Newsflash: the Firefly guys were villains

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Update: I’m told there was Cracked vid posted late last year that covered this same topic. And here I was thinking I was being all original and shit. Tune in next week when write a 70,000 word thesis about how the rebels in Star Wars were the bad guys in Return of the Jedi only to find out Kevin Smith did that shit back in 1994.

Hello droogs.

So. This started as an idle tweet a few days back and devolved into a drunken conversation in which me and a buddy both proved we’ve spent waaaaaaaay too much time watching Firefly. And I’ll preface this waaaaaaay too long blog post by stressing that I lurrrrrrrve the Firefly series and Serenity movie. I love them in the pants. Were I unwed, I would take my Collector’s Edition Boxed Set in a manly fashion.

…wait, ew.

I genuinely believe Firefly is the best thing Mr Whedon has ever given us, up against some stiff competition. So I don’t want anyone thinking I’m a Whedon hater or this comes from a place of anything but love for the dude’s work. I’m just a nerd who likes to spitball about this stuff. And while, like many of you, I’ve got nothing for lurrrrve for Firefly and the crew of Serenity, I’ve got some bad news, droogs:

Mal Reynolds and the crew of Firefly were the fucking bad guys.

And I don’t mean in a Loveable Rogue archetype kind of way. I mean they were the straight-up villains. They’re the kind of people who, if you read about them in your holonews over your morning bowl of Jupiter Loops, you’d thump the table, complain bitterly to your lovebot about the slow collapse of civilization and demand to know WHAT THE FRACK your taxes were paying for.

. . .  sorry, wrong universe . . .

But I mean, really, THINK about it for a second. You’ve got a collection of ex-soldiers, fugitives, psychotics and ragtags now operating as a mercenary band, paying no attention to laws and regulations that govern civilized areas of space. They willingly do business with pimps, organized criminal cartels, corrupt bastards and full-tilt, pants-on-head-crazy sociopaths. And worst of all, with the exception of Simon and River, this is a life they CHOOSE. Mal, Zoe, Wash, Kaylee and Jayne are career criminals, who believe that the rules applying to everyone else in the universe simply don’t apply to them. People who freely lie, cheat, steal and murder their way across the galaxy in a desperate and misguided attempt to remain “free” from Alliance “control”. Because fuck you buddy, you can’t take the sky from me, and if you try, I swear me and my pretty floral bonnet will end you.

Now. The justification we’re given to excuse Mal & Co’s flagrant disregard for the laws of civilization are that the Alliance are “bad m’kay”. But what evidence are we really presented for this rationale?

Most Alliance people we meet in the series are just soldier boys doing their job. Space cops, basically. If they get given a galactic APB on some wanted fugitives, they don’t question the proofs of the case. There’s no galactic equivalent of the Serial podcast, through which the Alliance goons can sit around debating the merits of the evidence against Adnan . . . I mean River and Simon. They just do their damn job. Arrest the criminals, and trust the system to bring justice, because that’s the system their society built.

Now let’s talk about that system for a minute. From what we see of Alliance controlled space, it doesn’t seem all too PUREST FUCKING EVIL™ to me. They don’t have Universal Kitten Drowning Day or insist everyone listen to Top 40 radio. In fact, Alliance space seems pretty awesome. First off, it’s a democracy, as evidenced by the existence of a Parliament. People actually get a say in who governs them, as opposed to the outer rim. They have public heath care (as evidenced by the Alliance troops escorting medical supplies in the Train Job) and freedom of religion (Book follows a judeo-christian theology whereas Inara’s religious activities in Serenity seem more in line with theologies like Buddhism). They have a police force that protects and serves on a galactic scale. An administration large and efficient enough to successfully govern dozens of civilized worlds (ponder the size and complexity of a government that manages a single planet for a second, let alone dozens) and an economy that’s prosperous enough that even a wandering space prostitute can make a decent living.

Compare this to what we see of uncontrolled space. We have the areas controlled by Niska – a mass-murdering psychopath with a fondness for electrocuting people’s groins. We have Patience – a double-dealing warlord who “got herself elected mayor” and rules by the law of the gun. We have Ranse Burgess, who owns the local authorities and brutalizes a brothel full of space hookers with his laser pistol and rather unconvincing landspeeder . Time and time again on the fringe, we see examples of people with superior firepower or money terrorizing the members of the local populace. The areas where Alliance presence is thin or non-existent, ie, areas that by Mal’s rationale are “free”, are lawless wastelands governed at the point of a laser or car-battery connected to your joy factory. But oh wowwwww, they have ponies so I guess they’re the liberated ones.

Example – compare and contrast the way sex workers are treated in Alliance and non-Alliance space. In Alliance space, prostitution is legalized, regulated and considered an honorable vocation. Inara is treated with respect, and her companionship a sign of prestige. In fringe space, sex workers are treated, omg spoilers, like absolute shite. Brutalized and murdered by anyone with some pew pew at their disposal.

Our only two demonstrable examples of “the Alliance is bad, m’kay” are the project that spawned River Tam, and the Miranda disaster. And yes, these are some pants-wettingly awful things, but hold your fucking space ponies, kids. Alliance space is vast. The number of people employed in the bureaucracy must be in the hundreds of thousands, if not in the millions. The Serenity movie goes to great lengths to explain how ultra tip-top secret squirrel both these projects were. Can the actions of an obviously covert, off-the-books cabal within the Alliance leadership be used as excuse to write off the entire system as some kind of evil totalitarian regime? In an administration of hundreds of thousands if not millions of people, can you honestly expect there not to be a few bastards? How do we know the average member of the Alliance parliament wouldn’t have condemned the actions at Miranda? How we possibly imagine they didn’t? I mean, our only clue is that the “Top Member of Parliament” who came to inspect River knew about the Miranda incident – for all we know, he/she could have been the toe-cutter who came in and kicked heads and imprisoned/disappeared all the bastards involved after the Miranda project went hell in a space handbasket? Do we honestly believe Parliament is sitting around twirling their mustaches, stroking hairless cats and pondering ways through which to make the universe a crappier place to live?

Now, we’re TOLD that the Alliance fought a bloody war for domination of the settled worlds. But who tells us this?  Mal and Zoe, who both fought against the Alliance and lost. Their point of view is naturally going to be biased. The actual reasons for the war are vague and hand-wavey, basically coming down to “they wanted to control us, and we fought back”. But Whedon has said repeatedly that the Firefly crew were inspired by tales of the American civil war – if we take that comparison to it’s logical conclusion, the Alliance are the Union states (since they, you know, WON). Meaning the Browncoats were the fucking Confederacy. And I’m sure if you asked the average Confederate soldier why he was fighting, he’d have regurgitated the exact same mouthful of monkey jizz that Mal spouts – that they were resisting an oppressor who wanted to subvert their way of life. Take away our freedom. “Control” us. Right?

Looking at the state of the ‘verse outside Alliance controlled space, exactly what kind of “freedom” were the Browncoats fighting for? The right to hitch people’s testicles up to car batteries and make mud for a living?

So. The Confed . . . sorry, the Browncoats lose the war. And what does Malcolm Reynolds do? Does he sit back and decide that, hey public healthcare and an organized police force that applies a universal system of law and order doing away with oppressive local warlords and ushering an age of stability and economic prosperity sounds like a fan-fucking-tastic idea? Hellllll naw. He stamps his feet, buys a spaceship and decides “Fuck the law. Fuck the Alliance. I want to do what I want, when I want, and if that means I have to become a criminal, it’s better than being oppressed by the man and his pinko public medical aid bollocks. Fucking socialists.”

(I’m joking about the socialist part. Mal is more of a fascist)

So. Let’s look at our (lovable, very lovable, I really do love these guys, folks, i’m not even kidding) crew:

Zoe. A loyal 2IC who attempts on repeated occasions to convince Mal what a colossal bleeding asshole he’s being, Zoe serves as a kind of She-Ra/Jiminy Cricket hybrid, demonstrating time and time again she has a conscience in between her bouts of ass-kickery. And yet, she continues to ride with Mal even after his stubbornness and inability to accept any kind of governance drives them repeatedly into danger, eventually resulting in the mass-slaughter of thousands of people and the death of her husband. Her loyalty to her Captain is admirable on the surface, but the longer you stare at it, the more it starts to appear like some bizarre form of space Stockholm syndrome.

