Spoilers: For the series in general- specifically "The Train Job" and "Safe".
Word Count: Roughly 1500
Note: Ai, thanks for being so patient with me- I had a minor emergency earlier this week and... well, better late than never, I suppose. *sigh*
When I first began watching Firefly, I hated Mal Reynolds.
A friend of mine had gotten the show on DVD, assuring me that it would rock my world, so a bunch of us hunkered down in my tiny closet of a dorm room and traveled to outer space.
It was beautiful, watching the show for the first time. We devoured it, watching all 14 episodes in two days--ignoring homework and the world at large. I fell in love with the set, with the place, with the camera angles and Kaylee’s sunny optimism. But I really, really did not like Captain Reynolds.
He seemed like such a hardass, he lacked Wash’s silly charm and Simon’s interesting background. He wasn’t a mystery, just a hardened war-hero who lost his battle, a long time ago.
That was my first impression of him, in the episode Serenity. I thought: “Yeah, I have this guy figured out.” He behaved exactly how I thought he would- until the last five minutes of the show.
In the few moments it took for him to invite trouble onto his ship in the form of a doctor and a crazy girl, and to explain that when he kills someone, he does it to their face, I saw a glimmer of what Mal Reynolds was and what he could be.
There’s something about the look on his face, in that very last shot when his soul is there for the audience to see. He has Serenity, and that’s enough.
That certainly stirred something in me. There must be something more to this man than I thought. There was some connection between him and the other characters that kept them loving him. Which, I assure you, they all do.
So I gave him a second chance. By the third episode, he’d become a Big Damn Hero and had officially stolen my heart. But I still didn’t know why. What made this man so near and dear to me?
Then I forced my younger brother to watch the show with me (who can resist dragging people into fandom?). Not more than ten minutes into the show, he had it figured out.
When the crew of Serenity and its passengers sit at the dinner table with their passengers for the first time, and Mal reprimands Jayne for being Jayne, my brother uttered the words that finally made everything make sense.
“Hey, he’s the dad on this ship!”
Well, that certainly rang a few bells in my head.
But before I go any further, maybe I should spend a minute explaining exactly what Firefly is.
The best way I can think to describe the show is: an edgy spaghetti western set in outer space. Sounds a bit complicated, I know. I think Mal’s opening monologue describes it best:
"Here's how it is: Earth got used up, so we terraformed a whole new galaxy of Earths, some rich and flush with new technologies, some not so much. Central Planets, they formed the Alliance, waged war to bring everyone under their rule; a few idiots tried to fight it, among them myself. I'm Malcolm Reynolds, captain of Serenity. She's a transport ship, Firefly class. Got a good crew: fighters, pilot, mechanic. We even picked up a preacher for some reason, and a bona fide companion. There's a doctor, too, took his genius sister outta some Alliance camp, so they're keeping a low profile. You understand. You got a job, we can do it. Don't much care what it is."
Now, back to that whole dad thing. Don’t misunderstand the sentiment- Mal is no Atticus Finch. Perhaps patriarch is a better word. Whatever the word, Mal is more than just the captain of Serenity.
He’s a complex character he alternates between being carefree and haunted, stone-cold and affectionate, simple and brilliant. Definitely a hard nut to crack. Mal’s a man of opportunity, someone who plays the situation to his advantage. In a way, it’s lucky for the universe that Mal has a deep-seated sense of right and wrong. If he were unscrupulous he could very well have the run of a planet or two.
However, Malcolm Reynolds has very set ideas of what is wrong and what’s just illegal. He has no problem with fleecing the rich, undermining the government, even picking the bones of an abandoned ship. But he has a thing or two to say about screwing over people who are just like him, people just trying to scratch out an existence.
“The Train Job” was aired as Firefly’s pilot episode, though it wasn’t intended to be. It features a train heist by our heroes, though they don’t know and don’t ask what it is they’re stealing. As the plan goes awry, Mal discovers that he was hired to steal medicine from a planet that desperately needs it. Though it’s worth a small fortune and he risks the wrath of his employer (a psychotic torture aficionado called Niske) Mal decides to return the medicine to where it belongs. Of course, the local sheriff has a word or two to say about that:
Sheriff:These are tough times. A man can get a job, he might not look to close at what that job is. But when a man learns all the details about a situation like ours, then he has a choice.
Mal: I don’t believe he does.
And that’s all he has to say. No ifs, ands or buts about it.
Mal has a genuine affection for his crew, especially Kaylee. Something that both seems strange, coming from a man who doesn’t hesitate to throw a man through an engine. There’s a scene in “War Stories” where Kaylee and River play a bit in the cargo bay while Mal and Inara look on. As they race up the stairs, Mal shouts to them- “One of you is going to fall and die and I’m not gonna clean it up!”
That’s love, right there. Okay, so maybe the words are a little harsh, but that’s just part of what Mal is- he’s not really afraid of emotion; he just doesn’t see a need for overt displays. Sometimes, of course, they just slip out- a hug for Kaylee or sharing coffee with Inara.
Here again my first impression of Mal was wrong- I’d thought he’d be the type of man who would be a bit embarrassed doing such things. But Mal shows no sign of anything of the sort, at least not with his crew. His connection with them transcends most any uncomfortableness. That simple fact is another clue, pointing at the “family” aspect of Serenity.
I think that Mal’s most singular trait is his loyalty. When he decides that something is worth it, he hangs on to the bitter end.
Exhibit A, of course, would be the war. Though his side lost, Mal still wears his browncoat uniform with pride. In “Bushwhacked,” Mal is interrogated by Alliance brass- the very men he tries to avoid at all costs, and his colors show true. The exchange goes something to the effect of this:
Commander: Seems odd that you’d name your ship after a battle you were on the wrong side of.
Mal: Maybe on the losing side. Still not entirely certain it was the wrong side.
It just a little example of what Mal’s willing to do for his cause- even to the point of pissing off the people who could get him into serious trouble.
The man’s loyal to his crew, too, though maybe not to their faces. He has plenty of snark to offer Simon, never letting him forget that he’s just one step away from being dropped off the nearest planet and forgotten. But in the episode “Safe,” when Simon and River get themselves lost on a planet, giving Serenity a chance to leave and make their lives just a little easier.
But they don’t. Mal comes to the rescue just in the nick of time. After the rescue, Simon voices what we’re all thinking.
Simon: Captain, why did you come back for us?
Mal: You’re on my crew.
Simon: Yeah, but you don’t even like me. Why’d you come back?
Mal: (exasperatedly) You’re on my crew. Why are we still talking about this?
Mal’s complexity is part of what keeps me watching him, wondering about him, waiting breathlessly for the movie. There’s not an episode of the show that goes by without a surprise from him- whether good or bad.
So that’s the end of the essay bit, and now on to some fun stuff.
First off, some recs:
Childish Things by Kate Elizabeth.
Mal and Kaylee talk- a perfectly balanced Mal- affectionate, but not overly.
Last night at Sally Ann’s by Maystone.
A deal in the dead of night. Brilliant and hilarious.
Transport by Nicole Clevenger.
Just a sharp little insight into what made Mal the man he is.
I was first recc’ed these stories from the website Polyamorous Recs, an excellent site.
And finally, I leave you with this: