Plot, narrative, story…the terms are often used interchangeably, and I’m no exception to that. They all have specific definitions really, but I hope I can be forgiven for being a bit looser with these terms in this post.
Episodic television usually falls into the “ABC-Story” formula. Each episode has an “A-Story”, which gets the main focus and usually involves just one to three of the main characters. The “B-Story” gets less time, might interweave with the A-Story a bit, and generally serves as a sort of sideshow, sometimes contrasted with the A-Story in tone or meant to give a different version of the same message. And sometimes, if the room can be found, there is a “C-Story” and “D-Story” too, a few scenes between a few characters, sometimes comedic or disposable in plot terms (that is, the larger episode could survive without it).
Firefly follows this common formula for the most part, though it also dodges it on occasion. In “Serenity”, Mal’s hunt for a buyer to sell his super Nutrigrain bars to forms the A-Story, Simon and River’s plot is the B-Story and a few random scenes for other characters, introducing them and their roles on the ship, can be said to form the C-Story. In “The Train Job”, Mal and Zoe’s adventure over the stolen medicine is the A-Story, the rest of the crew’s shenanigans on the ship is the B-Story, and you could argue that Simon’s interactions with Jayne or River’s “Hands Of Blue” ramblings are the C-Story. “Bushwhacked” is a decent inversion, in that there is basically just an A-Story, which is split into two distinct sections between the exploration of the derelict and the arrival of the Alliance. We could call them “A1-Story” and “A2-Story”.
And in “Shindig”, we have an A-Story with Mal and Inara at the party and, later, the duel, and a B-Story with the crew on the ship, as well as a C-Story with River’s activities in two scenes. And “Shindig” is a great example of how to do a B and C-Story properly. Often, I see B and C-Stories thrown away by lazy scriptwriters who see them as a way to kill time or get some clumsy exposition or characterisation out of the way (most Star Trek series have terrible track records with them in my opinion), but that never happens in Firefly (or Whedon shows generally). B-Stories have a point to the larger narrative of the episode, and serve to tell us important things about the characters, and also are notable in their own right. Any C-Stories serve to add the final seasoning, and they succeed in Firefly too.
Let’s take a look at “Shindig”. The B-Story kicks in late enough, after Mal, Inara and Kaylee have gone off to the ball and left Zoe, Wash, Simon, Jayne, Book and River waiting back at the ship. Screenwriter Jane Espenson and director Vern Gillum use this time productively, before the A-Story collides with the B and C: We get to see Zoe and Wash enjoying some conjugal time in their quarters, we see Simon, Book and Jayne playing a futuristic card game with ship chores as the currency and we see River being, well, River.
They aren’t really interconnected, but they all serve important purposes. Zoe and Wash are shown as a (frequently physically) loving couple (there was a great essay I read once, the author and name escaping me but it was probably in Finding Serenity, that talked about how weirdly refreshing it was to see a married couple on TV who had an active sex life). The guys on the ship and their card game give us a natural feeling glimpse at ship life and how things work onboard, with Simon operating on the same level as the others for once (is this the first scene where he and Jayne are doing anything together?). And River’s troubling attack on the Blue Sun cans reminds us that it isn’t all fun and games on Serenity, and that River is an unpredictable force whose mental trauma remains deeply disturbing (also great characterisation is Book and Jayne’s respective reactions: Book comforts, while Jayne steals the card game pool).
Then along comes the A-Story, with Badger and his goons, Kaylee in tow, sitting down on Serenity and its crew to make sure that no foolhardy rescue of Mal is attempted, lest Badger’s sterling reputation on Persephone be undermined (there is actually an entire additional layer to this episode – a short “D-Story” – in the form of Kaylee’s mini-arc with the dress and the ball, which branches off from the A-Story and essentially ends, baring one very late and wordless scene, at the halfway point). From here, everything gets kind of static: the crew spend the majority of what remains of “Shindig” in the cargo bay, muttering amongst themselves about getting a plan into action. But there is still a lot of great stuff to be found.
The crew converse about a plan:
KAYLEE: He said not to do anything. He’ll join us after he wins the duel.
ZOE: It doesn’t hurt to have a contingency plan Kaylee.
SIMON: I’m thinking, since we’re unarmed, we should take them by surprise.
ZOE: Not necessarily. We can lure one or two of them away. Say infirmary? Take ’em out, be on Badger before he knows what happens.
JAYNE: Only if his attention’s elsewhere. What we need’s a diversion. I say Zoe gets nekkid.
JAYNE: I could get nekkid.
There is a nice mix of seriousness and comedy here, but every line and the way that it is delivered can be explored to tell us something about the character saying it. Kaylee’s ceaseless optimism is obvious, as she gives no credence to the thought that Mal might actually get killed in his duel. Zoe, the leader of the ship at this moment, gently gets past her objection without pointing out the obvious. Simon, the intelligent one, points out the practicalities of what to do next, and I always liked the approving look Jayne gives him at this moment. “Shindig” shows Simon and Jayne getting along better than they normally do, or will later, and they are back to playing cards too, reinforcing life onboard the ship. Zoe’s retort is to get more specific, and showcase her own brand of wisdom, recognising that they can even the odds if they are clever about things. From there, we have a bit of needed levity in an otherwise tense scene.
River suddenly blunders into the cargo bay, the C-Story colliding into the B, having previously stayed hidden. What follows is actually the first time that River does something beyond just acting crazy, demonstrating a Holmesian level of deductive reasoning in determining Badger’s origin, background, personality and the best way with which to fob him off. In fact, as we will learn later, it’s more than just deductive reasoning, but that’s still to come. River’s appearance, and her cockney dressing down of a stunned Badger, is one of the very best moments of “Shindig”, and shows clearly that she is more than she initially appears. I’ve also always loved her description of Badger, first obvious and then more flowery– “Petty criminal with delusions of standing…sad little King of a sad little hill” – and wish I could come up with subtle descriptive writing of the same calibre.
And additional humour can be added to as well, as Jayne tells the rest of the crew, as slackjawed as Badger and their men, that River’s intrusion was the exact kind of diversion they should have used.
Next time we see the crew, the episode is actually winding down. It seems like they are about to finally spring into action, Simon letting Book in on the plan while Jayne and Zoe get ready to pounce. But then Mal and Inara walk in the door, and the tension is relieved. We still have time for a last bit of levity, as Jayne insists that they were all about to begin a “complicated escape and rescue op” with Wash adding “I was going to watch. It was very exciting.”
So, “Shindig” has managed to find a way for the rest of the crew, outside of Mal, Inara and Kaylee, to be involved, without ever being involved. The final joke is that they basically did nothing, with Mal sarcastically chiding them for being a lazy crew upon his return. But, we did see them all portraying innate things about themselves or their relationships, about life on the ship, or, in the case of River, about the things that they are capable of. Zoe, Wash, Simon, Book, Jayne and River were given parts to play in “Shindig” that added to the episode, and the series, rather than just kill time before we could cut back to Mal. And while they didn’t get just enough time to actually pull off that “complicated escape and rescue op”, the B-Story shows the crew working in tandem and acting as more than just individual personalities.
There aren’t many scriptwriters who can pull that off. Espenson is one, and she’d do it again before Firefly was through. One of the great things about Firefly, whether it was fluke chance or the coordinated genius of its production team, was in finding writers and directors who could successfully craft A B and C-Stories that intertwined at the right moments, told us something about the characters and ultimately proved entertaining to watch. “Shindig” is strong enough in its A-Story, which I’ll talk about a bit more next time, but rises to another level with the strength of its B and C-Stories.