Towards the conclusion of “Our Mrs Reynolds”, the Saffron character sums herself and her actions up as neatly as she can:
“Everybody plays each other. That’s all anybody ever does. We play parts.”
As a full stop on the episode’s main plot, it got me thinking a bit about what we witnessed. There are a few different characters who, in the course of “Our Mrs Reynolds”, change tacks and show different sides of their personality, stepping into new “parts”. Saffron is the obvious one, and throughout the two episodes that she appears in we never get a firm handle on what her true personality is. But there are others too.
There’s Malcolm of course. He spends much of “Our Mrs Reynolds” as a bumbling fool, unable to properly deal with the situation in front of him without offending somebody witnessing it. He gets played, and played good, by the duplicitous Saffron who, as I talked about last week, knows just how to twist someone like Mal around her finger.
But when the crisis comes, and Saffron leaves Serenity for dead, a different Mal emerges, one that is cold and ruthless when it comes to defending “me and mine”. The denizens of the ring are killed in brutal circumstances, and Mal wastes no time in chasing down Saffron, perfectly willing to knock her out with a sharp blow to the head when he realises that there is no more use to their conversation.
Mal doesn’t even need to have that conversation, he could just take his shuttle and go. But, like Saffron earlier with her performance, the more commanding confident side of himself needs that final confrontation, for closure’s sake if nothing else. He’s willing to live with the fact that he got played, but he wants the last word. As we will see later in the narrative, in the film, Mal openly acknowledges that his normal self and the more ruthless individual who shows up on occasion are almost two different people, promising Inara that if she ever has the opportunity to see the Mal who fought in the Unification War, she will assuredly “see something different” to the man she thinks she knows. Mal has his parts, some open, some concealed.
There’s Zoe, the first mate. At first, the entire situation is a great opportunity to show Mal up, as she gleefully introduces all and sundry to “Mrs Reynolds”, in a manner that comes off as surprisingly cold when it comes to Saffron at that moment. For Zoe, such an event is not to be taken seriously, maybe because she firmly believes that Saffron will be off the ship before they know it, a poor, weak deluded girl more worthy of scorn than serious consideration.
But that non-caring mask slips later, as she realises that Saffron is more trouble than she appears. At first it just seems like unreasonable jealously, and the audience might sympathise with Wash when Zoe turns on him, as she accuses the pilot of defending Saffron for no other reason than he is a man. But Zoe is vindicated as her suspicions turn out to be right on the money. Zoe happily plays the part of an uncaring jester, but when things get a little more real, the fangs can easily be bared.
Wash, for his part also plays a bit of the clown in the episodes earlier moments, telling Mal to “enjoy your honeymoon” even as he explains why he cannot simply dump Saffron back on Triumph where they found her. He is quick to defend her, but his uneasiness with Saffron’s manner – as she tells Zoe that she can cook for her husband if she wishes and snatching the cider glass out of his hand – is very obvious, he just has a different way of showing it. Wash is always a bit of a comedic character, and his reaction to such things is to try to brush them off and treat them as if they are comedy themselves. Zoe doesn’t go along with that willingly here, leading to the first real argument that the two have had in the course of the show. But while Wash might be the ship’s clown, he too can step into a serious part when the time arises, resisting Saffron’s advances and never thinking about betraying Zoe.
Inara also has her parts to play here. She is cold and distant towards Mal for much of “Our Mrs Reynolds”, out of a general disdain for the whole situation and a hidden jealousy for Saffron. But the part she is playing, that mask, slips substantially when Mal appears to be in peril, and falls off completely when she kisses him in his quarters. Then embarrassed, she puts on another part, trying to play the whole crew, insisting that she just fell and hit her head, never dreaming of telling Mal what actually occurred. Later, in the episodes final scene, Mal echoes Saffron directly when he tells Inara that the time has passed for them “to play”, but unfortunately for their relationship, the time hasn’t come yet for their budding romantic attraction to come to fruition.
Two other players in “Our Mrs Reynolds” also have different parts to step into through the course of the episode, again marked by a contrast between light hearted poking at Mal and a more serious exterior displayed at later points. Jayne crudely paws at Saffron and makes sarcastic comments about the gifts he received from the Triumph settlers, but later settles into the cold-hearted badass he truly is. “There are times when I don’t think you take me seriously” he directly tells Mal, as he offers what he deems to be a fair trade, his prized firearm for the girl. Later, he doesn’t hesitate to kill the men operating the net even though Mal has not given him explicit authorisation to do so, something I always thought went under-noticed as a plot point.
Book too veers between comic and cynic. We first see him saying prayers over the bodies of the dead bandits, but later he is part of the general send-up of Mal in the cargo bay and then, with a certain mock seriousness, warns Mal about the potential for ending up in “the special hell”. When things turn drastic, Book moves away from this persona and back into the mysterious man who knows far more about the universe and the criminals that inhabit it than he usually lets on, grimly declaring that the net is the “end of the line” before describing in detail how they might kill the crew.
So, “Our Mrs Reynolds” does showcase how some characters switch demeanours and roles throughout the course of the episode, playing parts as they choose and as it is advantageous to them. But few have the sinister underside of Saffron, only ever out for herself at the expense of others. When we meet up with her again in “Trash”, we will dive right back into that question about her, the parts she plays and the people around her who do the same.