If I had to pick the two central characters of Firefly’s pilot, they would be Mal (obviously) and Simon, though Simon doesn’t really come into his own until the second half of “Serenity”. The two share numerous scenes and moments of verbal sparring, coming to blows twice, and face their own mini-arcs into becoming heroic characters. Both of these arcs share a common trait, which is that of a rising hero: Mal and Simon are initially presented as men more inclined to reasonable act than pulling guns, but eventually face unavoidable fight or flight instances that showcase some of their inner assets.
When the second half of “Serenity” kicks into gear, we’re somewhat established with both Mal and Simon. Mal is a haunted war veteran, bowed under with the pressure of offloading an illegally salvaged cargo and keeping his ship flying. Three times, we’ve seen him run away from trouble without offering much fight at all. Simon, a more mysterious figure, is a man with a dark secret, willing to barter the life of Kaylee to escape from Alliance justice.
As previously discussed, Simon is quickly made into a more sympathetic figure, with the reveal of River and his monologue on her story, escape, and the siblings’ hope of finding a safe place to get away from the Alliance maniacs who messed with her brain. Mal, not terribly impressed, describes it simply as “a tale of woe. Very stirring.” The two men were already cast against each other because of Kaylee, and Mal isn’t letting go of that, threatening to murder Simon if Kaylee doesn’t pull through.
This decision doesn’t sit too well with anyone on the ship, and numerous conflicts bubble to the surface in the babble that follows: the things left unsaid between Mal and Inara, Zoe’s loyalty to the captain and how this doesn’t sit well with Wash, Jayne’s general stupid bloodthirstiness, Book’s refusal to stand by and see killing happen.
Mal walks away, running from conflict again, but is accosted by Simon. This scene in the hallway is an odd one, which I guess was shot early in production. The dialogue isn’t delivered as well, the camera is weirdly shaky and the whole scene itself seems rather unnecessary, just a rehashing of the Mal/Simon conflict, complete with Mal laying him out for the second time in ten minutes. Simon is full of bluster and bravado here for a moment, taunting Mal to an extent that is both uncharacteristic and sort of crazy, but is put in his place firmly.
There follows a cooling off period. Mal leaves Dobson to Jayne’s whims, and later has a passive reaction to the Reaver ship that comes perilously close. Neither moment is untoward or unwise – the first planned, the second the optimum reaction – but again shows Mal as a man seemingly unlikely to be proactive in his own defence. Simon is much the same, having nothing to do but stand by River during the Reaver moment. Later, the first hints of the cooling between Mal and Simon are borne, and by who else but Kaylee, who in an adorably drugged up state, insists that Mal remember that Simon would never have actually let her die.
The second confrontation occurs in the next scene, a sequence that has a very noticeable swing between drama, maudlinity and comedy. This time it’s Inara getting between the two men, much to Mal’s annoyance. On the catwalk, Mal is suddenly letting loose in a more emotional way, demanding answers of Simon about the fate of Dobson, before dropping the horrifying news that Kaylee has died, heavily implying that Simon is next. Cue Simon’s slow-mo rush to the infirmary and the sad music, only to discover Mal has been playing him for a chump.
It’s a weird practical joke, and maybe I don’t think it works as well as I used to. Mal and the crew are in a dire situation, so you’d think they wouldn’t have time to be pulling this sort of stuff off, but I it does show the more overtly lighter side of Mal and the other chief crewmembers, hamming it up in the bridge afterwards. This second confrontation between the two men could also be seen as a test of Mal’s for Simon, whom he is starting to acknowledge in friendlier terms already, noting the fine job he did patching up Kaylee. Maybe Mal wants to question Simon’s mettle with the talk of Dobson, though the results are iffy.
Anyway, Mal has other things to think on, namely making the deal with Patience. It all goes swimmingly. Too swimmingly, leading to Mal’s outward show of frustration with the ships’ current run of luck. Mal could still walk away, dump the cargo and try to find other means of employment, but he won’t lower himself to “begging for Alliance make-work”. You get the sense of a man who did not buy this ship just to be a criminal, but has been forced into it by necessity, and now even that isn’t working out, much to his irritation. All Mal wants is to do the job and get paid. The plan is going ahead, indicating a more proactive, in-your-face style of leadership from Mal.
The finale of the episode then takes place both on Whitefall and on Serenity, with both Mal and Simon showcasing a more obvious kind of heroism and courage. For Mal, just making a stand is enough, as Jayne openly questions whether he will actually refuse to flee in the face of Patience’s likely assault. Mal is poetic in this moment, remarking that the reason why they are special is because everyone else always has an advantage over them. The resulting deal, in a place that looks an awful lot like Serenity Valley, perhaps meant as a tie-in, perhaps just budget constraints, is a tense one.
Meanwhile, back on Serenity, Dobson gets free and takes River hostage, directly threatening Simon’s very raison d’être and forcing him to be more of a direct hero than before, with the added spice of a Reaver induced time limit on everything happening.
