Out of Gas is a fantastic piece of television. If you’re only ever going to watch one episode of Firefly, this has to be it. In the “present day” narrative, the crew of Serenity are celebrating Simon's birthday when a fire knocks out the engines, and the life support along with them. Woven through their attempts to survive, we see how each member of the crew came to the ship in the first place, along with glimpses of a dark future, when a lone Mal, bleeding from a gunshot wound, attempts to fix the ship before the air runs out.
It's gripping stuff, the perfect balance of plot, emotion and character. It manages to be sad and intense and laugh-out-loud funny, all at the same time, in part because the characters are showcased so well. Jayne tells people not to fight "at a time like this," not because they need to work together, but because they'll use up all the air. River tells Book that they won't die gasping, only to inform him that they'll "freeze to death first." It's dark humor, unexpected each time, yet perfectly in sync with the characters we know.
As long as we're uncertain how the episode will end (although, as it's episode 8, we probably know they're going to be OK), the episode also showcases each character in their first and last moments. We see their younger selfs, stepping onto the ship for the first time. An amazing younger Kaylee, so casual and confident in her knowledge despite having never been in a Firefly before. Not afraid to speak what she knows, and earning a job because of it. Inara, striding onto the ship, the elegant, badass negotiator who won't take any crap from Mal, even from the beginning. Jayne leaving his previous gang for a bigger room. And we also see them reacting to their impending doom -- Simon's clinical analysis of the situation, Book turning to his Bible, Kaylee's despair that she failed Serenity, Inara's cool negotiation abandoned in favor of desperate pleas for Mal to stop being such an idiot and save himself as well. And Serenity herself, the character we begin and end with, the one character that Mal can't possibly bear to leave behind. The character that we're also heartbroken to see go.
Strangely, for such a tense and dramatic episode, there's very little action. A burst of fire at the beginning, a quickly resolved attempt to steal the ship near the end. All the intensity comes from introspection, from our love for the characters and our fear for their fates. And this reflects the true hero of the episode: Zoe. Despite being unconscious for the majority of the episode, she's the one who saves the day, in her typical understated, subtle, dry-witted and highly effective way. She is passionate and powerful underneath that still exterior, and she absolutely rules this episode, despite having little to do. She kicks off the episode by saving Kaylee's life, pushing her out of the way of the fireball and putting herself in harm's way in the process. Things go to hell while she sleeps. And then, the moment she wakes up, she insists that the shuttles return to Serenity, saving the ship and the captain's life in one move. "I take full responsibility," she says, when Mal asks why the hell they disobeyed his orders and came back. "Won't happen again, sir."
God, what a hero. Brave, stoic, and nothing like any stereotype we might expect of the "female warrior," never mind the Captain's second or the pilot's wife. Even when she's hardly in an episode, she really shines. Looking forward to seeing more of her in War Stories in two weeks.
But first, another episode I remember being pretty damn good: Ariel. It's time to learn more about River, and for Jayne's loyalty to be put seriously to the test...