I promise I’m not going to go on and on about Firefly’s pilot, but there was so much that caught my eye worth writing about, that I am going to dive back in to the first half of “Serenity” to have a look at some relationship dynamics, how they are set-up and how some fantastically simple techniques are used to flesh them out quickly.
Kaylee and Simon have a very sweet back and forth throughout the whole series, cliché in some measures, but just wonderfully warm and fuzzy in others. The precocious fun-loving engineer from the bad side of the universes’ tracks, the socially awkward and constantly foot-in-mouth rich doctor, and this constant, almost refreshing, “When are they going to?” as opposed to “Will they/Won’t they?”
And it all starts in “Serenity”, from very unlikely beginnings. In the first half of the pilot, the two basically have just two proper interactions, before Simon is desperately using her stomach wound as a crutch to get himself and River to safety (if I was to point to a flaw in their growing relationship, it’s that the two never really address what happened there between the two of them).
The first is in Simon’s opening scene. As I mentioned before, it’s framed with Simon, a quiet and mysterious man, well-dressed and looking very out of place, staring across at Malcolm Reynolds, with Kaylee right in the middle of them, foreshadowing the conflict later. Kaylee is, naturally, unfailingly polite in her introductions. In terms of her relationship with Simon though, it’s marked by a wistful smile she gives him as he walks away. It’s clear she likes him, and why wouldn’t she, this attractive looking guy, and this also introduces us to Kaylee’s more outwardly obvious manner when it comes to the opposite sex. Whedon revisited the whole moment for the film, and it was accomplished even more brilliantly there, with Jewel Staite injecting some serious wistfulness into the moment at its conclusion.
So, without the two really directly talking, Whedon has established that Kaylee is into Simon, but that Simon doesn’t realise. Later, as the crew and passengers sit down for dinner, the two get to interact properly. Some awkward, but amusing, quasi-flirting ensues, as Kaylee notes that Simon is so young to be a surgeon, and Simon hesitantly notes that Kaylee is young to be a ships mechanic. It’s more great, simple characterisation, with Kaylee being more upfront in her compliments, and Simon politely dabbing his mouth before replying. Still, he also gets to smile for the first time, seeming human to the audience’s eyes, as opposed to the stoic robot we’ve seen so far.
Of course, Jayne goes and ruins it (more in a second), his crude comment leaving Kaylee mortified and hurt, and Simon stunned silent. It’s a nasty moment, and Kaylee’s face is a picture of embarrassment at having her attraction to Simon so brutally pointed out by the ship’s moronic gunhand. It won’t be the last time either. While it’s easy to understand her embarrassment, it also speaks for the connection she’s already forming with Simon.
And from there we have to talk about Kaylee and Jayne. Jayne thoughtlessly abuses her in this scene, but it is important to note that you don’t sense any true maliciousness in it, Jayne is just being Jayne, saying stupid things because that’s just how his brain works. But I always saw a bit more to it in the pilot at least, in combination with a scene later. As Simon operates on Kaylee, we find Jayne staring intently through the window (and he was ready to murder Dobson over the shooting earlier). It’s easy to see a certain affection that Jayne has for Kaylee in all that, and maybe one that goes beyond friendship, which is certainly what I inferred when watching the pilot for the first time: Jayne likes Kaylee, which is why he made such a dumb comment on the dinner table, more out of annoyance that she was cozying up to the Doctor – Jayne’s opposite in so many, many ways – than any ill-feeling towards her. Nothing is spelled out for the audience, but there are enough signs there that this really isn’t some leap of logic.
The only thing against it is that Firefly doesn’t really go back to the idea, with no more scenes of a similar nature. It was a pilot, so Whedon may just have been leaving his options open (he has openly described the intended relationship as more sibling-like). But part of me wonders, if Firefly had been given the chance to be more than it was, if we might not have come back to this plot point at some time, of Jayne and Kaylee having to confront some awkward feelings for each other, with Simon involved in the equation too. And all of that set-up between the three takes place in the first half of the pilot, without an overt word about the possible romantic entanglements actually being spoken.
I’ve spoken of looks without dialogue already, and the relationship introduction between Mal and Inara contains plenty of that too. The moment serves admirably to make Mal into a three dimensional character, showing a nasty, negative side to him the audience certainly wasn’t expecting, as he gleefully delights in making the holy man feel awkward by describing Inara’s job as “whore”. The fact that being a companion is a bit more complicated than that doesn’t throw Inara though, she gives as good as she gets. And, long before Peter Dinklage was doing the same, she takes up the insult and wears it like armour.
The back and forth between the two is amusing enough, if it wasn’t for the uncomfortable Book standing off to the side, the first clear victim of Mal’s battle-created atheism, but the ending of the scene also has an important moment. Inara has the final word and walks off with Kaylee, the conversation already forgotten to her, and Kaylee so used to it that she doesn’t even bring it up. But the camera lingers on Mal, suddenly alone on the catwalk, very alone, no longer smiling or joking, or looking smug and superior.
No, now adrift from people one more time, all he can do is gaze wistfully at Inara’s back, clearly already regretting his boyish antics. You can infer an attraction of course, that’s more than likely the point, but as Firefly and its film sequel will show, a running theme for Mal is his tendency, eventually, to force people away from him through his ill-thought out actions, and to regret those actions but do little to alleviate them. Inara in the series, Book, Simon and River in Serenity, they’ll all feel the same sting. It’s too easy to view Mal’s gaze as just a romantic pining I feel: it’s the look of a man who is more basically lonely.
Lastly, I’d like to talk about Mal and Jayne. In the first half of “Serenity”, they share a few scenes. The first few don’t really show us anything important about their relationship really. At Badger’s den, Jayne nearly causes a large amount of violence to erupt, but things are calmed down. As they head back to the ship, Jayne complains about the situation, and Mal basically tells him to stop talking, though he openly agrees with Jayne’s assessment. So far, while Mal is clearly the leader and Jayne’s boss, we’ve seen nothing to really indicate a firm hierarchy between them.
But then comes the dinner table scene. Jayne makes his thoughtless comment. And Mal’s reaction is a crucial moment, both for Mal and Jayne as characters, and for defining their relationship. Mal tells Jayne to “keep a civil tongue”. Jayne pushes back. Mal tells Jayne to “walk away from this table”, cutting him off, with the sternest possible look in his eye.
And Jayne walks. And without another word too.
See, this kind of characterisation and story-telling seems so simple, so it is frustrating why I don’t see more of it. Jayne has already been established as a tough, violent, gun-toting muscle man with a crude mouth and bad impulse control. But when Mal tells him to leave, he barely hesitates. He grumbles and makes sure to grab some food, but he leaves without any further discussion. There’s the hierarchy made plain. And there is Mal, made to look incredibly powerful in a character sense, somebody that Jayne actually fears, or respects in an odd way. The audience can immediately wonder why, and later in the series Mal’s superiority to Jayne will become much more overtly clear. But for this moment, all that we need to see to get the point is Mal making an order that leaves Jayne more than a little humiliated in front of the others, and Jayne following it without any repulse.
The four examples I’ve chosen have a lot to do with looks. Kaylee’s look at Simon, her embarrassed face later. Jayne’s laughter at Kaylee, and his later concern. Mal’s look back at Inara after the taunting is over. Mal’s authoritative look at Jayne. Looks are important. They can show far more than any long stream of expository dialogue. They can make or break characters, and relationships. And in Firefly, they make them.