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.
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.
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.