All 14 episodes of ‘Firefly’ (2002), ranked (TV review)

Even in comparison to “Buffy” and “Angel” — which had already built up complex mythologies by the fall of 2002 — “Firefly” arrived as Joss Whedon’s most completely detailed and believable fictional universe. He imagined a 26th century where corporations and government are one and the same, American-looking people swear in Chinese (and have Asian-sounding last names, in the case of the Tam siblings, or dress in Asian fashions, as with Inara), and where prostitution is legal and respected — so long as the government can regulate it, of course.

All of Whedon’s collaborators — from the nine cast members to composer Greg Edmonson (who came up with memorable themes even for one-off characters like bounty hunter Jubal Early) to the folks who ingeniously used a hand-held style for space effects (thus matching the style of the other scenes) — seemed to be on the same page. It wasn’t just because Whedon was the boss, it was because “Firefly” just felt “right,” right from the get-go.

Well, to be honest, I didn’t totally click with the show on its first airing. I liked it well enough, certainly, but it flows so much better on DVD. Why Fox decided it was a good idea to air episodes out of order no one will ever know. I guess the bigwigs had their theories about how to attract an audience, but the unintended consequence was that I always felt like I was missing something during “Firefly’s” original run 10 TV seasons ago. Indeed, I was missing something — namely the pilot episode, which was the very last episode to air.

At any rate, although I’d rather be writing about the 11th season finale right now, at least the 14 episodes that do exist never get old. They’re great, they’re timeless, and they are very hard to rank (none of them deserves to be last!). However, I humbly accept the challenge:

1. “Out of Gas” (episode 8, written by Tim Minear) — When “Firefly” was originally airing, I had this notion that the original pilot was scrapped and would not be aired; thus, I assumed scenes in “Out of Gas” where Mal meets Wash, Kaylee, Jayne and Inara were repurposed from the original pilot. That’s not the case, but in a way this is the third “pilot” because of those flashbacks, so lovingly and cleverly shot with a dreamlike quality. The episode features stories at three different points in time that all come together in a beautiful treatise on why Mal loves his ship and the people on it.

2. “Jaynestown” (7, Ben Edlund) — It survives falling into schmaltz because although Edlund understands the value (both humorous and thematic) of portraying Jayne as a hero, he also understands that Jayne is ultimately a bad, selfish person. (That might’ve changed seven seasons in, but they hadn’t earned it seven episodes in.) Because he’s OUR bad person, we root for him over people Jayne has clearly wronged, such as the guy whom Jayne tossed out of his ship during a getaway. We know he’s not good, and that’s why it’s powerful just to see the big brute mutter: “Don’t make no sense.”

3. “Our Mrs. Reynolds” (6, Joss Whedon) — The most brilliant surprise of the series is achieved by both the script and the guest turn by Christina Hendricks as the devious “Saffron,” a thief playing the role of Mal’s meek wife. The episode still works on repeat viewings because it’s so funny, and in a particularly cute way when the usually graceful Inara awkwardly tries to cover up the fact that she was knocked unconscious because she kissed Mal.

4. “Ariel” (9, Jose Molina) — The heist plot is effectively used in several episodes, but this is the best one. We see not only what a state-of-the-art Alliance medical facility looks like, but we also see who’s really running the ‘verse — the deadly Blue Sun organization, which even leaves Alliance bodies piled up (and screaming) in its wake. Also, there’s that great final scene where Jayne is humanized a bit more: “Do me a favor … Make something up. Don’t tell them what I did.”

5. “Objects in Space” (14, Whedon) — Richard Brooks, best known as Paul Robinette on “Law & Order,” gives a creepily mesmerizing guest turn as bounty hunter Jubal Early. Most shocking is the scene (which surprisingly was not censored) where he calmly threatens to rape Kaylee; after that, it’s fascinating to watch his mind unravel as the equally crazy River gets under his skin. Plus, Edmonson gives Early a wonderfully dark bassoon theme that represents the vast depths of space — and the human brain.

