I just finished watching the series for the fourth time, but I'm still a newbie (I just got into it a couple months ago). I wrote a blurb/ sloppy essay analyzing the characters and the show. (That's a literature major's idea of fun.) I thought I'd share it.
Characters. The characters on Firefly are some of the most fascinating, complex, motivated, enigmatic, loveable, humorous, and problematic characters in all of the genre. Not only the characters, but their complex and evolving relationships with each other.
Inara: We’re all lost in the woods. The difference [with Mal] is that he likes it.
Mal: No, it’s there that I can see the path.
Captain Malcolm Reynolds
The main character of the series, Mal is a bitter, "mean old man", grumpy and gruff. What takes the edge off of his character is his twinkling eye and inarticulateness. In many ways, he’s a reverse Han Solo. He fought his war, and lost. He’s disallusioned and only wants to the freedom to surrvive. Of course, he can’t completely escape his past, nor his high ideals. That’s the paradox of Malcolm Reynolds. Following a long tradition of the "noble scoudral" in Westerns, he’s an outcast among the outcasts of society. He’s not the greedy, dirty, vile creatures of the underworld that he deals with.
Mals’ most fascinating relationship is with his crew. Mal is extremely patriarchal. That’s why it seems inappropriate for him to have a romance with Inara. Despite his contraditory nature of being both humorously flippant and militaristically gruff, Mal is extremely devoted to his crew. If someone is a member of his crew, that person is family, part of the pack. Because the crew is also a bunch of misfits, sometimes literally fugitives of the outside world, Mal has become their father and protector. Sometimes, things get so bad in both their world and in their psychological states, that all Mal can do is to simply protect his pack. It’s a brutal and horrible world that doesn’t allow for great feats of heroism.
One of the most fascinating relationships in the series is between Mal and his first mate Zoe Washburn. It’s very refreshing to have a deep male-female relationship without any romantic elements. Mal and Zoe are the typical hero-sidekick relationship of deep dependance and admiration. Zoe, as a career warrior, holds such deep respect for her captain, that even though he is very unconventional.
My favorite moment in the entire series is the last moment of "Out of Gas", which is a flashback. Mal is standing on the used-ship lot. At this moment in life, he must be rock-bottom. He’s lost the war, which means he’s lost everything. It’s not like he can leave the country, as the Alliance now controls the universe. The only person he has is Zoe. He has nothing. And then, Mal sees the Firefly at the edge of the lot. And the look on his face is just utterly beautiful. It’s like "he sees a beautiful woman across the room". Because the show is really just about everyone’s love affair with Serenity. From that point, when Mal the Captain sees his ship, he’s going to have a home, a job, and a family. A purpose. That moment just makes me bawl.
Jayne: Book always said, ‘if you can’t do something smart, do something good.’
At first glance, Jayne Cobb is totally not my type of guy. He’s a big muscle head driven by lust for money, among other things.
But damnit, I got a thing for the Hero of Canton.
Basically, he’s just a big teddy bear. Even though it seems as though he’d sell anyone out at the drop of a hat, we see in his reaction to Kaylee getting shot, that he’s as much a member of the family as anyone. We kind of get a reason why he’s so money-hungry when we learn a bit about his needy family. Though Jayne seems like just a hunk of muscle, watching him closely reveals some interesting layers.
Plus, he’s actually smarter than he looks. And he’s really funny. And he’s got a great bod.
Simon is one of the two greatest characters on the show because he’s such a complex mess. He certainly has the greatest character arc on this short series. When we first meet him, we think he’s a bad guy. Even when we realize that he is good, he’s obviously an arrogant, snotty, rich boy and creampuff. He does not belong on Serenity with these Browncoats and outlaws. Simon is very much from an elite and cultured world (the Alliance), which he was only forced to leave very reluctantly. His manners and behavior fit more with Inara than anyone else. Simon’s nerdiness and ineptidue, particularly as a fish out of water, endears him to us and makes him into a tragic character.
But Simon’s defining relationship with his sister River. He is so deeply devoted to her that he becomes quite heroic and sympathetic. Many times, Simon’s devotion to River goes to far, as he’s willing to sacrifice not just himself but others for her safety and benefit. That doesn’t negate that the love between the brother and sister (orphaned by their parents, as well as their world), is extremely beautiful. I love a great story and relationship between siblings.
The tragic thing is that Simon gave up not only his elite and rich life for his sister, but he also gave up his identity as a doctor (which allowed him to help many people), for a life on the run and a foreign world. What he got in return was his sister ("You gave up everything to find me, and you found me broken."), who is extremely troubled. Yet Simon gives River anything. She loves the ship as her freedom from the Alliance that tortured her. Simon sees the ship only as prison that he was forced to by the Alliance (and sometimes he even blames River). Simon is really the only character on Serenity involuntarily. In fact, Simon’s lover/hate relationship with the ship parallels his attraction and distance from Kaylee, who is the soul of the ship.
