Hathor Watch-Along – Firefly, S1 Ep10: “War Stories”

OMG you guys I suuuuuck at getting the watch-along for this episode done. That is partly because I have been hella busy, but also probably partly because our episode this…time…is “War Stories,” which I don’t care for all that much.

But better late than never and all of that… Let’s do this thing!

“War Stories” starts out with Book musing about some evil dude named Shan Yu (maybe. Hold that thought) to Simon, comparing a quotation to what has been done to River’s brain in a totally sensitive, man-of-godly way. This segues into finding out that the baddie from “The Train Job,” Niska, is a Shan Yu fan, and apparently tortures people (while wearing a spiffy-looking suit that’d probably pretty hard to get bloodstains out of. I am just saying) in homage. Also, he’s nearby. Uh-oh!

Back on the ship, Jayne has bought a crate of apples to share with everyone (apples of guilt), and Kaylee and River play tag over one of them while Zoe tells an awful war story over another. Wash is clearly kind of twitchy about that, and shortly thereafter, he and Zoe have a fight over how close she and Mal are (sort of – like actual real-life marital spats, it’s complicated and confused). The main action of the episode follows on from that conflict, plus Niska’s whole desire-for-torturous-revenge thing, winding up with Wash and Mal in Niska’s creepy clutches and needing rescue in a pretty serious way.

Zoe mounts rescue attempt number one, and in an unusual – and in my opinion totally awesome – take on the “you only get one hostage back, muahahaha!” situation, she chooses Wash with no hesitation whatsoever. This is what Jennifer had to say about that:

I love that Zoe makes her choice before Niska can even finish his moustache-twirling spiel, because that denies him the fun he would’ve had watching her agonize over that choice (a form of torture). What blows my mind is that Zoe’s choice is tactical (she has no intention of letting either man die; she knows Mal will keep baiting Niska so Niska keeps the torture going, and that buys them time to get Mal out), and this was obvious to me the first time I saw it, yet it also reads as her heartfelt preference. I think this is just Gina Torres being fabulous: there’s a certain tightness around her eyes when she says “Him” and points at Wash, as if she can’t stand to see him like this. It’s almost a micro-expression, but it’s wonderful acting.

I’ve got nothing to add except “ditto.”

Rescue attempt number two involves everyone going in with guns blazing – except Kaylee and River, until River takes Kaylee’s gun and does some very disturbing sharp-shooting. It creeps Kaylee out, but does preserve the escape route, so when the rest of the crew get to Mal everyone can head back to Serenity safe and mostly-sound. The episode ends on a humorous note, with a happy resolution of Wash’s Zoe/Mal concerns.

Okay, so, why don’t I like this episode very much? There are two big things, and a third thing that may or may not actually be a thing (bear with me). Thing one is mostly a personal preference issue: fake blood totally grosses me out, and this episode has long, drawn-out scenes where characters are covered in it. I am fairly sure that I’d feel like the torture is excessively long from a pacing perspective even if I didn’t have the fake blood problem, but maybe not. Either way, it’s a thing that bugs me and makes it hard to enjoy the episode, but probably not of interest to anyone else.

Thing two, though, is something that I think is worth discussing: the girl-on-girl Inara subplot. I think it’s kind of gratuitous, for one thing, and bringing attention to the way the whole thing is set up and shot for the male gaze via Jayne being gross isn’t clever enough to negate the, y’know, actual grossness. I’m also bummed out that everyone is shocked and/or turned on. It’s a dystopian future and all, but damn, does it have to be a heteronormative one? I think I’d feel better about it if I thought that was a deliberate choice, but it reads to me as an unconscious reflection of current culture, just like the lazy use of current insults in future settings that I talked about in “Jaynestown.”

The third thing is about Shan Yu, the guy both Book and Niska talk about. That’s the way the name is spelled on the subtitles of my DVD set, but the subtitles are full of errors, and it’s possible that it was actually meant to be Xiang Yu – who was a real person. The historical Xiang Yu was a warlord during China’s Qin Dynasty, and a massively influential figure with a lasting impact on the political landscape. He was also a seriously ruthless dude, by all reports. Like, burying people alive levels of ruthless.

