“The Train Job” circles around issues of morality. Namely, how desperate do you have to be, or how much are you willing to risk, in order to do the right thing?
Contrastingly, the episode also ends up asking in what circumstances is cold-blooded murder acceptable as an action, when undertaken by the nominal protagonist?
And, of course, how can you reconcile the two answers with each other in order to form a heroic character?
In the course of “The Train Job”, Mal discovers that the task he has been hired to do for Adelai “Rep-uh-tae-shun” Niska will doom an entire town suffering from a degenerative illness. Despite the loss of money the crew badly needs and the likelihood of incurring the enmity of Niska, Mal decides to go back on the deal, and return the medicine that he stole. Later, after defeating Niska’s chief henchman, the bulging tattooed “Crow”, Mal decides to kick him into one of Serenity’s engines when he does not prove open to Mal’s change of mind.
In terms of characterisation, the whole thing is clear enough. Whedon wants Mal to look heroic to the audience in two different ways. In the first instance, he makes a clear moral choice, putting the interests of complete strangers, a lot of them, over his own, and those of his crew. In the second, a moment with more than a hint of black comedy to it, he is meant to look like a heroic devil-may-care Han Solo-ish rogue type, a man not to be under-estimated and perfectly willing to, well, shoot first.
While “The Train Job” draws out the eventual reveal, Mal actually makes the decision to go back on the Niska deal very quickly. He’s horrified after getting off the train and seeing what the heist actually entailed. His revulsion is even more marked because of what we have seen up to that point: Mal was positivity giddy about pulling off the robbery while on the train, especially when it came with the chance to humiliate Alliance troops who were in an adjoining carriage. That glee extends to the rest of the crew too: Kaylee’s conversation with Simon as Jayne prepares for his “thrilling heroics” is marked by her cheerful answer of “Oh, crime!” when the doctor asks her what she’s doing. Jayne is later willing to abandon Mal and Zoe just to complete the transaction. For the crew of Serenity, stealing and plundering are all in a day’s work.
But still, Mal and Zoe are dumbfounded when it becomes clear that what they have stolen this time is something of greater value than money or even the super Nutrigrain bars they sold to Patience in the pilot. Mal describes the situation as “a nightmare” and while he keeps up his cover under the questioning of the town Sherriff, he turns the conversation to finding out more about what is happening, what disease the people are suffering from, and what exactly they are going to do now. He wants more information.
When he and Zoe eventually do get away, thanks to Inara, they instantly inform everyone that the deal is off and they’ll be returning the medicine, without anymore debate. I think Mal decided the moment he got off the train and saw what was what in the town that he needed to do this, but just so long as it was in a manner that wouldn’t get himself thrown in jail. Whether it is because Serenity’s crew is just used to stealing from the rich, or because this kind of job is just a step too far, Mal simply does not have the lack of empathy to leave the town and its people to their fate.
He’s sharply, and deliberately, contrasted with the Alliance itself. The “Feds” on the train fail totally to do anything about the theft in the first place, and the corpulent Commander we see onboard the cruiser later couldn’t care less, ordering the same troops to move along and for the situation to be subsequently ignored, an issue beneath his notice. The Alliance, again, is seen as the impersonal, uncaring machine of bloated bureaucracy, while Mal, the Browncoat, still see’s people as people.
The second question is certainly more complex. We have to remember that Crow initiates a fight with Mal when it becomes clear that the deal is off and Serenity’s crew are trying to walk away, a situation that he cannot tolerate. Mal is able to win out in the following fight, but doesn’t kill Crow or his goons then and there.
Instead, he tries to talk it out. You can infer some moral righteousness in this too, but for me it was more simple self-preservation: Mal knows that Niska is a man to be feared, and is willing to try anything to try and get the slate wiped clean. Crow rejects this offer, and resumes his threats, promising to hunt Mal down and kill him personally.
So, Mal takes the initiative and kicks Crow into the engine. We can view this as an act of necessity – it is easily believed that Crow is going to come back and kill Mal one day if he lets him go – or as an act of warning or even an act of bloodthirsty murder. In the end, I choose to take it as a little of all three, with Mal reacting the only way he knows how to such an obvious danger to his life and livelihood, one that he would be foolish to let go – though this is at odds with his attitude towards a similar adversary he will encounter at the end of the overall Firefly/Serenity story.
Still, it is not too hard to reconcile Mal the medicine returner with Mal the Crow killer. Mal understands that, in the first case, there really isn’t a choice to be made, not if he wants things to be squared away with his own conscience. And he also knows, in the second case, that you can only make the offer so many times. Twice Mal tries to talk things through with Crow, and twice he gets threats in return, threats that could easily be made real in future. So Mal remains a man with a soft side, understanding of the plight people face out on the edge. But the hardness isn’t absent either, and can make itself evident with the need arises. Mal is a righteous man, and righteous men are not to be trifled with.
So, the people of the town get their medicine back, and Crow gets a face full of engine. And we get a good look at one Malcolm Reynolds, a man with a strong grey look to his moral compass, but maybe a little more light grey than dark. He isn’t perfect. He isn’t a white knight. He isn’t weak. He isn’t boring.
He is heroic.