I recently came across this article wherein an avid Firefly fan attempts to prove with Science that Wash didn't really die. Spoilers if you want to read it yourself, but the article ends the same way the movie did: Sadly. But maybe that's okay.
I would like to suggest an unpopular opinion. I know the law and I understand that by writing the following words I lose all claim to life and land, that my family will disown me and my friends will forsake me. However, I have as much choice in saying this as the crew did in visiting Miranda:
Wash had to die.
Please put down your pistols and allow me to explain. Note that I did not say Wash deserved to die. Nor do I think his death was a critical plot point (you could argue it had an effect, but at that point in the movie, we're in the climax and the plot was mostly over). And I am certainly not happy that Wash died. As the skinny guy who doesn't intimidate anyone but gets by on being witty and funny, I relate to Wash more than just about any other character. It aches me to see him go.
But he still had to die.
At its core, both Serenity and Firefly are stories about loss. The show begins with a war. As if that weren't a strong enough emblem of death and loss, we learn all too quickly that our heroes are on the losing side. There's valor and honor in their hearts, but they have no land to call home. This isn't a story about David taking down Goliath. Our story begins with every character we know and grow to love being driven from their homes, chased by authorities, beaten and starved. There is no victory here. Only survival.
Firefly may have inspired people the world over, but it is not a lighthearted tale. Every one on board has lost something valuable to them. Mal and Zoe lost their war. Simon lost his family and his home. Even Shepherd Book has lost some very valuable part of his past, though he's cryptic as to what (that tale is explained in a companion comic). Jayne, Kaylee, and Wash may not harp on their specific troubles, but you also know that if they had the means to be more than fugitives, they would. They all dream of living a more comfortable life. Jayne pursues cash, Kaylee longs for fancy dresses and elegant parties, and Wash talks about doting on his wife on a capital world. No one on that boat hates their space-faring family, but they all know they're under pressure and on the run. And they wish they weren't. Oh, and lest we forget River who's experienced a deeper loss than any: control of her own mind.
The sense of loss is almost eerily mirrored in the production of the show. Like the crew of Serenity, the show runners knew they were flying on borrowed time. The show was canceled while it was still in production and many of the episodes you know and love were shot with the knowledge that there would be nothing else. No renewal, no second season, not even a proper finale. There would be no resolution. The series was going to be cut short when it didn't deserve to and no one would make it better. Or at least, that's what was going through the minds of the crew of Firefly as they filmed those last episodes.
Few places is this more evident than in the episode The Message. In the show, Mal and Zoe's old war buddy shows up looking for protection. In the end he dies and they have to take him back to his family, and the episode ends with his funeral. A long and gloomy scene leads to the closing credits.
This scene was one of the last things filmed on the show. By this point, the entire cast and crew knew that they were canceled. While the characters mourned the loss of their friend and comrade on screen, the actors behind them mourned the loss of their show internally. This scene, which depicted the burial of a minor character only introduced for one episode, was so somber and so effective because for the people making Firefly, it wasn't just some scene. It felt real. There's genuine sadness behind the actors' tears and feigned grim faces. In fact, it's hard to say where the acting ends and reality begins.
From start to finish, show to film, the characters and the actors who play them experience loss. The point is not avoiding that loss. The story is about how you deal with it. Every character has their own way. Mal and Zoe get the job done. Jayne hugs his guns. Simon takes care of his sister. Shepherd Book prays. Kaylee smiles. Wash makes people laugh.
There's just one character that still needed to learn how to deal with loss. To go through that natural grieving process that's universally inescapable. One last character that needed to feel that unnecessary, senseless, tragic pain for which there is no justifiable reason. One last person who had to learn to accept their lot, pick up, and move on.
By the end of Serenity, everything for the characters has been trashed. Shepherd Book has died, the ship has been torn to pieces, and the crew's ability to fly under the radar has vanished now that the Alliance has been wounded so deeply by their message. All of these things, however, can be reconciled or justified.
Shepherd Book's death was necessary. It motivated Mal and it proved that the Operative was not an enemy who could be tricked or manipulated. Serenity was thoroughly ruined landing on Mr. Universe's world, but it was for a good cause (and it was patched up later). And while the crew now had a large target on their back that would surely inform how the rest of the story might be told if it ever returned, this wasn't something new to them. Just escalation. Even the cast and crew could rest a little easier knowing that, while their show was canceled, they at least had such a strong fan base that they were able to pull a full-length movie out of the deal. Everything both in the story and out was wrapped up in a nice, neat little bow.
For the tale of Firefly, that wouldn't work. Other stories tell the happy ending. Firefly is about the bittersweet endings. Firefly is not about finding a way to make everything right. It's about continuing on when everything's wrong. Wash didn't die for the movie. He didn't die because Zoe needed motivation to kill Reevers. He didn't die because somehow their sacrifice wouldn't mean as much if someone didn't die along the way (though that is poignant enough of a reason).
Wash died for you.
We don't like it. We hate it, in fact. The series was over and that was bad enough. The movie brought us some small comfort, but if we'd had hope back then that the film might spark a revival, it was snuffed out as soon as that front window was pierced. It wasn't an absolutely unavoidable plot point. Wash's death was a signal that this was it. The ride was over. If there was a chance that Firefly would be coming back, they might have been less reckless about which characters they killed off. Seeing Wash die for seemingly no reason forced us all to experience that void, that sad emptiness that the characters, cast, and crew all felt. We are no longer viewers. We got on this boat for different reasons, but we all came to the same place.
It worked, too. We hate it, but it worked. We all connected with this show, this movie, this story, this universe so strongly that we're still talking about it nearly ten years after the movie premiered. There were fourteen episodes, only eleven of which were even aired in the initial run, and a movie that grossed less than one-fifth the box office haul of Garfield: The Movie. There was absolutely no reason that anyone should still be talking about it, much less that it should be one of the most popular science fiction stories of a generation.
In 2012, Joss Whedon spoke at the 10th anniversary panel for Firefly at Comic-Con. Ten years after the show was canceled, 4,000 fans filled the room to hear what the creator of this beloved show had to say about work that was long since over. The host asked Joss, "What do the fans mean to you?" As you can see in the video above, Whedon found himself unable to speak at first. To which the crowd replied with thunderous, gratuitous applause. No words needed to be said. That bond was there and it was as real as the one the crew shared with each other, both inside the Firefly universe and out of it.
When the crowd died down, Whedon explained what Firefly and what the fans meant to him:
"When you're telling a story, you are trying to connect to people in a particular way. It's not just about what you wanna say, it's about inviting them into a world and the way in which you guys have inhabited this world, this universe, has made you part of it, part of the story. You are living in Firefly. When I see you guys, I don't think the show's off the air. I don't think there's a show. I think that's what the world is like."
Wash's death was tragic. Almost no one disagrees that seeing Wash die was unbearably sad (and for those that do, we would have words). The loss was necessary, though. It brought us in. It made it real for us. Wash wasn't just a character. He was our friend. Losing him made us feel that same hole that everyone else felt. The movie didn't just tell us about loss. It made us experience it.
Now, it's on us to move on. We all want to go back. We all wish we could get just a little bit more. Just a few more episodes. Just one more movie. Just bring Wash back. Unfortunately, we can't. But, like the crew, we have one thing to help us pick up the pieces and keep flying: each other.