It was this time around, rewatching “Bushwhacked”, that I first began to notice the streak of dualism that was evident throughout.
Dualist motives and plot beats are nothing new, and plenty of films and TV are littered with them. The introduction, and then later revisiting or inversion or reimaging of a location, a visual cue, a line of dialogue, a stated theme or a crucial plot device is a commonly used writing tool, to add some distinctiveness to an episode, to make the most important points that the production team want to make clear and just add a nice sense of roundness. And “Bushwhacked” has this in spades, maybe to a greater extent than other Firefly episodes. There is a great deal of, well “two by two” (but no Hands of Blue, not this time).
The entire episode is framed around “looking into the darkness”, a Nietzsche quote turned into plot. In the course of Firefly, it’s the common explanation for the Reavers, men who got to the edge of populated space, saw nothing in the abyss beyond and went crazy. That this explanation doesn’t make any sense at all is never elaborated upon, but that doesn’t actually matter: the stated suspicion is supposed to be a poetic campfire story, helping to cover over the actual truth.
Anyway, it’s the crew of Serenity staring into the darkness and not liking what they see in “Bushwhacked”, eventually discovering the truth of what happened on the derelict. The survivor is taken onboard, but Mal knows that it’s all pointless. He chooses his words very carefully in his interrogation scene to enunciate his views:
They made him watch. He probably tried to turn away, and they wouldn’t let him. You call him a survivor? He’s not. A man comes up against that kind of will, the only way to deal with it, I suspect, is to become it. He’s following the only course left to him. First, he’ll try to make himself look like one. Cut on himself, desecrate his flesh and then, he’ll start acting like one.
Such an experience is made out to be a terrible thing, staring into that blackness. But then there is River, a disturbed character who spends most of the episode being creepy and making odd pronouncements on the derelict ship itself. But later, while hiding on the exterior hull of Serenity, we see her essentially happy, joyful even, for the first time. And what is she doing? Staring out into the black, gazing wistfully at the stars all around, an experience that leaves her wanting more. It’s both a nice vision of what a look at the stars can do, in positive terms, and a reminder that staring out into the void is not a one way ticket to the loony bin. There is happiness out there somewhere, for those with a mind to see it.
The space suits themselves, which River and Simon wear in that scene, are another dual thing. The episode previously depicted them as an object of terror for Simon, who struggled to imagine being just a small amount of material away from the howling dark. Later, when he is obliged to put on a suit, the direction and progress make it clear that it is a worrying claustrophobic experience for Simon, who stumbles around the derelict, not even aware that he has the suit on wrong. Of course, as per Jayne’s mocking humour, he doesn’t even need to be wearing it, adding a layer of futility to the whole thing.
Then later, while hiding with River, the suit transforms into something else. It’s a vessel of protection, a way for him to keep his sister safe from the men inside the ship, and a chance for her to experience some happiness for the first time in a while. The inversion is noticeable, and points to the larger journey of Simon and River, two characters getting familiar with a very different environment than they are used to, finding use in things they hitherto had no use for, or an actual fear of.
The Alliance themselves demonstrate some duality through “Bushwhacked”. The scenes where they ransack Serenity, which I mentioned last time out as a good contrast, also link to earlier in the episode, as Serenity’s crew ransack the derelict, which is a largely ruined spacecraft. Much like earlier, the Alliance later turns Serenity inside out and leaves it wrecked, and later Mal is threatened with losing his ship altogether, the vessel too, perhaps, to become its own derelict. At the end of the episode, as Harken orders Mal forward in the search for the survivor, Mal enters his own ship cautiously and with a slow, steady camera movement, rather like how he and other crew members entered the derelict earlier, with the air of a horror movie instead of a sci-fi show. The point is clear enough then: the moment is one of crisis, when the barbarity I talked about last week threatens to overwhelm civility, with Serenity becoming more and more like the environment of the derelict before the situation is resolved.
Of course, the most important point of duality is in the idea of surviving an atrocity but not being able to move on. Mal makes it crystal clear as he addresses his crew about the survivor:
Doesn’t matter that we took him off that boat, Shepherd, it’s the place he’s going to live from now on.
Evocative words, on how people damaged by surviving an event like a Reaver attack – a mix of survivors guilt and trauma induced mania – leaves them unable to move on, mentally trapped in the horror of their past. It could just be a nice little scene on the way to a straightforward finale.
But then, in the scene shared between Harken and Mal, it becomes clear what writer/director Tim Minear is doing. Harken brings up Mal’s service record, including his days at Serenity Valley. Mal is flippant in his responses, but Harken notes that he even named his ship after the battle.
In other words, Mal is living on Serenity. He’s more like the survivor than he would perhaps care to admit, albeit not as overtly damaged. Mal, and Zoe of course, lived through the cataclysm at Serenity Valley. While Zoe was able to find a measure of peace, perhaps through her marriage to Wash, Mal isn’t able to get over it as easily. He names his new home after the battle, never forgetting what happened there. Not being able to move on. And perhaps, in a way, that draws a line between Mal and the survivor, and allows us to understand how Mal, in plot terms anyway, is able to offer an insightful analysis of the survivor, and help track him down in the finale.
The point is actually made clearer in one the pilot episodes’ deleted scenes, shared between Simon and Zoe. Simon looks up some info on Serenity Valley, and gets some reality checks from Zoe. It’s easy to see why the scene was cut: it’s clunky, too upfront with the exposition, and depicts Zoe as opening up too quickly to a man she barely knows. But it does have this exchange:
“If that battle was so horrible, why’d he name the ship after it?”
“Once you’ve been in Serenity, you never leave. You just learn to live there.”
At Serenity Valley, Mal was the man “made to stare” into darkness, and then forced to change himself in order to survive it, never leaving the battle behind properly.
And, let’s not forget the show’s theme song:
“Ain’t no place I can be, since I found Serenity…”
So, this is actually an overriding theme throughout a good bit of the series. But it is in “Bushwhacked” that it is most pronounced, as Mal deals with another man who will never leave a site of terrible slaughter, a man who is on a dual path but, too far gone, must be put down.