6. “The Message” (12, Whedon and Minear) — The best of the three DVD-only episodes explores Mal and Zoe’s never-ending bond to their war brethren when the decidedly flawed Tracey (Jonathan M. Woodward, Holden on “Buffy” and Knox on “Angel”) calls on them for a favor. Surprisingly for an episode that Fox chose not to air, the visuals are stunning, from the shopping-mall-style space station (decked out with the kind of video advertising monitors that come into play more in the “Serenity” film) to the chase on the rocky snow planet.

7. “War Stories” (10, Cheryl Cain) — The scenes of Mal and Wash being tortured by Niska are tough to watch (though certainly effective), but what makes “War Stories” great is that we see everyone come together to rescue the captain. Even Jayne, who normally needs to see the percentage (or at least the whores) in a mission, takes up arms as this group of nine truly solidifies as a team. Plus, River’s arc — which will pay off in the movie — gets decidedly ratcheted up when she kills three of Niska’s henchmen using mathematics.

8. “Safe” (5, Drew Z. Greenberg) — This update of the Salem witch trials is a bit out there, but it certainly has its moments. We get the first instances of Kaylee and Simon awkwardly dancing around each other. We get flashbacks showing Simon and River as kids (trivia tidbit: Zac Efron plays the young Simon), and Simon’s falling out with his folks. I like how Simon — despite being an uppity doctor at first glance — is caustically sarcastic in the face of danger. And you can’t go wrong with the rescue scene: “Do you see the man hanging from the spaceship with the really big gun?”

9. “Serenity” (1, Whedon) — This perfectly fine two-hour pilot introduces everything we need to know going forward as Simon, River and Book complete the nine-member crew. An Alliance lawman and even the Reavers make appearances, establishing the dangers for this crew that just wants to carve out a slice of liberty in the sky. Sadly, because the episodes aired out of order, we never got to truly enjoy the surprise of discovering the traitor’s identity and learning what was in the box.

10. “Bushwhacked” (3, Minear) — Another mystery is introduced here as we learn a couple things about the Reavers: One, they’re seriously scary, because even Jayne wants nothing to do with them, and two, they are (or were) men. As Book explains: “Whatever horror he witnessed, whatever acts of barbarism, it was done by men. Nothing more. … Too long removed from civilization, perhaps — but men.” (This also solidifies for viewers that, although it’s a sci-fi show, the “Firefly” ‘verse doesn’t include aliens.)

11. “Heart of Gold” (13, Brett Matthews) — I was certain this would rank last on my list, but I enjoyed it a lot more on this rewatching. Yes, the villain, Rance Burgess, is a cliched woman-hater. And yes, the house-of-whores jokes are as easy as they come. However, this is a standout Mal-and-Inara episode; witness the cut to Inara crying, and the ending where they almost admit their feelings but she instead tells Mal she’s leaving. Plus, the shoot-’em-up in the final act is arguably the series’ most thrilling.

12. “The Train Job” (2, Whedon and Minear) — The first aired episode is a solid heist yarn that also establishes Mal’s moral code when he returns the medicine to the needy settlers. Aside from a clunky early speech from Book about God, this is an especially impressive hour considering that Whedon and Minear had to crank it out in a couple days when the network asked for a new debut episode.

13. “Shindig” (4, Jane Espenson) — I remembered the climactic sword fight being longer than it really is, but it’s still a bit too violent for my taste. The whole hour is a bit too padded, although as a Mal-and-Inara ‘shipper, I have to admit this episode where we see her home planet of Persephone is essential viewing.

14. “Trash” (11, Edlund and Molina) — Although it’s cool to see “Saffron” again, this outing isn’t nearly as strong as “Our Mrs. Reynolds.” Although we’re all waiting for Mal to turn the tables on her, she actually outsmarts him in the dumbest way possible — pretending to cry and stealing his gun. I suppose womenfolk might rank “Trash” a bit higher due to the memorable guest turn by Nathan Fillion’s buttocks.

In future posts, I’ll look back at the 2005 “Serenity” movie, plus the comic books that solved more of the dangling mysteries from the series and helped to flesh out how the ‘verse came to be after Earth-That-Was. But for now: How do you rank the 14 episodes of “Firefly?”