Simon and River are orphaned by their parents, abandoned by the Alliance that mistreated them for a "greater good". It becomes obvious that these orphaned children are adopted into the family of Serenity, with Mal as their father-figure. And certainly a better father than they ever had.
The episode "Safe" really shows this character development. River says that "daddy will come" for them, but it’s Mal that rescues them. Simon really moves from blaming Serenity and the crew and circumstances, from looking down his nose at the border worlds, and accepts that Mal and the crew are the family and home he never really had. They are the ones that rescue him. Here, Simon realizes that the Core was never good, but that he has the power to do good and "be the hero" on the Border.
She’s cute and perky and cheerful, but she’s just as crude as Jayne. She’s a genius mechanic that sees the ship as an organic, living friend. She crawls around in grease and goes wild for parts, but she loves pretty frills and rich things. That’s the beautiful, deep irony of Kaylee that makes her real. That’s what makes her love Simon, despite their complex and problematic culture clash. She’s a female character in a genre show that is not an ass kicker nor a sex symbol. She’s so real. She’s so refreshing.
Man, I just love her.
Kaylee’s relationship with Serenity is fascinating. Only Mal and River love the ship as much as she does. She sees the ship as their home to her close family. She also feels immense guilt when the ship fails, or she thinks that she’s failed the ship. Kaylee is the soul of the ship, probably the most atuned to it, and the people inside (even if she is a bit trusting and optomistic). This deeply connects her to Mal.
Specific Episode Notes.
"War Stories". "Well, I was in a fire. Actually, I was fired… from a fry cook opportunity." One of the greatest appeals of the show is the relationship between Zoe and her husband Wash. It’s not a likely couple (a warrior woman and a funny man pilot), but they are very married, very devoted to each other, and very concerned with the definition of marriage and how to keep that bond.
This episode is particularly interesting because it investigates the relationship between Wash and Mal, who—although both close to Zoe—are antagonists. They often don’t agree, as Wash leans more toward being a pacifist and "good" guy than Mal. Mal is the Captain of the ship, but Wash flies it.
Zoe is an enigma as a warrior-woman who doesn’t show her emotions or much of a personality, except as Mal’s sidekick, and the times when she smart-allecks like her husband. The episode deals so absolutely with Zoe, while focusing on the two men in her life. Mal is stuck in the middle, but Wash often feels like the third wheel. Wash is jealous of Mal’s relationship with his wife, but Wash is the one Zoe married. This episode is great because, by dealing with that very issue, it makes it absolutely clear that Mal and Zoe’s relationship is platonic, a deep friendship. It’s so refreshing to see that that is possible between men and women.
The big question of the episode: Does Zoe chose to take her husband because he’s her husband (Romantic) or because he’s in worse shape and less likely to survive (Realism)? We never get the answer, and that’s perfect for a show that deals with those warring themes.
This episode is also interesting because it reverses the Mal-crew dynamic, where he usually rescues them. Both Jayne and Simon are clearly confident in their place as members of the crew, with Mal as their Captain.
This episode also establishes a relationship between Kaylee and River, who are opposites. Kaylee is optimistic, Romantic, and a pacifist life force. River is a trained assassin, pessimistic and depressed, Naturalist (instinct). They have a very sisterly relationship. River, for the first time, reveals her bad ass self, but in order to save Kaylee and the ship. This shows River’s dangerous nature, but also her dedication to the ship and crew.
"Ariel". Another interesting and antagonistic relationship is between Simon and Jayne. Jayne is all muscle and little brain, Simon is the reverse. Jayne seems the least moral character, while Simon is one of the most. While Jayne is a tough guy, deep down, it’s obvious that he really cares about protecting others (especially when he might get a monetary reward). But, until "Ariel", Jayne never included Simon and River. In fact, he saw them as a danger to the others. In this episode, both Jayne and Mal are trying to protect the crew. The difference is that Mal sees Simon and River as part of the crew.
Jayne likes helpless women. He reacts especially strongly if Kaylee is hurt or in danger ("Serenity"). In this episode, Jayne sees River through Simon’s eyes, as a pitiful, damaged creature that needs to be taken care of. This is why he feels guilty and almost relents on his plan.
This is a very defining episode, as we glimpse Simon in his own world, the hospital. We glimpse his talent and his abilities, what good he could have done had he sacrificed River (giving us moral ambiguity). In fact, most of the characters are ironically, amazingly gifted and talented, but this doesn’t save them from personal pain, nor does it win them friends or family, but instead ostracizes them from their worlds.
This episode also defines River, as we glimpse the horrors she encountered and how deeply damaged she is. While River is at times comic, and other times a prop (McGuffin or albatross), we are reminded that she is a human being.
