We open with Simon examining the data he got from screening River’s brain in the last episode while Shepherd Book muses on the writings of Xiang Yu. “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.” Simon dismisses the sentiment as “sadistic crap legitimized by florid prose,” and I tend to agree with him. Our everyday actions define us at least as much as our reactions in a crisis, but the quote sets the tone for the rest of the episode. One of the central themes of this episode is that the whole crew gets held over the volcano’s edge, and we do learn more about them.
We cut over to a scene of Evil Crime Lord Niska, who still bears an unsettling resemblance to my sweet lovable grandpa, and who is apparently also a fan of Xiang Yu. We now know what form the volcano will take.
Back on the ship, Inara is trying to impress upon Mal how strongly her client feels about privacy while Kaylee chases River around the cargo hold. Mal sympathizes – “Ah, the pitter-patter of tiny feet in giant combat boots …” but insists that he will meet the Councilor, just like he meets everyone who wants to come aboard his ship. Kaylee finally catches River and takes back the apple she had stolen, claiming, “No power in the ‘verse can stop me!” (This will be important later.)
Back in the kitchen area, everyone is enjoying apples that Jayne bought and shared with everyone. There is some wondering about why he would be so unusually generous, but we don’t have to wonder. We know they are guilt apples, bought because he still feels bad about selling out Simon and River to the Alliance. Before they can look too deeply into Jayne’s strange behavior, Kaylee asks Zoe why she and the captain always cut their fruit instead of just eating it. Wash tries to divert the story, but Zoe goes on and tells one of her Mal-n-Zoe war stories about tiny grenades hidden in apples. Mal comes in at the tail end of the story to announce that they are almost to their last drop where they will sell the last of the medicine they stole from Ariel. Wash mutters that they could have made more money, Mal says that his idea wasn’t bad, but cutting out the middleman is never that simple, there is some silent husband/wife communication between Wash and Zoe and we end scene.
Here’s where we get to the meat of the episode, the bizarre Mal/Zoe/Wash triangle. Wash and Zoe get into a big old fight about her relationship with the captain and her relationship with her husband. Even though he loves his big strong warrior woman, Wash is a tad bit old-fashioned. There is a part of him that wants to be the most important man in Zoe’s life, and that same part of him is afraid that Mal will always hold that position. We’ve been building toward this all season, with Wash’s little digs about Zoe-n-Mal scattered here and there. In this fight, it comes out into the open and we get to see another side of the two characters. Instead of the quirky, confident pilot, we get to see Wash as an insecure little-brother type who thinks the big kids are having all the fun when he isn’t around. In Zoe we get to see the wife and the woman who is frustrated by her husband’s jealousy, because she can’t entirely understand it, but at the same time she tries to be the buffer between Wash and Mal because she doesn’t want her husband to get his feelings hurt. How will it all end?
We step away from fighting married people for a moment to check on River and Simon. River has had a reaction to one of the new meds Simon has tried on her. It isn’t a terrible significant scene, but there is some more brother/sister bonding and the “I threw up on your bed” conversation. After that, Inara’s mystery Councilor arrives. Jaws drop all around when the crew finds out it’s a lady. A lady! I have mixed feelings about Inara in this episode. I like that we get to see her with a female client, their scene together is tender and sweet, and I always laugh when Jayne gets all flustered and has to go have some alone time, but other than that it seems like this week’s writer didn’t really know what to do with her. When the shit hits the fan, all we hear is that Inara has gone to ask the Councilor if she can offer any official help. Oh well, at least she gets a moment of awesomeness next week.
Back to the not-really-a-love-triangle. Mal and Zoe try to head off to their rendezvous, but the shuttle won’t start. Wash has sabotaged it! In an act that could easily get him shot if Mal were a different kind of captain, he blackmails Mal and Zoe into letting him take her place on the drop-off. Mal agrees out of frustration, promising there will be a talk later. The deal goes smoothly, but then the bushes turn into men with guns and Mal and Wash are kidnapped. Zoe, of course, figures out exactly what’s happened when she goes back later to find out why the boys aren’t back yet.
