“Our Mrs Reynolds” is primarily about Malcolm Reynolds’ relationship with the female sex, both in the specific sense of those women around him on Serenity, and in a more general sense.
Up to this point in the series, Mal’s interactions with women haven’t been anything really out of the ordinary for a show of this type, save for Inara. With the tantalising hints about his upbringing present in this episode, Mal apparently being raised by a single mother, we can form a picture of a man who has more respect for the female sex than the average ‘verse dweller. Zoe and he share, notwithstanding some jokes about something greater in “War Stories” later in the run, a purely platonic friendship. Mal and Kaylee are like loving siblings, which is what Kaylee is like for everyone on the ship, bar Simon. Mal has a bit of an understanding with River, but it isn’t one that has really come to the fore just yet. And there is Inara, a deeper attraction that neither of the two would like to acknowledge, that has already gotten Mal into some trouble in “Shindig”.
And then along comes Saffron in “Our Mrs Reynolds”, and it becomes immediately apparent that, while he will happily snipe back and forth with Inara, when it comes to the fairer sex in anything resembling a romantic fashion, Mal becomes utterly hopeless. When Saffron is discovered, Mal’s reaction is anger, panic, worry and mortification, as he stumbles over words, says the wrong thing repeatedly, and generally looks like a bit of an imbecile. It’s acute in front of other crewmembers, and one can really feel the squirming embarrassment as Mal confronts the reality of what he apparently did the previous night.
But, when he gets alone with Saffron, the same old Mal, confident, stern but sympathetic, emerges. And it’s there that the con Saffron plays really begins, in that scene within the engine room. The persona that Saffron is putting on is the perfect trap for Mal, and Saffron knows this. She’s had “training” of course, and can recognise a man’s wants and desires better than most men can about themselves (given the right time, as her rush job with Wash and then Inara falls flat). And she goes about crafting the kind of woman that Malcolm Reynolds will be unable to refuse.
The portrait she then paints is one that is meant to reflect back on Mal, and it isn’t great viewing really. “Saffron” is a weak woman, subservient to men, in need of strong guidance from the patriarchal figure in her life, whom she is desperately eager to please. But she isn’t completely weak: she has a spark that makes Mal want to help her, “make her strong” and set her up for a new life. She gets Mal talking about his youth, in a way that nobody else on the ship ever has or will again, by playing the easily impressed country girl. The presence of Saffron even has him briefly talking about having children one day, even if he is only talking about the idea jokingly. He defends Saffron’s humanity from the crude advances of Jayne with a righteous indignation.
From there comes the more sexual being that uses that “good Bible” to seduce Mal. This wilting “maidenhome” girl, who just wants her wedding night: even Mal, under threat of Book’s “special hell” just cannot resist. And in that he gets trapped. He’s a righteous man who needs to protect the helpless around him if he can, and he views Saffron as helpless. There is a certain misogyny in that, one that Saffron is all too ready to take advantage of, even if she has to work a bit harder than she thought to get to the tipping point.
It paints a picture of a world where men are above women, and need to defend them and protect them and take care of them and be dominant over them, because they can’t do any of those things themselves. Mal isn’t Immortan Joe by any stretch of the imagination, but he is all too willing to be led down the garden path, and end up moments away from taking sexual advantage of the Saffron persona. And in his interactions with some of the stronger women on the ship – the “warrior woman” first mate, the genius engineer – there isn’t a hint of sexual interest. It reminded me very much of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina actually, and the way that the Ava character was, through manipulation via speech, act and dress, able to get the easily fooled Caleb to assume the role of a protector, even as she worked out her own schemes. Both Mal and Caleb find themselves wanting to help a seemingly weak and abused woman, and both get their comeuppance for straying into that line of thinking with an eye, conscious or not, on taking advantage for their own gratification.
The problem for Saffron is that she underestimates both Mal and the people around him. Mal survives both the larger plan with the net, and then tracks Saffron down as well, knocking her out without a thought when he feels she is going to keep lying to him. He might have a tendency to sympathise with the seemingly weak, but he also has a terrible power in him, woken when he is wronged. It doesn’t go as far as killing here – Mal still can’t do murder her, Saffron isn’t a direct threat like Crow was – but Mal shows that, while he was duped, he’s still not a man to be trifled with in this manner.
She’s as lone wolf as they come, working in tandem with the creeps on “the net” but always as her own woman. The crew of Serenity, a united family, outdo her schemes. And Mal’s relationship with the other women onboard show that he is far from just a man easily duped by a seemingly defenceless “articulate” girl. Zoe ribs him about his predicament, with a good nature that only years of close companionship can create. When Kaylee fails to fix the ship in time, Mal gives her an affectionate, platonic, kiss on the head and buoys up her spirits, having previously exchanged some nasty words with her over Saffron. River is mostly absent from the episode (she doesn’t even have any lines I believe) but we already know that Mal’s relationship with her is on the level.
And with Inara, we see more. When Mal needs to “hide” from Saffron’s overbearing attentions, it’s to Inara’s shuttle that he goes. When he gets there, despite the obvious cold shoulder he gets from the companion, he doesn’t immediately start insulting her, which is a first. For Inara’s part, her uncomfortableness with what is happening goes beyond a view of arranged marriage as “degrading”, into territory of jealously and feelings that she does not want to acknowledge. When she discovers Mal, prone but alive in his quarters, her joy is unreserved, leading to the two’s first (and, as it happens, only) kiss. Later, her embarrassment is so severe that she claims to have fallen and hit her head when she suffers the effects of the “goodnight kiss”. Mal and Inara have that obvious attraction to each other, one whose masked nature is helped by an utterly clueless Mal, incorrectly surmising that Inara kissed Saffron instead of him.
If Mal’s eventual attraction for Saffron reflects badly on him, his more even relationship with Inara, both giving as good as they get and neither willing to forsake their pride and declare the obvious, reflects well. Mal is momentarily seduced by Saffron, and gets his own back once he is capable of doing so. But he and Inara have a deeper connection, one of much greater substance.