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*