Firefly: Defining Statements

I’m a big believer in the rule of the “defining statement” when it comes to film and television. During or shortly after their introduction, characters should have a definitive utterance, or action, which tells you something very important or inherent about their character, something that can be said to define them in a key way. The exact wording, the delivery and the context is all important, but every character needs it. It can be a “Save The Cat” moment or something more direct, but it should be there. It can be an obvious philosophical declaration (“I believe that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you…stranger”), an exploration of motivation or traits (“I feel…like butter scraped over too much bread”) or even an action that speaks louder than words (Vader looking around at the dead stormtroopers on the Tantive IV).

Firefly, in the pilot “Serenity”, is strong with its defining statements, or at least what I view as the defining statements, it is all sort of in the eye of the beholder. Let’s have a look at them one at a time.

Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds’ defining statement is easy to spot.  In many ways you could say that the dead look in his eyes that I previously discussed works, but I see that as more a death of the “old” war fighting Malcolm Reynolds and the beginning of the newer one, with the series (and the film) showing the way back to the first edition.

No, in Firefly, Mal’s true defining statement comes a few minutes later. Six years after the Battle of Serenity Valley, Mal dodges an Alliance ship while illegally salvaging a derelict vessel, avoiding arrest and making off with the cargo. It’s a moment of triumph really, of the underdog criminals thumbing their nose at the law and getting away with it.

But not for Mal, not really. As Jayne describes the affair as “a win” for them, Reynolds walks way and, in a tone of sadness and quiet frustration, utters:

Right. We win”.

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It’s easy to read the real meaning of these words, as Serenity’s escape is a paltry kind of success in comparison to the gigantic defeat of the Independents in the Unification War. But in terms of being a defining statement, it also works wonderfully. Those three words, and the manner in which Mal expresses them, says a lot: that he isn’t over the war and never will be, that he is dissatisfied with his current existence to a large extent and that this is a part of himself that is very personal – he says these words to himself and out of earshot of others. His is a private pain. There will be plenty more great character moments for Malcolm Reynolds in “Serenity”, but this defining statement is a great set-up for the post-war man. It also ties in very effectively to the final words of the episode, as Mal expresses more satisfaction for his current situation, proclaiming that “It’s enough” that he and his crew are “still flying”.

Zoe’s defining statement, coming even earlier, is way more simple, but no less powerful. In the midst of the brutal fighting on Serenity Valley, Malcolm Reynolds prepares to head out and try to take down the Alliance skiff that is plaguing his troops. Upon asking Zoe if she is ready to join him, she offers a firm, curt:

Always“.

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This establishes much that reams of exposition and flashbacks couldn’t do. We can infer that Mal and Zoe are long time friends and companions. We can infer that Zoe is below Mal on the ranking system, but that there is no hierarchical coldness between them. She’ll follow behind him and his lead, but they aren’t master and servant, officer and batman. She’ll just “always” be there with him. There’s courage there, friendship and loyalty. Later, the introduction of Wash adds an added dimension to the Mal/Zoe interaction, but key traits of hers are established with just this one word.

Speaking of Wash, his defining statement, or maybe moment would be better, is a lot more fun. It is of course, the dinosaur scene:

‘Everything looks good from here. Yes. Yes, this is a fertile land, and we will thrive. We will rule over all this land, and we will call it… “This Land.”’
‘I think we should call it “your grave!”’
‘Ah, curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!’
‘Ha Ha Ha! Mine is an evil laugh! Now die!’
‘Oh, no, God! Oh, dear God in heaven!’

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Wash is the first character introduced to have a playful, fun side, and that’s sort of his role on the ship. And it is set up wonderfully here, starting off with seriousness, like he’s on the lookout for bad guys, then turning into this childish game of fighting dinosaur figures. What we learn about Wash in this moment is that he doesn’t take life as seriously as others, that he has a vivid imagination for someone his age and a somewhat dark sense of humour. In time, he’ll contrast nicely with both Mal and, to a different degree, Zoe.