Jayne. A mercenary who sold out and murdered his former employers after the offer of more money from Mal. A killer who repeatedly demonstrates a total lack of morality, who delights in the prospect of violence. The kind of man who who’d happily trade a human being for a gun, and names his firearms. Yeah sure, he’s got some good one-liners and a sweet hat, but the dude is a dead-set FUCKING SOCIOPATH.

Wash. Poor Wash. A loveable manchild, who remains largely shielded from the day to day brutality of his wife and her comrades’ wetwork inside his cockpit with his toy dinosaurs. Who, when he meekly voices his unease at the increasingly amoral actions of his captain, is told to just shut the up and fly the ship or get out and walk. Who’s loyalty to his wife, and thus, inadvertently, his captain, ultimately gets him playing the role of Special Guest Protein in a rather surprising shish kabob. D:

Kaylee. Another babe in the woods type, mostly insulated from the carnage inflicted by her captain and crew. A young woman of little education (her mechanical skills are self taught, she just has a “gift for it”) who gravitates to the trappings of actual civilization whenever exposed to them, eg, her wistful obsession with Inara’s tales of her clientele and visits to civilized worlds, and her infatuation with cultured society’s trappings in Shindig.

Shepherd Book. Another of Mal’s Jiminy Crickets, who’s repeated failed attempts at providing his Captain with moral guidance see him eventually throwing his hands in the air (wave em like you just don’t care) and leaving the crew for greener, less blood-soaked and dodgy-as-fuck pastures. Oh, and then he gets murdered for hanging with them anyway. You’ll note that Book, who more than anyone else on the crew has actually spent extended periods of time in Alliance space, doesn’t seem to be possessed of the same blistering hate-induced boner of rage Mal does when it comes to the Alliance or their “control”.

Inara. Another member of the crew who spends extended time in Alliance space and seems to have absolutely no problem with it. A cultured and learned woman, who really only seems to stay with the crew because of her fondness for Kaylee and her feelings for Mal. You’ll notice the two people on Serenity who actually demonstrate some degree of education and aren’t wanted fugitives, Book and Inara, freely intermingle with Alliance society and don’t seem to have any real dramas with the way Alliance space is run. And like Book, Inara eventually makes like a well-dressed space tree when Mal gets too frothy at the mouth.

River. She goes where Simon goes. She has no choice. I’ll note again however, that her treatment at the Alliance’s hands is one of our main pointers towards them being made of pure Puppy Kicking Evil™. But again, we only get River’s side of this story, and she’s an unreliable narrator at best. What if the project that spawned her was an attempt to control her powers, which, if manifested without some measure of training, could result in a Tetsuo-style meltdown and the deaths of millions of people? What, if left untrained, she’d be a danger to everyone around her? We don’t know, is my point. We only get her hand-wavey hysterics and Simon’s assurances that they cut out bits of her brain. And yes, she did go through a very un-fun time. It sucks. But it’s better than her blowing holes in the moon, is all I’m saying.

Simon. A nice guy who gave all he had to rescue his sister. But why? River’s hidden messages in her letters to home were his first clue all was not well with her supposed school. But what if River’s increasing psychosis was a result of her developing powers? What if the damage to her amygdala (which he discovers in Ariel) was actually a symptom of her mutation, rather than a result of the project she was enrolled in? We know sweet FA about what happened to River, or how, or why. So while Simon’s actions might be admirable from a certain POV, he may be operating on a baseline assumption that is inherently flawed. All that aside, Simon IS a character with a moral compass, and he also demonstrates an increasing level of discomfort with the actions of Mal and his crew, eventually, AGAIN, leading him to GTFOASAPKTHXBAI in Serenity.

Do you notice a pattern here? Virtually everyone in the series with an education and a demonstrated sense of right and wrong end up bailing on Mal because he’s an amoral prick.

Which brings us to

Captain Malcolm Reynolds. You want to talk about ruthless totalitarian authority? Forget the Alliance, my friends. Look no further than Mal. This is a guy who tolerates zero insubordination on his ship. Who, when questioned by his crew in Serenity – people he claims to love and/or care for – actually threatens to fucking shoot them if they get in his way. A man whose desperate and misguided attempts to resist Alliance “control” and live a life of “freedom” sees any kind of moral compass he might have possessed completely erode. In the Firefly pilot, he tells Simon that, if Kaylee dies after Simon operates on her, he and his sister will be murdered shortly thereafter. In a later scene, he actually tells Simon that Kaylee did indeed die, inducing a moment of slow-mo, trouser-browning panic in the boy just to get a fucking laugh (and hell yes, it was hilarious, but woe betide you if  you believe these are the actions of a balanced man).

He repeatedly does business with murderers, bastards, and psychopaths. And sure, sometimes when he’s presented with face-to-face irrefutable proof of the immorality of his actions (ie, in The Train Job when told the shipment he’s stealing was, oh holy shit call the police, actually needed by the people he was stealing it from) he sometimes gets squeamish. But he still deals all the time with characters like Niska knowing exactly who they are and what they do. He knows these people are ruthless, murderous pricks. But as long as he’s not directly confronted with evidence of their brutality right in his (devilishly handsome have i mentioned i love him) face, he’d rather take the blood-soaked money of a pimp thuglord like Badger than earn a legitimate living within the confines of a perfectly regular and orderly society.

And why? Basically? Because he’s a narcissistic psycho and a bad fucking loser (and I love him, I really really do).

Seriously. Malcolm Reynolds’ twelve-headed hydra wang of hate for the alliance doesn’t come from outrage over the dubious morality of a couple of black bag cabals within the government – he has no inkling of their abuses of River or the Miranda incident until long after he turns outlaw. It doesn’t come from some irrational hatred of public heathcare or a regulated sex industry. It comes from the innate, unswerving knowledge that he knows better than anyone else. And the thing is?

Mal knows dick all about the Alliance. We’re never given any evidence that he’s spent time living in controlled space. He was a Browncoat footsoldier. A front line grunt. If the future is any analogue of the present, the dudes who get sent out to the front line to fight? They’re the poor. The uneducated. The expendable. The people who fall for the propaganda machine’s spin because they’re never taught to question. In all likelihood, Mal was convinced of the wrongness of Alliance control in the exact same way that troops who participated in the invasion of Iraq were convinced of the wrongness of the Hussein regime – a carefully orchestrated campaign of complete and utter bullshit. And the poor lad bought it hook line and sinker, suffered a traumatic and life-changing front line slaughter experience, and limped away from the war convinced that the Alliance leadership – every last democratically elected one of them – are a pack of fucking Stalins.

Mal talks about “Earth That Was” being “used up”, prompting humanity’s exploration and colonization of their new systems. He offers no real scientific explanation. Gives no demonstration of any real understanding or education about the fall. Can you imagine a character like Inara summing up the cataclysmic events leading to the fall of the cradle of human civilization in such childish, sitting-around-the-fireside-swapping-yarns kind of language? Mal is a rube. A rube who got duped into believing an enemy existed where actually there was just a differing point of view. And he picks up his hate baggage and carries it with him from that point on. He names his ship – the very symbol of his freedom – after the murderous defeat his troops suffered during the war. He nearly spends every waking moment living inside a physical manifestation of that defeat. And over the course of his journey in the series, and particularly the Serenity movie, he becomes the very monster he mistakenly beheld in the Alliance.

He’s a dictator, brooking absolutely no dissent among his people. Exercising control and demanding absolute fealty even when questioned by his oldest and most trusted friends. His actions lead directly to the death of most of his closest allies, Shepherd Book, Wash and thousands upon thousands of Alliance soldiers in the skies above Mr Universe’s lab. And why? To expose the actions of a secret cabal of black baggers in the hopes of bringing down the Alliance? Can you imagine, for one brief second, the ramifications if the Alliance government actually collapsed after the Miranda revelation? The carnage that would result if a government responsible for safeguarding dozens of worlds and the lives of billions upon billions of people fell over? Given what we see of fringe space and the alternatives – rule by warlords like Burgess and Patience or psychopaths like Niska – can you imagine what might rise in the Alliance’s ashes?