Cut to Mal and Wash, bound, blindfolded and trying to “assess the situation.” Wash finally starts airing his marital grievances with the captain:
Wash: Zoe and you. Together, in a tricky…[Considers this] Mal, she’s my wife!
Wash: What gives you the right to put her in a dangerous situation like this?
Mal: I didn’t!
Wash: You did!
Mal: She ain’t here, Wash!
Wash: No, but she would’ve been!
Wash: I mean, I’m the one that she swore to love, honor, and obey.
Mal: Listen, if– [surprised] She swore to obey?
Wash: Well, no … not– [breathing heavily] But that’s just my point! You, she obeys! She obeys you. There’s obeying going on right under my nose!
On the ship, Zoe gathers as much money as she can from everyone on board so she can attempt to ransom her men. While she is doing that, Niska has begun to torture them in earnest. As they get electrocuted, a little bit at a time, Mal and Wash bicker about the supposed sexual tension between Mal and Zoe. At some point, their arguing shifts from defiant banter to Mal doing whatever he can to keep Wash together. Zoe shows up and Niska tells her she has only brought enough money to buy back one of her men. As he ramps up into the supervillain, “However will you make such a difficult choice” speech, Zoe cuts him off to pick Wash. One of the things I love about Zoe is that she makes these snap decisions, seemingly without thought, so you the viewer end up thinking through the logic yourself. Husband or not, Wash is the logical choice. Mal can last longer under torture. Niska has more reason to hurt Mal so, by evil guy inverse logic, he will keep him alive longer, giving the crew more time to mount a rescue. And Mal would never let one of his crew take his place anyway. So Zoe cuts through the crap and just says, “Him.” Niska doesn’t appreciate the thwarted gloating opportunity, so he stops her to say that she paid too much for Wash. His henchman cuts off Mal’s ear to make them square. Zoe helps Wash stagger away with the sound of Mal screaming, with one heartbreaking sob mixed in, in the background.
Back on the shuttle, Wash finally understands that you don’t get to have “charming” war stories without actually having to watch someone’s head get blown up. He calls the captain crazy, and when Zoe tells him that Niska will keep him alive for days, Wash replies that the “bastard’s not going to get days,” and they return to the ship to mount a rescue.
Everyone volunteers to help break the captain out (except Inara, who has gone off to see if the Councilor can help) leading to the most awesome-est line from the whole show ever:
[Book pulls out a rifle.]
Book: This should do.
Zoe: Preacher, don’t the Bible have some pretty specific things to say about killin’?
Book: Quite specific. It is, however, somewhat fuzzier on the subject of kneecaps.
And shortly thereafter, he does in fact shoot a guard in the kneecap.
As soon as the alarm reaches the torture room, Mal manages to stand up and fight Niska and the bald torturer guy, in spite of being dead just a few minutes before. When Zoe, Jayne and Wash reach the room, Zoe plays the hero card and tells Jayne not to interfere: “This is somethin’ the Captain has to do for himself,” to which Mal replies, “No! No it’s not!” So all three open fire on the torturer and kill the crap out of him.
Back at the ship, Kaylee has been chased into the cargo hold, the guards are advancing, and she is too scared to do anything about it. River appears, as if from nowhere, takes her gun and kills all three guards with her eyes closed. She then calmly looks at Kaylee and says, “No power in the ‘verse can stop me.” (See, I told you it would be important later.)
In the wrap-up, everyone is cleaned up and put back together. Kaylee is scared of River, but she hasn’t told anyone about what happened yet. Book teases Simon about what a bad shot he is, and Zoe makes some “wife soup” for her husband. Before he can eat, Mal comes into the kitchen area and tells Zoe that he and Wash had discussed it, and the two of them had to have sex to break up the unspoken sexual tension in the air. Mal and Zoe pretending to try and kiss each other is charmingly hilarious, but Wash jumps in to whisk Zoe away before they have to go through with it. And since he’s gone, Jayne steals Wash’s soup.