Every Episode Of Firefly Ranked Worst To Best

Though writer-director Joss Whedon may not be who we thought he was, there is no question that his television shows remain widely loved and celebrated. This is especially true of the imaginative sci-fi Western "Firefly," which aired for only 11 glorious episodes in 2002. Most fans wouldn't see the remaining three episodes until the series came out on DVD in 2004. Fox bungled this one, pure and simple.

Fans mourn what might've been the way Independents look back on the Unification War, but there's no profit to be had in wishing things were different. "Firefly" gave us 14 wonderful episodes before flying off quietly into that good night. At least there was a form of closure in the 2005 film "Serenity," and the story goes on in a series of graphic novels. As the theme song says, "You can't take the sky from me."

With that in mind, this piece means to sort the wheat from the chaff. Even a show as excellent as "Firefly" has a few clunkers, though every single episode is entertaining. So we've ordered the episodes from best to bestest. It's time for some thrilling heroics!

14. Episode 13: Heart of Gold

Most Browncoats undertake a regular pilgrimage by rewatching the series. We don't skip any episodes and not just because there are so gorram few of them. Just like there are no bad "Firefly" characters, there aren't any bad episodes, but "Heart of Gold" is clearly the least good of the 14 episodes. Taking place almost entirely planetside, the story involves the crew aiding Nandi (Melinda Clarke), an old Companion friend of Inara's (Morena Baccarin). Nandi runs a brothel, and one of her girls is pregnant by Rance Burgess (Fredric Lenhe), a local muckety-muck who wants to take the child and isn't afraid of using violence to do it. The crew builds up some quick defenses and digs in for Burgess' eventual return. The climactic battle plays out like a low-rent version of "Young Guns."

In true "Firefly" fashion — and what keeps this on the re-watch list — the characters are the highlight, providing several hilarious moments. Many of the best are sight gags. Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin) dresses to the nines when the crew visits the brothel. Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) nervously makes sandwiches while avoiding looking at the scantily-dressed girls. And Wash (Alan Tudyk) is always good for a laugh. When Kaylee (Jewel Staite) looks for reassurance about her appearance, Wash is happy to oblige. "Were I unwed, I would take you in a manly fashion." 

13. Episode 5: Safe

Similar to "Heart of Gold," this episode is more like a straight Western. There are lawmen, horses, and dust-choked towns. There's even cattle and manure. Leaning heavily into the Western tropes isn't enough to push this episode down the rankings, but removing the more interesting sci-fi elements honestly doesn't help. While Mal and the others offload cattle from Serenity and await their buyer, Simon Tam (Sean Maher) and River Tam (Summer Glau) go shopping in a kitschy country store that looks like the one attached to Cracker Barrel restaurants. The Tams later end up abducted by hill folk. Ordinarily, their absence might not be missed (a few would probably take it to be a blessing), but Book gets shot awfully close to his heart, and a doctor would be nice at a time like that.

With Simon missing, Mal (Nathan Fillion) and the others go to the one place they'd prefer not — to the Alliance. The bureaucrats seem content to let him bleed out until Book flashes his ID. And then it's all expedient urgency to get him healed. This is the closest confirmation we ever get that Book had been an important man in the Alliance, but it only serves to deepen the mystery surrounding him. 

Mal eventually rescues the Tams from being burned at the stake. Simon is grateful but baffled. "Captain, why did you come back for us? You don't even like me." Mal's response is brief but says everything about him. "You're on my crew."

12. Episode 12: The Message

Jayne receives a letter from his mom that includes a bright orange knit hat, leading to yet another hilariously inventive bit of dialogue. Jayne says, "Pretty cunning, don't you think?" To which Wash replies, "A man walks down the street in that hat, people know he's not afraid of anything." Exchanges like this one keep people coming back to "Firefly" all these years later and rewatching even the less-than-stellar episodes.

Mal and Zoe (Gina Torres) receive a crate that has a coffin in it. The coffin contains the body of Tracey Smith (Jonathan M. Woodward), an old war buddy of theirs. Tracey wakes up screaming when Simon starts performing an autopsy. It turns out he had his internal organs removed and replaced with artificial ones. That is honestly the most interesting thing about Tracey. He was supposed to transport the organs but decided instead to run off with the product and sell them to someone else. He's basically a drug mule. He posed as a dead guy when he got into trouble and went running to Mal and Zoe for help. However, he ends up betraying them, forcing Mal to put him down. Good riddance. The episode ends with the crew delivering the body to Tracey's parents and frankly, they don't seem all that upset about it.