But none of that matters, see. The possible fallout from the Miranda transmission isn’t even considered by Mal. He abandons his crew to die (only River’s moment of murderous lucidity after Simon is wounded saves them all from torturous deaths at the hands of the Reavers) in order to deliver his “truth” to the universe, without even realizing that in the process, he’s drenched his hands with more blood than the average Alliance bureaucrat could ever imagine let alone match, and, worse-case-scenario, doomed the universe to a period of bloody upheaval and murderous civil war.

But, you can’t take the sky from him, right?

Again. I love the show. It’s funny and smart and wonderful. I love the characters. They’re rich and layered and as fun as a game of zero gee nude volleyball to watch. I love me a good rogue, and I’m as enamored with the idea of sticking it to the man and living free and doing and saying whatever the hell I want as anyone. Mal and his crew are awesome protagonists. In their own heads, they might even be heroes. But to the average inhabitant of the Firefly universe?

STONE. COLD. VILLAINS.

Discuss.

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About Misterkristoff

New York Times and Internationally Bestselling SciFi/Fantasy author, and master of drunken karaoke-fu. View all posts by Misterkristoff

83 responses to “Newsflash: the Firefly guys were villains

  • JdV

    Wow, so nicely put together. Of course many of us know all of these facts, we simply choose to gloss over them because the crew of Serenity are likeable.

  • Paul Weimer

    At one point, when they are about to do a job, Jayne says.

    “Let’s be bad guys”

    So yeah.

  • Bee

    “One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.”
    O’ Brian, 1984, G.Orwell.

    I think I want them to win (succeed? live on in cable infamy?) because they are this twisted, dysfunctional, little family zooming though space. Sort of like all the purposely avoided relatives of superheros found one another and formed a gang.

    Dr. Horrible, another J.W. creation is also not that great of a person but the trope and frozen yogurt of unrequited love and lust for recognition hit a sweet spot in all of us. We want Dr. Horrible to win and we see that the good guys are not so good.

    Is it possible that in the universe of Firefly that we are to look beyond good and bad, thus discerning for ourselves the varying degrees of moral and value orientation bestowed upon these stereotypes?

    Disclosure: slacking from writing some other stuff and so apologize for the pomposity of the above. I still want a Jane hat.

  • Erik R

    Umm…but they…well then you…if we just….shit. I got nothing. Yeah, they were evil. But good or bad, it was really about not wanting to be ruled. It doesn’t mean that is always better, but it was more like the provinces in the US before statehood.

  • Wendy B

    But… I thought this was clear? They aren’t just the losers who lost because they sucked and were on the wrong side, they were the losers who lost because maybe they were wrong. As you say, there is very little evidence that the Alliance is all that bad — certainly they are no worse than our own present governments now in the western world. Yes they are doing bad things with River, but that’s the only proof until the movie introduces the Pax and their abandonment of Miranda.

    At the time we meet up with them all, the worst thing the Alliance has done is forget about the outer planets. Because they’d spread themselves far too thin to be able to manage them — though they do try to police them.

    And the kicker is that the one good person among them actually was an Alliance member: Shepherd Book, who believes quite clearly that he’s on a ship full of sinners.

    Firefly was never about good guys. Though I guess it’s easy for people to fall into that assumption because Mal does have a sense of honour.

  • Tabitha (Not Yet Read)

    I am in agreement with you and Wendy.

    It’s purely a point of view thing. Everyone believes themselves to be the hero of their own story and when you are viewing the events from that person’s perspective they are of course going to shine the light on a prettier side of their ass. But it seems you spotted the shit caked onto Mal regardless. All fine points you make especially about the more educated of the crew actually interacting well with the Alliance. I honestly never delved that deep into analyzing it and just enjoyed the fun of it. But now you make me want to sit and do some binge watching so I can dissect Mal and the show. Rant on Brain. Pinky out.

  • Tabitha (Not Yet Read)

    Argh my comment may have been eaten by the interwebs and I’m too lazy to retype it.

    But yes, yes and yes.

  • Cassandra Page

    I think you’re largely right, although Inara didn’t leave because of Mal being a villain. She had some massive rose-coloured glasses on as far as he went – she saw the “heart of gold” angle.

    Her issues were more about herself. The dark secret she was concealing had more to do with her leaving than anything else. Based on the hospital visit; her melancholy, brooding statements that she didn’t want to die; and her determination not to get attached to people, I think the secret was a terminal illness. And when she realised she was falling in love with Mal after her jealousy during Heart of Gold, she decided to bail.

  • Cassandra Page

    Reblogged this on Cassandra Page and commented:
    This is a great, well-thought-out post by Melbourne writer Jay Kristoff about the characters of Firefly. He mounts a pretty compelling argument that the crew of Serenity – particularly Mal, Zoe and Jayne – are the villains of the piece, rather than the plucky heroes.

    The post is worth a read, because it’s a great example of the idea “every character thinks they are the hero”. Joss Whedon is the master at creating the sympathetic bad guy. The folks in Dollhouse – except for the dolls themselves – are almost all villains too. Not to mention Doctor Horrible!

  • timwburke

    The series could have been redeemed if Mal had shown the slightest character arc and said “maybe I’m wrong here.” I think J.W. gives the viewer too much credit to see beyond sin. Remember years ago when that blogger called J.W. an abuser of women? Her perspective fits in with this essay perfectly, in that that she (and I) could not see J.W. was treating Mal as an “anti-hero” and not a “hero”.

  • Laurel

    Very intriguing. But the Civil War is not the only possible comparison (despite fact that JW made it.) We don’t know enough to say if Serenity Valley was a battle in a civil war – where one group tries to withdraw from an existing compact – or a battle of civil defense, fighting off a overpowering foreign invader and in this case, conqueror. If you don’t fight back against the threat of force, what you get is the Aunschluss, the “political” annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany. (And you can’t miss the Nazi parallels to the Alliance, including the deniabilty of evil research by the under-informed populace.) Yes, war habituates its practitioners to violence, strict hierarchical structures, and do-or-die choices that more peaceful times regard (as do I) as uncivilized. There may be no atheists in foxholes – but there are few angels either! And the fact that Shepherd Book regards the Firefly family as sinners is no sign that the are the “bad guys” as compared to the better educated, better dressed, better organized and better armed Alliance. I think he’d say they’re sinners too. It’s clear he has high-level experience with Alliance civilization, and would be able to return if he wanted, but he does not. Not so simple as good guys vs. bad guys, just a group of flawed people making their way through big troubles together.

  • JunkChuck

    …but, but, but…Jayne is the hero of Canton! And those Alliance guys wear scary blue dish-washing gloves. What more proof do you need?

    It could be argued that the confederacy equation is the faulty fulcrum of your argument–slavery made the civll war just, but what if the Union had invaded the south just because it could? Subjugation bestows on the victims a life-long license to raise hell, don’t you think?

    Miranda is no small thing–to devastate a world and create a species of monsters that run roughshod (kind of like what the US did with the Taliban, right?)–suggests a pretty deep institutional sickness.

    Mal might be a fascist on his ship, but such is the way of Captains on all vessels. The Captain is God. I would argue that in the greater world Mal is more of an anarchist than a fascist.

    Finally, yours is a brilliant essay and a delight to find, quite unexpected, on a cold, damp morning. Thanks!

  • Miranda Regan (@MiraAstar)

    Interesting to put this into the context of Firefly’s Wild West setting. Who do we remember from the Wild West? Who are the “heroes” in the public’s imagination? Billy the Kid and his ilk. Bandits, train robbers, murderers, outlaws who had fans and followers, who people followed the exploits of and made famous (or infamous.)

    Likable criminals who sometimes do good things, or at least manage to capture our attention and admiration.

  • onemhz

    Chaotic Good. Like Han Solo. Even Luke Skywalker was a rebel and a fugitive from a government he helped create (I guess that’s a “Legend” now, though). I take secret, mass chemical pacification that leads to something like the reavers to be pretty bad. Lawful Evil bad. Not chaotic good bad.

  • Helix

    Several major issues here:

    1) It’s revealed in the Book comics that he’s actually kind of a monster himself, and his reasons for leaving are never fully explained because it happens between the end of the show and the beginning of Serenity.

    2) Inara leaves because of the debacle with Mal sleeping with Nandi, not because of his frothing illegality.

