Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Firefly--"War Stories"

I am not entirely certain how to classify “War Stories.” It starts out as a Wash-centric character study, then becomes a gruesome philosophical exploration of torture, and finally ends with a big shoot ‘em up in which the most unlikely characters are the toughest. It is by no means a bad mix. It is merely packed.

Wash is upset with the long history between Mal and Zoe. Their war experiences have forged a bond which makes Wash feel jeaoulous of and inadequate to Mal. He insists on going on a field assignment to prove himself, even suggesting a plan alteration. Zoe approaches mal with the idea, but he nixes it. Zoe later lies to Wash to spare his feelings. Under the circumstances, that is even worse. He sabotages the shuttle mal and zoe plan to use on a trip to sell the drugs they stole in the previous episode. The actual exchange is broken up when Niska’s men intervene. They kidnap Mal and Wash in revenge for cheating him out of money from the money from the drugs they were supposed to steal for him earlier.

Mal and Wash are tortured by Niska with electric shock, but the sequence is only a continuation of the torture theme. In the very first scene, simon examines River’s brain scans with Shepherd looking over his shoulder. Shepherd quotes from Chinese warrior/poet Xiang You, who said if you really want to know a man, torture him. Shepherd is implying River’s brain surgeries were a way of determining the real her. The scene cuts to Niska also citing Xiang Yu while torturing a disloyal subordinate. Later still, Niska alludes to Xiang ago when torturing Mal and wash.

Xiang Yu’s theory of personal discovery through torture is questionable. Certainly, in moments of desperation people will show you who they really are. But one cannot discount the fact people under extreme duress will say anything to earn relief. For every point, there is a counter point. Interesting that “War Stories” aired in December 2002 when the national debate over interrogating captured terrorists was just starting to get underway. Many yerrorists were being handed over to other countries likely to use torture as an interrogation technique. The famous Justice Department memo defining advanced interrogation techniques had been made public the previous August.

We can bypass all that, however. “War Stories” does not preach one way or the other. In fact, the first scenes of the electroshock torture are played for overt laughs, but with a serious undertone. Mal realizes wash is weak, so to keep him from breaking, he taunts him that his emotional bond with Zoe is far stronger than his. He even told Zoe not to marry wash. Perhaps she and mal she sleep together as the last logical step in their relationship. The anger keeps wash focused on something else so he does not break.

Realizing something is wrong, Zoe heads to the meeting site and discovers clues pointing to Niska having kidnapped Mal and Wash. She travels to his space station in order to pay off what he has lost. Niska says the money is only enough to win the freedom of one. He expects Zoe to be tortured with the moral dilemma of choosing, but she does not hesitate to pick Wash. Niska cuts off Mal’s left ear to take with them. They leave to the sounds of Mal’s screams of pain. The severed ear is the most graphic thing we have seen so far, but the torture does not end there. Further action sequences are interspersed with scenes of thin tendrils penetrating Mal’s torso and his being pinched with wire cutters. Not the most pleasant of viewing experience.

Zoe and Wash plan to rescue Mal by force. The rest of the crew joins them, albeit Jayne as the last straggler. The rescue is a big firefight in which mal is able to escape his torturers, who are so overconfident at his depleted condition, they do not restrain him. He cuts loose to show Niska the real him. We also learn the “real” selves of two other characters. Shepherd knows how to use a gun. So does River, who sneaks along and intervenes to save her new friend Kaylee by taking out three armed men with one well aimed shot. River is an expert killing machine, too.

If that was not enough, we have some hot lezbo action between Inara and a local politician. Inara reveals she rarely takes on same sex clients, but will when they can fill a need in her, too. I do not think the revelation is so much an admission of bisexuality so much as a cynicism regarding the men she has to serve. Her warning to the rest of the crew is not to ogle her client, as though mean’s obsession with the physical is growing tiresome for her. Jayne ogles her anyway, and begins the “I’ll be in my bunk” phrase that is still a popular euphemism for yanking it like a monkey in a mango tree.

There is a lot going on in “War Stories,” but it is all compelling enough to not get lost in. secondary characters get a shine to shine with some pretty interesting revelations thrown in, to boot. Wash mans up in a big hurry thanks to Mal, even if much of his efforts were tough love. “War Stories” is not an easy to episode to watch because of the torture scenes. It is true mosyt is implied or lightened up with dialogue, but there are some scenes I had to wince at--and I am a tough little cuss.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

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