Firefly and Western Literature
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“Once, in Flight School, I Was Laconic”

In the episode “War Stories,” we continue a run of Firefly episodes that emphasize the science fictional elements over the western ones. If earlier episodes have examined the issue of how far one can go out on the frontier and still survive, the frontier in this episode is not so much a physical space as a personal one.  As Rev. Book comments, discussing a philosopher on the art of war, this is about “war, torture, the limits of human experience.” The episode explores a different sort of frontier, the limitations and capacities of the individual human body, especially the body subjected to extreme pain.

Although the theme is quite serious, this is a fun episode, in part because it focuses on Wash, who in many ways is the exact opposite of the typical western hero, who is usually the strong silent type, and Wash is anything but silent. After he and Mal have been captured by old nemesis Niska, Wash continues to talk about how he can keep himself from talking: “Terse, I can be terse. Once, in flight school, I was laconic.”

Wash insists on going on the mission with Mal in part because he wants to have his own “war stories” to tell and in part because of jealousy over Mal and Zoe’s relationship (“What this marriage needs is one less husband”). The only explicit reference to the western is during the drop that goes wrong, which takes place on the planet’s surface in an identifiably western desert landscape.

For the most part, the western elements are thematic and structural, the exploration again of the idea of the frontier, “the limits of human experience,” and particularly the use of the structure of captivity, redemption, and rescue, a very common western plot structure. Zoe redeems Wash by paying a ransom, and, later, Zoe and the rest of the crew return to assault Niska’s space station and rescue Mal.

The episode also has one of the finest scenes in the series, as Mal and Wash talk out their differences over Zoe while being tortured by Niska, who they pretty much ignore as they carry on their conversation, punctuated by painful jolts of electricity from Niska. Seeing this scene again makes me realize (not for the first time) how much I miss Firefly and how it’s really a shame that it ended so soon after it started.


2 Responses to ““Once, in Flight School, I Was Laconic””

  1. I’d say another important Western element of this episode is, in fact, the physical brutality and torture of the men. As Lee Clark Mitchell argues in his 1996 book Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film, the physical punishment of the Western hero’s body followed by his recovery of his strength and virility is part of what makes a man a man in Westerns. The freudians have a field day here, as the beating of the male hero is often seen as a symbolic castration requiring the hero to re-masculinize himself by performing some act of ultra-violence against the bad guys. Mal might be seen as being symbolically castrated by Niska, when Niska cuts off his ear. Mal is then quite literally tortured to death when his heart stops, but Niska brings him back or perhaps we are to interpret this as Mal being so physically manly that he can regain his masculinity even from death. Mitchell calls it “being restored to his masculine body.” Mitchell also suggests that Westerns are inherently about looking at men, and thus the gaze is most often directed at the male body (albeit with what Mitchell calls “hesitations, distortions, and evasions” to avoid suggestions of homoeroticism). I wouldn’t argue this is an especially homoerotic scene, although the camera does spend a lot of time gazing at two shirt-less, well-muscled, sweat-glazed male bodies both of which are broken down then eventually restored to masculine wholeness. The freudians would also point out that Zoe provides an acceptable female presence to mediate between the male characters as they are being stripped and beaten by another man. OK, maybe it is homoerotic…

  2. It’s sort of a variation of the “triangle of desire” that Eve Sedgwick discusses–the romantic triangle in which the point is really the relationship between the two men in their rivalry for the woman supposedly at the center of the triangle. The presence of the woman provides a cover for the intense interest of the two men in each other. Or, in this case, their intense discussion about Zoe allows them to ignore Niska’s demand for their attention (poor Niska, a fourth wheel in the erotic triangle).

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