“War Stories”, among many other things, is an episode about marriage. Zoe and Wash form a pair on Serenity that might seem unusual at first glance, but by the time “War Stories” comes around, we’ve learned a lot about them to make us understand: Wash’s appreciation for strong female types, in both a physical and emotional sense, Zoe’s need to find a measure of peace in the aftermath of the war and the way that the two just seem so compatible. Opposites attract, and here is the snarky pilot and the quiet soldier. Sure, Zoe felt there was “something off” about Wash on their first meeting, but there isn’t anything odd about the two into the second half of Firefly’s run.
One of the things I’ve always appreciated about the Zoe/Wash relationship in Firefly is the equality depicted there. And I don’t just mean in a feminist sense, I mean in a plot point sense. Far too often I see marriages on television and film portrayed in a lazy predictable style, with what conflict that is generated usually of the massive kind – affairs, murder, more affairs, divorce – and more often than not it is usually the cause of the man.
But Firefly goes in a different direction. Here is a marriage where the two participants have squabbles – they don’t come close to breaking apart, but they have their disputes over relatively small things – and both sides are portrayed as being in the wrong on occasion, with Zoe, in “War Stories” repentant over her treatment of Wash’s “cut out the middle-man” idea, to a point. It feels more natural, more realistic, to have a married couple like this, one that has tiffs but remains strongly connected, that actually has an active sex life and that doesn’t seem forced or mashed together for the purposes of plot drama, going through the motions before an inevitable break-up.
Through the course of the series so far, there have been a few sparks, discussions about Zoe’s relationship with Mal and how it reflects on her marriage. In “Shindig”, Wash was troubled by the inability of him and his wife to apparently do anything without the captain’s authorisation, and in “Out Of Gas”, Wash and Mal clashed big time with a prone and unconscious Zoe in the middle. It’s been played seriously and for laughs in different stretches so far, but an explosion comes in “War Stories”.
There, the two face their most serious problem yet, that being the way that Wash views Zoe and Mal. They are the veterans, with all of the titular tales, and a bond that Wash struggles to understand. This isn’t a new plot for Firefly to use, but the inversion of the usual gender roles is notable. People who fight in a war form a connection that is different to those they form with others. Mal and Zoe have that, and while Zoe can go and form another key connection, the two relationships struggle to be compatible. For Wash, Zoe is his wife and that means that he should be the primary male influence in her life. Instead, Zoe follows the orders of another without question. One can understand the root of Wash’s issue: Zoe certainly did not swear to “obey” him in any traditional fashion, but at numerous junctures she appears to have more deference for Mal than she does for her husband. Is that OK? Wash certainly doesn’t think so, and the audience, while perhaps not agreeing completely, can understand why. And it can also understand how Zoe can legitimately feel a bit insulted by Wash’s insinuations. You know what this is? Believable conflict is a correctly portrayed marriage.
If I can make a comparison with something that I have been looking at again recently, the words of Cordelia early on in Shakespeare’s King Lear might make the point, if you substitute her father with Mal:
Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.
I’ll admit that it isn’t the best comparison, but Zoe’s bond with Mal is more than a little familial, like Cordelia’s with Lear’s, and like Cordelia with the King of France, Zoe’s other male relationships were altered when she choose to give a very significant part of herself to Wash. That must have affected her relationship with Mal as much as it affects her marriage: the trick is finding the balance.
Because men have their jealousies too, and have their possessiveness. Wash’s reaction to the fight with his wife over her “other husband” is more than a little childish, but it is the only way that he can think to react: to physically put himself between Mal and Zoe, and prevent the creation of any more war stories that he is not a part of.
The result is horrific of course, a plot punishment for Wash’s lack of trust in the benign relationship his wife has with Mal. A warped positive is found also though: the captain uses Wash’s private, but juvenile, fears as a way to keep Wash from breaking under torture. But the strength of their union comes through in the unfolding action from that point. Zoe saves Wash, definitively choosing him over Mal in the worst kind of circumstance. Later, in the rescue of the captain, as discussed last time, Zoe shows the kind of trust in Wash that we haven’t seen her give to him before. In essence, they forge their own military bond in the assault on Niska’s skyplex, create their own war story to tell later in their lives and show how their union is stronger than that between Zoe and Mal, easily and conclusively.
I suppose the episode doesn’t actually tell us if there is, or was, any kind of sexual attraction between Mal and Zoe. The two treat the idea with sarcastic contempt at the conclusion of the episode, but you never really know. But what’s important is that, just as the interpersonal conflict between Wash and Mal was settled and put aside by the end of “Out Of Gas”, the conflict between the three here, conflict that was largely only felt by Wash, also seems to have been settled. Zoe has proven that Wash is the most important man in her life, and Wash has shown that he has his own kind of commitment to Mal.
When the show next checks in on the relationship between Zoe and Wash, in “Heart Of Gold”, the crux between them will be an entirely different matter, seemingly indicating that any love triangle idea has been tied up and discarded. Who knows how Firefly would have gone forward with any potential evolution of this plotline if additional series had become a reality, but the look at Zoe and Wash in Serenity, still the happy, functioning couple, might give us a clue. They’re for life, or so it seems. And, so it proved.