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The Most Pause-Worthy Moments In Firefly

Twenty years after Joss Whedon's "Firefly" burst onto the pop-culture scene to the sounds of gunfire and Chinese curse words, the show remains an unexpected classic, consistently ranked among the greatest science fiction shows of all time. Considering the fact that it was canceled after a single troubled season, this is remarkable — "Firefly" developed an exceptionally loyal cult following in the early days of online fandom, and fan fervor for the show eventually led to the story's continuation via a feature film, a line of comic books from Dark Horse, and a series of novels. These days, it's a seminal and infinitely quotable text in the Western geek canon, despite recent controversies surrounding its creator.

"Firefly" isn't a show with a ton of Easter eggs, and while you could spend time seeking out things like the Weyland-Yutani logo, the Han-Solo-in-carbonite figures, or the acting debut of Zac Efron, the show's most pause-worthy moments are more about the impact of those scenes on the narrative and characters than about picking small details off the screen. These are the expressions that stick with you, as members of the crew of the Serenity consider what stands before them, or frozen images representing scenes or storylines you'll never forget. If you haven't seen "Firefly," now is a perfect time to leave this list and go do that. But if you're already a Browncoat, it's time to return to the freedom of the skies and remember the moments that made "Firefly" unkillable.

Mal loses his faith

The opening scene of the "Firefly" episode "Serenity" — originally shot as the show's pilot, but pushed back to the end of the series' single season — is a flashback to a time of war in a faraway solar system, when the rebels of the Independent Planets fought back against the oppressive forces of the Union of Allied Planets, colloquially known as the Alliance. Specifically, the show opens on the last days of the Battle of Serenity Valley, in which the outnumbered and out-gunned Independents had held against the Alliance for seven weeks, with Sergeant Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds taking command after the deaths of his superiors. The battle ends in tragedy, however, when the Independent High Command, rather than send more support to their beleaguered soldiers, instead surrenders to the Alliance, signaling the end of the war.

Mal is one of the few to survive Serenity Valley, but his character in the rest of the show, which takes places six years after the battle, is that of a bitter, cynical iconoclast. When the camera zooms in on his face as Alliance forces sweep over the landscape before him, actor Nathan Fillion profoundly captures the exact moment when Mal's faith shatters.

Kaylee's pink dress

Several of the standout moments in "Firefly" involve costuming, and there are at least a couple of times where you have to pause to take in just how wonderfully ridiculous somebody's outfit is. Case in point: the fourth episode, "Shindig," in which Mal has to infiltrate a fancy party in order to make contact with a potential employer. Accompanying him is his engineer, Kaywinnet Lee Frye (Jewel Staite), more commonly known simply as Kaylee. 

Kaylee is the heart and soul of the Serenity crew, an utterly brilliant technician who lights up every room she walks into with her smile and cheerful attitude. Earlier in the episode, she had stopped at a shop window to pine over a huge, ruffled pink dress, only to get her feelings hurt by Mal's snarky comments. When the opportunity comes up, he makes it up to her in spades, procuring the dress for Kaylee and taking her with him to the gala. Kaylee immediately delights by making a beeline for the buffet table and overcoming the haughty arrogance of some high-class ladies to become the life of the party, but the dress is the star attraction — along with Mal's own formal wear, which gives birth to the nickname "Captain Tight Pants."

Zoe and Wash bask in the afterglow

Another central piece of the soul of "Firefly" is the relationship between married couple Zoe (Gina Torres) and Wash (Alan Tudyk) — the former a battle-hardened ex-soldier who fought by Mal's side in the Unification War, the latter a wisecracking pilot who plays with dinosaur toys. While their romance is hardly understated (and later serves as the foundation for an entire episode), there are very few moments in the show where we see them just relaxing together as a couple. 

"Shindig," however, provides us with one of these moments, and it's worth pausing to bask in it just as the episode does. The scene has nothing to do with the episode's plot or the larger narratives of "Firefly," or even the show's themes. It's just the two of them, having just made love, laughing and joking and clearly in love. It's a side of Zoe, in particular, that we rarely get to observe, but more importantly, it's the kind of scene most shows don't even bother including — a moment of unadulterated affection that serves no purpose other than to enrich the characters and make the audience smile. That's worth taking a second to appreciate.

Shepherd Book's backstory deepens

One of the only occasions where it makes total sense to pause an episode of "Firefly" and carefully study the screen comes in the fifth episode, "Safe" — but, of course, you won't actually get anything out of it if you do.

The true identity of Shepherd Book (played brilliantly by Ron Glass) is one of the show's most enduring mysteries. On the surface, he appears to be a normal preacher, a compassionate and erudite man who provides the voice of peace and morality. As "Firefly" unfolds, however, the show drops persistent clues that indicate Book is much more than what he seems. He knows names he shouldn't know, is skilled at investigation, and demonstrates an affinity for both hand-to-hand combat and firearms. But the biggest reveal comes in "Safe," when he's accidentally shot during a firefight. With their doctor kidnapped by hill folk, the crew of the Serenity must turn to the Alliance for medical services. Of course, the Alliance officer in charge refuses to help — that is, until he scans Book's identification card. "Get this man to the infirmary at once," he says, providing no other explanation.