"Ariel" has one of the best Jayne moments, defining both his and Mal’s characters. Mal clearly defines his motives: his crew and his ship are all his motivation for everything. He protects them at all costs. Mal is a patriarch of that family. This is also the moment where Jayne realizes that it is no longer a job, that he is a member of a crew and family, and that his place is more than just for the sake of money. This is clear when Jayne—in the face of death—doesn’t want anyone on the ship to think him a traitor.
"Our Mrs. Reynolds". The best part of this episode, besides the comedy and the clever twists, is that it expands on the character of Inara. Saffron stands as a mirror to Inara, who uses romance as her weapon to confuse and exploit people. Inara has the same danger, which makes her a character we can never believe. She can never have a true romantic relationship because of her profession.
"The Message" is one of my favorites because it features Kaylee and Simon. Simon’s inability to woo (and ability to frequently offend) Kaylee drives a wedge between them, as well as Kaylee’s inferiority complex and inability to understand Simon. Simon is "robotic" compared to Kaylee’s bubbling emotion. But we soon learn that Simon is genuine as Tracy (Simon’s mirror) comes aboard.
Like Simon, Tracy rather selfishly brings trouble aboard Serenity. While Tracy is normal and flirty (which Kaylee responds well to), we also realize he’s selfish. While both Simon and Tracy are willing to endanger others (mainly Kaylee), Simon was doing it for his sister. Simon trusted the crew and became one of them. Kaylee realizes that Simon is a better man, though he’s socially inept. That’s why Kaylee takes Simon’s hand lovingly at the end.
"Serenity" (pilot) has one of Jayne’s best moments, when he goes into revenge mode right after Kaylee is shot. (Also, when he watches behind the window, which tells you everything about that character) During that scene, everyone instantly becomes the family and group they will be for the rest of the series.
"BDM" The film allows us to tie up a lot of plot threads. Most importantly, all the characters achieve their character arc. They go from being outlaws and rebels, petty thieves to being big damn heroes. Jayne—quoting Book—says it best with, "if you can’t do something smart, do something good." Mal and Zoe are finally able to win their losing battle.
Style and Themes The show is a fascinating and original show, a blending of many themes and clever styles, most of which are clearly American. Although I love all forms and cultures of art, I have to say that American literature (on the page and screen) has a special place in my heart because it was my concentration in college. There are some great themes in American art, most particularly in the Western and Film Noir. Both are shown in Star Wars and Firefly, as space sagas are the late 20th Centruy's version of the Western (i.e. the frontier). These themes often concern characters that are outcasts from the structured, oppressive, flawed civilization (which concerns responsibilty). These outcasts are fugitives and outlaws, breaking social mores and social rules. And yet, they live by their own moral code, even if it means excessive violence. For instance, Huck Finn will go to hell for Jim, Mal will kill to save his crew. In this respect, they hold an almost higher morality than society can provide (can you be truly good if you fear punishment?). The existential and pessimistic Film Noir turn is that the characters get no rewards in this moral fight. They won't win; they are fighting a losing battle; and they'll even lose each other. The only reward is the code itself.
One of the first things you’ll notice about Firefly is the mixture of Western and Eastern culture, mainly Chinese and American. The language is just slightly off-center. It invents it’s own slang ("rutting" and "gorram"), as well as incooporating Chinese into the dialogue.
This is also obvious in the outstanding costumes that mix old Western clothing (long coats and tall boots, hip gun holsters, white shirts and vests, particularly Simon) with modern clothes (t-shirts and carpenter pants) with Eastern styled clothes (Inara’s giesha gowns). This is also reflected in the extremely clever set designs (Tiffany lamps and draperies, Chinese lanterns and lamps with hanging chandeliers). If it weren’t for a spots of advanced technology, we’d think we were in our dirty, old world.
Firefly, according to Joss Whedon, was inspired by a novel about the Civil War and his love of losers. The Western culture (i.e. the frontier) coupled with the Civil War aftermath culture provides a fascinating, and completely American series, which strongly appeals to me and my American literature degree.
First, look at the Civil War. The Fireflyverse is divided in two. First, there’s the urban, rich, "enlightened" Alliance that had all the power to make everyone behave. Their hypocracy is that they ignore the needs of the Border worlds, denying food, medicine, and other supplies to their conquored. Their flaw is forcing their enlightenment onto others through force rather than spending their energies on enlightening the people through supplies and knowledge, civilization. This ritualized, cultured, and rich society is the home of Inara (the legal hooker), Book (the preacher), and Simon and River, who show that the Alliance’s goodness is only skin deep, as they are willing to do great evil for the greater good.