    Also, all the Alliance authority figures shown are pretty awful. In Train Job, the cruiser captain orders the soldiers to abandon the town rather than help track down the stolen medicine. In Bushwhacked the captain’s perfectly happy to just arrest everyone he finds and is apparently totally unprepared for the dangers of the rim. The cop on Ariel double crosses Jayne more or less as soon as he can. The cops in The Message are chasing someone down because of their own illegal activities. Etc.

    Even if they are just normal authority figures, we see repeatedly that they’re pretty brutal thugs who don’t give a shit about due process. And, you know, you spend a lot of time talking about how lawless and awful the rim planets are, but where’s the Alliance while this is happening? Nowhere to be seen. Letting the crime lords rule and people live in squalor because it might threaten their own prosperity to help people stuck in the rim.

    Simon also makes it pretty clear that he doesn’t terribly want to live in the Alliance because *everything* is regulated and tracked and rigorously controlled. Alliance society, frankly, sounds like a gilded cage.

    The crew of the Serenity may be bad guys, but the Alliance sure as heck ain’t good guys either.

  • Jenn Collins (@JennyKnox13)

    I will be the first to admit that I am “bad at TV.” I can’t keep stories straight and once something goes off the air for a season, I need to read some major recaps to get caught up.

    That said, I never thought there was any question that they were the bad guys. We love them because of who they are, in spite of what they do.

  • SueGal

    Wow. Just… wow. Nice work.

  • JRD

    What, democracies can’t do terrible things? I can think of one that’s overthrown several democracies so that a government more friendly to its aims take hold, and didn’t care if they were brutal autocracies.

  • Amy K. Thomas

    Who cares if they are bad guys? The most disturbing part of the show (that I also lurrrrrrve) is that there are virtually no Asian people in a universe dominated by the conglomerate powers of China and the United States. There should be abundant Asians!

    Well-written, insightful post. Long live Firefly!

  • belg4mit

    The folks at Cracked postulated this last month.

  • Steve Slowinskive

    Interesting! This is a really cool perspective, but it’s missing one key piece: wasn’t the whole Alliance/Browncoat war about resource use and colonialism? My interpretation of it was that the Alliance needed more resources to continue living their lives of incredible privilege, so they decided to use the outer worlds to keep their own lives awesome.

    In other words, the fact that the Rim worlds were criminal backwaters that were dirt poor was a product of the Alliance taking everything they could from them. “Keep those people poor, take all we can from them, and we can keep living our sweet awesome lives.” So instead of Union/Confederate comparison, through that lens, it’s more Colonials/Native American.

    And that’s what makes the Miranda incident so powerful. It was one atrocious act, yes, but it was also a very blatant example of the large underlying issue: that the Alliance didn’t give a shit about the outer rim worlds, just as long as they could keep living their own great lives. Experiment on those jerks, who cares if we destroy an entire world?

    Maybe this isn’t cannon and it’s just my own interpretation? I don’t know – honestly forget exactly how much of that is touched upon. But through that perspective, it paints Mal and the others in a very different light.

  • MacBean

    ngl, I didn’t read this whole thing yet because I’m on a tiny screen at the moment and need a bigger one to read, but I just wanted to confirm something:

    “And I’m sure if you asked the average Confederate soldier why he was fighting, he’d have regurgitated the exact same mouthful of monkey jizz that Mal spouts – that they were resisting an oppressor who wanted to subvert their way of life.”

    This is 100% true. I just finished reading a book (Mourning Lincoln by Martha Hodes) which tells about the reactions to the end of the Civil War and to Lincoln’s assassination through letters and journals and newspaper articles written by regular folks on both sides of the conflict. It was eye-opening.

  • Atlemar

    I’m with you until the end, when you worry about the fallout from the Miranda transmission. That smacks to me of blaming the messenger, like when David Brooks blamed Edward Snowden for reducing trust in government without placing any blame on the government that did the wrongdoing. You accept that the Alliance can be overall good while parts of it do some evil — just like the real world. I’d argue that it’s not Mal’s job to consider the fallout of exposing the truth, and this is a good thing done by a bad guy.

  • Grymmlock

    Reblogged this on grymmramblings and commented:
    Now I need to rewatch this series with a different mindset. And what does it say about me that Jayne is my favorite? Oops.

  • GL2814

    The folks at Cracked did this already…..Just Sayin’

  • BobTChicken

    On the topic of the kinds of freedom available in the outer worlds, and whether they were worth defending: The Browncoats lost, so we have no idea what kind of government they’d have formed or had formed. The outer worlds are the series of failed states left behind when the Alliance destroyed their public infrastructure during the war and put nothing in its place.

  • Brandon

    You’re glossing over a lot of the economic disparity and operating from a head canon to make a lot of these arguments stick. The Alliance is ineffective at managing all of its claimed territory. All of the benefits you listed as part of living in the Alliance? Those disappear when you don’t live within the immediate realm of their influence i.e. a major metropolitan area, and even then the living gets expensive. There’s a reason that what seems to be a democratic society has adopted a system of landed gentry in it’s outer worlds. The Browncoats were not fighting for individual rights, but planetary freedom to govern themselves as they as they saw fit. Whether this was to be an interplanetary government or an alliance of planetary governments we will never know because we never got that information. The Alliance winning the war has created the lawlessness that exists on the outer rim in the first place. Had the Browncoats won their independence, each of these worlds may have gone on to establish their own ruling bodies. Instead they exist technically as part of the Alliance, but not really. They get none of the benefits of an being an Alliance planet, but are expected to pay all of said membership’s dues. This has allowed bullies and thugs to run rampant while big brother isn’t looking, which is pretty much 100% of the time.

    But, at the end of the day, the Alliance government can, and should, be judged on one simple fact: They are so childishly squeamish about conflict that they were willing to resort to MIND CONTROL to ensure they could avoid it. When that failed, they instituted a system of shadow agents that operated outside of the law to quiet unrest, and were developing living weapons (River) to ensure that any future rebellion could be snuffed out before it could start.

  • Rob Beauchamp

    Every member of the crew is flawed. That makes them interesting characters. And villains can also be interesting, but being interesting doesn’t make you a villain. Doing villainous things makes you a villain.

    So what evil things, exactly, does the crew do? You point out that they associate with ne’er-do-wells; they are opposed by a legitimate and popular government; and they are led by a guy who insists on obedience. None of this is villainy (or if it is, then Jesus qualifies too, I guess).

    You could say they are criminals, sure — but lots of heroes are on the wrong side of the law. You’ve explicitly rejected the “loveable rogue” archetype for them — your claim is that they are straight-up bad guys. But all your arguments just point back to “loveable rogue” at worst.

  • garlicknitter

    I see your points, but I’d like to add one more from a different perspective: the views we get of the Alliance at work are pretty much all from the top. We see Alliance military in great big spaceships, we see one of the best Alliance hospitals, we see a rich man’s estate inside the Alliance. Of course these views all look really good. These are how the people with power in the Alliance are living. But how are the more vulnerable (e.g., poor) people living? Do the awesome powers of Justice and Order the Alliance is allegedly providing to all actually benefit them too? How much of a share of this prosperity are they getting?

    I’ll grant you, the Alliance may actually be truly benefiting everyone within its warm embrace, but we can’t tell from what we’ve seen of them. Maybe another season would have demonstrated that Mal et al. did indeed have legitimate beef with them.

    Or maybe you’re completely right.

    • Renehta Tibet Wilcox

      Many of the border planets are under alliance control. Mal talks about them dumping settlers with food and blankets and “maybe a herd” so it’s clear that the absence of civilization is majorly of the alliance’s own doing.
      I definitely think you’re right. All the fancy trappings of life in the alliance is what we see with the wealthy, the same thing I’d imagine that we see with the wealthy elite in the US, or in Dubai, or Saudi Arabia, immense wealth belonging to charismatic, civilized seeming people, but really won with a blatant disregard for life, and a disregard for others as well.
      So I think that while there are many that prosper under the alliance, there are also many that prosper under the US government, even though it’s very clearly corrupt and needs reform. How the rich live should never be a metric for society.
      Also, think of the loading docks at Persephone, criminals like Badger thrive on an alliance world. There is still clearly abject poverty on alliance planets, and more than enough wealth to support everyone being funneled into the pockets of particular people.