Pause all you want — there's no reading Book's ID on the scanner, and neither "Firefly" nor its feature-film follow-up, "Serenity," ever unveil his secrets — though if you really have to know, you can find some answers in the 2010 comic book "Serenity: The Shepherd's Tale."

Mal and Inara miss an opportunity

Joss Whedon is a master of character dynamics and relationships, including the simmering romance between Mal and Inara Serra. The two are clearly attracted to one another, but Mal's emotional barriers are a mile thick, and he uses his superficial disgust at Inara's occupation (she's a Companion, a high-class sex worker) to keep both her and his growing feelings at bay. Inara, meanwhile, is well-aware of the complications that can arise when a Companion falls for someone, and uses her own wit and sarcasm to keep Mal at arm's length.

This all comes to a head in "Our Mrs. Reynolds," in which Mal inadvertently marries a young, apparently naive woman named Saffron. Saffron, however, is actually a clever and seductive con artist. We learn this the first time she and Mal kiss, after which the captain falls unconscious due to a poison coating her lips. When Inara finds Mal insensate but alive, she's so relieved that she kisses him herself. And then, of course, also falls unconscious. Later, she lies and claims she tripped and fell.

At the end of the episode, it appears that Mal and Inara are finally going to acknowledge their mutual attraction. Mal asks her to admit that she didn't just trip, and reluctantly, Inara does. But instead of putting the pieces together, Mal says "I knew you let her kiss you!" and walks off, leaving actress Morena Baccarin to produce an expression that simultaneously conveys offense, relief, and amazement at the stupidity of men.

'This must be what going mad feels like'

Another relationship that runs through "Firefly" from start to finish is the one between amoral mercenary Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin) and refugee medic Simon Tam (Sean Maher). The animosity between them isn't just a result of Mal's decision to harbor Simon and his sister, River, despite their fugitive status, instead of going with Jayne's plan to turn in the Tams and collect their bounties. Even if Jayne didn't see Simon as both an unnecessary risk and an unclaimed reward, the two men are vastly different people — Jayne is a crude, barely literate thug who's out for himself no matter what, while Simon is a well-bred, well-educated intellectual who has devoted his life to healing others. As a result, they clash continually throughout the series, with Simon increasingly disgusted by Jayne's lack of both manners and ethics.

So in "Jaynestown," when the crew of the Serenity find themselves in a small town that has inexplicably turned Jayne into a folk hero, Simon's horrified bafflement is understandable. When they gaze upon the statue of Jayne the townsfolk have erected, the look on the doctor's face is utterly priceless. It might be the single most memorable facial expression in the entire show, especially when combined with his statement, "This must be what going mad feels like."

Love at first sight

"Tell you what," the salesman says. "You buy this ship, treat her proper, she'll be with you for the rest of your life." It's a line from Mal's past — "Out of Gas" is partially a flashback episode, depicting how the captain originally found his crew and started fast-talking and quick-drawing his way through the 'verse. The framing device is an incident in the present: Serenity's engine has broken down, leading the ship to rapidly lose both power and life support. Sending his crew off in the ship's shuttles, Mal stays on Serenity, hoping to be found and rescued but knowing that he's probably going to die. It's the "captain goes down with his ship" narrative, but with a deeper layer to it. Mal loves Serenity, and that love, as he says in the movie, is what "keeps her in the air when she ought to fall down." Despite the intricate relationships between the show's nine major cast members, the relationship between Mal and Serenity lies at the core of the story.

Which is why it's so appropriate that, in the final flashback, we return to the salesman telling Mal that the ship will be with him for the rest of his life, only to discover that Mal isn't paying the slightest attention to the ship the other man wants him to buy. His eyes have locked on Serenity a short distance away, and the last shot is from his perspective — his first look at his true love.

Two by two, hands of blue

As a network show with a Western flavor, "Firefly" doesn't do a lot of gore. While there's violence, it mostly takes the form of gunshots and knife slashes, and wounds that don't usually involve buckets of blood. The exceptions to this rule come when the show emphasizes the ruthlessness of its major villains, and no villains are more major than the "Hands of Blue," two mysterious men wearing blue gloves, identified only by River Tam's repeated litany, "Two by two, hands of blue." While the show never got the chance to explain these characters, we know they're after River, and in the episode "Ariel," they nearly catch her.

