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The focal point of this episode is Mal. At the beginning of the episode, we see Serenity has been abandoned except for Mal. He is injured, possibly bleeding to death, and he is trying to take a part to engineering. He makes this horribly painful journey through the course of most of the episode. While he is struggling, we get two series of flashbacks. The first set is of Mal's purchase of Serenity and hiring the crew. The second set is of the events leading to Mal's current desperate situation.
The order of the episode (Mal's trek to engineering and interleaving flashbacks) sounds tortuous, but it is executed excellently. There is never any confusion about what "time" we are in, and some of the previous day's flashbacks fade very well into just-starting-out flashbacks. It also makes sense that Mal's condition would make him basically see his life flash before his eyes, and we get to watch. Finally, showing us Mal's injury right away makes us wonder what happened and makes Mal's struggle into our struggle as well.
That said, I'm going to discuss the series of flashbacks individually, because writing a summary of the episode in the order it was presented would be very difficult. The first set of flashbacks is about Mal buying Serenity. We see that Mal fell in love with Serenity at first sight, even though it wasn't even running at the time. Even at that time, Zoe was still his right hand, and with some convincing she is game for getting Serenity in working order. (Actually, I wonder if she'd seriously go against anything Mal proposed, and if she just voices her concerns in order to make Mal think twice before committing.)
We don't know how long this is after the civil war ended. My big question here is: where did Mal get the money to buy Serenity? I think of it as being similar to a fisherman buying a boat or a big-rig driver buying a tractor trailer - these are major outlays of money that the would-be buyer has to come up with. How did Mal do it? With all of Serenity's issues of having enough money to keep operating, we never hear any mention of Mal having to may off a loan for her purchase.
The flashbacks of Mal hiring the crew are pretty short, but give us looks at the essence of each crew member. Wash (with a horrible-looking mustache) doesn't take himself seriously, but apparently has glowing recommendations from others - but ironically Zoe doesn't like him. Jayne was originally part of a small criminal band that tried to steal from Mal and Zoe, but was lured to Mal to betray his comrades in exchange for higher pay from Mal (plus his own room!)
Mal's original meeting with Kaylee is much funnier - our innocent little Kaylee was having sex with the original ship's mechanic in the engine room, because "engines get her hot". When Mal interrupts them, the mechanic says Serenity is still broken, but Kaylee spouts off the way to fix things. Mal fires the original mechanic and hires Kaylee on the spot.
Inara strikes a hard bargain with Mal for the hire of one of Serenity's shuttles as her base of operations. We see that Mal's disdain for her occupation was in force from the start. Even with this scene, we don't have any more of a clue about why Inara chose to join Serenity; currently she might find Mal a mystery, but how could she have known that from the start? I suppose one might claim they had an instant attraction, but couldn't decide what to do with it.
The flashbacks to the past are interesting, but the flashbacks about the incident just prior to the beginning of the episode are much more suspenseful. We know that something very bad is going to happen, but we don't really have any idea what. We start out with Serenity traveling to a new job, with much notice paid to the fact that they are purposely following a course that will keep them well out of contact with everyone - which, of course, also means everyone that could help them, too.
The crew are celebrating Simon's birthday, when some kind of explosion takes place in the engine room. Zoe manages to shut the door to the galley just in time to keep everyone from getting hurt, but is severely injured in the process. The explosion has started a fire - fire is one of the deadliest accidents that can happen in space. There is no place to flee a fire, it can easily damage vital components, and it uses up oxygen. Mal opens up the fire-stricken decks to space, and the fire is extinguished.
Everyone is horribly shaken by the accident, and Mal has to keep things together. He has to forcibly pull Wash from Zoe's side so that Wash can assess damage to the ship's navigation and communications. He uses a somewhat lighter touch to get Kaylee to figure out what caused the initial explosion, and what additional damage was done to the engines.
The situation is extremely grave. A part in the engine, the catalyzer, failed, which caused the initial explosion. They do not have a spare catalyzer, and Kaylee does not believe they can fix the broken one or jury-rig a replacement. Without the engine running, the obviously cannot change course, but in addition their life support is not functioning. The fire and subsequent vacuum used up their spare supply of oxygen. In short, they have a few hours of oxygen left before they will begin to suffocate.
Mal decides that everyone but himself will leave the ship in the two shuttles. The shuttles do not have enough life support to reach a world, but they would increase their chances of contacting someone for help, especially since they will go in different directions. Inara tries to convince Mal that he doesn't have to go down with the ship, but Mal claims he's just going to be waiting for someone to stop and help. Wash sets up a button for Mal to push to signal for the shuttles to return when help arrives.
Mal waits alone on the ship for an unspecified amount of time when another ship does show up. The captain of the other ship is wary of a trap, but eventually agrees to trade Mal a catalyzer. When the other captain and his minions arrive, they immediately train their guns on Mal. The captain shoots Mal in the abdomen, and they start planning to loot Serenity. Mal manages to pull a gun in return and get the drop on the captain. Mal orders the others to leave Serenity, but to leave the catalyzer. Surprisingly, they comply. I was wondering why they didn't just fall back to their ship and wait for either Serenity's air to run out or for Mal to bleed to death - I don't know why they would actually leave.
At this point, Mal begins his journey to take the catalyzer to engineering. Mal eventually gets the catalyzer installed and then must make the journey back to the bridge to signal the shuttles. He collapses just short of the button. The next thing we know, he is waking up in the infirmary and the rest of the crew is there. They admit that Mal did not signal them; Zoe awoke on the shuttle and ordered her shuttle to return. Simon says Mal will recover with time and rest.
This episode provides a look at each of the characters in a dire situation. Realistically, many of them have trouble handling it, although no one panics. Mal shows himself to be a true leader here, as he keeps everything under control and makes the tough decisions. We also see again his sheer determination to keep fighting for Serenity and his life until the end. The episode also highlights the fragility of humans traveling in space - the situation can go from routine to deadly in seconds, and there's not always a way to fix things. This is especially true for Serenity, which is always operating on a shoestring budget and under the radar.