Jayne’s is a bit harder to pin down, because he is a character who tends to speak so bluntly and without any kind of finesse. I considered his “Let’s Moon ‘em!” as Serenity flees from the Alliance cruiser in the opening, but I found a slightly later line to be a bit more effective. After being forced to leave Badger’s HQ without the promised coin for their salvage job, a meeting that very nearly turned violent (thanks to Jayne’s running mouth) Jayne ponders:

“I don’t understand why we didn’t leave that sumbitch in a pool of his own blood.”

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If defining statements are about presenting characters in a nut shell, then here is Jayne in a nut shell. He’s crude and a satisfied user of violent imagery. He’s happy to resort to violence to solve problems as a preference, and not as a last option. And, perhaps most importantly, he’s also just not very smart, perfectly willing to start a confrontation that would most likely have gotten him and the others killed (as Mal points out almost immediately). If we hadn’t got the message already, it’s clear now: Jayne is the muscle, on the ship for his strength and his guns, and not his brain.

Kaylee is a bit different. When the crew escape from the Alliance cruiser at the start, and Mal, Jayne and Kaylee are left to put away the stolen cargo, we get the first glimpses of her personality proper, which is classic Kaylee: Relentless, unending, unbreakable cheeriness. And that’s summed up both by Kaylee’s last line in this early exchange, and the actions that accompany it. As Mal sarcastically ponders how Kaylee’s cheerfulness makes him sometimes want to “duct tape her mouth and dump her in the hold for a month”, Kaylee leans in and affectionately kisses him on the cheek.

“I love my captain.”

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This line and action are just so unbearably sweet, that it borders on saccharine. But that’s Kaylee. Everyone on the ship has their roles to play, and amid a lot of darkness and cynicism, there has to be unfailing light, and that’s Kaylee. Even here, in the midst of running from the law after picking a derelict ship clean, there has to be someone who remains unstoppably positive. Mal himself reinforces the point in the same scene: “I don’t believe there’s a power in the ‘verse could stop Kaylee from being cheerful.”

Simon is a tricky one. He actually has so few lines in the first half of “Serenity”, that if you were looking for a defining statement or moment, you’d have to look almost entirely at the visual. His introduction, when he stares across at Mal, Kaylee between them, or the suspicion engendered by the glimpse of Serenity’s doors closing in front of him might suffice. But since Simon doesn’t really come into his own until the second half of “Serenity”, you have to look there. And the defining statement, in my eyes, comes at the conclusion of Simon’s explanation for just why his sister is in a cyrobox in the cargo hold, and why the Alliance is after the two of them.

“I don’t know if she’ll be all right. I don’t know what they did to her, or why. I just have to keep her safe.”

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Simon, in the TV show, is largely defined by his relationship with his sister, at least in the early stages (a key part of the greatness of his own character throughout the course of the show is how he changes from that). River is everything to him, and all other things – his own comfort, prospects, career, his sense of right and wrong, even his freedom – are secondary. He’ll do anything to keep her safe from further harm, and anything to make her well again. After the coldness he exhibited in regards Kaylee’s gunshot wound, it’s vital that he is quickly established as a genuinely sympathetic character and in these lines that is accomplished.

Inara’s is hard to figure out, as her scenes in the early stages of “Serenity” seem so disjointed. We’re introduced to her in the middle of a sexual liaison, the aftermath of which rapidly turns awkward and hurtful, her arrival on the ship is marked by mean mud-slinging from Mal and reproaching looks from Book, and then next thing you know she’s bathing herself in her shuttle (a scene, I believe, even Whedon has admitted he wasn’t totally happy with including, though don’t quote me). In amongst all that, it can be hard to find a defining statement, as Inara is a character who plays things so close to her chest for so much of the show. But for me, I am struck by a simple line she delivers to the Alliance officer she is with in her first scene. After a brief discussion of her home planet, she explains why she is far away from there:

“I wanted to see the universe”.

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As a defining statement, this is more on the nose than many of the others, but it fits. Inara wanted out of her caged life back in the core, and she wanted to see the rest of what this universe had to offer. But there is still an air of secrecy to the statement: Just why did she want to see the universe? Is she running from something? And later, after we come to realise her role on Serenity, we have to ask why she wanted to see the universe in this battered old cargo ship? Inara seems refined, privileged, graceful and adored, so the audience is left hooked with the question of why she has gone so far from her roots.