During a hospital heist, Simon, River, and Jayne are caught by federal marshals led by Agent McGuinness (whom Jayne had secretly contacted to collect the reward on the Tams, only to be double-crossed). After briefly exchanging words with McGuinness, they are sent off with some of his men. McGuinness greets the Hands of Blue as they arrive, but when they discover McGuinness spoke with River, one of them pulls out a strange device that begins to emit a high-pitched sound. McGuinness suddenly starts to bleed from his fingernails, ears, eyes, and mouth. The Hands of Blue merely watch, unaffected. It's perhaps the most bloody image in "Firefly," and it drives home the horrifying threat of the Hands of Blue, setting them up as the ultimate villains for future seasons that were never made.

'No power in the 'verse can stop me'

The mystery of River Tam — what happened to her, why the Alliance is so desperate to retrieve her, what she secretly knows, and what she is capable of — is the axis around which the larger story surrounding the Serenity and her crew revolves, to the extent that the "Serenity" film was duty-bound to explain it. But the show, if it had continued, would presumably have drawn out River's various reveals over a longer period of time, as evidenced by the pacing of the mystery throughout the show's sole season. It's only in the last five episodes that we begin to realize that River is both psychic and inexplicably adept at combat, and that revelatory stretch kicks off in "War Stories," when the crew of the Serenity goes full-on commando to rescue Mal from the fiendish Adelai Niska.

Not all of the crew are fighters, especially not Kaylee, who finds herself left behind and unable to shoot when confronted by a trio of Niska's goons. Fortunately, River is also there. Without explanation, she takes Kaylee's gun and shoots all three dead with three precise shots — and with her eyes closed. In that moment, we consider for the first time that River might be much more than she seems.

Mal's hip tattoo

No, this isn't just a pause-worthy moment because of Nathan Fillion's state of undress (though we're not, like, upset about that). This shot, from episode "Trash," is notable because it reveals that Mal apparently has a small tattoo on his hip. There aren't many tattooed characters in the "Firefly" universe, so this would potentially be an interesting thing to know about Mal, especially considering its easy-to-hide location. Are tattoos considered taboo for some reason? Is the fact that Mal has one significant? If we could make out the details (which we really can't, no matter how long we stare at it), would the tattoo reveal some hidden secret about Mal's character or history?

None of the above, actually. The tattoo, as it turns out, wasn't temporarily placed on Fillion's hip to give Mal an extra character trait — it's actually a real tattoo that Fillion has on his hip. According to Pop Apostle, "The tattoo is a real one sported by actor Nathan Fillion. When asked what it is or what it means he has said he got it when he was 19 and now regrets it. He has made a number of joking explanations of what it represents (such as 'Property of Gina Torres,' the actress who plays Zoe). The most plausible sounding explanation he's given is that it is an Egyptian glyph essentially representing peace." We're guessing Mal got his at about the same age, and probably feels the same way.

Jayne's cunning hat

Of all the costuming choices that feed into characterization in "Firefly," the undisputed king is the orange wool hat that Jayne receives in the mail from his mother in "The Message." By this point in the show, Jayne has already surreptitiously betrayed the crew, been nearly killed for it by Mal, and been forgiven for it by Simon. He's a far less morally ambiguous character in the final third of the first season, having basically accepted Simon and River, and embraced his role as part of the Serenity's family. As a result, by the time "The Message" comes around, it's safe to give Jayne a personal humanizing element, which comes in the form of the hat. Brightly colored and thoroughly ridiculous, with ear flaps on the sides and a puffy ball on top, Jayne nonetheless believes it to be "cunning," and wears his mom's gift with pride.

Jayne's hat is an iconic "Firefly" image, not just because of its appearance, but because of what it represents. When he reads out loud the letter his mom sent along with it, we learn that Jayne hasn't actually had entirely selfish motivations this entire time — he's been sending money back home to his family. It completely re-contextualizes the character, while also providing laughs for the rest of the episode.

Mal's last look back

"The Message" isn't officially the last episode of "Firefly" — "Heart of Gold" and "Objects in Space" come after it in Joss Whedon's preferred chronology. But it was the last episode filmed, and during filming, the cast and crew found out that "Firefly" had been canceled. They took it hard. Series producer Tim Minear told the Hollywood Reporter, "[Whedon] made the announcement and everybody went out to get rip-roaring drunk. When we finally came back to work, I had to direct Nathan, Gina and Jewel in a scene where they were sitting around a table laughing uproariously ... it was hard for us to pretend something was funny."

The scene in question involves Mal and Zoe reminiscing about one of their old war comrades, Tracey, whom they believe to be dead. While Tracey soon wakes up and ingratiates himself to the crew, he ultimately turns on them in foolishness and desperation, forcing Mal to kill him — this time for good. Despite Mal being responsible, Tracey's death is a tragedy, and the funeral scene that closes the episode is one of the series' saddest moments. The look on Mal's face at the end of "The Message" is one more incredible piece of work from Fillion, and a fitting headstone to something that went to its grave too early, but will be remembered forever.