Out of Gas is unique in the sense that it’s told in anachronistic order. I’ll start with what I call “present day”:
The episode starts out with shots of an empty Serenity, which already tells the audience that something is wrong. Just as we start to wonder where everyone was, we see Captain Mal Reynolds collapsing onto the floor of the cargo hold.
The episode then flashes back to the crew of Serenity sharing funny stories around the dinner table and celebrating Simon’s birthday, when all of a sudden there’s an explosion from the engine room. The explosion knocks Zoe out and disables the life support and auxiliary power. To make things worse, they’re flying under the radar which meant that finding help is next to impossible. Kaylee explains that the ship can’t be fixed without a certain part, meaning that they are proverbially “dead in the water.” Mal tells everyone to evacuate the ship while he waits for help.
A while after everyone leaves, another ship arrives, but unfortunately, the people who have that part that Mal wants turn out to be scavengers and not good Samaritans. Mal manages to get them off and get the MacGuffin, but collapses.
And now we’ll move on to the scenes where Mal’s life flashes before his eyes.
Mal bought Serenity with Zoe, back when the ship was in a supposedly dilapidated state. Zoe is wary of it, but clearly she’s never seen home makeover shows. Mal hires Wash to be the pilot and a mechanic named Bester. Zoe does not like Wash, which again makes me wonder how the two got together in the first place. Later on, we find the mechanic Bester in flagrante delicto with Kaylee in the engine room.. Bester said that engines make her hot. Mal points out that the ship needs to get off ground because they’re behind schedule. Kaylee, mechanical genius that she is, points out the problem and gets hired on the spot at Bester’s expense. Some time later, Jayne gets recruited to the team when he and a band of robbers take Serenity at gunpoint and Mal bribes Jayne into turning to their side, offering room and board and more money. Finally, Inara is taken onto the ship, citing that her status as a Companion will create a sense of credibility and status. She asks for 3 things: complete autonomy, that Mal never walks into her shuttle without permission, and that Mal never calls her a whore. Well, 1 out of 3 ain’t bad, right?
Going back to the present day, Mal is able to give himself enough adrenaline to get the MacGuffin into the engine room and get the ship running again, but passes out before he can send a call to the shuttles to return to the ship.
The next thing we see is Mal waking up in the infirmary and I start wondering if we’re watching the end of Inception because Zoe supposedly regained consciousness and ordered both shuttles to return to the ship, thus saving Mal’s life. Too bad we never see that scene and are left guessing whether or not Mal and the rest of the crew died and the rest of everything is just an afterlife thing. I’m not gonna say I hate you, Joss Whedon. Not yet. I’m saving that for later. For now, I’m gonna roll my eyes and roll with the punches.
This was not an easy episode to analyze. This episode runs on backstory, which doesn’t lend much to finding themes or questions about morality. But then this old adage came to me: “God draws straight with crooked lines.” Also known as “everything happens for a reason.”
Synchronicity, as defined by Carl Jung, is “two or more events that are meaningfully related, but not casually related,” a coincidence that actually means something.
One can also argue that synchronicity is another way of saying “divine providence.”
At the end of the episode, we see that Mal originally looked at a large rocket-type ship before choosing Serenity. We also learn that Wash and Zoe weren’t a case of “love at first sight” and Kaylee only came onto the crew by chance. Jayne joined the crew because there would be more money and better service, Inara joined the crew because they needed her as much as she needs them and the pilot shows that everyone else on the ship started out as passengers.
But eventually, we see what all these moments lead up to: Zoe eventually gains a husband, Jayne gets to act as the crew’s enforcer and muscle, Kaylee gets to do what she loves for a living (working with mechanics, not the other thing; get your mind out of the gutter), Inara has a sense of independence, the Tam siblings find refuge, and Shepherd Book gets a home. What does Mal get out of it? He gets a family.
I think it’s fitting that the first flashback we see in the episode is when everyone’s gathered around the table exchanging stories and celebrating Simon’s birthday. They’ve come a really long way from how things started.
He’s “out of gas” at the beginning of the timeline, searching for somewhere to anchor himself. The ship is what he finds. But through the course of the episode, as we see everyone coming together (and eventually, his efforts to protect them all as the ship *seems* like it’s deserving/betraying him), we come to realize that it’s the people on the ship that really anchor him. The real “solid ground.”
So instead of taking the idea that everyone died, I’d like to think that Providence came in to turn things around for Mal. After all, there are bigger things that the crew of the Serenity has to face.