Oh Captain, My Captain: Mal Reynolds, Anti-Anti-Hero

Note: this isn't really a review of Serenity, more a reflection of the fact that the film finally allowed me to crystalize some of my thoughts about Mal's character. As such, there are plenty of spoilers ahead. If you're looking for reviews, here are some interesting ones from Gary Westfahl at Locus Online, Strange Horizons (a double review, from the perspective of a Firefly fan and a newbie), fellow Readerville-ian Peter Cashwell, and The Washington Post. Also see John Scalzi and Alan DeNiro on what Serenity's box office means for the chances of a sequel.

Like teenage girls with superpowers, Joss Whedon can't seem to keep away from the concept of heroism. With his first effort, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he dealt with the most conventional form of hero--the chosen one. There were twists to his version of the story in that his chosen hero was a flighty blonde girl who would have preferred a trip to the mall to saving the world, but ultimately Buffy's story boils down to a person who is chosen by destiny to save the world. With Angel, Whedon moved one step away from tradition by positing a hero who was, fundamentally, just a guy. Although gifted with superhuman strength and something nearing immortality, Angel was in temperament and inclination an ordinary person who chose to shoulder a burden he was unequal to. However, Whedon chose to set Angel's story in a universe in which good and evil were distinct, identifiable entities--they may have been called The Powers That Be and The First instead of God and The Devil (for an emphatically self-proclaimed atheist, Whedon sure took a long time to wean himself away from these notions of powerful protective and destructive entities), but their function remained unchanged. Within the Buffy and Angel universe, there existed forces for good, and a battle for good, that our heroes, although they could never understand or hope to win them completely, could join with the knowledge that they had some flavor of benign divinity on their side.

When we first meet Mal Reynolds (or, when we were first supposed to meet him, for those of us who watched "The Train Job" before "Serenity"), he genuinely believes that he lives in the Buffyverse. Despite being in the middle of a war zone, Mal is exuberant, cramming more joy into a few minutes than we see from him in the entire run of the show and the movie put together, and he might tell his frightened soldier that it's because "We're too pretty to die", or himself that it's because of his faith in God, but what it all boils down to is that this Mal believes in a moral universe. He might never put it this way, but he believes that there exists a force for good, and that a person who gives their all to a good and worthy cause will find the universe on their side (or at least on their cause's side). But of course, with Firefly, Whedon has moved away from the notion of any sort of moral authority that exists outside of ourselves. Firefly's universe mirrors our own in that it is fundamentally unfair, which is the lesson that Mal learns when the Independents surrender and his heart breaks into a thousand tiny, jagged pieces.

And from that point until the final shots of Serenity and probably after, Mal is furious. He's enraged at the universe for disabusing him of his belief that he lived in a world in which heroism was possible. Any other man would have been defeated, would have succumbed to nihilism and hopelessness (as we saw Angel do more than once) but Mal's anger won't let him do that. He vacillates between heroism and selfishness, never quite facing up to the notion that it is possible, albeit extremely difficult and ultimately unsatisfying, to be a force for morality in an amoral universe (something that Book tries to teach him in their penultimate scene together). Mal's broken heart tells him that heroism doesn't exist, that acting selflessly will have no meaningful consequence, and that he should take care of himself alone, and he listens to that heart quite often. But whatever it was that once made Mal believe in some good greater than himself sank its roots deep, and Mal constantly returns, furious and reluctant, to a fight that he doesn't truly believe in. As Inara so accurately puts it in Serenity, Mal's character is impossible to nail down because he keeps changing his mind about it. It's not just, as my brother put it after seeing the film, that we can't decide whether Mal is a hero or a complete bastard--we can't decide what kind of hero, or what kind of complete bastard, he is.

More than any other Whedon show, Firefly played with our stereotypical notions of heroism--mostly because it was grounded in the forms of a genre, the Western, that even more than epic fantasy is synonymous with a stark distinction between shining white good and deep black evil (it'll be interesting, one of these days, to talk about Firefly in relationship to that other reimagined modern Western, Deadwood), and with very codified notions of how heroes should behave. Although the writers usually used this breaking of stereotypes for comic relief (while rescuing Mal from a gangster who's been torturing him, Zoe announces that the crew should hang back, as Mal needs to deal with the man on his own. Mal: "No, I don't!"), it's also a reflection of the show's central theme--the impossibility of heroism in the mundane world.

Possibly the most fascinating and tangled aspect of Serenity is the parallel drawn between Mal and The Operative. Whereas Mal has discarded his idealism--allowed it to be burned up by his rage--thus turning himself into the kind of man who would choose a stolen payroll over a man's life, The Operative has sublimated himself--discarded his humanity--in the service of an ideal, and it's a hallmark of Firefly's twisted take on morality that the former is the hero and the latter the monster. They're both wrong, of course, and yet they both have an insight into the very aspect of humanity that they've chosen to turn away from--love. Serenity begins and ends with these two men musing over the power and danger of love, and the fact is that it is Simon's love for River, and her love for him, that enable the truth about what happened on Miranda to be known--a love that neither The Operative, nor Mal, are capable of expressing.