  • Sean Connell

    This was a great, well thought-out piece. It’s also not exactly news. Whedon himself made a comment to this effect quite some time back, where he essentially says it’s a POV thing. Had we been looking at things from an Alliance perspective, the universe looks quite neat and ordered and safe EXCEPT for these lawless outer fringes where various criminals and other whackjobs hang out.

    Whedon just liked the non-Alliance perspective better.

    But this piece puts a lot more thought – and rationale – into it than Whedon’s somewhat off the cuff remark.

  • inertialconfinement

    I completely agree with you and it has struck me before. It hit me hardest in the beginning of Serenity when River says something like, “People don’t like to be meddled with. We tell them what to do, what to think…”

    And the response is something along the lines of, “We don’t tell people what to think. We just show them how.”

    And isn’t that sort of a noble thing? Teaching people how to think for themselves?

    Also, the conversation between Mal and The Operative is evidence of this. He tries to tell Mal that River’s “mood swings” are “worse than you know,” indicating there’s something we don’t know about River. He also tells Mal about all the innocents being slaughtered, but Mal seems unfazed by this, his focus is on his “mission.”

    BUT!!! There are people the Alliance just leaves behind. There are people who are disposable for the greater good in order to make a “better world.” The people of Miranda were an experiment. River was an experiment. And the people living on the outer planets, while they do get some medical supplies and support, they get the left overs of what the inner planets get, and for people who don’t have the means or connections to move to the inner planets, the government and society doesn’t seem as awesome as to those who grew up in the center of it. It can make a person bitter towards the so-called civilization that is supposedly representing you, when they’re willing to put you on the bottom of their list of people to care about. Mal probably grew up as one of the people at the bottom of the list, making it easy to convince him he needs to fight against it.

    The outer worlds have some nasty characters because the outer worlds are where they can get away with it and thrive. There’s less Alliance support there and corrupt leaders that aren’t at the top of the list of things the Alliance needs to deal with at the moment. But what about the everyday person out there just trying to feed their family who fear the only leaders they know and desperately want someone to offer them hope and fight back? They may see their corrupt leaders they want someone to fight against the same as the Alliance because it’s the only view of leadership and government they ever have. Or, they know the Alliance is better but resent them for not caring about the hard lives they’ve been dealt with.

    The educated people with connections are, of course, okay with the Alliance. The system helped them get an education and helped them lead a satisfying life, so yeah, what’s the problem? And in return, the system is okay with them because they’re willing to work within it. Not saying Inara and Book would just blindly follow the Alliance because they got stuffs, but that it’s easier for them to see the good the Alliance does.

    The ones that are looked down upon as uneducated, poor, and uncivilized are going to have some issues with the ones that look down upon them, especially when they weren’t even given the same opportunities as those who are educated and well-respected. A “them vs. us” mentality gets created, which causes more friction between the inner and outer planets.

    The Alliance can’t fix everything at once, but from the point of view of the people being neglected Alliance help, it sucks and may even appear evil because their view is limited to their own experience.

    Mal probably grew up in this type of environment. And even if he has access now to an education and respectful work, his warped sense of honor creates guilt for him because he got out and “they” couldn’t.

    I would also argue that Mal is a narcissist willing to use these people inhabiting the outer planets as fuel for his Alliance hatred and justification for his narcissistic thinking. He’s not really trying to make anything better for these people during the series, he’s just looking for an excuse to fight against the Alliance and be a rebel because he feels it makes him better than “them.”

    I still don’t know why Inara liked him so much. As much as I like romance, I just wasn’t feeling that one.

  • jeroljohnson

    Reblogged this on jeroljohnson and commented:
    I have to admit, I’ve had similar but less clarified thoughts on Mal and the Browncoats. This is very, very well done.

  • Eddie

    Go take your exquisitely reasoned, well written thesis that Mal is a bad guy and GET OUT!

    PS I hate you.

  • ronipedia

    One nit to pick – the Alliance was not “escorting medical supplies” in the Train Job – they just happened to be on the same train. The troops were ordered to move on by their unfeeling superiors, instead of helping to find the medical supplies. So the Alliance does not care about the diseased miners, or the mudders (slave labour, basically), or any of the other fringe planets whose resources help make the shiny core planets nice places to live. The planets with the miners and the mudders are obviously controlled by the Alliance (as evidenced by their troops on the mining planet, and the magistrate on the mud one). So definitely some evil empire stuff going on.

    That said, the crew of Serenity are certainly criminals, by choice, as evidenced by Mal’s reveling in smuggling and siccing insane deep space murderers on the Alliance fleet and so on. No arguing with that.

  • inferus.unum

    so just gonna throw this out there but after reading this, by most of that logic wouldn’t that make the jedi that ended the empire villains too? or if we’d have lost our revolutionary war, would we not be the villains? the comparison to the civil war is nice but what if instead of being historically accurate with who won, in firefly couldn’t the ‘redcoats’ have won?

  • inferus.unum

    Does fighting tyranny that has become normalcy really equate to villainy? Or is it heroic/anti-heroic to continue fighting a losing battle even as everyone around you adheres to the western ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’

  • Kelly

    This is an intriguing analysis, and I find myself agreeing with many elements… with a twinge of dismay, as much for my own lack of critical analysis as for the tarnish on the crew. However, thanks to an insightful comment from a friend when I shared this on FB, I would like to poke one critical hole.

    The overarching conclusion (not about the moral fiber of the crew, but rather the in/justice of their actions) seems to be predicated upon the relative merits of life in alliance space vs. other areas. While that contrast is stark, the fact that it is better than nothing does not mean that it is good enough. What is the price paid for the advantages enjoyed in alliance space, and is it acceptable?

    The alliance government is underpinned by the coverup of a massive genocide, and is characterized by widespread disregard for the poor. Far beyond merely lacking effective checks and balances to police itself, it actively resorts to indiscriminate brutality and extrajudicial prosecution to hide its own immoral and unjust behavior from the public. Vast military resources are brought to bear for the sole purpose of escaping culpability. Even if that does not reflect the entire government, it calls its very legitimacy into question.

    Yes, the alliance appears to be a great deal better for most people than the vision for which the Browncoats fought. But it is still brutal, neglectful, and wholly unaccountable to the people it governs, and that casts an entirely different light on acts of rebellion and the risks of revolution.

    • Renehta Tibet Wilcox

      Exactly! Things generally have to be bad for people to revolt. The American civil war certainly was not just about slavery, it was about economics and control, and while I still squirm when browncoats are compared to the confederacy, they still had some legitimate qualms with the government.
      Additionally, you can see their callous disregard for life on multiple occasions.
      Also, it bugs me a little that this post tries to sell the idea that River might have been exaggerating or misunderstanding of what she was going through. She’s a genius, she’s crazy, but she definitely has lucid moments, so I doubt the message she got out to Simon was anything but the truth, especially because Simon, as a brilliant doctor, would be able to tell the difference between measures used to repair a distinct issue, such as a partial lobotomy, or removal of damaged tissue, those scars look different than analytical scars left in cases of dissection and examination, so there is definite badness there.
      There are lots of instances of the alliance doing good things, like their support for sex workers, but it doesn’t mean the government on the whole is legitimate, especially since the rim planets fall under their purview. These are not planets that the alliance doesn’t control, they are planets the alliance doesn’t care about.

  • wizardru

    A great read, but an awful lot of handwaving going on, there. For example: on ‘Train Job’ the alliance soldiers are there: but they are explicitly NOT guarding the medical cargo. It’s stated clearly that it’s a coincidence they’re there, iirc. The alliance didn’t send a mercy shipment, presumably the town practically bankrupted itself to purchase it (and hence the reason for the Serenity crew’s guilt and recant). The alliance soldiers are likely there to intimidate the locals and enforce order, more like an occupying force on a frontier world with separtist sympathies. Likewise the sick people in the episode ‘Safe’ clearly are unaware of how good the Alliance’s medical programs are, as many would have died with Simon’s interference (post-kidnapping, I might add).

    And let’s look at that utopic society: apparently for all those advances, only the core worlds seem to enjoy them, even though the outer worlds seem to have to bend the knee. There are clearly no checks-and-balances or limits to Alliance power. In Bushwacked, we see a single commander steal the Serenity’s legally acquired salvage purely based on his legal authority and the crew has no recourse and has to be be thankful they haven’t been imprisoned purely on his say-so.