The deal with Patience predictably goes south, and there is a moment, between Mal throwing the money back to her and the shooting actually starting, that you think Mal might actually leave it be and walk away again. Certainly, the man that we have seen thus far, choosing discretion over valour numerous times, we might well expect to not force the confrontation.
For Mal, killing is the breaking point. He openly tells Patience that there is no need for it, essentially implying that they can all go their separate ways. But Patience isn’t going to settle for that. That last constraint removed, Mal happily initiates a gunfight, firing the first shot, and refusing to be pushed around anymore.
The resulting battle is short and to Mal’s advantage, though he is careful not to go too blood-crazy, shooting bad guys in the leg, and looking rather annoyed when he is forced to shoot Patience’s horse to take care of her. But at the end of everything, all he does is take his money and leave, Patience granted her life. Mal enunciates his feelings clearly, with sarcasm mixed in:
Now I did a job. I got nothing but trouble since I did it, not to mention more than a few unkind words as regard to my character so let me make this abundantly clear. I do the job. And then I get paid. Go run your little world.
If Mal has another defining statement, one for the end of an episode, this is it. This is all that he wants out of life.
Back on the ship, Simon performs a death defying leap from Serenity’s catwalks in order to get the literal drop on Dobson, a moment of unabashed physical courage and danger that is an unexpected as it is thrilling. The Simon we’ve seen so far is no action hero, but still flings himself into the fray willingly. The man willing to do this is no measly antagonist, it’s someone that we can get behind.
Held at gunpoint, Dobson tries to talk Simon down, and it’s here that some of Simon’s established weaknesses do start to show again. In the spur of the moment, he can make brutal decisions, but with his enemy given the time to speak, Simon starts losing his resolve, reminded that he comes from the core of civilisation and doesn’t have it in him to be a killer. This weakness – because it is a weakness, out here on the edge of the universe – allows Dobson to get the upper hand again. So, while Simon might be a slightly more heroic person than he was a moment ago, he’s still the same established character.
And just in the nick of time comes Mal up the gangway, shooting Dobson in the eye before the lawman can even finish his sentence. The casualness of this moment is meant to be more than a little comedic, an Indiana Jones reference of sorts, but also carries a deeper meaning. The proactive heroic and “shoot first” Mal that came into being before our eyes in the showdown with Patience is here now, and he doesn’t have time for this nonsense in his cargo bay, lawman or no lawman. Down goes Dobson, an inconvenient problem that has to be dealt with, and fast, what with the Reavers swooping down any minute. No more Mr Nice Mal. Here is the deadly, uncompromising protagonist of Firefly, still sympathetic (because who is going to sympathise with Dobson?), but a man we now know is not to be messed with.
Sometimes I’ve wondered if it might not have been better for Simon to kill Dobson, even if it was more a reflex pulling of the trigger than a cold-blooded decision to open fire. That could have marked his transition into uncivilised territory, while tying back into Mal’s probe of earlier as to whether it would be Simon “taking care” of the Dobson problem. But maybe it’s better this way. Simon is no killer, but Mal is, and in a way Mal’s shooting of Dobson adds an additional layer to this. Mal deals with Patience and her gang with violence because he is forced to it. Dobson isn’t directly threatening Mal when he dies, but he is threatening innocents. Mal isn’t going to stand for that.
Mal and Simon, their respective journeys having intertwined significantly throughout “Serenity” share the final scene of the episode on the bridge. Mal offers Simon, and by extension, his sister, a place on the crew, crucially noting that, while Simon’s intelligence is still up in the air as far as he is concerned, he isn’t weak. This is something that Simon has proven, not least with that leap onto an armed Dobson. Mal is a man who, while he might not like Simon very much, can appreciate strength in numerous forms.
Simon remains suspicious, that Mal is going to turn around and kill him someday when he isn’t looking, a declaration that is surely fed by Mal’s shooting Dobson in such a cold fashion. Mal isn’t having any of it, confidently declaring that if he ever shoots Simon, Simon will be facing him and armed, a moment that seemed, to me anyway, to be foreshadowing something in the future, though we never got to find out.
Both men then leave this last conversation satisfied. Simon has found a relatively safe place for him and River, Mal and his ship are “still flying”, something Mal declares to be simply “enough” just before the credits roll. It’s the simple rewards for Mal and Simon then: a roof over the head and the ability to keep moving forward.
Here are Firefly’s two primary heroes then, one a space cowboy gunslinger with a conscience, though it won’t trouble him too much on occasion, the other a civilised man on the run, and experiencing a very different world. In the course of “Serenity”, especially it’s second half, we see them grow into those hero roles in different ways, through physical courage and mental resolve, and prove themselves the kind of protagonist that Firefly can base itself around: compelling, understandable, sympathetic, brave in the face of villainy and danger, and, most importantly of all, through the confluence of all these things, human.