“Out Of Gas” structures itself around several flashbacks, as Mal and the core members of his crew – himself, Zoe, Wash, Kaylee, Inara and Jayne – are introduced to Mal and to the ship for the first time. Last week I talked about how the episode depicts Serenity as a ship that needs those people in order to form a whole. This week, I’ll talk about how that process started, what each introduction says about the common thread of Mal and how each flashback ties into the other timelines of the episode.
Mal lays dying in the cargo hold as the episode begins, before receiving a blinding vision of his past, through that grainy green filter. He tries to give Zoe the hard sell about what the Firefly can give them: freedom, the chance to outrun the Alliance, to make something of their selves. Mal is childishly enthusiastic and crestfallen by Zoe’s complaints: that the ship is a junker, that it cost too much and it doesn’t actually run, things that Mal is blindingly dismissive of. He’s in love with his new ship, but it’s important to note that the first person he wants to join his crew, to impress and to get praise from, is Zoe. In terms of a larger timeline, this is the first glimpse of the period between the opening scene of “Serenity” and the rest of the episode, a time after the war when Mal and Zoe must have been drifting, aimless, through life. But they stuck together, and Mal doesn’t even contemplate going out on this new endeavour without her. Zoe’s more down to earth and detail orientated attitude, in comparison to Mal, is exhibited sharply, but she too is easily convinced. This moment of new beginnings is juxtaposed effectively with present-day Mal, the blood dripping from his wounds through Serenity’s catwalks, himself and the ship near death.
Next up is Hoban “Wash” Washburne. He and Mal clash rather abruptly as Zoe lays, possibly dying, Mal forced to get physical in order to keep Wash’s mind on the job, a nasty moment that will make the late blood transfusion between the two all the more satisfying. The following flashback is a juxtaposition in how comedic it is: Wash, with a comically unsuitable moustache, hums and haws about taking up a position on Serenity, while unsubtly eyeing up Zoe (“I’m starting to get a feel here…”). More humour abounds as Zoe insists to Mal that Wash “bothers” her, for a reason she can’t quite put her finger on, but that the entire audience can probably guess at. From the moment the two are introduced to each other then, their relationship is causing problems for Mal, though not initially in the way that it will later. Wash’s credentials come from the mouth of Mal, and it’s interesting to see the slight twinge of desperation in his voice as he courts Wash, compared to the way they treated each other in the previous scene. Additional comedy is the sudden introduction of Mal’s “genius mechanic”, not the woman we know and love, but a buff blond guy named Bester. You might worry that the laughs will detract from the two very serious scenes that precede and follow – Zoe stops breathing in the next 30 seconds, and needs to get pure adrenaline injected into her chest – but it works for me. It’s not whacky slapstick comedy, but stuff that fits, for Wash, for his relationship with Zoe, and for the perennially put upon Mal. It’s a reminder of how Wash and Zoe got started out, and what they stand to lose. The audience can laugh, and be reminded that this is a loving married couple who have a terribly cute “meet cute”, who are relatable because of that, and who we fear for.
Kaylee’s flashback is a good bit different. She takes the damage to Serenity’s engine as a personal failure (despite the part having been faulty for a long time now, it was even mentioned as far back as “Serenity”) and Mal’s attempts to buoy up her spirits meet a stonewall, due in no small part to the life support failure. We’re reminded of the older brother/younger sister type relationship between Mal and Kaylee as the present day captain tries to get the part into the engine to make it work again: her absence from the engine room is unnerving, making the place look weirdly alien. Time for a deliberately jarring transition then, as Mal revisits his first meeting with Kaylee. The “prairie harpy” Mal initially is disgusted by turns out to be a mechanical prodigy, and poor Bester is turned off the ship. The scene is all about Kaylee: her sexual liberation, her complete lack of nervousness or timidity in dealing with the problem and her shining knowledge of all things to do with engines. For Mal, it’s an example of his gut instinct generally being right: on the spot and without much thought, he dumps Bester and hires on Kaylee, without the slightest hint of regret. The moment transitions back to the near-present as a heartbroken Kaylee, only unsure of herself and about to break down in the face of a mechanical problem she isn’t capable of repairing, informs the captain that Serenity cannot be fixed. The jump between timelines in relation to the location of the engine room is powerful: the automated alarm warnings and stillness of the present, the cold blue light and tangible desperation of the near-present and the funny, sexually tinged buffoonery of the past.
Next up is Inara. Mal’s decided to go it alone on Serenity, and goes about telling Inara how to handle things on her shuttle. He’s blunt, to the point and condescending in his advice, almost babbling, more to avoid argument than to actually help her. We transition from what has become Inara’s personal space on the ship to the empty shuttle she’s looking to rent. Unlike with Wash, Mal is stand-offish and somewhat cold in his dealings towards Inara. He isn’t desperate to have her on-board, or at least doesn’t want to show it. She isn’t full of chat too, initially. But the sparks are soon flying and the tension is soon raised, not least when Inara tells Mal she supported unification, which makes her the only crew member to have done so, or at least to have admitted to it. Mal is defensive about Serenity, showing his attachment, Inara is complimentary, having admitted earlier in the episode that she loved Serenity “from the moment I first saw it”. But there remains both a barrier and an instant flicker of attraction between Mal and Inara: the rules she lays out, with one exception, have all been broken previously in the show. Mal and Inara will always have that kind of relationship. Back in the near-present, Mal is left to rebuff Inara’s last attempts to get him to relent on his plan to stay on Serenity, leading to what might be the episodes key sentence: “Everybody dies alone.”
Jayne is last. Up to this point he’s been more comic relief for the seriousness of the situation, notwithstanding a late moment when he does some final prep work for Mal’s sake before taking off, and is then unable to enunciate a goodbye. When Mal is held at gunpoint by the crew of the SS Walden, Mal can’t help but remember one of the other times he was held up: by Jayne and whatever bunch of nitwits he was running with previous to signing on with Serenity. Jayne’s introduction to Mal is typical of him: low on stirring words, high on violence, and with a fair helping of just looking out for himself at all times, enticed to turn his back on his fellow ambushers in exchange for a private room and a slight pay increase. More comedy of course, and the purpose of the flashbacks throughout “Out Of Gas” is to provide that, but this is another instance when it really fits. Jayne has been Jayne since the moment he joined up with Serenity, and it’s another example of Mal’s gut instinct moving him in the right direction. Of course, it also points to Jayne not exactly having a very substantial loyal streak, which is going to come up again very directly in the next episode. Back in the near-present, there are no words or offers that Mal can give to prevent the Walden crew trying to steal his ship.
In the end, it all works out. The crew are reunited, and Mal is tended to by another person his gut instinct told him to bring on-board. As he drifts off, the last flashback introduction is for Firefly’s tenth main character: Serenity herself, that “gose” piece of shipyard trash sitting unnoticed on a small hill. Mal see’s her, ignoring the salesman’s pitch, and he doesn’t have to say anything: he has instantly fallen in love.