    As for Book and Inara, yes, they don’t have mad hate for the Alliance, but they also both are privileged members of that society. Book clearly still holds a level of rank that allows him to wield political power, even years after he’s abandoned his position. Inara, of course, is in a dual-position of privelge and powerlessness; able to walk in powerful circles, but as the episode Shindig makes clear, her only real power is in the organization she works for (and it’s not clear if she’s making an idle threat). The Alliance clearly has nobility, implying social inequity and further, we see that those in power have no problem bypassing the Aliiance’s own rules, indicating corruption at the highest levels.

    The Serenity crew aren’t angels, but there are lots of examples of the Alliance being institutionalized evil if you’re not one of the upper class.

  • jennbrissett

    Your theory is pretty good except for one thing: the very existence of the Reavers. It’s the Alliance’s attempts at mass mind control that results in the madness of the Reavers (as explained in Serenity). So maybe they ARE the controlling fascists Mal and Zoe claim them to be and the more accurate analogy is not the American Civil War, but the Spanish Civil War.

  • gregm91436

    This is fantastic. Now I’m imagining a Rosencrantz-And-Guildenstern style series called “Alliance” from the POV of a team of Alliance peacekeepers who are just trying to do their damn jobs.

  • artifexprime

    I think one reason why the badness fails to get through to most viewers who idolize the crew (as I do, I swear) is their damn fucking attractiveness, especially Malcolm Reynolds’: so young, so charismatic, so hard-to-believe grimly merciless. Personally, as much as I love him, and Firefly, and Joss Whedon, I think that role was miscast. Nathan Fillion, was just too young, and too beautiful. Imagine him at his current age in that role with that crew. When he calls Simon “son,” you’d resent it. When he glowers at the crew you would gulp. When he pulls the trigger, you too would shy away. Nathan Fillion did a fine—exemplary—job in the role, but only the wear that experience and age has imposed on him could simulate the decades of cynicism, rage, disappointment, and loneliness that the role demanded.

    • Alana

      Well, Artifexprime, I must lovingly beg to differ; because young soldiers go through horrors all the time, and it takes them to pieces, and they go on with their lives anyway. Fillion did a very true representation of someone who had too much responsibility thrust on him way too young. Exemplary. Yes.

      What I want to see (and who in their right mind would argue this point?) would be the Firefly crew 15 years later, having grown into – or out of – where we left off with them. Has Mal continued his downward spiral? Is River saner or crazier? Has Jayne gone syphilitic? Are Kaylee and Simon still together? What about Zoe and her little bundle of bittersweet joy? Has Inara stayed with the ship, or died, or returned to the Core for better medical care, perhaps taken up a role as a Priestess?

      Watching the Firefly of their youth is like putting on a brand new leather coat – yummy, happy, full of promise, thinking you can do anything.

      Seeing them in middle age? The leather is softer and it don’t creak so much when you draw your pistol.

      I am SO there.

  • Jon

    Not that it comes up in the series, but didn’t the Alliance destroy Mal’s entire home planet/moon? Think I read that something like that was in the series bible. Planet was named Shadow, I think…?

    Anyway — not that I don’t love and appreciate Firefly’s moral ambiguity, but I think you’re giving the Alliance a whole lot more credit here than they necessarily deserve. There’s a whole lot in the series to suggest that something’s not right in Denmark. For one thing, why does the Alliance military seem to put more effort into tracking down the Serenity crew — a bunch of illegal scavengers — as opposed to, say, protecting people from the Reavers? How do the Hands of Blue get away with murdering a whole *building* full of cops without repercussions? And then there’s the Operative in Serenity — who seems like he might be a nice guy if he’s not trying to murder you, actually, but *murders* several Alliance citizens, apparently without any oversight or accountability.

    All of this suggests a deeper, systematic rot that goes beyond just a single secret cabal. Does that mean it’s worth throwing out the Alliance as a whole? Of course not. But Mal being wary of the system seems pretty justified from where I’m sitting.

  • Jenn Longs

    But – but Mal had to deliver “the truth to the universe” because: YOU CAN’T STOP THE SIGNAL!!!

  • rmsgrey

    I think it’s a little unfair to paint all the border worlds based on the dark corners that Mal and his crew end up frequenting in order to keep River out of Alliance hands. Before they picked River up, and even for a while afterwards, they were able to visit some pretty nice places outside of the Core Worlds. Shindig seems to be set on a reasonably civilised world, though one where duelling is accepted, which I doubt would be acceptable on a Core World, where they’d no doubt prefer to settle things with lawyers rather than swords.

    If you actually look at the episodes, aside from sheltering fugitives, the crew are only actively criminal some of the time – other times, they’re downright heroic (and sometimes, of course, they’re both). In the pilot, their crime of salvaging from a wrecked ship is petty at best; Train Job, while they’re techinically guilty, the local law is happy to let Mal and his crew go; Bushwacked sees them picking up the survivor of a Reaver attack; Shindig is all about setting up a smuggling job; Safe, aside from wrapping up the smuggling, there’s no trouble of the crew’s own making; Our Mrs. Reynolds sees the crew wrapping up after dealing with some bandits (possibly technically criminal) but Saffron’s hardly their fault; Jaynestown, the law is against them, but even the magistrate’s own son (an upright Alliance citizen in his own right) sides with them; Out of Gas, the only criminal activity is the scrappers who come to hijack the ship; Ariel is a high-profile crime job; War Stories, there’s little doubt that the crew of Serenity is in the right; Trash is another high-profile crime job; The Message, again, the crew are technically criminal, but their troubles come from trying to do the right thing, and falling foul of corrupt Alliance officials; Heart of Gold sees the crew again being technically criminal because the local law is hopelessly corrupt; Objects in Space, the bounty hunter may have the law on his side, but that doesn’t mean that the crew’s failure to co-operate is illegal, let alone immoral.

    Yes, if you only have the Alliance charge sheet to go by, the Serenity crew are dangerous criminals, but so would many of the people after them be, if their crimes were known. If you know the details, the crew of Serenity are mostly doing the right thing in a small way even if their good intentions may lead to bad results.

  • Pat Hough (@fionnmccueil)

    I inadvertently spent twenty minutes chatting with a woman (Gina Torres, it turned out) one night in an alley behind The Hotel Cafe in Hollywood while the man who had escorted her went to get their car. I had no clue who she was, just someone who had seen the same awesome show I had just seen. We were both waiting to talk to the singers when some obnoxious Hollywood type ran up and started talking business with her.

    Suddenly, I was standing next to “Zoë”.

    I tried to act cool, like, you know, “Oh, I thought you looked familiar! I like your work! What’s your next project?”

    Wow, is she a warm, friendly person in real life. And graceful, and gracious, and very beautiful.

    SHE CAN’T BE EVIL!!

    *sob*

    : )

    GREAT post. I’ve always hated the whole Browncoat thing BECAUSE it’s obviously the Confederacy, and I hate the Confederacy. unfortunate choice of symbology, for me.

    • Renehta Tibet Wilcox

      Actually, they are the confederacy, but they are not morally the confederacy, the Alliance has legalized slavery, etc. So they’re fighting against it for some of the same reasons the confederacy fought the unions, but they are NOT the confederacy. That would bother me so much too! In fact I’ve always felt like it’s almost like “what if the wrong side had won?” than “poor confederates, they were heroes” I think it’s just framed similarly because the civil war is an interesting conflict.

  • Alana

    I really enjoyed your (hilarious) (painfully sharp) essay and really have little argument against it. I just wish Firefly had more time develop its characters – and its worlds – fully. Simon stated it himself: “The man’s a psychopath” and Wash echoed it: “He’s insane. He doesn’t break.”

    Mal IS sick. He has PTSD. So does River, and maybe I’m imagining it, but not only is she dreaming his dreams… he’s starting to dream hers.

    And they have this lovely little knot of messed-up codependents to form a family with.

    I’ve given some thought to the idea that the outer worlds were the ones used up and passed over, and that the Core was only reachable by those with the money and power to do so. So humanity doesn’t go to the Core then migrate back out again: rather it’s the colonialism mentioned in several other posts.

    Another minor quibble: I don’t think Mal’s a fascist so much as a libertarian.