Because, of course, Mal is afraid. Like most people burned by love, he's wary of letting it back into his heart. And because he is fundamentally a big, melodramatic baby, he's incapable of sucking in that fear and confronting it. Having sunk his emotional capital into an ideal and watched it fade away, Mal turns around and gives his heart to something he can touch and control--a ship. Serenity is a piece of Mal's soul, and his only meaningful interactions with other humans go through that steel buffer. The people Mal loves are his crew, not his family, and although they are no less holy and important to him for that fact, he can never let himself interact with them in any capacity other than as their captain (his final benediction to Book is to tell the dying man that Mal still considers him a member of his crew).

All of which boils down to the fact that Mal Reynolds really needs a big hug, and a sharp swift kick to the head, not necessarily in that order. But more importantly, someone needs to tell Mal to get over himself and grow up.

But will he? If Serenity has a theme (beyond 'we'd really like to let everyone know what the deal is with River and why the Alliance is after her'), it is the fundamental wrongness of trying to force people to be better than they are. Is this possibly a sign to the viewers, who were looking forward to a long, cathartic journey for Mal, at the end of which he'd be happy and well-adjusted and would marry Inara and have lots of babies? Unlike Buffy or Angel, most of Firefly's characters are adults whose character, for better or worse, is already fixed. There will be no journeys into adulthood for Mal, which is probably for the best--it would be a shame to lose one of the most fascinating, conflicted characters in modern SF.


SFP said…
Fantastic, Abigail, just fantastic. I look forward to reading what you write about Deadwood.
Anonymous said…
It's a fascinating analysis. I disagree with a couple of points, but a wonderful examination nonetheless.

The universe isn't inherently unfair; it just inherently is. People assign values of fair or unfair, just or unjust to events that in many cases are simply amoral. I think you are right in that what we see broken in the (original) pilot is Mal's ability to see the universe through his own personal. moral filter. I disagree that we wouldn't see a recovering Mal as the hypothetical series continued; he's already doing so at the end of Serenity albeit still through the metaphor of his ship and crew.
Anonymous said…
This is certainly an interesting take on Mal's character.

I will say that for Mal, his crew IS his family - Whedon has a fondness for family of choice over family of birth, and this is no exception.

At the end of Our Mrs. Reynolds, he warns Saffron against coming after 'me or mine' ever again. The same phrasing pops up again in the movie when he first confronts the Operative. For a man who has lost everything, anybody that he considers 'his' is nothing less than family.

In many ways, it is how Mal attempts to bring order to his universe. He will protect 'his.' Anyone else is on their own, unless and until he decides otherwise.

I would also gently demur about Mal's driving force being anger. I think it more that his driving force is simply sheer, stubborn cussedness. His universe may have died, but he won't lay down and die with it.

Fillion himself has noted that Mal has no grand plans for his life. He just wants to survive the day.

It is Mal's oft-times conflicted journey beyond that which is so compelling.

I disagree that we wouldn't see a recovering Mal as the hypothetical series continued; he's already doing so at the end of Serenity albeit still through the metaphor of his ship and crew.

I tend to take the progress that Mal makes at the end of Serenity with a grain of salt. For one thing, at the beginning of the film, Mal is in a very dark place. Most of his progress in Serenity is just getting back to the baseline established in, say, "The Train Job", which is by no means that of a well-adjusted individual. Also, there are clearly differences between what we saw in Serenity and what the show's first few seasons would have been like, even though the basic story is the same. One of these differences is that, in the film medium, Whedon clearly felt more comfortable with making drastic changes to his universe (so, for example, killing off both Book and Wash). I'm not sure, therefore, whether we can draw conclusions about the hypothetical series from Mal's character arc in the film.

Finally, one of the reasons that I enjoy Joss Whedon as a writer of characters is that he understands that most of us don't ever truly change. We grow and learn, but usually we make the same mistakes over and over again. Buffy has one fundamental issue - how to be both the Slayer and a human being. Angel's issue is the impossibility and necessity of heroism. The process of growth that both of them experience isn't linear, but circular. Both of them keep coming back to that fundamental issue, albeit in different configurations, and each time learning a little more. I have to believe that the same would have been true for Mal, if the character had been given time to grow - he would have had his periods of certainty, in which he would feel able to connect emotionally to people and risk his heart, and then something would happen and he'd close himself off again. I don't think a person ever truly gets over being broken as thoroughly as Mal was, and I'm very sorry that we never got a chance to see him try.


