Wash is a little irked by the bond Mal and Zoe share. She has known Mal for longer than she's known Wash; she trusts him implicitly, she follows his orders almost without question, and they are often recounting war stories from their time spent working together. This twinge of jealousy comes to a head just as the crew is almost finished fencing the medical supplies from the Ariel job. Mal and Zoe intend to make the rendezvous together, but Wash intervenes and forces Mal to take him along instead.
On the other side of the planet in an orbiting space station, Adelai Niska finds out from a source that Malcolm Reynolds is nearby. He dispatches a team, who kill Mal's buyers and take him and Wash hostage. When the pair don't return to Serenity on time, Zoe, Jayne, and Book check the scene and are able to discern exactly who took them. Zoe decides to pool together everyone's extra money in an attempt to buy back their men from Niska, and flies to the station to conduct the deal personally.
Meanwhile, Wash and Mal argue in Niska's torture room, with particular emphasis on Zoe's unconditional support of Mal's decisions. Mal objects, saying that she married Wash against his direct order. Niska arrives to begin the torture session, and Mal realizes that if he can keep Wash angry at him and engaged in the argument, he will have a better chance withstanding the pain.
Zoe arrives and offers Niska the deal. He says that the sum is too small to release both men, but his Sadistic Choice is cut short when Zoe picks Wash in half a second flat. Out of spite, Niska sends her back with Mal's left ear. Wash praises Mal's resolve and tireless anti-torture argument therapy, and Zoe plots her next move.
The crew stages an attack on the space station, led by Zoe and Jayne and held up in the rear by Book, who shoots out soldiers' kneecaps to disable them non-fatally. Wash plays a role by flying Serenity into the station airlock with the engines off, avoiding sensor detection. Simon and Kaylee also attempt to help in the firefight but are rather useless with firearms. Kaylee is pinned down by three soldiers, only to be saved by River, who glances briefly at them, closes her eyes, and fires three times, killing them all. The attack is sufficient to draw out Niska's assistants, giving Mal the opportunity to escape. Niska gets away, but so does the crew, and Simon is able to reattach Mal's ear without lasting harm.
This episode contains examples of:
- Actually, That's My Assistant: Big man steps onto the ship. Inara's client? Nope, that's the bodyguard. She steps on a moment later.
- All Amazons Want Hercules: Averted. This is a big contention point between Wash and Zoe (and Mal) at first though.
- Almost Kiss: Played for Laughs between Mal and Zoe at the end of the episode. Wash, however, is not amused.
- Apology Gift: The crew of Serenity are surprised when Jayne buys them an expensive bushel of apples. Only Mal is aware it's a belated apology for betraying them in the previous episode.
- A-Team Firing: Let's just say marksmanship is not in medical school curriculum in the future.
- Badass Boast:
- Cold-Blooded Torture: They even resuscitate Mal just to keep the torture going.
- Dramatic Gun Cock: Played for Laughs when Wash cocks a tiny pistol rather dramatically.
- Electric Torture: Attempted. Mal and Wash are too busy arguing though.
- Feed It a Bomb: Zoe cuts up all her apples after seeing an example of this during the war.
- Finger in the Mail: Wash and Zoe watch Mal's ear get cut off, but when the rest of the crew opens the napkin up they understandably freak the hell out.
- Friend Versus Lover: Mal and Wash's subplot in a nutshell. While present-day Mal thinks Wash is being ridiculous, he admits the idea of his old war buddy getting married took some getting used to.Mal: There's plenty orders of mine she didn't obey.
Wash: Name One!
Mal: She married you!
- Girl-on-Girl Is Hot: Jayne gets horny watching Inara and her female client.
- Guns Akimbo: Zoe pulls this on one of Niska's goons during the big rescue mission.
- Happy Fun Ball: Zoe explains why she always cuts her apples up with a knife before eating by telling a story from the war. They were in trench warfare, and were running low on food. Their lack of food came up while talking with the enemies in the other trenches, and shortly afterwards apples started falling into their trenches. Apples with micro-grenades in them.
- I'll Be in My Bunk: The Trope Namer. Jayne's reaction to Inara bringing a female client aboard Serenity.
- Insulted Awake: Mal keeps Wash awake during a torture session by escalating their argument.
- Knee-capping: Book's quite good at this despite refusing to kill.
- Mood Dissonance: You ever laugh through a Cold-Blooded Torture scene before? There's an undercurrent of seriousness, sure, but it's also dang hilarious.
- Neutral Female: Subverted with Mal's fight with a torturer, while Zoe initially tries to stay out of it:Zoe: Jayne. This somethin' the Captain has to do for himself.Mal: No! No, it's not!Zoe: [surprised] Oh. [shoots the torturer]
- No Sparks: Played for laughs. Jayne finds Mal and Zoe's "flirting" downright unsettling to watch.
- Platonic Life-Partners: Mal and Zoe.
- Pre Ass Kicking One Liner: Mal offers one to Niska:Mal: Looks like business ain't running so much as crawling away. You wanna meet the real me now?
- Precision F-Strike: Shepherd Book makes one when Simon reveals the ear that Niska cut from Mal's head. It's the only time that Book throws profanity out loud in the entire series. It must have been good since it could only be delivered in Chinese.
- Sadistic Choice: Subverted: It seems that Niska wanted to drag this out. Zoe chooses Wash before Niska can even finish the question.
- Shoot Everything That Moves: Unless it's the captain!
- Shut Up, Hannibal!: Zoe deprives Niska of his speech when she chooses to save Wash instead of Mal.Zoe: Him. Oh, I'm sorry, you were going to ask me to choose, right? Do you want to finish?
- He then proceeds to cut off Mal's ear, purely out of spite.
- Storming the Castle: The entire crew goes in to save Mal. The non action-y ones aren't quite so helpful though.
- Strange Minds Think Alike: Both Shepherd and Niska mention the writings of Shan Yu (even the same context) independently of each other.
- They Wasted a Perfectly Good Sandwich: Zigzagged. At the end of the episode, Zoe makes Wash a much anticipated pot of soup. They leave for their bunk without him ever touching it, but Jayne is all too happy to swoop in and finish it off.
- This Is Something He's Got to Do Himself: "NO! NO IT'S NOT!" "Oh." [cue hilariously overkill hail of bullets]
- Torture Is Ineffective: Mal more or less laughs off Niska's torture because he's The Determinator, and also distracts Wash by arguing with him about Zoe to keep him from breaking.
- Unresolved Sexual Tension: Wash believes this happens between Mal and Zoe, calling it the "guy she never slept with thing". The whole idea is skewered at the end of the episode.
- Villain: Exit, Stage Left!: Niska pulls one of these, slipping past an enraged Mal and the remainder of Serenity's crew while his henchman are busy dying.
- What You Are in the Dark: Essentially Shan Yu's philosophy: the only way to truly know a man is to torture him and threaten him with a painful death. Simon dismisses it as the justification of a sadist who just wanted to hurt people, but, interestingly enough, both Niska and Book seem to subscribe to the idea to varying degrees. When Niska has finally put Mal through enough, he's terrified to meet the real Mal.Mal: Looks like business ain't runnin' so much as crawling away. You wanna meet the real me, now?!
- Yank the Dog's Chain: In the last episode, the crew pulled off a huge heist and made a substantial pile of money. In this one, most of it goes toward paying Niska's ransom.