In this rather Anachronically Ordered episode, Mal attempts to repair the ship after a catastrophic engine failure. While this is happening, dueling Flashbacks explain How We Got Here as well as some Everyone Meets Everyone backstory.
When Mal bought Serenity, it was a wreck. Nonetheless it was love at first sight, despite Zoe's wariness. To get her in working order, Mal hires Wash (whom Zoe hates on sight) and a mechanic named Bester, who turns out to be incompetent. After Bester claims the ship is irreparable, Kaylee (with whom he had just been having sex next to the engine) fixes it in under a minute. She's offered his job on the spot.
Some unspecified amount of time later, Mal and Zoe are doing some crime when a gang tracks them down and demands their loot at gunpoint. Mal is suitably impressed that they were found at all, and Jayne, one of the gang members, takes credit. Instead of revealing where the loot is hidden, Mal bribes Jayne into defecting with a job offer. Mal rents out the shuttle to Inara, who accepts on the condition that he never to walk into her shuttle without permission, or call her a whore. This completes the crew as of the pilot episode, where Book, River, and Simon arrive.
In the present day, a fault in the compression coil (hinted at in the pilot) causes a huge explosion in the middle of Simon's birthday party. The blast injures Zoe and knocks out many of Serenity's functions, including life support and, fairly obviously, the ship's ability to move. Wash tries to stay by Zoe's side while Simon treats her, but Mal demands his help on the bridge, causing two shouting matches. Wash explains that they can't get any help because their course was designed deliberately to avoid contact with anyone, and Mal comes up with a kludge that would extend the signal while also forcing anyone who received it to pay attention.
Kaylee explains that the ship can't be fixed without a new catalyzer, meaning they are dead in the proverbial water. Crew morale dips as the ship gets colder and the oxygen supply deteriorates. Finally, Mal comes up with a last-ditch plan. Four people are sent on each shuttle in opposite directions with orders not to return unless told, leaving Mal on Serenity to wait for help. No one wants to leave him behind, but they eventually acquiesce.
Finally, another ship arrives. The captain is a Jerkass who brings a replacement catalyzer but decides to steal Serenity. Mal takes a bullet defending his ship, but manages to force the thieves off at gunpoint. [The episode actually starts here.] Wounded, he injects himself with adrenaline in the medical bay, trudges to the engine room with the new part, plugs it in, and limps up to the bridge to call back the shuttles. He doesn't make it, but he wakes up on Simon's table anyway. As it turns out, the crew decided to come back for him, in spite of their orders.
Tropes in this episode:
- Bait-and-Switch: Chock full of it. Because of the anachronistic ordering, several transitions end up finishing at another point in time. The biggest one is the salesman's claim that "Take good care of her and she'll last you the rest of your life," heard as Mal is dying. The end of the episode reveals he was actually talking about another (fancier) ship, but Mal turns around and happens upon a certain dilapidated Firefly-class ship...
- Call-Back: Mal really should've listened to Kaylee back during the pilot about that coil...
- Chekhov's Gun: Mal gives himself a Shot to the Heart of adrenaline to keep him going since he helped Simon give Zoe one right after the accident.
- Determinator: Mal is going to get that catalyzer into the engine then reach the cockpit to call his crew back, Gorramit, even with a bullet in him.
- Dying Alone: Invoked by Inara as a Fate Worse than Death... except for, you know, already dying and all.
- Everyone Meets Everyone: We learn how Mal and Zoe met Wash, Inara, Kaylee, and Jayne.
- Everything's Better with Spinning: When the engine isn't spinning, things are bad...
- Explain, Explain... Oh, Crap!: The crew of Serenity is in a dire situation with the life support system failing. They are in a deserted region of space with little chance of any ships wandering around there. Wash has lost all hope, when Mal suggests a way to boost the SOS signal.Wash: What do you expect me to do, Mal?
Mal: Whatever you have to. And if you can't do it from here, then get a suit on and go outside on the side of the boat...
Wash: And what? Wave my arms around?