    Also I wrote a novel, and now I have to figure out how to get it published. I am so screwed.

  • shane powell

    Wow. You actually believe that socialized medicine is a good thing. And you call Mal a fascist. Do you even know what fascism is? Apparently not. Oh wait, you are using fascist the way Manhattan liberals use it when refering to thing they dont really like. Redneck=fascist NRA=fascist. That sort of thing. There are four laws you learned as a kid. Dont hit people first. Do force folk to do things they dont want to do. Dont lie. Dont steal. Socialzed medicine violates the 2nd law with forced use. Freedom is messy, it’s bloody and rough, especially in the beginning. Democracy is not a permanent form of government. It eventually dissolves into oligarchy. The few always try to govern the many. Call it what you will the fed was evil.

  • Pamela Freeman

    Well, yeah. D’uh. Didn’t we always know that they were bad? I kind of thought that was the point.

  • Kevin J Maroney

    The Alliance has legalized slavery (though it’s unclear how much), which means the Brownshirts are the anti-Confederacy.

    • Alana

      When it first came out I didn’t watch Firefly, because I am a judgmental idiot.

      “Browncoat” sounded just a little too close to “Brownshirt” which I associate with Nazism. So I am one of the pathetic people who saw Serenity first then fell in love with all 10 characters.

      It was unfortunate and if they had only worn green shirts and added a few Asian characters, they’d probably still be on the air 😀

      I proudly refer to myself as a Browncoat now, but it took some getting used to.

  • BarakiEl

    Hehe, well put together. I knew this on some level, but you put it into words for me. It’s all ok, don’t you see? Because that is what makes it interesting. You know a writer is good when they can manipulate you into rooting for the “bad guys”, or to put it differently: they make the bad guys look good. This show does that wonderfully, don’t you think? 🙂
    About the political background issues you mentioned, perhaps Whedon would have fleshed it out more if there were more seasons…?

  • J Kenton Pierce

    Well, if you ignore the legalized slavery, forced relocation of “settlers”, surveillance state, class inequity, and mass-scale human medical experimentation, and indoctrination-based educational system, then no, the Alliance wasn’t that bad. Only true villains would oppose a nice, tidy, well organized Authoritarian state.

  • craig bowes

    Mmmm…he makes some good points but I think this is primarily trollbait. The idea that River had powers that would have started punching holes in the moon and would have to be controlled is far more speculation then the “good” of the alliance. The alliance has no problem sending just as evil bounty hunters (Jubal) and assassins (The operative) to cover up what they did to Simon and River, return them to torture, slavery and death and kill thousands to do it. All levels of the military seem to be involved, not just a lone, renegade, “Section 31”-esque organization. And Mal was completely justified, ethically, to expose the Miranda Project, because there was good evidence it could happen again. I also don’t think there there was much chance of an overnight rebellion which would reignite the war. The author even admitted, insiders in the Alliance itself would be horrified and hopefully induce some change from within.

    The Serenity crew are mostly morally ambiguous true. They walk a gray line and have to deal with criminals and psychos, precisely because you get the sense there is nothing else the alliance will let them do, seeing how they don’t have education, wealth or inside connections. The Alliance isn’t pure evil by any means, but Mal mostly just wants to be away from it, not bring it down at any cost. Its only when it gets in his way or starts hurting people. I think part of the joy of the series is watching Mal and other characters (even Jayne) grow morally and spiritually throughout the series and movie. They also risk their lives on many occasions to help people on the fringe. Its not black vs white, but one shade of gray vs another. Criminals…yes. Villains, no.

    In any case, a interesting read and fun to think about and good trollbait. 🙂

  • corvinity

    Firefly is, in a way, a fairly balanced consideration of the relative merits of anarchism/libertarianism (Mal, etc.) and law-and-order conservatism (the Alliance). At the extreme, letting everybody do what they want and fend for themselves leads to people like Niska running places, and a general background of violence and insecurity. At the other extreme, giving some people the authority to make everything run well for everyone else leads to the ends-justify-the-means attitude of the Operative and severe ends/means miscalculations like Miranda. For anyone really paying attention, neither the Browncoats nor the Alliance are good guys, and neither are entirely bad guys.

    The character arc we do see is that Mal goes from being a rebel without a cause (because goddamnit nobody gets to tell me what to do), to being a rebel with a cause, and that cause is making sure that everyone choosing Alliance security over rebel freedom knows exactly the size of the tradeoff they’re making.

    They still might decide it’s worth it though, and maybe it is. Or maybe Mal’s whistleblowing will force some reform short of revolution that will lead to something a bit better than either of the above alternatives.

  • Periwinkle

    I felt that a defining moment in Serenity/Alliance morality was in the pilot, when the Serenity crew activate the “Cry Baby” – a decoy distress beacon.

    Not only does this particular Alliance ship give up hot pursuit to give aid, they must to so often enough for the Cry Baby to be the Serenity’s preferred means of escape.

  • Aaron Pound

    Without getting into any of the other points, assuming that the Alliance is a democracy because it has a parliament seems to be a bit of a stretch. There are plenty of examples of governments in the world that have parliaments that are not, by any conceivable definition of the word, democracies.

  • Renehta Tibet Wilcox

    Hmmm… I think parts of this are really right and parts of it are a little off. First of all, I think we need to remember that Mal is basically a walking cocktail of PTSD and resentment, whether or not it’s as explicit as the damage is with River, he’s damaged as all hell. And while he may be pretty villainous, like, damn some of that made good points, I don’t think Miranda is the best example. First, it was also an entire planet, undoubtedly with billions of lives that the alliance accidentally ended, additionally, now reavers run free throughout the galaxy, murdering, raping, destroying entire towns, and the alliance literally pretends that they don’t exist. So to say the alliance is all sunshine and roses outside of one bad kabal is pretty problematic since it’s clear that the reavers are pretty out and about. This would suggest a much higher level of cover-up than previously suggested. Just remember the way Simon talked about reavers, a high level, educated, Alliance doctor thought that they were campfire stories. Mal and the crew though knew exactly what they were and exactly what they were dealing with.
    Plus, plenty of their crimes involved under the table help for fringe communities, like delivering and selling medicine, or delivering an entire herd of cattle that otherwise couldn’t be sold off world. It shows that while they definitely are criminals, and plenty of their crimes ARE bad, some of their crimes are also good and an effort to circumvent a very controlling government.
    Also, the scene where Book, before showing his id card is too expendable to warrant medical help is another example of the “badness” of the alliance. Remember in The Train Job when the medicine is stolen, but the alliance won’t lift a finger to help, even with people already stationed on the planet? Mal could have gotten away clean with that and the Alliance would have done jack to stop it.
    I’m not saying “Alliance always bad” because it’s clear that they’re not, but there’s some pretty compelling evidence to dislike them, and when you see the planets on the rim that evidence is definitely cemented, but then you have to wonder why so many would choose that life if life on the central planets is so great?
    I don’t know, parts of this definitely sold me, other parts didn’t. I also think the series being completed would have shown us a lot more with the alliance, because there was some pretty fucked up stuff going on, especially with Shepard Book. Overall though, great post!

  • Lauren's Loquacious Literature

    If reading Young Adult Fiction has taught me anything it is that those in power are clearly wrong and only I am special enough to realise it and take the bastards down.

    I do agree, Mal and his gang are openly criminal and I think we’re all lucky that Jayne is gainfully employed because the Jayne that works in an office goes home and cuts people up in his basement while listening to Mozart. At least this way, most of the people he maims are also wielding guns and intent on shooting him back.

    In reference to Inara though, she CHOSE to leave the inner planets of the Alliance and I know there are plenty of references to her being ill and most likely terminal, she chose to come aboard Mals ship knowing full well what he did and what clientèle she was likely to now be dealing with.

    The reason she and book left is explained in the graphic novel between the series and the movie but it’s been a few years and I can’t quite remember. But Book was clearly running from something too.

    As to why I think Mal might have done what he did – I’m sure to a certain extent propaganda played it’s role. But he grew up on a horse ranch – certainly likely to be an outer planet lifestyle. Quite possibly, confident in the knowledge that no higher ups would risk getting horse shit on their fancy shoes, some local authorities took advantage of that and started abusing their power – we sure as hell have plenty of Earth examples of that and there are plenty of horrifying things people do when they get a taste of power.

