ALERT: this is going to contain a number of large SPOILERS for the episode. I'll be putting spoilers in a bullet list, with extra space around them, so you know where to skim, if you haven't seen it.
Starting Things Off
Things kick off pretty quickly, as we're treated to a flashback sequence with Mal and Zoe, outlining their participation in the war. Not only do we get to see their "battle faces", but we also get to see Mal betrayed by his army, his people, his cause, as he faces an utter defeat. We don't quite realize it yet, but this is the moment where he ceased to believe. Next? It quickly flashes to the present, where Mal and Zoe are smugglers. We then quickly move to the next major character, Wash, the pilot. He's...playing with toy dinosaurs, voices included, on his navigation console. These are things we can identify with or at least pity. After this, we meet the energetic and lovable Kaylee, ship mechanic, and shortly after are introduced to the Alliance, the big government group in charge of the whole universe.
Shortly after? Through their dialogue, you get a bit of a profile on the smuggling crew, also how their type of folk live. They're on the run, living on the edge, scraping just by. It's not a pretty sort of life. A final little bit of initial character introduction happens, as we meet Inara, the geisha, and then Shepherd Book, the preacher, and Badger, the distasteful crime boss. There's other characters we meet too, but they come later. All in all, a very colorful group. It's a bit like how RPG groups can form, out of very different and unique personalities and character types. Everyone's different, and they interact in very, very different ways.
Mixing the Pot
This is something everyone should be familiar with: the characters meet, and then engage. Things bump up against each other, and some things don't bump right. Mal shuts the mood down, as does Jayne, and we get to see their not-so-personable sides. Characters develop and display relationships, both new and preexisting. In a roleplaying game? That's easy enough. Encourage players to list strong character traits and relationships to other characters, to think about how they might relate. Have them write it down. Then, suggest scenes to frame these relationships.
There's no hard and fast way to make players do this, but what might help is if you made it clear that you'd like to set aside some time for them to meet up, and get to know one another. Maybe devote half of a session to scenes which might advance relationships. You never know. It's not for every group. This is playing into my grand idea of a "pilot session", which I'll explain later on.
First big spoiler.
- In the midst of a standoff, Kaylee gets shot.
- A good portion of the episode tension is spent in uncertainty as to her fate.
Now, bad stuff happens, and it causes stress to this web of relationships. Why does this take place? Connection. In moments of crisis, emotional involvement and connection are stronger, especially if death is on the line. Not only does it stir this reaction in the viewer, it also instills this reaction in the other characters, too. Everyone acts differently in the face of trauma. What it does, interestingly, is first stress the web of relationships, and then strengthen it, establishing more firmly how everyone relates to everyone else.
Second big spoiler.
- The doctor, Simon, is transporting his troubled little sister
What else is better to bring things to a head than a plot twist? They keep us all on edge, not knowing what to expect. So just as people are getting comfy strengthening their bonds in the face of danger, throw something at them. Things heighten, and then...well...
Third big spoiler.
- They have to deal with Reavers: savage no-longer-humans.
Another plot twist, and things continue to move along. You get the way it goes. Everything comes to a head, with all the plot points intertwining, and the mission getting towards completion. There's a moment of tension, and of character decision, and then everything gets pretty much resolved. Things slow down, and we finish with an emblematic statement, a mission statement for the show: "We're still flying." "That's not much." "It's enough."
Having mentioned all of this, I think it would be a cool idea if GMs ran one session at the start of their campaigns like this, for the sole purpose of getting players to connect with their characters, and also to get the players to connect with one another, in-character. I would summarize it as follows...
- Introduction of characters
- Interaction of characters -> friendship and conflict
- Crisis to set relationships solidly
- Twists to keep engaging characters
- Characters work to resolve problem
So, maybe you ought to try it out. And blast it, I've realized that everything I've described above sounds like it came right out of the Mouse Guard RPG...