, for sure. I already loved the characters by the time I saw “Out Of Gas” for the first time, and while I appreciated the expanded backstory, that alone wouldn’t have knocked me for a loop the way the structure of this episode did. As I’ve mentioned, Firefly was my first Joss Whedon experience, and after watching the preceding episodes, I was already sold on the wit, the heart, and the cast. But watching “Out Of Gas” was one of those, “Oh man, this is something special” moments. Just the ambition of it, and the confidence… I’m always impressed when writers come up with an original way to complete an assignment, and here credited writer Tim Minear goes next-level, using the ship itself to tell the story, shifting between past and present within the various spaces on-board. And director David Solomon doesn’t just keep the time periods clear with the expressionistic lighting, he also sets a mood. The opening shots of a silent, near-empty, drifting Serenity are heartbreaking, even before a bloody Mal falls.
Here’s the thing, though: It would’ve been easy to make this episode really heavy and pretentious, what with all the impending doom and structural complexity, but Minear and company seem to grasp that since one of the major ideas of this episode is that these people and this ship comprise a happy little community, it makes sense to show that. Sometimes the narrative trickery in “Out Of Gas” is just in service of a good gag, as when Mal talks about this “genius mechanic” he’s found and it turns out not to be Kaylee. From the moment Bester appears, we know that we’re being teased, and that before the episode is over we’ll find out how Bester got replaced. But it’s a fun kind of tease; it’s the “can’t wait to see how this plays out” kind.
And for all the life-or-death tension in “Out Of Gas,” it contains one of the funniest scenes in all of Fireflydom (which is saying something), in the “recruitment” of Jayne. The patter is so quick (“Which one you figure tracked us?” “The ugly one, sir.” “Could you be more specific?”) and so cool-in-the-face-of-danger (“Offering to shoot us might not work so well as an incentive as you might imagine.”), but it’s also telling that when Mal hears what Jayne gets paid and asks Zoe, “That seem low to you?” he’s both working an angle and speaking his mind. To Mal, it really is unfair that someone as skilled as Jayne should be working so cheap. There’s a subtle piece of parallel dialogue in this “Out Of Gas.” Jayne’s old boss Marco starts to give an order, saying, “I ain’t asking…” before Jayne shoots him; and earlier in the episode, Mal orders Wash to the bridge, saying, “I wasn’t askin’, I was tellin’.” Yet Mal’s crew isn’t going to shoot him for telling them what to do.
Beyond filling in backstory, “Out Of Gas” has a lot on its mind. It explores the limitations and short-sightedness of Mal’s grand dream of being “free.” Yes, he can use his ship to duck the Alliance, but when a crisis arises, Serenity is on a course so far from civilization that that they’re just about done for. And for all Mal’s promises of “autonomy” to Inara and others, whenever people gather, some accommodations have to be made. Nobody in a society is ever fully free. Even when Mal expects to die alone, Zoe won’t let him.
But this episode also highlights what makes Mal such a good leader: his generosity of spirit, and his imagination. He’s impressed by Kaylee because she’s a lot like him: She doesn’t think twice about ripping out a faulty engine part because it’s not really necessary. (“Just gums up the works.”) And while Zoe is bothered by “something” about Wash, Mal can tell that beneath the mustache, Wash is their man. This is his gift, to “try and see past what she is and see what she can be.”
Donna Bowman: You’re onto something there about Malcolm Reynolds’ gift, but one thing I’m discovering on my first pass through Firefly is that Whedon has tweaked the stock charismatic commander stereotype in ways I find both interesting and slightly disturbing. Compared to Captain Kirk (just for example), Captain Reynolds has the improvisational flourish without the outsized self-confidence. Sometimes—and this has never seemed more true than in the flashbacks here—he seems to be just playing captain. It’s a role he’s imagined for himself, but it’s not always a perfect fit. He responds to certain setbacks and challenges to his authority with bluff, bravado, or abashed uncertainty. And that’s both endearing (because it’s the way we might feel in his position) and troubling (because what we need in our big damn heroes is reliable heroics).
Just look at the way Mal and Wash snipe desperately at each other over the possibility of boosting the distress signal. Wash feels like his expertise has led him to a solid rationale for despair, and rails sarcastically against Mal’s insistence on pointless action—exactly the kind of insistence one would expect from an idealistic cowboy of a captain who’s used to the success of his crazy capers. “It’s a brilliant plan, I’m sure we’ll all be perfectly safe!” he mocks Mal. But then when the captain shows that he knows more about rewiring things than Wash expected, the pilot backs down not as the loyal soldier, but as the embarrassed friend (“Well, maybe I should do that then!”). That works one-on-one, but it forms quite a contrast to the rank Mal pulls when he orders Wash to the bridge in the first place, as you pointed out.
But Mal also isn’t one of those captains who can pound on the side of the engine and get it going, Fonzarelli-like. He doesn’t have a throw-dilithium-crystals-at-it, reverse-the-polarity, so-crazy-it-just-might-work solution for the missing part, and has to accept that all his begging Kaylee for one won’t do any good. Their mechanical problem becomes a management and strategic problem, and that’s when he shows his true commitment to the role of captain: By taking sole responsibility for its implementation, including going down with his ship (as seems likely). The fact that he’s glad Zoe disobeyed orders and rescued him from that suicidal playacting says to me that he’s still aware of the gap between his swashbuckling dreams and his human needs.
- We obviously didn’t need flashbacks for Book or the Tams, since we’ve already seen how they ended up on Serenity, but “Out Of Gas” is still a fairly River-ful episode. She senses the big fire coming just before it arrives. And she tries to allay Book’s fear of suffocation by saying, “We’ll freeze to death first.”
- River also tries to get philosophical about what a “day” means and thus whether Simon’s “birthday” has any meaning, until she finally admits, “I didn’t get you anything.”
- For the second time during the run of Firefly, it’s made clear that you do not want to let Jayne take charge of your ship. The man will defer to a captain because he has a code of sorts, but that code also means that if he has a chance to take command, he’ll seize it, and God help you if he does.
- When Inara lets Mal know that she will not be “servicing” any of the Serenity’screw, he deadpans, “I’ll post a sign.”
- From the “Here’s where society is at in the early 2500s” department: With all the advanced technology available to send ships hurtling through the void of space, there’s still a lot of spit-and-bailing-wire to the endeavor, from Kaylee intuitively rerouting engine parts to Mal using the airlock to extinguish a sudden ball of fire.
- From the “You don’t pay Jayne Cobb to talk pretty” department: When told that looks can be deceiving, Jayne delivers the snappy comeback, “Not as deceiving as a low-down dirty… deceiver.”
Next week: We’re away on a short vacation, and then on August 17, the plot thickens with “Ariel.”