Mal: Wave your arms around. Jump up and down. Divert the nav sats to the transmitter. Whatever.
Wash: Divert the — right! Because teenage pranks are fun when you're about to die!
Mal: Give the beacon a boost, wouldn't it?
Wash: Yes, Mal, it would boost the signal. But even if some passerby did happen to receive, all it would do is muck up their navigation.
Mal: Could be that's true.
Wash: Damn right, it's true. They'd be forced to stop and dig out our signal before they could even go anyplace.
[beat, Mal waits for Wash to get it]
Wash: [still yelling as if he's angry] Well maybe I should do that, then!
Mal: [yelling back] Maybe you should!
Jayne: [enters the room] What the hell do you two think you're doing? Fighting at a time like this? You'll use up all the air!
- Expospeak Gag: River tries to explain to Simon why she forgot his birthday."'Day' is a vestigial mode of time measurement, based on solar cycles. It's not applicable. (long pause) ... I didn't get you anything."
- Failsafe Failure: The explosion disables both the primary and backup life support systems.
- Going Down with the Ship: Defied in a way only Mal could. He's not staying on the ship as the shuttles leave because of this, he's staying because help will come and someone has to be on board for it. He turns out to be right.
- Good News, Bad News: Happy birthday Simon! We knew because an Alliance warrant had your birthday on it. Oh and cake! It's... dinner with some chocolate-ish frosting on it. Then the explosion.
- How We Got Here: 3 interweaving timelines—the very beginning of Serenity, the beginning of the current predicament, and the present predicament.
- "I Can't Look!" Gesture: The injured Zoe goes into cardiac arrest and Simon has to deliver a Shot to the Heart. Inara flinches away as he slams the needle into Zoe's chest.
- Interrupted Intimacy: In a flashback, Mal storms into the engine room to give his then-mechanic Bester a piece of his mind and walks in on him having sex with Kaylee. Kaylee sorts her clothes out and fixes the engine in nothing flat (having diagnosed the problem Bester couldn't fix while she was having sex with him). Mal fires Bester and hires Kaylee on the spot, and she runs off to ask her dad for permission with the back of her dress still only half-buttoned.
- Irony: Zoe didn't like Wash at first. Must have been the 'stache.
- It Has Been an Honor: Subverted for laughs. Jayne looks like he's going to do this to Mal before he promptly leaves.
- "Not Making This Up" Disclaimer: Shepherd Book is apparently relating a Noodle Incident that happened while he was at the Southdown Abbey on Persephone to much hilarity. We the viewers join Our Intrepid Heroes at this exchange:Zoe: (laughing) No! That is not true. No.
Book: I swear it is!
- Pet the Dog: Jayne goes out of his way to help Mal close all the air vents leading below deck to buy the former time to repair Serenity's engines, and even preps a spacesuit for Mal to wear in case he runs out of air before he finishes the repairs.
- Porn Stache: Wash, at first. This was what Zoe found so off about him.
- Salvage Pirates: A deep-space salvage crew decides they'd rather steal Serenity and kill its crew than make a trade for the one spare part needed to get the ship working again.Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: You know anything that's worth anything's really right here in this cargo bay. So you take a look around, decide what you think is fair.
Other captain: Already have. (gutshots Mal) We're taking your ship.
- Shot to the Heart: Simon, to restart Zoe's heart in the absence of a defibrillator, and Mal, to keep himself going with a bullet in his gut.
- The Worf Effect: An interesting example from Firefly. Mal has to rough up his pilot to get him on the bridge, and Jayne, resident tough guy, is shown being visibly scared of Mal.
- Worst Aid: Injecting anything into the heart. Do Not Try This at Home.
- Written-In Absence: Gina Torres was on her honeymoon with Laurence Fishburne at the start of shooting, so Zoe is injured to provide enough scenes without her to fill up four days of work.
- You Are Not Alone: At the end, when Mal is about to fall asleep, he sits up with a start and asks if they'll be there when he wakes up. Book assures him they will be.