No wacky space hijinxs this week. In War Stories, sadistic crime overlord Nishka finally catches up with the crew of Serenity, and he’s not looking to chat over tea and scones. He’s still angry that Mal didn’t complete his job in The Train Job, and he’s determined to show them what you get when you betray him.
Turns out, we get some of the most awesome moments for female characters on the show. Also, torture. Lots of torture.
Big Damn Heroes
War Stories proves that Zoe is the most badass badass to ever badass. Rewatching this, I don’t understand how I didn’t love Zoe when I first saw this show. Instead of analyzing anything, I just want to write a list of how amazing she is. She goes onto the ship where her captain and her husband are being tortured, unarmed, to try and rescue them. She is completely stoic and fearless while facing down their capturer (“This is your opinion?” “It is.”). She undercuts the villain’s attempt to emotionally torture her by picking her husband before Nishka can even finish telling her she can only take one, and then gives him a deadpan snarky comment for his trouble. SHE TUCKS MAL’S EAR INTO HER BRA WITHOUT FLINCHING AND WALKS AWAY. And then she organizes an assault on a space station where failure is near-certain, because the Captain would do the same for her.
What an awesome character.
It’s interesting that Zoe is presented as the traditional hero in all of this, in contrast to Mal’s “screw the rules” anti-hero attitude. She tells the crew to run if she doesn’t come back, where Mal would tell them to come rescue him. She declares that killing Nishka is something Mal needs to do for himself, while Mal insists no, he’d actually rather have help. And I think this is because Zoe’s very existence is trope-breaking, and any other changes would merely undermine that point. Mal, as the white gun-toting male, is a character that we see often enough in media, both as a straight hero and as an anti-hero, but Zoe is a lot more unusual. She is a married black woman, and I can’t think of any other story where a married black woman is presented as a stoic, fearless, completely badass hero type. Come to think of it, I can barely think of any other stories where a married woman plays that role. Or a black woman. Or any woman. Her role as a hero is unique, precisely because it’s played straight. She’s not a joke, or a token character, or a hero who doesn’t quite act like a hero should (because she’s black! because she’s a woman! haha, how hilarious). She is unquestionably a total badass. And I love it.
Not all badasses can shoot a gun
Of course, none of this Zoe praise is to suggest that she’s only an awesome character because she’s stoic and fearless and can shoot a gun, or that all awesome characters need those traits. One of Firefly’s real strengths is that it shows us a wide variety of female characters (and characters in general) who have very different strengths and weaknesses and personalities. Kaylee is just as “strong” as Zoe, despite being unable to assault a space station or look at Mal’s severed ear without flinching. In fact, Kaylee’s strength in this episode is that she chooses to help the assault despite the fact that she is afraid. And when she is actually faced with shooting somebody and finds she cannot do it? That’s OK too. That doesn’t make her weak. A “strong” female character can be terrified and back away and hide, because being in a firefight is frightening. Attempting to kill something is terrifying, and it goes against everything that Kaylee is. The show presents a female character with a somewhat stereotypical inability to fight and kill others, but that is far from a bad thing.
And the show makes clear that this isn’t “being a girl.” Although Simon does not become overwhelmed and duck away, he’s also somewhat shocked by the experience, and, as Book points out, fails to shoot anyone despite his best efforts. Simon and Kaylee don’t perform well in this situation because of who they are, not because of their gender. Their willingness to try, despite fighting being out of character and out of their skillset, is the true character strength here.
No Power in the Verse Can Stop Me
But to me, the most memorable part of War Stories is River. River saving Kaylee and shooting three men without even looking. River, turning and smiling and saying, “No power in the ‘verse can stop me.”
I’ve spent the whole series so far wondering why River was my favorite character as a teenager, when she does very little other than mumble and be tragic. This thirty second scene reminded me. River is the hidden badass. Other characters spend the whole season talking about her, worrying about her, fighting over her. They don’t listen to what she’s trying to say. They rescue her and they abandon her. She is always the object in the story. And then River turns around and saves Kaylee’s life. She probably saves all of the crew by preventing the enemy from reaching Serenity. She does it flinchingly, but she looks, she analyzes, and then she shoots the three of them dead with her eyes closed. And then she smiles, all joy at her success, and jokingly declares what she’s just proved: that she is unstoppable.
I love it. Everyone has spent all season thinking that River needs their protection, but when in her right mind, she is actually more capable of protecting them than they are of protecting her. She has amazing intelligence and strength that none of them have seen. But they will see. They underestimated her, but in the end, she will best them all.
And she, like Kaylee, is allowed to be girly while doing it. She plays silly games. She wears pretty flowing dresses. She closes her eyes while she shoots, because she doesn’t want to look. And then she shoots anywa. Because she is awesome.
Husbands, Wives, Captains and Councillors
Unfortunately, War Stories isn’t without its flaws. The Inara subplot seems wildly unnecessary, and although her scenes alone with the councillor might be said to have a feminist bent, the repeated commentary on it from other crew members (“I’ll be in my bunk”) gives it a rather male-gaze-y feel. It’s not bisexual representation as much as titillating lesbianism. Disappointing — but then, Inara’s subplots often are.
My other problem was with Wash, at least in the first half of this episode. He usually plays the funny, somewhat hapless Xander-esque role in the show, but his attitude towards Zoe was far too Xander-like for my tastes this week. And by “Xander-like,” I mean “Nice Guy” controlling. He is incredibly rude to Zoe about her opinions. He makes a bratty statement about how he’s the one Zoe swore to “love, honor and obey,” even though Zoe didn’t swear to obey at all. Instead of using his words like a grown-up, he sabotages the shuttle so that Zoe is forced to let him go on a mission in her place. He has lots of hilarious lines, and I usually like him a lot, but he pushed things a little too far this week. Then again, he did get punished for it and learned the truth of things in a most spectacularly awful way. Character growth was the order of the day, and he got served it in bucketloads.
All in all, though, a great episode. But after all this intensity, I’m looking forwards to some light fun with YoSaffBridge next week, in Trash.