The science fiction TV series Firefly, well known for its loyal-to-fanatic following among fans and for its early cancellation after a single season, has few enough episodes that it’s easy to watch and rewatch them all and to analyse and compare them individually. What follows is my very subjective opinion on ranking the episodes, from favourite to least favourite. I’ve kept it spoiler free so that anyone can read it (even though the people interested in this would probably have watched all the episodes anyway, and this is not a viewing order recommendation for first-time watchers).
This list does not consider Serenity – either of them. The first episode “Serenity”, and the 2005 film Serenity, bookend the whole series: they couldn’t go anywhere else than the beginning and the end (cough cough, “The Train Job” isn’t the first episode, you hear?), and their style is different from the other episodes, not just a continuation or a one-job episode, but respectively an introduction and a conclusion of sorts.
- Episode 8, “Out of Gas”, is easily my favourite episode. The three-layer storytelling, with lighting to indicate which level of flashback we’re in, and more or less natural transitions each time, makes it a work of art. But more than that, this is the episode that goes deepest into exploring the backstories of the characters, which is to my mind what Firefly is all about. The whole show’s greatest strength is in developing nine distinct and memorable characters and exploring their personalities, relationships, and development. Without that, it’d just be space criminals having shootups, and who cares about that?
- Episode 7, “Jaynestown”, is second on my list. Again, it’s all about the characters: in this case, one character in particular, but the very last one we’d expect to get any real development. Jayne always seemed like a callous thug who doesn’t give a damn about anyone. It’s fascinating to see, if not a different side to his character, at least a different perception of him by others, and the effect that has on him at the end. Simon’s running gag “This must be what going mad feels like” adds to the effect of this episode, which of course also introduces a great catchy song.
- Episode 11, “Trash”: the return of one of the most intriguing minor characters is even better than her first appearance. It works well as a mini heist film, and having to work with someone deeply untrustworthy lends an extra layer of tension to the whole episode. The character revelations offer a tantalising glimpse into that character’s history, but still leave us with a feeling of uncertainty: how much of her performance, or indeed Inara’s earlier on, was staged and how much was real emotion?
- Episode 9, “Ariel”, is hard to separate in this list from 11 and 13, and in my original ranking I put it third, but on further reflection I do enjoy rewatching “Trash” more. This is another nice little heist episode, well planned and executed, but it also represents the culmination of an internal conflict that’s been brewing for some time, and once again some character development for the character we’d least expect to develop. The first appearance of the “hands of blue” is also shockingly memorable.
- Episode 13, “Heart of Gold”, is the only episode where the crew’s main “job” is taken on purely out of altruism. Character development for Mal and Inara, a cause worth fighting for, and an ending that leaves the main internal conflict unresolved.
- Episode 6, “Our Mrs Reynolds”, has probably the biggest unexpected twist of any episode. Both halves of the episode are gripping in their own way: whether you feel pity for an innocent or respect for a capable professional, there’s always something going on. More unresolved character development for Mal and Inara.
- Episode 5, “Safe”, is an episode that feels like it doesn’t have much happening. There’s no new “job” except finishing off the one they started in the previous episode; the gunfight doesn’t play into any plot points or even really concern our characters at all; and the Tams’ misadventure, rushing from one twist to another, could have been more impactful if given more time to develop. On the other hand, there’s some strong character development here: introducing Book’s mysterious backstory, and emphasising Mal’s loyalty to each and every member of his crew.
- Episode 2, “The Train Job”, is a simple one-job episode. Not hugely impactful in terms of anyone’s character arc, but showcases the crew’s ability to work together, respond to crises, and ultimately prioritise doing the right thing over making a profit.
- Episode 4, “Shindig”, has clear primary and secondary plots, but it all feels a little contrived and hard to swallow. This society unanimously recognises a punch as a challenge to a duel with enforced rules of combat, but doesn’t care about an already defeated participant winning by tricks unconnected to skill? The strongest parts of this episode are the banter, from Kaylee questioning the buffet table to “Guess I’m just a good man … well, I’m all right.”
- Episode 3, “Bushwhacked”, is the closest look we get in any episode at Reavers, a great part of Whedon’s worldbuilding, but again some parts are a little contrived and hard to swallow, especially the previously unbending character’s sudden change of heart at the end, and the ability to effectively hide by just getting outside the ship in the middle of an Alliance base.
- Episode 14, “Objects in Space”, seems to be Firefly‘s attempt at a sized-down episode, with all the action taking place on the ship itself. But it always failed to grab me: the new character is too caricaturised, the plot too simple, and the philosophical stuff (which normally appeals to me) just doesn’t hit home.
- Episode 10, “War Stories”, has an awesome action sequence in the rescue mission, but isn’t it a little unbelievable that they could so easily defeat an entire base with only a few real fighters and no casualties? The tension between Wash and Mal over Zoe is also arguably hard to believe, after they’ve all known each other for so long, but the real reason I ranked this episode so low is simply because of all the icky torture stuff.
- Episode 12, “The Message”, is my least favourite episode for a number of reasons. The scientific implausibility of the living “message”. The anticlimactic ending to the chase tension. Most of all, the character-arc implausibility of Kaylee, supposedly besotted with Simon, suddenly falling for a stranger.
This blog post is dedicated to those who convinced me to watch Firefly, even though I’m generally more into fantasy than sci-fi and more of a reader than a watcher.