“I’ve seen so many sides of you. I want to make sure I know who I’m dealing with.”
“I start fighting the war, I guarantee you’ll see something new.”
Mal, in Serenity, is a conflicting morass of difficult choices and moral ambiguity. He’s a bit of a different person to the man we last saw in “Objects In Space”: more desperate, and less inclined to play nice with everyone around him. Part of this was due to the soft reboot Joss Whedon needed to implement, but it is also a natural end result for the man who has lost so much: the war, his faith, and now Inara.
Mal’s morals have already been the subject of a post by me, way back in “The Train Job”. And while Mal wavers to and fro between extreme points throughout Serenity, the same basic individual with the same basic decency and sense of right and wrong, still exists, it’s just a bit gloomier. If Serenity is Mal’s story, it is the story of a man being pushed way too far by people and government entities who have no idea what they are actually messing with.
Mal’s actions in Serenity, from start to finish, show someone who isn’t sure what path he should be taking, demonstrating chivalrous heroism along with very questionable acts. But there remains a person with some very set guidelines, that he manages to mostly stay true to:
- Look after your crew.
- Look after your ship.
- Resist the “meddlesome”.
Let’s go through some of Mal’s actions in Serenity.
He’s antagonistic and aggressive towards Simon in his opening moments, as if the doctors very presence offends him, their relationship having broken down completely since the TV series, as discussed here. But there is a certain logic in Mal’s reasoning for including River in his criminal enterprises that can’t be denied, and in line with the portrait of Mal as being a good bit more desperate, on the “raggedy edge” than he previously has been – “if this job goes south, there may very well not be another” – it makes sense. What doesn’t is his vague references to the fact that the Tam siblings could be easily turned in, and his belligerent insistence that Simon should dare not “push me”. Our first look at Serenity’s Mal is thus that of a not very nice person, and certainly not someone who seems to have a strong set of morals he adheres too.
He makes sure that as many people on Lilac are saved inside the vault from the Reaver attack, but only after robbing them blind. Mal is a criminal through and through, and has no guilty conscience about his act of thievery, dismissing the idea that what he is doing “isn’t exactly soldiers work”. The Alliance took what he had during the fighting – “War’s long done, we’re all just folk now” – and any paladin-esque virtue went with it.
He shoots a young man captured by Reavers, when he had the option of just taking him along. Later, he decides not to shoot Jayne in somewhat similar circumstances, and even jokes about it afterwards. Here is the harder Mal, making an incredibly difficult choice in the heat of the moment, favouring the continued existence of his crew and his ships ability to fly over the life of a single individual he doesn’t know. It’s not the hardest choice when looked at with thought: the young man had his chance to escape alive, by getting inside the vault, and bringing him along on the mule might have resulted in the deaths of Mal, Zoe, Jayne and River. His joking reaction that he should have left Hayne behind shows the classic Mal, deflecting difficult thought with humour, but it comes back around to seriousness quickly enough: Mal explicitly rejecting the man he was during the war, the man who would never leave someone behind, because “maybe that’s why we lost”.
He dumps Simon and River off the ship without a second thought, but doesn’t hesitate to bring River back on-board when she is in need of protection. His angry relationship with Simon early on is evidence enough of Mal’s change in temperament, but he simply couldn’t leave River lying unconscious in that bar. “It’s not your way Mal”, Book will later pronounce grandly, and that’s absolutely correct. For all of his statements that Simon and River are not crew unless he “conjures” they are, he has a connection to River that he has never fully realised. Unlike the young man back on Lilac, he can’t just leave her behind.
He goes into dangerous situations like the rescue of Inara with gusto, then runs away and hides as soon as he can. Fanty and Mingo comment on Mal’s unpredictability, his decision to “run when you oughtta to fight, fight when you oughtta deal”, and Mal is a man caught between those two differing aspects: the man who wants to be the hero and do the heroic things, though maybe only when the risk is to himself and himself alone, and the man who knows that discretion is the better part of valour often enough. Mal is unequivocal later in the face of Inara’s prodding: When she posits that he came to the companion house “looking for a fight”, his answer is a pained “I came looking for you”. Inara is crew too, holding a special place that the captain barely wants to contemplate, and he could no more leave her to the fate ordained by the Operative than he could leave River.
Later still, there is an apparent crack in his psyche, as, pushed too far, he moves to desecrate his ship and becomes a tyrant to his crew, in service of a mission to get to Miranda and “get past this”. Here is the “something new” that Inara feared and that Mal warned about. He’s done being pushed around, seeing the Alliance that he simply wants to get away from come into his life and kill those he cares about over and over. And that manifests itself in a sudden showing of ruthlessness, a rejection of any kind of sentimentality, as he orders Serenity, his home and physical embodiment of his way of life, to be torn apart, abused and made to look like an inhumane wreck. When the crew complains, vehemently, he essentially threatens to kill them if they don’t do as they say. That change in Mal – now the man who fought the war, at least insofar as he shows himself as harder and more brutal than we have ever seen him before – is startling. And it’s all in the pursuit of keeping River safe, and simply finding out what it is about Miranda that is sending her and the Alliance over the edge.
The discovery of what happened on that planet turns Mal back from the gulfs of “something new”, and back to the traditional hero’s role, personified in his stirring speech to the crew, a more traditionally heroic rejection of the evil empire and a call to arms for them to follow him, more willingly than they did before. He decides to take the fight to the Alliance, flying at them and all of their power pell-mell, but makes sure to bring some serious back-up with him in the process. But this is not all blazing light against savage dark: the Reavers Mal goads into the battle kill many innocents, and when the Operative pointedly states this to Mal, the reaction is a simple “You have no idea how true that is”. The loss of Wash was punishment enough, but the members of the Alliance Navy dying in the battle with the Reavers are not Mal’s concern. If he is fighting the war, with a new belief replacing that which he once had in God –the belief that the people of Miranda need someone to speak for them – then the Alliance is once again the enemy, and an enemy needs to be fought with whatever resources are to hand, with ruthlessness.
Lastly, we are left with Mal back to the point he was before, having attained his bittersweet victory, lecturing River on what makes a ship like Serenity more than just metal and wires to the people who inhabit her. Inara’s back, the Tam siblings are crew again, and even with the loss of Wash and Book, Mal is more complete than he has been at any point in the film’s narrative. We’ve seen just a brief glimpse of that “something new”, but the Mal of Firefly is a surer prospect, one we are happy to see re-emerge.