The percentage of people who die… is a lot. I think it’s pretty near everybody. The percentage of people that I kill – not so many. I think the reason that my rep is so nasty is that I tend to do it… unexpectedly, or to someone people are recently invested in, and that is a real mission statement for me, because, death doesn’t leave a card. Death doesn’t take Hitler. It doesn’t work according to story plans, and when a death feels like a loss, gives you grief… then you have told a story that involves death.
– Joss Whedon
It’s time we talked a bit about death in Firefly and Serenity.
It’s a sensitive topic. With the possible exception of the way that the Wesley/Fred relationship ended in Angel, or maybe the Willow/Tara relationship in Buffy, I don’t think there has ever been any death that Joss Whedon has presided over that has raised as much heartbreak, as much tears and as much complaint of needless butchery as that of Wash in Serenity. I’ve read people say that the moment Wash dies turned them off Whedon forever, that it tainted the entire canon of Firefly/Serenity, and exposed Whedon as a man who can only get off when his fan-base is in emotional bits.
But, for me, the death of Wash, and to a lesser extent Book, is perhaps the key thing that makes Serenity the intensely moving experience that it is. I can respect the devastation that some felt because I felt it too: to this day, the last time I got genuinely upset when a fictional character died, the last time I spent more than few minutes insisting that they probably weren’t dead and would turn up again, alive and well, momentarily, was with Wash. I first watched Serenity alone, in my bedroom, when I was 18, and I still remember vividly the sheer numb feeling that engrossed me as it became clear that Wash had gone into the great beyond.
It hits people hard. There is death aplenty in Firefly, but mostly for the antagonists: Dobson in “Serenity” (notwithstanding his brief return in “Those Left Behind”), Crow in “The Train Job”, the derelict survivor in “Bushwhacked”, etc, etc. When it comes to the deaths of protagonist characters, the most affecting are probably Tracy in “The Message” and Nandi in “Heart Of Gold”, two interesting characters that didn’t deserve what they got, but hadn’t managed to last long enough to really get a hold on the audience the way the crew did.
Along comes Serenity. Book’s death is a terribly sad one, but not one that I feel would leave the audience in serious emotional pain. Book’s role in the movie is relatively minor, an elderly mentor who exists to point Mal vaguely in the right direction in a personal sense, and even taking the TV show into account, his whole story is under-developed significantly due to the lack of time it got. Audiences might be as heartbroken that Book is taking his secrets to the grave as they are about his actual death: while sad, Book is no longer on Serenity, and is only swept up into the larger disaster unfolding because of a connection that is already broken. Moreover, he’s an old man: he’s lived his life, and leaves little in the way of serious personal entanglements behind, with no wife or lover and, it seems, no children.
Then there is Mr Universe. Such a short-lived kooky character was never likely to ingrain himself on the consciousness in the brief time he had. While his final redemption, having previously aided the Operative, makes him seem better in our eyes, his death is one that simply invokes some slight feelings of sadness and pity, but is nothing compared to the deaths of others.
Wash is something altogether different. He is, if you pardon the cliché, the heart and soul of the vessel, on a par with Kaylee. He’s more than just the guy pointing the ship in the right direction, he’s Serenity’s sense of humour, its playfulness and a keen part of the loving bond of community it has managed to create on-board. Even just in the course of Serenity, his marriage to Zoe is shown as an affectionate and trusting one. Wash might not get all that much to do in the course of Serenity before the last act, but he makes an impact, in his quips, in his back and forth with Zoe and in the way that he stands apart from some of the others in both his light-heartedness and aversion to violence.
And, when the moment comes, Wash steps up and performs a feat of aeronautical wonder, flying through an intensely fought over aerial battlefield and then successfully crash-lands the ship when it loses its power. There is a twin-term, “Jossing” and “Whedoning”, that some came up with after Serenity, to explain Whedon’s common trope. “Jossing” is portraying a character as getting something that they really wanted, or performing some incredible feat. It is always followed by “Whedoning”: a terrible tragedy occurring to that character, where they lose what they sought or die before they can really savour it.
Wash pulls his amazing “leaf on the wind” act, and in his moment of triumph, is struck dead without even getting the time to realise that he has been dealt a mortal blow. It seems random and heartless: for his death to occur after the danger was seemingly passed, in such a sudden and brutal manner.
But here’s the thing about it. First, our reaction to Wash’s death essentially makes us feel what the crew is feeling at the same moment: numbness, a certain detachment, and then sheer terror in the battle that follows. That connection between characters and audience is hard to create, but Whedon created it bigtime in Serenity.
Secondly, it makes the finale an emotional rollercoaster for an audience, grabbing the heart and not letting go until the Operative declares “It’s finished”. In the course of the final battle, only Inara seems to avoid serious injury: Zoe gets her back slashed up badly, Jayne is shot, Kaylee is hit by poisonous darts, River is catatonic and then outnumbered by Reavers, and Simon takes a nasty bullet wound to the stomach. Having lost Wash, with Whedon demonstrating that beloved characters are going to fall and not come back in this adventure, every hit and hurt is like a gut punch to an audience, who are just waiting to see, on the edge of their seat, who is going to fall next. The manner of Simon’s injury especially seemed to indicate that his time was up, and rare are the films and stories that have managed to capture my wholehearted attention as Serenity did in those final moments.
The eventual relief from the tension – the rebuilding of Serenity, the healing of hurts and the consummation of Simon and Kaylee’s relationship – is one that is incredibly cathartic, because the risk of losing any more of these beloved people has gone. But still, Wash and Book’s death is the gift that keeps on giving in story-telling terms, as the finale comes wrapped in that aching bittersweet sentiment. All good things have a price. Getting the word out about Miranda was something worth having.
In the larger sense of the TV show, the deaths of Wash and Book also call to mind Zoe’s words to her husband in “Heart Of Gold”: “I’m not so afraid of losing something, that I won’t try to have it”. There was a certain prophetic nature to that statement, with hindsight. Zoe and Wash’s marriage was just one part of the glory that was Firefly, and seeing it end as it did in Serenity is indeed painful. But that didn’t make it any less worthy of being. The same can be said for everyone’s relationships with Wash and Book, and for the audiences’ connections to those characters as well. We are better for having known them: acknowledging the pain of their deaths does not diminish the power of their existence. People might criticise Whedon’s constant turning to death as a plot point, but when it makes a story this good, this emotionally memorable, I can’t say that it isn’t a potent, powerful recourse.