    It is having her little sister thrust into the arena that gets Katniss to rebel and it is the propaganda of the Mockingjay that is thrust upon her that inspires her to fight back. It is the threat of Four’s Divergence, as well as what is being done to all her friends, that forces Tris to stand up and fight. It is the reading of forbidden poems and denial of the tools of self expression that inspires Ally Condies Cassia to questions what she has been told and seek new answers.

  • Let's be bad guys! Or good guys? | Geekdom House

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  • Xanthë

    Apologies in advance for such a long comment, long after the blogpost was written. I meant to read and respond to this at the time I saw it flash past on social media, but I didn’t have the time, so I think I can be forgiven for a heavy clunker of a posting a fortnight after everyone else has already moved on.

    I too have a slightly unreasoning love for the Serenity/Firefly universe (which I came to from that angle, seeing the film in the movie theatre before I saw the series): I love the fact it’s gritty and textured, it feels rough and ready, and thoroughly lived in, and I enjoy seeing a sci-fi future setting with lots of planets that doesn’t have aliens of the week with make-up variations of wearing prosthetic foreheads on their real heads. It feels like the sort of future that might be an appealing place to live in, with lotsa planets and spaceships and horses, albeit a dangerously lawless one, so I readily agree that Mal and his crew are villains. But I don’t think you’ve gone far enough: the Serenity/Firefly is a horrifying future dystopia that no one should want to live in.

    It’s five hundred years in the future, so there’s obviously a lot of time for a wide sweep of history to have occurred. It sounds like the US and China denuded the Earth-that-was and were the only powers to survive comprehensively trashing the biosphere, for so many to have fled on generation ships to a different star system with a myriad of terra-formable planets and moons within close reach of one another – how that worked was never quite explained by Joss Whedon, but I assume it’s a multiple star system of dwarf stars with several configurations of tightly bound planets only a few light years away (which probably doesn’t exist, even with our burgeoning discoveries of exoplanets). Presumably back on Earth-that-was, billions of people are living in appalling circumstances on a gutted, devastated world.

    So exploring an alternate solar system with habitable Earths v. 2.0, 3.0, and so on up to arbitrarily large n, Whedon reportedly wanted a sci-fi series where there’d still be people needing to find a job, going about daily life, and getting on with mundane things after a major conflict, which he modelled on the US Civil War, and I lean towards Steve Slowinskive’s interpretation above that this isn’t necessarily modelling the conflict around a social evil like slavery. If Whedon had intended the Alliance/Independents to be regarded as an un-nuanced, exact parallel with the Union/Confederacy, then the entire series would be nothing more than much belated apologetics for the South, and that seems highly doubtful: the war of unification wasn’t fought over slavery, which still exists after the fighting is done.

    There’s a deleted scene from the first Serenity (the original TV pilot, not the film) where Zoe describes to Simon the aftermath of the battle of Serenity Valley, and how the generals negotiated the peace for a week before sending in the relief operations – in which time thousands more soldiers died, to add to the half a million already killed in the two months of fighting. That underscores that whichever side had the ‘rights’ of the conflict, neither of them possess any moral humanitarian impulses. Mal, Zoe, and any number of the Alliance authorities seen in the series are made in the image of their resepctive societies.

    It seems the inner worlds are a corporate kleptocracy little different to today, with a ridiculously rich 1% living lives of dubiously-acquired wealth and luxury (the indolent Atherton Wings of Persephone sneering at the nouveau riche social climbers, say, or the bio-weapon expert, neighbourhood-exterminating Durran Haymer of Bellepheron living in a ‘gated community’ in the sky), who are economically dominating a wage-slave majority; and the Miranda experiment demonstrates how the Alliance wanted to literally anaesthetise the masses (with the ‘Pax’) as a means of social control.

    The ‘parliament’ seems to be a monoculture lacking any fundamental commitment to human rights as the police forces can be easily corrupted in spite of living in a continuously-monitored panopticon, and the rule of law conveniently ignored whenever power or money speaks, represented by the actions of an unnamed Operative (authorised by the government) or the ‘two by two, hands of blue’ assassins from the Blue Sun corporation (given sanction by money), each of whom have a licence to kill with no visible oversight of their activities.

    The lawless outer worlds obviously appeal to the libertarian “I’ve got mine” crowd who one feels would be singing “I don’t care, I’m still free, You can’t take my guns from me” if the show were set in the present day US, but for reasons that should be clear even to that insular demographic, a society of several dozen worlds existing in social anarchy with a cavalier attitude to life would be an even more horrible place to dwell than the Wild West ever was. (Being another Aussie, I find the evocation of a culture so obviously modeled on US principles to be outlandish and misgoverned, even allowing for it being fictionalised.)

    I also consider it slightly horrific that five hundred years of future history hasn’t been enough time to make slavery and torture (Higgins in ‘Jaynestown’), religious ignorance and bigotry (Doralee in ‘Safe’), or vile homophobia and threats of punitive (rather than rehabilitative) incarceration (the vile, corrupt cop Womack in ‘The Message’) less palatable to humanity – if this is how much Whedon imagines things will have improved five hundred years from now, should we give up all hope for humanity now?

    So the more I perhaps overthink the meaning of the show, it seems to me Firefly and Serenity are an authoritarian nightmare of the future, not a dream of frontier rebellion. If Mal and the crew are villains, then they’re not alone, as it’s arguable few in that entire society can claim no blood on their hands.

  • serenityhewitt

    The one thing I will say, in response to the Civil War reference, is that Whedon actually reverses their positions about slavery. The women at the party on Persephone, the comments in the bar — the brown coats were apparently on the abolitionary side of the division. So, you do have that. Of course, we never actually SEE slaves (which is disconcerting), but they are mentioned on a number of occasions, and slaveholding is consistently associated with The Alliance.

    • Alana

      Pretty sure that the Mudders were, if not slaves, indentured servants who probably didn’t make enough money to actually do anything else – like the “company store” setup of the 1800s & 1900s

  • The Week in Review: March 8th, 2015 | The Literary Omnivore

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  • Link Archive 2/4/15 – 3/31/15 » Death Is Bad

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  • Robert Mostertman

    I think Joss Whedon made the Alliance post-WTC USA. Their regardless desire to spread “democracy” around the world, is very similar to USA’s. It’s a fact that they have experimented with mind control as well. The USA has been morally dubious for many years. They think they do the right thing, but usually mess things up a lot more (see Iraq).

    Serenity’s crew is lawless, not necessarily evil, but definitely morally dubious as well. I’d say anyone that shows so little regard for human life is morally dubious.

  • Stag

    You must not think much of Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden.

  • » Joss Whedon, sports analogies and peeing on your allies #SFFLove A.M. Dellamonica - words and pictures

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  • Focusing Blur

    I just found this post and while it’s a nice breakdown it’s also completely obvious from the get-go that they’re “bad guys”. Toting that revelation around like it’s big news might not go down well with the fans of the show. Wash literally says it in the very first episode: “We’re bad guys. If everything was right we’d be in jail.”. Part of what makes the show so interesting and the characters so damn likeable in the first place is that it shows us that what we usually think of as bad guys — thieves, killers, fugitives, scavengers, bounty hunters, etc. — aren’t just “bad guys”: they have feelings as well, and more often than not a pretty damn good justification for why they’re thievin’ and killin’. It also helps that most of the time they’re going up against even worse bad guys, of course.

    I do like how Joss Whedon took elements that we associate with bad things and gave them to the protagonists of his show — “browncoats” sounds an awful lot like “brownshirts”, no? As for the confederacy I recall Mal making a reference to that in the episode where he starts a bar fight: When his opponent says he thinks he needs to be put down, Mal retorts with “I’m thinking we’ll rise again”. I don’t believe the choice of words there was a coincidence.

    • Alana

      Blur, right there is why I didn’t watch Firefly at first – between the oblique reference to Brownshirts (ugh) and the ‘South Will Rise Again’ stuff, it gave me the willies despite the crew’s many charms and my love for both sci fi and Westerns. The show came and went unmourned by me, then in 2005 my husband dragged me to see Serenity, and I LOVED it.

      I binge-watched the entire series on DVD, and I was hooked. Not just hooked… changed.

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