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Serenity is on a frontier world selling off the last of the medical supplies they stole in "Ariel". Simon has been studying his examination of River and beginning to try various drugs to help her out; he hasn't found a completely successful one yet. An amusing bit is the whole crew being amazed at how generous Jayne has been with his share of the profits - buying real apples for the crew to enjoy, for example. Gee, wonder if Mal "encouraged" Jayne in his generosity as a way of making up for his betrayal in "Ariel"?
The tensions between Zoe and Wash over Zoe's loyalty to Mal come to a head - we've seen Wash's annoyance over Zoe's split loyalties since "Serenity", part 1. Beyond the fact of Zoe's loyalty to Mal, Wash is jealous of the camaraderie and trust Zoe and Mal developed while serving together in the civil war. Wash insists on taking Zoe's place on the next sale with Mal. Mal is annoyed by the whole situation, but agrees since the trip should be a "milk run".
Unbeknownst to them, Niska - the criminal mastermind behind the heist in "The Train Job" - is running a heavy industry spacestation orbiting the world. Since Mal ended up breaking his deal with Niska, one might assume Niska is mad at Mal, despite Mal returning Niska's money. Niska's presence is a plot hole to me: usually Mal is pretty savvy on knowing whose territory he's in and what the political situation is. How did he miss Niska's presence? Was he aware of Niska's spacestation, but just hoping to not be noticed? We don't get any indication of this.
Niska sends men to snatch Mal and Wash. He takes them to his spacestation and begins torturing them with electric shocks, seemingly just for fun and revenge, since he doesn't interrogate them. Mal and Wash had been arguing about Wash's attitude concerning Zoe, and Mal continues the argument in between shocks as a way of keeping Wash coherent. This torture is some of the most brutal acts we've seen so far in the series, and it gets worse as we proceed through the episode.
During this, Inara welcomes a client to her shuttle on Serenity: a politician, who is also a beautiful woman. It's the first time we've seen Inara have a female client. Frankly, there isn't too much point to this part, and I feel like it was mostly added to try to get a bit of a bump in the ratings. The most amusing part is every time Jayne thinks about the situation, he has to visit his bunk.
When Mal and Wash are late, Zoe, Jayne, and Book check out the location where they were kidnapped. From the clues there, Zoe deduces that Niska is responsible. Zoe decides to take Niska as much money as they have and visit him unarmed in order to buy back Mal and Wash. When she arrives, Niska says the money is only enough for one of them - Zoe unhesitatingly chooses Wash. Then, chillingly, Niska says the money was enough for at least a little bit of Mal and slices off a large part of Mal's ear and gives it to Zoe. I have to admire Zoe's poker face in this whole scene, as she doesn't flinch at the torture and gore. Sure, she's seen bad things before, but that doesn't mean you get used to it.
Zoe and Wash return to Serenity. Wash realizes the determination and will that Mal showed by resisting Niska's torture and also managing to keep Wash sane. Zoe plans to attack Niska's spacestation to get Mal back, and Wash decides to join her. Soon after, the rest of the crew (except Inara - as I was writing this, I realized that she had disappeared at this point - where was she?) also vows to help, and everyone begins preparing weapons. I was surprised by Jayne's help, since one might have thought Jayne would be happy to get rid of Mal, especially since Mal is the only one who knows he betrayed them. Book's decision to join in the violence is also a surprise, although he claims that he'll be shooting at kneecaps.
On the spacestation, Niska has begun torturing Mal with some kind of new device that appears to be exceptionally painful. In fact, it kills Mal, but Niska has him resuscitated so he can "play" some more. (Unfortunately, this scene somehow reminded me of the torture of Wesley in The Princess Bride, with the device that appeared to suck at Mal's chest, and then him dying only to be brought back to life. I don't think this was intentional on the part of the writer.)
Wash manages to get Serenity to the spacestation, undetected until they dock. They have the advantage of surprise, and Zoe, Wash, and Jayne storm into the station. The others are ordered to hold the dock with Serenity. In the torture room, Mal takes advantage of Niska and his minion's distraction to free himself and begin attacking them. Niska gets away while Mal is fighting his minion. Zoe, Wash, and Jayne burst in to help him finish the job.
Meanwhile, Book and Simon have moved forward to provide cover fire. Kaylee can't bring herself to actually leave Serenity and shoot at someone, so she hides in the cargo bay. River takes her gun, glances out the door and marks the location of the three enemies outside, and then nails them each with one shot without looking again. To say that Kaylee is terrified would be an understatement.
The others return to Serenity and they take off. Inara borrowed medical equipment from her client for Simon to sue to re-attach Mal's ear. Zoe pampers Wash for being such a hero.
This episode brought out the true nature of each character, somewhat ironic considering that Niska kept blathering about wanting to see the "real" Mal when he was tortured. We saw that Mal absolutely refused to break, even when he really did die and had to be brought back. Even in his horribly weakened state, he still managed to help himself make an escape when he got the chance. It was also satisfying to see his crew band together to help him, just as he would do for each of them.
Poor Wash picks a really bad day to force the issue between him, Zoe, and Mal. We can really understand and empathize with his left-out feeling when Mal and Zoe start talking about the war and soldiering. With his light-hearted nature, Wash seems to think that being the soldier didn't entail that much hardship, but just leaves one with lots of good stories. I'm sure that he didn't truly think that, but until he experienced a horrible situation himself, he really didn't have any idea. Even this once experience should allow him to better understand how and why the camaraderie and loyalty between Zoe and Mal is so strong even after years. Hopefully this will improve his relationship with Zoe and let him be more understanding of her motives.
Zoe managed to avoid the torture in this episode, but she still had some tough decisions to make. She chose to take Wash instead of Mal: how much of this was really because he is her husband, and how much because she knew Mal would be better able to withstand the torture? At any rate, it must have been agonizing for her to leave Mal at Niska's mercy. No wonder that she went back to Serenity to dive into what could have been a suicide rescue mission. Only the aid of the others prevented that.
As for the relationship between Mal and Zoe: it's hard to think of it as other than a brothers-in-arms friendship. The joke of them having sex just felt wrong - as it was intended to - which even Jayne noticed. Wash needs to relax a bit on this front and be a little less insecure.
This episode also gives us a new development with River: she a remarkable shot. Was this something she was also programmed or trained to do? Previously, we haven't seen her employ any special physical abilities - in fact, in "Safe" she was easily snatched by the colonists and did nothing to fight back against possibly being burned at the stake. Are Simon's treatments of her helping bring out her other abilities?
A somewhat annoying aspect of the episode was the utilization of the "philosophy" of a fictional person in the Firefly universe, Shan Yu. Book talks about him at the beginning of the episode, and then Niska raves about him. The idea of using torture to find a person's "true self" is a matter for debate. However, the part that was annoying is that we'd never heard of this philosophy before, and then it shows up with Book's explanation right before Niska uses it. I realize the writer is setting things up, it was just clunky to me. Why not just have Niska rave about the philosophy without attributing it to someone else?