Mal, Zoe, and Jayne find themselves between jobs in a dirtside bar on an unnamed "little moon" during a celebration of the Alliance victory in the Unification War. Mal, a veteran on the losing side, goes to pick a fight with one of the drunk Alliance supporters, which quickly escalates until Serenity has to rescue the crew from the entire bar. Mal travels through the ship, checking its flight-readiness, and establishing each of the characters set up in the missing pilot episode.
Mal and Zoe meet with a crime lord named Adelai Niska, a vicious and feared crime boss who is nonetheless willing and able to pay for good help. He outlines a plan to steal unspecified but valuable cargo from a train on an outlying world.
The two board the train without incident while Serenity moves into position for its role in the heist. Once onboard, however, they discover a squad of Alliance infantry is sharing the train with them. Zoe suggests calling off the mission, but Mal notes that the soldiers are nowhere near the cargo, and they press on, with the added incentive of humiliating the Alliance. They enter the cargo car and booby-trap the door before opening a hatch on the car's top. Serenity moves in overhead, pacing the train as Jayne is lowered on a cargo winch. As they work to attach the crates to his harness, an Alliance soldier enters the car and triggers a smoke trap. Jayne is injured in the ensuing firefight, but he and the cargo are winched safely back to Serenity, and Mal and Zoe make it back to their passenger compartment under cover of smoke.
The train is stopped at the next town, Paradiso, while the Alliance soldiers try to reason out the theft. Inara arrives with a cover story to free Mal and Zoe of suspicions, but not before they meet with the town sheriff, who mentioned that the stolen cargo was medical supplies, intended to alleviate a wasting disease plaguing the area.
Meanwhile, on Serenity, Jayne tries to pull rank and take the ship off-world, intending to collect payment and leave Mal and Zoe to their fates. The rest of the crew disagrees, and Jayne threatens to use force if he has to. Before he can make good on his threat, though, he collapses, and Simon reveals that he dosed Jayne with sedatives while patching his wound. Wash proposes a new plan, settling the ship down in a small valley while Inara goes to find Mal and Zoe.
When he returns to the ship, Mal announces his plan: he will return the medicine to Paradiso and refund Niska for the advance he paid on the mission. However, they are attacked by several of Niska's enforcers, including his lieutenant Crow. The enforcers are defeated in a gunfight, and Mal and Zoe set off to return the supplies. Before they reach Paradiso, the sheriff and a patrol run across them; the sheriff lets them go, however, when he realizes they intend to return the supplies anyway.
Back at Serenity, Mal instructs Crow to return to Niska with the money. Crow refuses and threatens to hunt down Mal, so Mal kicks him into Serenity's engine intake, and repeats the offer to a more receptive enforcer. The remaining enforcers leave, and Serenity is clear to take off.
Closing the episode is a scene on an Alliance warship, where two mysterious Men in Black wearing blue gloves ask the captain about River's whereabouts.
Tropes in this episode:
- Accidental Aiming Skills: When Niska's men and the Serenity crew are fighting, Crow has the upper hand on Mal and seems to be about to finish Mal off when suddenly a shot takes out Crow's knee. Mal looks around and sees Jayne, still doped out of his mind but having made the shot nonetheless, and Mal compliments Jayne on it. Jayne just replies that he was actually aiming for Crow's head.
- Belligerent Sexual Tension: Inara chooses to transition between Mal's cover story and her cover story by slapping him. Notably, she has trouble keeping a grin off of her face when he brings it up afterward.
- Cold-Blooded Torture: Niska's specialty. He even has a torture chamber right outside his office!
- Cutting the Knot: Crow refuses to take back money from Mal for a job they couldn't complete, instead telling them how he'll come after them until he kills them all. Rather than create a Recurring Boss, Mal kicks the guy into the turbines of his spaceship. When they bring the next mook over to the same spot and restart the process, the mook immediately agrees to do whatever Mal says.
- Double Caper: After Mal discovers that the cargo he stole for Niska is vital medicine, he and his crew have to fight off Niska's men to return it to the town.
- Establishing Character Moment: If you go by the order in which the episodes were initially aired, this one has a ton, given that this was the aired pilot.
- Mal and Zoe get theirs first, starting a fight in an Alliance-friendly bar just for the hell of it. Turns out, according to Zoe, this is an annual thing.Zoe: Funny, sir, how you always find yourself in an Alliance-friendly bar come U-Daynote , "looking for a quiet drink".
- Jayne's, which comes after he claims he's not going to join the bar fight:
- Wash comes to the rescue afterwards, establishing himself as an ace pilot with a sense of humor. "Every man there go back inside, or we will blow a new crater in this little moon!"Jayne: Damn yokels can't even tell a transport ship ain't got no guns on it! "Blow a new crater in this moon." Hah!
- Simon and River are introduced next; River is portrayed as a slightly quirky savant who has flashbacks of unknown medical experiments. Simon is shown to be a caring and protective older brother.
- Next is Book, gently attempting to convince Mal that he's more moral than he claims.
- Last come Inara and Kaylee, establishing the Companion's big-sister dynamic with the mechanic and her argumentative relationship with Mal. Kaylee's crush on Simon is touched upon, as is her knowledge of the compression coil, showing that she cares about Serenity's health more than Mal does.
- Mal and Zoe get theirs first, starting a fight in an Alliance-friendly bar just for the hell of it. Turns out, according to Zoe, this is an annual thing.
- Expospeak Gag:Drunk: I'm thinkin' yer one o' them independents.Mal: And I'm thinking you weren't burdened with an overabundance of schooling.