Honestly, the most interesting parts of this episode are Jayne's new hat and everyone's reactions to it. That is enough to put this above the bottom two episodes.

11. Episode 11: Trash

Referring both to Saffron (Christina Hendricks) as a person and where she eventually ends up, this episode is aptly named. Quite by happenstance, the doe-eyed con artist stumbles into Mal. Neither is happy to see the other, but they both sense an opportunity. Saffron dangles a job with an incredible payday. Given their last job involved transporting dolls with bobbleheads, Mal is all eager, if suspicious, ears. He rightly doesn't trust Saffron, but the money is too good to ignore. Thus begins a rather enjoyable truce, as enemies become temporary allies. There is no question that Saffron will betray Mal — it's foreshadowed by the opening scene, which shows a frustrated Mal sitting naked in the desert — it's just a matter of when and how, giving the episode a delightful undercurrent of tension.

We, therefore, are disappointed, if not surprised, when Saffron gets the jump on Mal and the crew, absconding with both the prize and the clothes off Mal's back, but before we can wonder if the crew should go back to transporting toys, Inara pulls a fast one on Saffron. She'd been hiding in the weeds the whole time, pretending to be annoyed at Mal and off doing her Companion things. Inara doesn't often dip her toes into the crew's criminal activities, but when she does, it's usually to save their bacon. This satisfyingly concludes the Saffron story arc — with the crew on top and Saffron buried in garbage.

10. Episode 6: Our Mrs. Reynolds

This episode begins with Mal riding on a stagecoach while dressed in woman's clothing, and it somehow gets even sillier. Mal, Jayne, and Zoe regulate the outlaws giving a backwater town a bushel of trouble. Always a fair sort, Mal did warn the outlaws, "I swear by my pretty floral bonnet, I will end you." The town throws a celebration in their honor. There's a lot of drinking and dancing, and somewhere amid the revelry, Mal ends up betrothed to a local girl named Saffron. Mal is less than amused to discover he's married. Everyone else thinks it's a riot, though Book is quietly concerned about where it might go. "If you take sexual advantage of her, you're going to burn in a very special level of hell. A level they reserve for child molesters and people who talk at the theater."

Saffron plays a babe in the woods, but has ulterior motives. She manages to get Mal alone and knocks him out with a drug-laced kiss. And then she runs around trying to seduce anyone else who gets in her way. She's kind of a one-trick pony. It's all part of her plan to send Serenity to some scrappers who will pay her for the haul. It doesn't work out that way. The best development is when Inara discovers Mal unconscious. She kisses him on the lips (confirming what we all suspected) and ends up unconscious from the drug, too.

9. Episode 4: Shindig

Badger (Mark Sheppard) needs someone respectable to attend a fancy ball and make contact with a potential client. Mal puts on his best three-piece suit and buys a pink frilly dress for Kaylee, who goes as his date. Kaylee is very much a fish out of water and ends up the prey of a group of socialites who mock her store-bought dress. Still, she ends up charming a group of gentlemen by talking starships and engines and soon, has them fighting over her.

Inara also happens to be at the event — on the arm of a self-important aristocrat named Atherton Wing (Edward Atterton). It hardly seems possible, but he's even more pretentious than his name implies. Atherton is a bit possessive of Inara, to which Mal takes offense. Mal ends up punching out Atherton and in doing so, unknowingly initiates a duel. The men will fight with swords at dawn.

The whole thing draws Mal and Inara's "relationship" into sharp focus. Mal has been openly critical of Inara's profession since the jump and routinely implies she's a "whore," which, given he has feelings for her, doesn't seem like the best strategy for winning her heart. Yet, he feels the need to defend her honor when someone else oversteps. It's hypocritical, and Inara calls him on it, but, alas, the status quo remains. At least Mal gets to stab Atherton a few times. "Mercy is the mark of a great man," and Mal's just alright.

8. Episode 3: Bushwhacked

Thematically, "Bushwhacked" is "Firefly's" most unique episode. While there are still jokes aplenty, the episode is drastically darker in tone than any other and tiptoes into outright horror. "Firefly" typically evokes "Star Wars" by way of "The Princess Bride." This episode is more akin to the creeping disquiet and unsettling body horror of "Event Horizon."

The crew encounters an abandoned ship in space and decides to check for survivors, and failing that, plunder it. It's a literal ghost ship. Everyone is gone, but there is no indication as to why. There is no sign of distress. The ship is fine. A lifeboat was jettisoned a week prior, but it was much too small to accommodate all the passengers. So where is everyone? The crew eventually finds their naked bodies hanging from the rafters of a cargo hold. It was the work of Reavers. There is a survivor, but that's using the word lightly. Everything human about the man is gone. The survivor eventually goes full Reaver, mutilating himself and then killing anyone he comes across. As we said, dark.