The second half of this ‘verse is the Border or formerly Independent worlds. Like the Civil War, they are concerned mainly with the themes of freedom. Their ways may be morally wrong, but they believe that they should have the freedom to keep those ways. The Independent worlds lost and losing battle, and are now under Alliance control. This is a rural, savage, wild landscape, full of theives and peasants, farmers and pirates, outlaws. This is the world of Mal, Zoe, Wash, Jayne, and Kaylee.
The War for Unification (the Civil War) is most important to Mal and Zoe, who actually fought in it. "It may have been the losing side, but I’m still not convinced it was the wrong side," says Mal. The problem is that, although Mal and Zoe would fight and die to protect their freedom, they also do not necessarily approve of these cultures (i.e. slavery, murder, mistreatment of women, inethical practices, etc.). Mal is a lot like Gen. Lee, who fought for his home state, but who did not support slavery or secession. While Mal and Zoe are now "just folks" trying to make their way in the ‘verse, trying to get enough money to surrive, they still follow an older code of honor. The Romanticism of these cultures (though still shown in the duels and balls and frills of the elite Alliance) is broken with the Naturalism of a culture that lost the war. But Mal, particularly, still does the stupid, though honorable thing, frequently, such as protecting Simon and River or returning stolen goods to those that need them. Deep down, Mal is still fighting the war against the Alliance.
Mal (and his crew) deal with these warring cultures and themes, but they are really outsiders. They are "men of honor in a den of theives". Mal and Zoe are like Film Noir or Western characters, dealing with the dregs and trash of society, but never being apart of them. They are too noble and follow a code of honor. Greed might motivate them, but it does not rule them. Even Jayne, the most brutal and selfish character, sends his money home to his mother and ailing brother.
This is also true of the Alliance characters: Simon, River, Book, and Inara. While it is obvious that they hold onto the Romantic ideals of the Alliance world (such as courtly codes of manners and conduct), they have viewed its hypocracy. Simon has seen what the Alliance did to his sister for their own benefit. Book slowly begins to realize that religious mores and rules don’t mean much when it allows others to starve or die. Even Inara realizes that her job is really a distortion of the most human relationship, which really symbolizes the Alliance as a whole: a lying love.
In fact, most of the characters have been institutionalized (a monostary, the Academy, the hospital, the army, small home life, etc.), but—for various reasons, most involuntary—have been forced to abandon them. Now, they "walk in the world for a spell", but find that that’s too harsh for outsiders. Instead, they find a home, or sanctuary on Serenity. They are outlawed among outlaws, outlawed from the authorities. They even have trouble with each other. But it’s a family bond, a bond of necessity, that keeps them together.
These issues and themes are presented in "Shindig", where Inara and Mal visit each other’s worlds, and a violent clash ensues. Mal’s fight for Inara’s honor is ironic, but shows the gray areas of the two cultures. Mal’s world doesn’t respect Inara’s job as a companion, but he respects her as a person. Mal will fight for her honor, which is a Romantic notion, but he wouldn’t kill someone except for a good reason. Mal also doesn’t follow the gentlemanly rules of engagement, making him strong, yet clumsy, real, yet not necessarily honorable.
Simon and Kaylee’s relationship also shows this problem. Kaylee likes Simon because he’s from that world, but she cannot relate to his distant and elite manners (his ideals of courtly love). Simon likes Kaylee, but he still doesn’t like the fronteir world that she represents. He cannot yet come to terms with the freedom provided within. This is seen strongly in "Jaynestown", where Simon swears, gets drunk, compliments Kaylee for the first time, and also pulls away fearfully.
The other, truly American themes presented in the series is right from Westerns, the idea of the frontier versus civilization. It’s not just the moral or culture clashings of the Alliance and the Border planets. It’s the idea that the rural frontier provides more freedom than the urban areas and their law and order. With so much freedom, crime and theives reign. It’s anarchy. But with anarchy, comes heroes that follow an internal moral code, making them more good and more heroicly noble because of they are good despite the bad around them.
The ship is named Serenity, which reflects the sanctuary nature of the ship. Also, it is named after the most crushing defeat of the War for Unification, the battle that was a losing battle. But the Browncoats fought with everything they had and did the best they could, and they still fought. That’s the point of the show. Very optimistic though pessimistic. Fatalistic, yet Romantic.
The other main theme of the show also has to do with the ship, particularly as a home to the family/crew. Mal and the others are in a harsh and hard world with problems too big to handle. So he (and the others) focus only on each other and protecting their own. That means that they have to do a lot of terrible things (steal and kill), but it’s what they have to do to survive mentally and physically. The bonds that hold them together provide the essential rule to their existance: preserve the crew. This allow these characters, in their dark and dangerous, corrupt and Naturalistic world, to control the little they have. Do what you can for "yours".
1. Out of Gas
3. Objects in Space
4. The Message