Did you ever read the works of Shan Yu?…Fancied himself quite the warrior-poet. Wrote volumes on war, torture, the limits of human endurance. He said: “Live with a man forty years. Share his house, his meals, speak on every subject. Then tie him up and hold him over the volcano’s edge, and on that day, you will finally meet the man.”
“Shan Yu”, apparently some kind of despot from the timeline that Firefly takes place in, if not a reincarnation of a “Hun” warlord, does not sound like a very pleasant kind of guy. “War Stories” opens with Book discussing the man, in the words quoted above, with a distracted Simon, who doesn’t receive it very well: “Sadistic crap legitimised by florid prose” is how he describes it. But the episode quickly jumps to the returning Adelai Niska from “The Train Job” discussing the same “warrior-poet” with one of his unfortunate victims.
The theme of the episode is set then, and we might put it in a more palatable way than Shan Yu did: Is the true measure of a person in their everyday deeds or in their actions during a crisis? That we only truly discover ourselves and what we are made of – our true levels of competence, capability and moral righteousness – in times of distress, worry, discomfort or peril is a sentiment that is nothing new. Many would disagree with the idea, but Firefly, in “War Stories”, takes the thought and runs with it, as so much visual fiction does. After all, such fiction can only exist with conflict, and with the depiction of how characters change in the course of conflict. And “War Stories” has conflict to spare, and we see the true measure of Serenity’s crew in the crisis that unfolds.
Mal is the over-riding focus in the traditional Shan Yu sense, held over the volcano’s edge by Niska through prolonged physical torture: electroshock, cutting and that strange three pronged device. Niska is a sadist out to make an example and indulge in his own horrific interest, outside of any utterance that he is looking for the “real” Malcolm Reynolds, but we do get to see a very interesting side of Mal here: a man who looks out for others above himself, doing everything that he can to buoy up Wash’s spirits and prevent the pilot from breaking under the attacks, even to the point of enraging him. He doesn’t protest when Wash is given his freedom, and seems resigned to his own painful death, remaining chipper and sarcastic all the way to the finale, the only kind of resistance he can give.
But when given the opportunity, he is able to break free and showcase his own strength, which Niska could not eliminate totally. When he asks a terrified Niska “You want to meet the real me now?” it’s both inspiring and terrifying: this bloodied angry individual, with murder on his mind, and a lot of pain to make up for. The true Mal is a fighter, the some person who fought and lost the war, and in “War Stories” we get a brief glimpse of the kind of person who will come to the fore in Serenity, showcasing “something new” about his personality that others have not seen.
The other major focus, of course, is Wash. The episode spends a lot of time on the state of his marriage, and his worries over the closeness of Zoe and Mal. When undergoing torture at the hands of Niska, Wash suffers more than Mal, and is only prevented from suffering a mental collapse by the carefully chosen barbs of the captain. One might think that in escaping Wash would find relief and happiness in being alive, and leave it at that. But Wash is more than just the snarky pilot, bitching about the way his wife treats Mal in comparison to him. He has that familial bond with Mal, and despite any other differences they might have, he is perfectly willing to risk his life again in trying to save Mal, facing overwhelming odds and committing acts of violence that are far beyond him (in comparison to, say, “Heart Of Gold”). Wash, the true Wash, is a loyal man, to his wife first and to his friends beyond that.
Zoe, the calm, capable soldier, shows a measure of commitment to Wash and personal strength in “War Stories” that might make this the most memorable episode for her. She enters the lion’s den to get her “men” back, and doesn’t hesitate for a moment when asked to pick between them, having the fortitude to leave Mal behind because she knows that’s what he wants. She doesn’t hesitate later either, and takes the lead in rescuing her sergeant, their bond long having been established. But she also does take Wash with her, exhibiting a trust that serves as a nice bookend to the friction of the episodes beginning.
The rest of the crew, barring Inara (strangely absent from the second half of the episode, which I always found strange), all arm up and join the fight too. Jayne expresses open disdain for the plan to rescue Mal, and much of what we’ve seen of him so far in the series would indicate that he would not take part in the venture. But he does own Mal something (his life) after “Ariel”, and “War Stories” does depict him as showing his own kind of remorse for his actions before any crisis rears its head. Jayne might not be fully loyal to Mal, but he does honour favours.
Book, with his mysterious past getting more and more mysterious, also arms up without hesitation, only choosing to shoot non-lethally when he can. For him, rescuing the captain is an act of moral obligation, with Niska being a madman who needs to be stopped, though with a minimum of bloodshed if it can be accomplished. Simon, like Jayne, also owes Mal a lot, and marches into battle as well, though with less effectiveness than the others. But he still picks up a gun and shoots, an act almost anathema to his existence as a doctor. Book and Simon both have a lot of reasons for not getting involved, but in the crisis they show resoluteness and decisiveness in act.
And then there is Kaylee. Poor sweet, innocent Kaylee, who clearly doesn’t know how to use a firearm properly but goes along anyway, out of love and loyalty for her captain. Her combat paralysis strikes at a bad moment, but that’s Kaylee: she simply isn’t capable of being the go to person in a firefight, breaking down and cowering in the face of enemy fire. That doesn’t make her a bad person, or even weak. But it does make her human.
And, as I discussed, there is River. Her reaction to the unfolding events seems to be one of incomprehension and childlike glee, treating the assault on the skyplex as some kind of game she is involved in, like the chase she had with Kaylee earlier. We do meet an unseen, and “true” aspect of River in the course of “War Stories”: a dangerous Alliance-created side, which even she seems to be mostly unaware of.
Is Shan Yu right then? To an extent seems to be the answer. The true measure of Serenity’s crew does come to the fore in “War Stories”, but, at the same time, it is important to separate the person you might be day to day and the person you are when the bullets start flying. The difference between those two – and in Mal’s case, it is a crucial one, as we will see – will drive a lot of what is to come.