24
Aug
2011
Marathoning
Firefly
Rachel
Marathoning explores what happens when you remove the serial quality from a television show or film series and instead become a habitual binge-watcher. Is something lost when you watch every episode of a show in a single weekend? Is something gained when you explore a set of movies that originally spanned a decade in one night? How do you wrap your brain around an entire body of work without diluting it, or drowning in it?

2002, created by Joss Whedon
Starring: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, Summer Glau, Ron Glass

Episodes: 14
Marathon time elapsed: 7 days



I was hesitant to pick up Firefly , for a number of reasons. I mean, a space western? Really? And the show had developed such an intense cult following (which included an ever eager Jordan, who I knew would fight me tooth and nail if I didn't like the show), I was slightly intimidated. But it was a farewell present, really, seeing as Jordan was leaving town forever. Except I wound up watching a large chunk of the single season by myself, because even Jordan couldn't keep up with my binge watching once I got hooked.

For the uninitiated, Firefly tells the story of Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), captain of the titular ship, a Firefly model called Serenity. Mal is a former rebel against the Alliance, the uber-power formed by the unification of the original Earth's only remaining superpowers, the United States and China (which accounts for the Asian influences in the future society of Firefly, including an extensive system of slang and profanities), and then abandoned "Earth-that-was" and colonized new planets, using a system called Terra-forming to make the new terrain as Earth-like as possible. This results in a reversion to old-Western styles of living, dress, and, apparently, behavior. Mal, ever the cowboy, fought against the Alliance on the side of the Independents, who were basically badass libertarians who just wanted govern themselves and make their own decisions without encroachment. They lose in an epic battle that opens the series, but Mal never gives up his quest for freedom to do whatever it is he damn well pleases, with only his gilded moral code, based heavily on loyalty and a weird sense of chivalry and propriety, to guide him, making as close to an honest living that one can as a smuggler, thief, and general criminal.



With his loyal lieutenant Zoe (Gina Torres) by his side, Mal assembles a rag-tag crew to fly Serenity, including Zoe's husband Wash (Alan Tudyk), the hilarious pilot who quickly becomes a sort of emotional center, Jayne (Adam Baldwin), the muscle, Kaylee (Jewel Staite), the prodigious mechanic who proves to be a strange combination of childish and promiscuous, and Inara (Morena Baccarin), the "ambassador," or a legal prostitute (a "companion") who travels the universe with Serenity to service her extensive network of clients. Along the way, Mal picks up some civilian passengers for some extra cash and legitimacy, but winds up getting more than he bargained for when he lets Simon (Sean Maher), a doctor with a secret who Mal eventually lets onto the crew as a medic. The secret turns out to be his mentally unstable sister River (Summer Glau), who he rescued from government mind manipulation, ultimately making them fugitives. The main cast is rounded out by Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), a priest with a past and a mean right hook.



Much like the West Wing , I was really compelled to binge watch Firefly because of the characters. The fantastical plot circumstances are secondary to the story of this crew and their interactions, the connections that bind them and the loyalties they generally refuse to surrender. Although several episodes, most prominently "Out of Gas," feature extensive flashbacks that establish the bonds between characters, the audience is predominantly left to take the relationships as well-established, reasonable, and warranted, because its clear to us that Mal really is a good guy, and deserves the fierce loyalty of his crew. Many shows try to do this but don't quite reach the same level of success as Firefly in making me actually believe that these characters are friends bound by the intricate, extensive, and complicated links that make people feel for one another, ones that might not be particularly logical based on personality but, in light of circumstances, shared hardship and ideals, make things fall into place.



Considering that I said something very similar about characterization making me capable of watching seven seasons of the West Wing in three weeks, I'd say that its safe to venture the hypothesis that, for someone like me, anyway, strongly established, relatable, and compelling characters fuel extensive binge watching. When I feel connected to the people I'm watching, I'm prompted to keep watching, to learn as much as I can about them and their situations as quickly as I can. This is why I forget things like the bill that was so important to pass, or the heist that bankrolled the crew, but I remember the banter and expressed disappointment or hope. Marathoning builds a stronger connection to the characters, almost like freebasing.



Also like the West Wing , and again a major draw for me, the writing is definitely a particular strength for Firefly . As with Sorkin, Whedon has a hand for witty banter and quippy one-liners (typically tossed off by Mal, but also consistently delivered by Wash, a personal favorite) that again establish a believable bond between characters. Whedon is also adept at integrating the Chinese slang of the Terra-formed galaxy into the regular dialogue between characters, a stunt I would normally find annoying and disruptive, but which manages to blend well thanks to strong performances by the cast and strong writing. Ultimately, the one-liners only work because they're things I actually believe these characters would say to one another; they don't come across as idealized or unlikely interactions, but seem genuine.

Most of my frustrations with Firefly stem from the fact that the series didn't have the space it needed to tell its story properly. The issues with River never get fully resolved, we never learn the logistics between Shepherd's past and Alliance connections, we don't get to see the relationships between Simon and Kaylee and Mal and Inara come to fruition or take their courses. In general, I'm not a big fan of the "will they, won't they" trope. It's probably why I have a tendency to marathon things that play up this part of the story. I don't have the patience to wait and let the story take its natural, luxuriating, infuriating path. Unfortunately, because Firefly only made it one season, we never get to witness the payoff of these two sort-of relationships, and we're left to hope that things work out, which is lame, because, dammit, I want to see a kiss and have all ambiguity removed. The same ambiguity applies to the explanation of the Reevers and the government conspiracy the fueled River's incapacitation (it gets some fast, confusing treatment in the final episodes, but definitely would have benefitted from expansion in later seasons. If only to make River less annoying).



Ultimately, Firefly's short duration, cult-like appeal, multi-faceted plots and complicated mythos make it prime for marathoning, and definitely worth the relatively small time investment. Binge watching eliminates any kind of residual incredulity on the likelihood of a space western, prevents frustration with the kitsch, and helps tourniquet disappointment at the ambiguous states of many of the relationships, even as the season comes to a close.

The Little Things

This column covers only the single television season, not the movie. This isn't because the movie isn't good. In fact, it was rather good. But because the movie represents a radical attempt to compensate for the lack of later seasons, and because it doesn't fit into the marathoning sequence, I decided to leave it out of consideration

Zac Efron plays a young Simon, which is actually kind of hilarious

Christina Hendricks pops up in "Our Mrs. Reynolds" and "Trash," proving she was a badass well before she was John Halloway. But really, I like to consider Saffron just a warm up for the brilliance that is Joan

"We are just too pretty for God to let us die"

"That's what governments are for"”to get in a man's way"

REEVERS. O goodness, so terrifying ::shudder::

I, and others I have consulted, often find Kaylee incredibly annoying. She's so chipper and perky. But in the end it winds up being pretty endearing, even to me, the wannabe heartless cynic

"Sweetie. Don't worry. He makes everyone cry. He's like a monster."

"One of you is going to fall and die, and I'm not going to clean it up."

"I am a large, semi-muscular man. I can take it."

Not that this should come as a surprise, but Alan Tudyk as Wash is absolutely incredible. As is Nathan Fillion. I realized after finishing this that I didn't adequately express my love for the two of them, but so often their best moments are so subtle, a single line paired with the perfect look or gesture, but deserves note all the same


Notable episodes

"Serenity," "Our Mrs. Reynolds," "Jaynestown," "Out of Gas," "War Stories," "Objects in Space"

Need another binge? Check out more Marathoning here

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