“Bushwhacked” is Firefly’s first step into the land of storytelling proper, with both pilots – the original “Serenity” and the second effort “The Train Job” – out of the way. And it is, perhaps, my favourite episode for contrasting the series’ view of “civilisation” with the barbarity of the rim.
The majority of the episode, the first two thirds really, deal with the barbarity, in many different ways. Serenity stumbles upon the “derelict” and investigates, less out of a desire to help potentially in need people, but to see if there is anything worth salvaging. Mal is willing to give lip-service to the idea of helping survivors, but he’s more like the single-minded Jayne than is immediately apparent: once he gets on the ship he’s all about finding where the best stuff will be stashed, essentially ignoring the apparent mystery over where the crew of the derelict have gone until he can’t ignore it any more. Serenity is a ship of vultures, as an Alliance officer pointed out in “Serenity”, more than happy to pick over the bones of the dead. But it isn’t because they are gleeful grave robbers – with the exception of Jayne maybe – it’s because they are survivors, and this is how a crew survives out in the black, where the ideal of civilisation is still a ways off.
In fact, the whole set-up is about an uncivilised thing. The derelict is the Marie Celeste in space, that tantalising mystery of a drifting ship with no crew, and seemingly little sign of where they went. “Bushwhacked” eventually subverts that with the discovery of the bodies, but up to that point the episode is framed like a ghostly horror story, with the warning alarms, tense music, pullback camera shots, the darkness of the derelict and the claustrophobia of atmo suits. Jump scares, gory reveals of bodies and tripwires that appear to bleed(!?) dominate the notable moments, with more than a few cues taken from the likes of Alien. The lone survivor is mentally deranged. The ships’ resident weirdo has an odd affinity to the derelict. Mal tricks members of his own crew to get them out of the way so he can deal with a terrible Reaver booby-trap. “Bushwhacked” could have been just that and nothing more, if the last act had focused on the crews interaction with the survivor alone, and a lesser show would have taken just that course. Here is the world of Firefly, out on the edge, where a small crew has to deal with the horrific aftermath of a terrible atrocity, and the idea of calling the authorities in just seems rather stupid. Mal’s sarcastic “Yeah, I’m sure they’ll send someone right out to check up on these poor taxpayers” rings really true in our ears.
Until the authorities actually do turn up. Civilisation, a place of tall sleek ships, men in uniform, rules, regulations and responsibilities, pokes its head into the uncivilised world right outside its borders, acting like it owns the place. And the encounter inevitably turns violent.
Here we have a ship whose leader is introduced to us charging Serenity for improper markings on its hull, a ship that has a nursery that needs to be guarded, whose troops ransack Serenity looking for wrongdoing (a nice visual contract between the civility of the uniformed Alliance federals and the barbarity of the destruction they uncaringly cause) that deals with the derelict as a “piece of evidence” that must be catalogued and quantified, not simply destroyed as something that mankind is not meant to deal with or dwell on. The contrast between the last third and the first sections of “Bushwhacked” couldn’t be more pronounced, to the extent that a brief genre switch actually occurs, the ghost story turning into a police procedural for a few minutes.
The Commander of the Alliance ship, named in the script as Harken, isn’t some green officer with no idea of what he is doing. The episode implies he is a veteran of the war, and no stranger to seeing torture. But it is his first tour out on the border, as Mal so unnervingly guesses, so a perfect way to see how the Alliance acts in such a situation, when it encounters something it can’t rightly deal with the way it wants.
The episode then becomes about this little bit of the Alliance, through Commander Harken, learning to deal with things out on the rim the way that they must be dealt with. And I think it’s important to show that, in the end, Harken has the derelict destroyed and Mal released, after witnessing the horrifying reality of the second-generation Reaver first hand. Up to this point, in “Serenity” and “The Train Job”, the Alliance has been a fairly anonymous entity, a figuratively faceless organisation, who care little for the lives of its ordinary citizens that is content to ignore problems as they arise. But here we have Harken, a man who proves himself willing to follow the lead of an apparent criminal, and then undertake a very unorthodox approach to settle the central matter of the episode. When the survivor cuts the throat of one of his men, and the blood splatters onto his face, it acts as a sort of gory baptism, a gruesome welcoming to how the rim works, and how limited the effects of “civilisation” really are out here. The derelict is blown to smithereens, the darkness it bore witness to erased from the record, and both ships drift away.
The final lines of the episode reinforce the contrast. The crew of Serenity witness the missiles blowing up the derelict, as Jayne remarks that Harken couldn’t even let them keep the salvage they pulled off the ship. Mal isn’t too perturbed: “Couldn’t let us profit. Wouldn’t be civilised”. “Bushwhacked” also makes the point about how “the way we treat our dead is what makes us different” to the likes of the Reavers, and in a way this final line also ties into that idea. Harken, and the Alliance in this instance, is willing to follow the barbarian line and salt the earth. But there still has to be an air of civility, of rules and regulations being followed. I really liked that, because it introduces that crucial shade of grey to the Alliance for the first time. They aren’t all faceless. There are people like Harken, who are willing to do the morally right thing, while also maintaining a semblance of the socially right thing also, both aiding and impeding the progress and enrichment of the more nominal protagonists. So, “Bushwhacked” has no happy ending, and not really a sad one either if we go just by the main characters. But, as Greg Edmonson’s dirge in the final moments reminds us, there were innocents who suffered and died, and they will not be avenged.
So, “Bushwahcked” is largely about the contract between civility and barbarity. But, as I’ll discuss next time, it’s also about duality.