The Alliance is initially skeptical of Mal's talk of Reavers and tries to pin the death of the passengers on him and his crew. That holds up until the madman starts cutting on Alliance personnel. Mal helps the Alliance commander hunt down the wannabe Reaver and ends up saving the commander's life, which is enough to buy Serenity's freedom. This episode is our first look at Reavers up close, and it sticks with you.

7. Episode 10: War Stories

In "Firefly's" 10th episode, a villain's threats from Episode 2 finally comes home to roost. Like "Bushwhacked," this episode is one of "Firefly's" darkest. Both feature a madman cutting up people just because he feels like it. In "War Stories," Niska (Michael Fairman) returns to execute his long-promised retribution because Mal chose the right and honorable path by returning medicine to a bunch of sick people.

Wash butts his way into accompanying Mal on a drop. That is customarily Zoe's role, but Wash is anxious to prove his worth and also maybe a little jealous of the relationship between Mal and Zoe. Wash's timing turns out to be really poor, as they are ambushed at the meeting spot by Niska's men and taken to a space station that doubles as a torture resort. The two men are hung by the wrists and bludgeoned, cut, and tased. Mal keeps Wash alive by taunting him about how he means to bed Zoe.

The crew pulls together enough cash to pay off Niska. The psychopath will only part with one and makes Zoe choose. She picks her husband, but since she paid so much, Niska offers a piece of Mal, too, and cuts his ear off. The entire crew, minus River, load up on weapons and storm the station to rescue Mal. It would seem a conflict of interest for Book, but he says the Bible is quite specific on killing. "It is, however, somewhat fuzzier on the subject of kneecaps."

6. Episode 7: Jaynestown

"Firefly" has a few episodes that lean completely into the funny for its own sake category. That isn't to say that character development and plot progression don't happen. "Firefly" is beloved because it can do all three nearly effortlessly. It's just that you might not notice any story developments because you are too busy laughing.

"Jaynestown" is absolute insanity from beginning to end. The crew travels to a planet where the chief export is mud. Jayne has been here before and left behind something of a mess, so he puts on a ridiculous "disguise" that includes enormous goggles and a hood. The crew heads into town to meet their buyer and persuade Simon to pose as a legitimate businessman. He is not very convincing. "I'm looking to buy some mud." On the town's outskirts, the crew discovers the pièce de résistance — an enormous wooden sculpture of Jayne. It turns out that Jayne is a folk hero in these parts. "The hero of Canton, the man they call Jayne." Wash, as ever, has the perfect response. "We gotta go to the crappy town where I'm the hero."

Jayne enjoys carousing off of his fame, even if it is ill-earned. He is celebrated for stealing from the local magistrate and dumping the money over the town, but that was only an accident. Back on Serenity, River "fixes" Book's Bible, scribbling things out and ripping out pages ("Noah's Ark is a problem"). Later she hides from his untamed hair. "Jaynestown" is hilarious insanity and among "Firefly's" best.

5. Episode 2: The Train Job

Chronologically, "The Train Job" should've been the second episode, but Fox wanted their shiny new sci-fi Western to start with a bang and relegated the slower-paced "Serenity" for later in the schedule. "The Train Job" is terrible as an initial episode because it assumes the audience already knows who these people are, but watched in the correct order, it is a thrilling follow-up to the pilot episode that deepens our burgeoning affection for these characters and establishes several subplots that last for the rest of the series.

The crew takes on a job for a crime boss and hobbyist sadist with an Eastern European accent named Niska. Niska makes clear that the penalty for failure is high and happily shows them his nephew who is quite dead and hanging by his ankles in the next room. Per the episode's title, the job involves stealing some cargo from a train. Complications arise. The crew manages to steal the cargo but comes to learn they are stealing medicine from a town that desperately needs it. "Firefly" likes to present its characters with moral quandaries and then show who they truly are by the decisions they make when the cards are on the table. 

Mal resolves to refund Niska's money and return the medicine to the town, even though Niska is a man who neither forgives nor forgets. And because one psychopath isn't enough, this episode introduces the men with the blue gloves who are hunting River. "Two by two, hands of blue."

4. Episode 14: Objects in Space

The final episode is the most River-centric one. For most of the series, River is a ghost, haunting Serenity and occasionally spooking its occupants. She isn't so much a character as a plot device. River was the character most shortchanged by the show's cancelation, but in "Objects in Space," we finally get a true glimpse of what she could've been — if only.

