Firefly Episode 10: "War Stories"
Cheryl Cain, however, took the Hollywood route of simply using it as a plot device to show Our Heroes being heroic and the Bad Guy being bad. The philosophy woven throughout the episode is mentioned at the beginning, when in a nice bit of continuity, Simon and Book are discussing the aftermath of "Ariel." Book refers to the belief attributed to a Shan Yu that the way to meet the real person is to torture them. This, let it be said, doesn't seem to make any sense as a reason for what was done to River, but that aside, this philosophy is continually invoked, forming the show's philosophical backbone.
After Wash gets bothered by Zoe telling a war story, something she shares with Mal. Wash's jealousy has roots in an insecurity fed by the fact Zoe defers to Mal as captain and has a much longer history with him. That and a later fight over the fact Zoe agreed with the captain in rejecting one of Wash's ideas drive him to sabotage the shuttle with which they're going to take some of the medicine from the Saint Lucy's heist to a local fence. His price for fixing it is that he and not Zoe will accompany Mal on the mission, which Mal, anxious to get underway, simply agrees to after Zoe bows out.
The two are then captured by Adelei Niska from "The Train Job," who plans to punish them for going back on their deal by torturing them to death. The scenes right after they were captured were good, with Wash trying to deny his obvious fright, while Mal tried to both deal with him and figure out what's going on and how they can escape. The two start an argument, which continues once Niska has begun torturing them, and Niska seems to actually enjoy following their argument, as it means they're not breaking and he might be able to prolong their agony.
After the crew ascertains what happened to them, they pool their money and Zoe goes to Niska's skyplex to offer ransom. Niska offers only one, but is thwarted in his hopes of forcing her to choose when she quickly picks her husband. He then offers Mal's severed ear as "change." On the DVD commentary, Alan Tudyk wonders if she chose Wash just because she knew he wasn't going to last, but her concern for Wash is evident, and she shows no signs of planning a rescue before Wash brings it up. I guess this newfound respect and courage is supposed to be the "real him" brought out by the torture.
The rest of the crew takes up arms to join in the rescue mission. Book's knowledge of things preachers don't generally know is put to good use here, and I like the fact Jayne looks to him in a fight even though the source of that knowledge remains unknown. Sean Maher and Jewel Staite also get props for great acting jobs from the moment their characters decide to join the rescue. In fact, something about this whole show really brought out just how good this ensemble can be. The action sequences were also good.
The problems I have with the show's handling of torture really come out in the ending. Mal was literally tortured to death, then tortured a bit more, and yet still strong enough to fight with Niska's muscular henchman? I simply don't buy it. What's more, while the line about how the captain doesn't have to finish the henchman himself is funny, when you think a minute it shows just how the writers took torture and its psychological effects as a Hollywood cliche rather than a real part of life. Mal stops being human and becomes some sort of superhero whom nothing can stop. Once he's back on the ship, though he's still in pain, as when he tried to laugh and when Jayne slaps him in the torso as he claims Zoe's soup, he's still very much himself. The whole thing seemed disrespectful to actual victims of torture.
Perhaps I'm moralizing about this a bit much, and I admit I tended to be put off by the gruesomeness of some of the torture scenes regardless of any philosophical qualms. Still, the show goes in for its Shan Yu view of torture despite the evidence based in psychology that it does things to people from which they have to recover. Despite the many things it does well, I have to knock it down to 7/10.
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."