But did Xiang Yu say something about holding a man over a volcano as a way of revealing true character? Not as far as I can tell. And would it be kind of gross that in a show rife with issues of cultural appropriation and race, words would be put in the mouth of an actual historical person from China, which are then dismissed by a white character as “sadistic crap legitimized by florid prose”? I think so, yeah. Now, it is entirely possible – and I’d go with likely – that “Shan Yu” is meant to be made up, and the Xiang Yu connection is an unfortunate coincidence. But if that’s the case, dang you guys. I wish someone had caught that.

It bums me out that I have such a hard time enjoying what is otherwise a pretty awesome episode, because, you know, there’s a lot of awesome! Zoe is basically made of it. And I think some of the best lines in the series come out of “War Stories.” One of my favorites even comes out of the subplot I hate.

What do y’all think? Does this episode work for you? And do you know of any useful synonyms for “gross” in this kind of context? Because I apparently don’t. *facepalm*

Comments

  1. Clay Mechanic says

    Yes, this episode contains entirely too much torture. It’s also disturbingly casual about it – Mal suffers no permanent damage, either mental or physical. There would be neat symmetry if in future episodes he had flashbacks like River’s.

    Best moment: around 37:30 Zoe says “This is something the Captain has to do for himself” and Mal says “No it’s not!” A lot of my frustrations stem from the scriptwriters making Mal so manly and powerful that he can overcome any obstacle single-handed – so credit where it’s due for giving him a scene where he asks for help and is stronger for doing so.

    I’d have liked some acknowledgement on how dealing with middle-men didn’t protect our heroes. Maybe if the closing argument between Zoe and Wash went more like this (paraphrased):
    Wash: “You were right – the black market is too dangerous to trade in.”
    Zoe: “No, you were right – we got ambushed anyway, so we might as well have earnt the profits for taking the full risk.”
    Wash: “No, I should never have suggested it.”
    Zoe: “No, we should have traded direct to the customers.”
    (Repeat until they kiss and make up or stomp off in opposite directions, depending on your position on the romantic / cynic axis.)

  2. M.C. says

    I think the name Shan Yu was a shout-out to the villain from Mulan. I mean the Disney version, not the original Chinese poem, or the film with Zhao Wei, or the novel by Cameron Dokey.
    It’s one of those random references to Chinese culture that Whedon likes to throw around, regardless if it’s actually Chinese or not…

  3. Nialla says

    Best moment: around 37:30 Zoe says “This is something the Captain has to do for himself” and Mal says “No it’s not!”A lot of my frustrations stem from the scriptwriters making Mal so manly and powerful that he can overcome any obstacle single-handed – so credit where it’s due for giving him a scene where he asks for help and is stronger for doing so.

    I love that moment too, especially how Mal gasps out “No it’s not!” and Zoe’s reaction is “Oh.” before they start firing. She’s so blase about fighting when it needs to be done and generally non-girly, it’s often like they did a Ripley. In other words, wrote the character as male or at least neutral, then cast a female in the role, but yet when she’s with Wash, she can be so loving, but it’s her own way of showing love and not the traditional sappy stuff.

    I would have loved to see how Zoe and Wash got together, beyond the flashback scene to their first meeting in “Out of Gas”. I also wonder if Mal was telling the truth when he told Wash Zoe had disobeyed his orders and married Wash. Maybe it’s better the show didn’t give us all the details, so the imagination (and fanfic writers) could run wild with it.

  4. Mel says

    “Shan Yu” was also a title (sort of equivalent to “Khan” for Mongols) among the Xiongnu, another one of those nomadic groups that fought with China a lot. I always suspected that’s where Disney’s Mulan got the name for their villain.

  5. says

    M.C.,

    I… wow. Trying to decide if that helps. I mean, stealing from Disney beats putting words in the mouth of a real historical person, but I’m wondering if Disney appropriated the name to begin with and Whedon “borrowed” it without recognizing or checking the name. In which case Western culture is not looking so good – again.