I would also gently demur about Mal's driving force being anger. I think it more that his driving force is simply sheer, stubborn cussedness. His universe may have died, but he won't lay down and die with it.

Can we split the difference? How about if Mal's driving emotion is an injured sense of entitlement? He's pissed off at the universe for not living up to his personal sense of morality, and his actions throughout the series and the film are motivated to a great extent by a desire to give God or whoever it is that's watching a big 'up yours' - you thought you could break me. Well, you've got another think coming. I still think anger's a big part of it, but you're right that stubbornness is the reason that Mal is able to feel that anger instead of curling up into a ball and giving up.

Fillion himself has noted that Mal has no grand plans for his life. He just wants to survive the day

But see, that's part of Mal's conflict. Most of the time, he thinks of himself as the guy who is out to survive the day, take care of himself, his ship and his crew, keep his head down and keep flying. But he's also got a contradictory impulse towards heroics - he feels guilty for not saving the universe on a daily basis, even as he rationally recognizes that that's not possible in the real world.
Anonymous said…
I'm willing to split the difference. Is it anger? Yes. But anger nuanced by stubborness.

As for whether or not Mal really is just out to survive the day, this is why his journey to get beyond that is so contradictory. He spends much of his time taking one step up and two steps back. He decides to take Simon and River on board only to later be perfectly OK with abandoning them on Beaumonde.

And I am not so much a starry-eyed idealist to believe that Mal will not continue to do that self-same dance in the future. If getting out the message about the Reavers made him a Changed Man, he'd rapidly become boring and bland.
Jed said…
Very belated comment, having just happened across this old entry of yours:

Really interesting analysis; I don't agree with all of it, but well-written and thought-provoking.

But I wanted to make a minor side comment about a minor point of yours: I don't think the Western "is synonymous with a stark distinction between shining white good and deep black evil." There may have been some, perhaps even a lot, of Westerns for which that was true, but a lot of the great Westerns are pretty morally ambiguous, especially in their protagonists. Look at the Sergio Leone movies, or even the later John Wayne ones.

And I think a lot of Westerns are about the kinds of things that go on on a frontier, in the places outside the bounds of civilization, where doing what seems to be Right may involve doing things that wouldn't be accepted in the civilized world.
Hi Jed,

I'll bow to your expertise on the history of the Western, but it was my understanding that Leone and Wayne were responding to a prevalent mindset within the genre. I'm thinking, specifically, of The Lone Ranger, film serials, and all those other artifacts from which our stereotypical notions of what a Western is - white hats, black hats, etc. - derive.
Anonymous said…
Dear Abigail,

I have just discovered this post after re-watching Firefly and Serenity, asking what the future of Mal and his family (I mean, crew) would have been had the show continued. I thank-you for your essay, which I much enjoyed, and resonated with and expanded my understanding of the show.

At times, Mal Reynolds becomes the very thing he set out against, as Simon Tam accuses him of in the series pilot, saying that he ought to be working for the Alliance, since he would sell out Simon and River for a "pat on the head". In the Train Job, Mal takes a job with Niska, even knowing his reputation for cruelty and after witnessing a victim of Niska's torture. Mal doesn't seem to ask himself (often) whether he likes who he has become and if survival at the expense of his humanity, his ideals, is worth it. In Serenity, Mal asks River if she understands her part in all this, and then she cleverly slips back "do you?".

You mentioned the rage of the character, and it sometimes seems like Mal is persisting, surviving just to be an annoyance to the Alliance: as though his continued existence is pure defiance (hey, that rhymes).

It is as though the civil war is still going on inside Mal, a fight between giving in to his desire for roots, family, belief and a desire to be independent of nearly everything that could be taken from him ("You can't take the sky from me ..."). Mal can come off as unpredictable, constantly changing his mind as mentioned in your essay (Fanty and Mingo - "You're too unpredictable, Mal"). It's as though Mal were sabotaging his own chances for success, that by constantly living on the edge, he never has the opportunity to make roots, to believe in something other than surviving.

For me, Mal is a tragic character, but with the opportunity for redemption, through his relationships with his "family" and his continued resistance to the Alliance. It's just that he makes himself a slave to corrupt men like Badger or Niska to get food and fuel for his ship. I know this is part of the fun of the show, how Mal and his gang get into, and out of, trouble, but Mal could just as easily have decided to honorably protect others like the sheriff on Paradiso. It's to the credit of the writers that guest characters like the sheriff could be moral and just as clever, as our "heroes".

After having revealed the social engineering on Miranda, Mal could have become a part of a movement for cultural independence (if not military) for the outer planets, and I could see the character retiring to a ranch of his own, with Inara opening her own school, Simon a medical practice and the others running the ranch with him. A pleasant thought, anyways ...


Dean from BC, Canada

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