Book’s defining statement might be the hardest to spot. He gets plenty of screen time in the pilot as one of the three additions to the established crew, but his dialogue can’t be said to be very much about him, save his spiel to Kaylee about wanting to wonder the worlds “for a spell” and a trite recounting of the “The journey is more important that the destination” soundbyte. In between sharing strawberries and wrestling the gun toting lawman to the ground, there are few moments that you could say define Book, who will become as big, or bigger, a mystery as Inara. But I was always struck by a repeated line Book utters in the pilot, first to the crew member of the Brutus who tries to solicit his business, and then to Kaylee, after they both dub him “Grandpa”.

 “I never married”.

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I’m not sure what it is exactly, but it seems an important line if Whedon felt the need to include it twice. The first time Book say’s it sort of distractedly, already moving on from the Brutus. The second time it’s a bit more pensive in tone. The audience can infer many things. Is there regret? Is there just dismissal? Is there annoyance? I don’t know exactly, but it does add something to the Book character, in the same way that Inara’s statement does for her.  On the face of it, it allows us to see Book as a lonesome man, a wanderer without attachments, at least not long-term ones. But I feel that there’s a hidden meaning, a mystery behind those three words. For me, I felt like Book was leaving something behind him at the “abbey” he claimed to have come from, something he wanted to get away from and forget.

River of course, is very different to the rest. Her utterances from start to finish range from nonsense talk to jargon with hidden meaning, so it’s difficult to gage much about her character from them. Instead, we must only look as far as appearance.

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Here is River as we first see her, at the conclusion of the first half of “Serenity”. The impression is easily made. She’s small. She’s fragile. She’s innocent. She’s child-like. She’s in some kind of trouble. All of this flashes through the mind as the dry ice fades away, and this strange girl is revealed, like a baby in a womb about to enter the world. And that is the River Tam who will dominate most of Firefly, before we really get into the strengths she’s hiding by “War Stories” and, of course, the film. She will be dependent on Simon for nearly everything and, while not exactly weak, it will be some time before she is shown to be as capable as the other crewmembers, in her own way.

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The first half of “Serenity” has a few other characters of course, outside of the main crew, who have defining statements of their own. Badger is a great example, because his defining moment is something so simple yet to laden with meaning, as he dresses down Mal while using a crank peeler to remove the skin from an apple, the act of a rich snob that Badger so clearly isn’t. That’s what he wants to be, or what he wants to be seen to be, and he makes sure that Mal and the others see him doing it, even though he doesn’t even eat the apple afterward.

And there is also Dobson, the law-man in disguise. Our second glimpse of him is when he trips up over a doorway in the ship, showing him up as a clumsy oaf. And while we might think, once the gun comes out, that this is just a persona he was putting on, it soon becomes clear that it isn’t: like the moron who tripped up in that scene, Dobson later waves a gun around and acts violently without any care for what he is actually doing.

Also present is the Captain of the Dortmunder, who doesn’t even get a name. But, as a character, he represents the Alliance, so his statements define that entire entity. When they scan the derelict vessel that Serenity is hiding in, the Captain, without a hint of genuine feeling declares that it’s loss is a “damn shame”, before wondering if there is any point in looking for survivors, with the tone of a man who really wants the answer to be “no”. It is no of course, and the other officer in the scene adds to the impression, declaring that it doesn’t really matter, as the ship was only carrying a skeleton crew anyway. Here is the Alliance that we will come to experience and despise: an emotionless bureaucracy on a grand scale, which pays some lip service to the deceased, before deciding that they really aren’t to be cared about at all. And that sentiment, that definition of the Alliance as a system that simply does not care about people, will come up in Firefly/Serenity again and again and again.

And those are, in my eyes, the defining statements of Firefly’s pilot.

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3 Responses to Firefly: Defining Statements

  1. Pingback: Firefly: Looks | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Firefly: Mal And Simon’s Heroic Journeys In “Serenity” | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: The Villain Checklist: Defining Statements | Never Felt Better

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