- Foreshadowing: As in the other pilot, Kaylee chides Mal about replacing the faulty compression coil which will cause trouble in "Out of Gas." Meanwhile, another early hint that Book is more than he seems comes when he recognizes Niska's name and reputation.
- Heel Realization: Mal learning that the cargo was vital medical supplies.Mal: Son of a bitch.
- Henpecked Husband: Niska is a Black Comedy example.Niska: [points to the man being tortured] My wife's nephew. At dinner I am getting earful.
- Honor Before Reason: Once Mal learns the truth of the stolen cargo.Sheriff Bourne: You were truthful back in town: These are tough times. A man can get a job, he might not look too close at what that job is. But a man learns all the details of a situation like ours, well... then he has a choice.
Mal: I don't believe he does.
- Indentured Servitude: The first time in the franchise the practice is mentioned is when Inara claims Mal is her runaway indentured man to extricate him and Zoe from Sheriff Bourne's custody.
- Info Dump: A fair amount of the dialogue qualifies, as the episode had to introduce all the regular characters and provide an action-packed story all in the space of 45 minutes.
- Intimate Hair Brushing: Inara is brushing Kaylee's hair in her shuttle. Kaylee clearly admires Inara's glamorous beauty and enjoys her attention. They have a lovely friendship with big sister/little sister dynamics.
- The Last Thing You Ever See: Subverted. Gloriously.Crow: Keep the money. Use it to buy a funeral. It doesn't matter where you go, or how far you fly. I will hunt you down, and the last thing you see will be my blade.
Mal: Darn. [kicks Crow into Serenity's engine intake]
- Make an Example of Them: Mal tells Crow that he's giving him back all the money Adelai Niska advanced them for the job and that they'll stay out of his way from now on. Crow tells Mal that the last thing he'll see is Crow's blade. Mal kicks him into Serenity's engine intake and brings over the next guy, who falls over himself to agree before Mal can finish offering the deal.
- Mr. Exposition: As mentioned, most of the characters share this role, but Book stands out with his recap of how he, Simon, and River came to be on the ship, working it into his conversation about Mal's morals while avoiding overly clunky dialogue.
- Non Sequitur, *Thud*: It takes longer than Simon expected for the sedative he gave Jayne to take effect. Jayne trails off in mid-sentence, rambles a bit about the lights from Wash's console shining like little angels (or something), then faceplants.Wash: ...did he just go crazy and fall asleep?
- Not What I Signed on For: When Mal and Zoe discover that the supplies Niska hired them to steal are badly needed medicine for a degenerative disease, they back out of it, return Niska's money to his henchmen, and deliver the medicine to the town where its needed.
- Oh, Crap!: Mal and Zoe when they enter a traincar filled to the brim with armed Alliance soldiers. And later, when they realize the cargo they just stole is badly needed medicine.
- Reality Ensues: After aborting a hired theft, Mal offers the employer his down payment back, no harm no foul.
- Crow: Keep the money. Use it to buy a funeral. It doesn't matter where you go or how far you fly. I will hunt you down, and the last thing you see will be my blade!Mal: Darn. *kicks him into an engine*
- He then proceeds to get another mook, who is... much more reasonable. But the crime boss hunts him down anyway.
- Shoot the Dog/Shoot the Messenger: Crow is kicked right into Serenity's engine intake by Mal.
- Shut Up, Hannibal!:Lund: The In'e'pen'ents were a bunch of inbred, cowardly piss-pots. Should've been killed off of every world spinnin'.
Mal: [turns] Say that to my face.
Lund: I said you're a coward and a piss-pot. Now what are you gonna do about it?
Mal: [smiles] Nothing. I just wanted you to face me so she could get behind you.
[Lund turns, and Zoe knocks him out with the butt of her rifle]
- And then there's Mal's response to Crow's threat...
- Sympathetic Inspector Antagonist: Sheriff Bourne. He nearly catches Mal early on (thwarted only by the intervention of Inara), and after cornering Mal, he decides to let him go when he sees that Mal was in the process of returning the stolen cargo, having learned that it was actually medicine needed to alleviate the villagers' debilitating lung disease.
- This Is Gonna Suck:
Mal: Whoa! There's just an acre of you fellas, ain't there? [to Zoe] This is why we lost, you know. Superior numbers.
- Mal has this reaction when he realizes that he has just revealed himself and Zoe to be former Independence Soldiers to a bar full of patriotic Alliance patrons.
- Zoe has a sort of retroactive one later, after they've been chased out of the bar and are standing by the edge of a cliff while still being confronted by dozens of angry brawlers.
- Train Job: Right there in the title. The Trope Namer, in fact.
- True Companions: Established through Mal and Zoe's seamless transition from cover story to cover story when Inara shows up to get the two out of the sheriff's station.
- Turbine Blender: How Mal disposes of Crow.
- Undercover as Lovers: When they are questioned by a local sheriff, Mal decides on the spot that a married couple looking for a job will be the best cover-up story for him and Zoe.Mal: Whatever happens, remember that I love you.
Mal: Because you're my wife.
Zoe: Right, sir. Honey.
- Villain: Exit, Stage Left: Subverted when Crow mistakenly thinks he's going to get this treatment. Instead, he gets to know one of Serenity's engines in a very personal and intimate manner.
- What You Are in the Dark: Mal gets a good one.Sheriff Bourne: You were truthful back in town. These are tough times. A man can get a job. He might not look too close at what that job is. But a man learns all the details of a situation like ours... well... then he has a choice.Mal: I don't believe he does.
- You Have Failed Me: Niska has a reputation for this, which he demonstrates by showing Mal his own nephew being strung up and tortured in his office.Niska: Now you know my reputation is fact. Is solid.