Firefly is renowned for its more philosophically hefty episodes, and the third episode, “Bushwhacked”, was the first in the series to really delve into truly dark territory. “Bushwacked” sees the crew of the Serenity coming across an apparently abandoned transport ship in deep space, but the truth of what happened might just be something they aren’t prepared to face. This episode was both directed and written by Tim Minear.
After a pickup game of some sport vaguely related to basketball, the Serenity comes across a ship built to transport families to the outer planets that has apparently been abandoned. On a salvage mission to the ship, Mal and his crew discover that the crew didn’t abandon ship: they were slaughtered. They rescue one man from the carnage, but the savage, unflinching brutality of what he had witnessed the Reavers do to the other passengers on the ship may have shattered his hold on sanity. A chance encounter with an Alliance ship, and a misunderstanding between them, threatens to put everyone on board both ships in danger.
This is the first time when we really get to see what the Reavers are capable of. They were a significant presence and one of the drivers of the plot in the pilot, and while we still don’t see one in the flesh here, we get the impression of what they do, and not just hearsay, and it isn’t pretty. The Reavers, at least at this point in the Firefly universe, are more of a conceptual threat than a physical villain. They are the darkness that lurks within and the bestial nature that we all struggle to keep below the surface. Their mere mention turns Mal, rarely without a quip, solemn, and makes Jayne, typically itching for a good fight, fearful.
This is also the first episode where we get a legitimate look into the Alliance and its workings, and not just the secondhand, and admittedly skewed, opinions from Mal and other crew members. The Alliance is still portrayed in a primarily negative light, being shortsighted, wasteful, prejudiced, etc., but there is shown to be a greater thoughtfulness beneath the veneer. The Alliance hounds the crew of the Serenity unfairly, but they believed, and not without good reason, that they may have slaughtered the people aboard the transport ship. In addition, the captain of the Alliance cruiser is shown to take Mal’s advice, despite the violation of the traditional bureaucratic process after gaining a better grasp of the entire situation.
“Bushwhacked” is an episode that gives a lot of insight into the characters on board the Serenity. Simon, while not a fighter by any stretch, is shown to be one of the more resilient and least squeamish members on the ship. Jayne’s terror at the prospect of even seeing the Reavers’ handiwork indicates much about what makes him tick. Mal’s more overtly compassionate side is shown for the first time towards outsiders, in this case the dead aboard the transport, while his ability to calculate and manipulate those around him is further exemplified in the same instance (an interesting combination).
The entire cast is given room to flex their acting muscles in this episode, and all of them are up to the task. Nathan Fillion does some of his strongest work in the series during this episode when he is confronted with the dilemma of what to do with the survivor of the Reaver attack. Sean Maher’s performance is less stiff than in the previous episodes, as his character is increasingly comfortable aboard the Serenity. The rest of the cast, Baccarin and Baldwin especially, is also superb throughout the episode.
The third episode is a strong one, and the earliest episode to demonstrate the more philosophical bent in this sole season of Firefly. “Bushwhacked” is one of my favorite episodes from the entire series, and maybe the best, as far as I can remember, before the halfway point of the series.