In Bushwhacked, the crew of Serenity come across an abandoned ship, floating in space. When they discover that the passengers on the ship were attacked by Reavers, dissension breaks out: should they stay to care for the dead, steal their supplies, or run as fast and as far as they can, before the Reavers come back?
The Psychic Waif
River is a difficult character for me to talk about, because she was my absolute favorite character as a teenager (and, when talking about Firefly, that's really saying something).
On the one hand, she fulfils lots of waif stereotypes in this episode. She's tiny and damaged and disconnected and walks barefoot on a spaceship to show how different and innocent and natural she is. At this point, as far as we know, she's completely helpless and relies on others to survive. And she's mysterious. She knows things that she shouldn't, and hears screams that are long gone. Something happened to her, but no-one knows what. She's something for Simon to protect, and something for the other crew members to fight over and develop moral conflicts about. Her main character trait at this point is that she suffers. She has suffered through torture in the past, and now she suffers thanks to her brain, to all the things that have been done to her.
But she's also given joy. Her expression as she clings to the side of Serenity, looking at the stars all around her, is amazing. Her face lights up, and she's full of absolute wonder and delight. And it makes me love her.
Another plus is the fact that River's not a sexualized waif. No one is trying to save her because they love her delicate mysteriousness. In face, River is half a child. She can't express her fears, and she bounces back onto the ship at the end of the episode with the cry, "Let's go again!" And, partly because of that, no one takes her as seriously as she should. She takes an almost Cassandra-like role in this episode, full of warnings of what they are about to encounter. She's not treated with reverence, no-one listens to her, and she has no strength to force them to do so... they're so busy protecting her and dismissing her that they don't recognize the emotions, the strength and the intelligence she still has within herself.
River's character is going to be a story, something that can't be analyzed from one episode alone. But if she stays as she is in Bushwhacked, we'll have some problems, no matter how much I love her even here.
You'll Scare the Women
Meanwhile, other characters in the ship were busy breaking tropes and expectations. Jayne is our tough guy character, the one with the least morals, the fewest concerns, and the one who we might think we'd least like to have against us in a fight. And he's the one who is most scared of the Reavers. He's so scared of the idea they were even anywhere near a place where he is now that he insists the attack couldn't have been Reavers, over and over again. As he is the muscle of the group, this adds to our gut understanding that Reavers are terrifying things. But he's not only scared; he's more obviously scared than anyone else. Zoe faces the threat with her usual fearless stoicism. Mal does what needs to be done. And Kaylee, our sweetest girl character, barely blinks in the face of the danger. But Jayne is terrified, because being the most stereotypically "masculine" one, the one with the muscles and the guns, doesn't mean that he has to be the strongest or the most fearless all of the time. Or any of the time.
In fact, Kaylee is our hero of the hour, as she frees Serenity from the Reavers' trap. She's the one that everyone turns to to fix the problem. She's the one to spout a bit of natural-sounding technobabble, before having a mechanical action montage where she fixes everything with her badass skills. She's still her cute self, she has a bit of self-doubt, she half-jokes that it's OK, because if she messes up, Mal won't be able to yell at her... AND she's a highly competent, highly technical, and highly important member of the crew.
Then we come to the Reavers. They are a terrifying presence in this episode, even though we never see them, even though they're long gone, except for the one survivor they left behind. They're the perfect psychological threat, people seemingly driven mad by life at the edge of space, something that anyone could become if they were pushed and tortured far enough.
All in all, a good episode! It gives us a good glimpse into the crew's dynamics and the secrets they hold (I STILL want to see what Inara was hinting at when she told Simon that they were "all running from something), and was all-in-all compelling to watch.
And next week, things are going to get really good (I hope), with one of my old favorites: Shindig.