    Another thing that bothered me with Inara and the counselor is their conversation about how one can’t always be oneself around men. The counselor amends it to one can “never” be oneself around men. Really? The episode is written as if that’s a normal feeling for women, and maybe it is, but I am not the most comfortable social creature and even I know men around whom I feel I can truly relax, say what I want, and even look like crap. I’m curious: do a lot of women feel they can never be themselves around men? I’m wondering where the writers got this, since one of them is a woman.

  6. Robin says

    I had no idea about Xiang Yu. My guess would be that the writing staff didn’t either and it’s an coincidence, but it is indeed unfortunate. :-\

    Zoe’s snap decision and Mal’s cry for help are indeed awesome. As is the fact that Mal ignores his own suffering in order to protect a member of his crew, one who had been giving him crap just a few hours earlier. Captain Reynolds might not be a good man, but he tries very hard to be a good leader, even when the crew don’t want to follow.

    The oh-my-god-the-client’s-a-woman subplot is definitely problematic. The other characters’ reactions came as a really big surprise to me the first time I saw it, because I know that a lot of the writers are very pro-gay, and at least one is openly gay, so a homosexual encounter shouldn’t be a bigger deal than a heterosexual one. It made me really sad that such reactions were happening in 2002 on a series set in 2517. Ideally, it wouldn’t have made any difference to the crew. I would have understood if they remarked on it as unusual, since Inara says that she mostly takes male clientele, but the way Jayne, Kaylee, and Book were drooling over the pair was… yeah, gross. It feels lascivious and voyeuristic in a way that her previous engagements didn’t.

    Though I have to wonder, if the counselor really didn’t want any witnesses, why she didn’t arrange to meet Inara somewhere other than the ship. Inara’s got a shuttle she can take pretty much anywhere. Two intelligent women should have been able to arrange the logistics of that. (Yes, I realize that might have involved an extra set which costs extra money, and would have largely taken Inara too far from the geography of the main plot, and blah blah blah. Just because I know the realities of making television doesn’t mean I have to excuse lazy storytelling.)

  7. says

    Revena, I find it interesting that your two biggest complaints are about the culture of the Firefly ‘verse, not the plot itself. That seems to be a running theme, that the stories are good but the worldbuilding sucks.

    Re: Inara and her client, fandom seems to think, “I’ll be in my bunk,” is the wittiest line ever, but it pisses me off. It’s so quintessentially male privileged to imagine that women have no purpose beyond your pleasure. As if even when the counselor wants to hire a prostitute/geisha for her own pleasure, an act of taking control of one’s sexuality and in the capitalist view of the world placing oneself above others, she is still relegated to the position of entertainer herself. She can never truly be the person whose fantasies are fulfilled; she must always be an object in others’ fantasies.

    Jennifer Kesler: The counselor amends it to one can “never” be oneself around men. Really? The episode is written as if that’s a normal feeling for women, and maybe it is

    Interesting. I’ve never felt that way, at least not specifically to men. I’m usually at least partially guarded around my friends, of all genders. I feel I can be myself around my brother (but then again he’s only 12) and I don’t have any other close male relatives I could measure that by. But that is an interesting connection to make in light of the conversation we’re having in the LOGI thread about women thinking of men as potential rapists. Perhaps that is the concept the female writer was trying to get across to the males and it got lost in translation.

  8. says

    The “no it’s not!” part is one of my favorite bits, too. It works as humor and character development/illumination simultaneously. Hooray!

    Jennifer Kesler – Yeah, you talked about that line in your email, too, and then I totally forgot that I meant to include that in the post. Thanks for bringing it up in comments! I find that conversation sort of difficult to parse generally, because, you know, whatever Inara says, she is in fact still being paid to make her client happy, not taking a mutual vacation. Does she bring up the not relaxing around men thing because she really feels that way? Or because she knows her client is a bit of a misandrist? Or both? When she reassures her client that she took the appointment because she finds it relaxing to be with her, is that completely true, or part of the service she’s providing?