A bounty hunter named Jubal Early (Richard Brooks) has been tracking the Tams since the heist on Ariel and finally catches up with Serenity in the black of space. Early is delightfully eccentric and intelligent. He's also an outright psychopath, which actually sort of normalizes River's behavior and casts it in a new light. Yes, she says nutty things and is often confused (and confusing), but she isn't going to purposefully hurt anyone. Of the many adversaries the crew encounter, Early is easily the most memorable. When Kaylee asks him how he got on the ship — in the middle of space — Early responds, "Maybe I come down the chimney ... Maybe I've always been here." And later, while searching for River, Early pauses to randomly lick a metal pole, as you do.

However, this episode belongs to River. She alternates between taunting Early via the ship's intercom and whispering instructions to the rest of the crew. The episode begins with the crew locking River up because they're not sure they can trust her and ends with them entirely reliant upon her to rescue them all.

3. Episode 1: Serenity

At the risk of starting an inter-franchise argument, "Firefly's" Unification War is like the Clone Wars from "Star Wars." It's better when it only exists in your imagination. On the screen, both are kinda lame. What's most interesting about both fictional wars is how they inform the setting and the primary characters.

"Serenity" is a double-length episode that was intended to be the pilot, as it does important things like introduce the characters and setting. However, Fox famously released the episodes out of order, dropping "Serenity" as the 11th episode, a blunder only surpassed by their decision to cancel the show outright. It starts with a prologue sequence showing Mal and Zoe fighting the Alliance. It's a fine bit of action, but we have no real reason to care. The episode would be better without it. Fortunately, things pick up quickly after the smoke clears.

Everything "Firefly" fans love is here in spades: the crew doing questionable things to make a buck, escape plans cleverly executed (crybaby decoys, crazy Ivan), deals suddenly gone bad, the ever-present shadow of the Alliance, Reavers, and of course, all that wonderful dialogue. "Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal." Above all, we get a sense of who Mal is and, by extension, what Serenity itself is — a haven and a home. The goal is simple, but it's enough. Just keep flying.

2. Episode 9: Ariel

"Firefly" has a few heist episodes, but "Ariel" is the best of them all. Desperate to discover what the Alliance did to his sister — and how to fix it — Simon comes up with an ingenious plan so crazy that it might work. He wants the crew to help him smuggle River into a core world Alliance hospital. In exchange, he will help them steal as many expensive drugs as they can carry. The job requires the crew to pose as EMTs, memorize enough medical jargon to pass muster, and roll Simon and River right through the front door, as the siblings will be made to appear dead. It's a good plan, as Mal grudgingly admits. They accounted for everything — except for Jayne's naked greed.

Jayne sells out the Tams to the Alliance, paying off a plotline that had been simmering practically since the siblings first boarded Serenity. Rather than collect a reward, Jayne is arrested for aiding and abetting known fugitives. The creepy guys with blue hands come to collect the Tams and start melting everyone's brains with a "Men in Black"-type of device. Mal and Zoe arrive in time to rescue everyone. Back home, Mal confronts Jayne, locking him in an outer airlock. Mal tells him, "You turn on any of my crew, you turn on me." This is a turning point for Jayne. It's not quite a full-on redemption arc, but from here on, he became less outwardly hostile and more an actual member of the crew.

1. Episode 8: Out of Gas

Funnily enough, the all-time best episode of "Firefly" is also the most trope-laden. "Out of Gas" begins with Mal in a really bad situation, alone and bleeding out on a ship that is slowly running out of air. We then jump back in time before there even was a Serenity. The episode ping-pongs around like this, showing us flashbacks intercut with Mal in dire straights. It shouldn't work, and yet, these snippets weave together into a beautifully moving story about Serenity and Mal.

A large part of the fun is seeing how the crew found their way to Serenity. It's a bit disorienting when we meet the ship's first mechanic, and it isn't Kaylee. How she finds her way into the engine room is funny. She's not quite as innocent as she may seem. We're not surprised to learn that Jayne had Mal at gunpoint, but Mal offered him a better deal. What is delightful is Wash's terrible mustache, Zoe's immediate dislike for the pilot, and her first reaction to the ship. "You paid money for this sir? On purpose?"

These moments stand in sharp contrast to the serious business of not dying that Mal is dealing with. He sends the crew off in the shuttles and stays behind with the ship. He eventually gets the part he needs from would-be rescuers, who turn out to be pirates. The crew eventually returns against orders, saving Mal's life. Mal loves his crew, and the feeling is mutual.