    …Anyway, fwiw, I totally have men in my life that I can relax completely around. I mean, I live with a man, and I never bother to close the bathroom door anymore, which is indicative of a certain level of comfort, y’know? ;)

    Robin –

    Though I have to wonder, if the counselor really didn’t want any witnesses, why she didn’t arrange to meet Inara somewhere other than the ship. Inara’s got a shuttle she can take pretty much anywhere. Two intelligent women should have been able to arrange the logistics of that. (Yes, I realize that might have involved an extra set which costs extra money, and would have largely taken Inara too far from the geography of the main plot, and blah blah blah. Just because I know the realities of making television doesn’t mean I have to excuse lazy storytelling.)

    Word.

    Sylvia Sybil –

    Revena, I find it interesting that your two biggest complaints are about the culture of the Firefly ‘verse, not the plot itself. That seems to be a running theme, that the stories are good but the worldbuilding sucks.

    Good point. I do have complaints about story bits that are independent of the worldbuilding, and a few issues with things like individual characters and character arcs (or the lack thereof) that could be considered worldbuilding or not, depending on how you use that term, but in general, yeah, most of my ehhhn is related to flaws in the fictional universe that just get heightened and expanded instead of dealt with or even quietly abandoned. Which is probably why I still like and rewatch the show at all – the episodes have some great stuff going on that I can enjoy as long as I suspend my frustration with the background.

    Re: Inara and her client, fandom seems to think, “I’ll be in my bunk,” is the wittiest line ever, but it pisses me off. It’s so quintessentially male privileged to imagine that women have no purpose beyond your pleasure.

    Huh! That is the “one of my favorites” I refer to above. And I totally agree with you about how offensive it actually is, but something about Baldwin’s delivery just makes me laugh despite myself every time. But as I think about it, what actually makes me think of it as a line I like isn’t in the show at all – it’s in fandom. The people that I see saying “I’ll be in my bunk” on a regular basis are female fen, referring to fic or pictures or whatever that they find sexy, which to me sort of wonderfully subverts the original context by making it about a woman’s sexual desires instead of Jayne’s (and through him, the hetero-male-default audience). But, it’s in that way where the existence of fanworks is transgressive, but individual fanworks can be (and often are) actually reinforcing inequalities of the dominant culture (fannish misogyny, I am looking at you), so I can see your position, too – a thoughtless repetition of a harmful meme is harmful.

  9. Quib says

    I think I find Wash far too annoying to enjoy this plot line. (It didn’t help that the first time I watched this episode the video had problems and I got really cranky)
    To me, the story came across as Wash is terribly insecure and possessive, then he makes decisions that get him into serious trouble, so Zoe fixes everything by showing him how super awesome special he is and then cooks him dinner, the end.
    But I haven’t seen anyone else read it that way, so I could just have a problem with Wash on a personality level.

  10. Clay Mechanic says

    Quib,
    Your reading seems accurate to me. My own post was stumbling towards that point, but I should have noted that Wash is the real problem here.

    I like seeing a male character being insecure and possessive, since that’s usually a female stereotype – but it would be nice to have some acknowledgement to the audience that he’s being petty. We’ve already seen River make painfully honest observations on people’s characters, so it would be in character for her to do so here.

    Speaking of River, this is the first time – two thirds through the season – where she displays the action hero behaviour that is now memetic. (Well, there was also the time she stabbed Jayne in the previous episode.) Not that being an action heroine a bad thing, but it’s interesting how “Serenity” has defined her in the collective consciousnous.

  11. Tristan J says

    I have to disagree with the reading you guys are getting of the episode – I actually got the impression that it was about Wash (and by extention the audience) learning what Zoey’s relationship with Mal is – i.e. nonsexual and based mostly on professional respect.

  12. Maria says

    Clay Mechanic,

    I think when male characters are shown being possessive there’s normally an in-narrative rationale for it, so you’re still supposed to sympathize with them as the viewer. Like, I think if there was a gender reversal here, and Zoe was played by a buff war vat and Wash was played by a goofy, comic-relief femme… IDK I think it’d be a space western I Love Lucy ep.

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