Serenity swirls around the Operative, the mouthpiece of the Alliance, who pursues the ship and River Tam with a vehemence and a disregard for collateral damage that is as striking as it is abhorrent. Throughout the course of the film, we see many different sides of this man, who is as close to a personification of the universe’s autocratic government as you can get in the overall canon. But by the end, he has become a very different person to the one who began the journey.
The Operative is a strangely civilised character. He dresses in flawlessly cut clothing, and brandishes a sword as much as he brandishes a firearm, making one think back to Obi-Wan in A New Hope: “An elegant weapon for a more civilised age”. He calls back to the “older cultures” in his opening scene painting himself as a man in love with established traditions, and when he kills Dr Matthias, he isn’t doing it out of spite or vengeance: he really wants to grant this man a “good” death, that doesn’t involve bullets and copious amounts of blood. When he confronts Mal, he has Inara as an insurance policy, but he hasn’t harmed her in any way: and when he says that he is willing to let Serenity go on its way, provided River Tam is turned over to him, it isn’t all that hard to believe him. He seems like, in his own way, an honourable individual. His civilised nature is both a direct contrast to the more roguish Mal, and an effort to perhaps make one think of frustratingly obtuse, but ever polite, government bureaucracy.
But then comes the killing, the atrocities that the Operative carries out in order to track down his quarry. The associates and friends of Serenity are brought to heel and men, women and children, young and old, are butchered, the ground scorched and salted. The hypocrisy is obvious, between the way that the Operative conducts himself on a personal level, and the manner in which he seeks to accomplish his objectives. Again, we can see a personification of government there, in this two faced nature, a divide between what is spoken and what is done.
The Operative attempts to consolidate these two things by becoming the mouthpiece for the Alliance, the character who elaborates on the idea of “better worlds” and the promised land of the “world without sin”, the belief that enough government and enough obedience to that government can eventually produce a place that is a veritable Eden. In the pursuit of such an objective, complete happiness for the human race, nothing is prohibited. Everything that can be done to attain it must be done, and by men like the Operative. This is the credo that he has been brought up to believe, and he is a true believer: the films oft made references to belief and its power reflect this, with Mal unable to combat the Operative effectively until he finds something – or re-finds something – to latch onto and believe in. All the way up to the finale, including the final showdown between the Operative and Mal, the antagonist maintains his belief in the Alliance system, despite his open admittance that he himself will have no place in the much-vaunted world without sin: he is, or at least see’s himself to be, a Moses who will lead his people to the promised land of milk and honey, but will not be permitted to actually step foot there.
In many ways, we can see the Operative as a dark version of River, what the Alliance wants to turn River into: someone with only enough morality in them to satisfy the Alliance, who will then do as they are ordered, utilising all of their powers in the process. The Operative does not appear to be a reader, but he is clearly just a link in the chain of grander Alliance schemes, the extent of which we know terminates with the plan for psychic assassins.
But something very important happens at the conclusion of Serenity, something that many have seen as something to criticise the film for: the Operative changes his mind about the Alliance. Why does this occur?
On the face of it, the Operative sees the proof that the Alliance is responsible for the Reaver menace, and is disgusted enough that he revaluates his previous loyalty. But this is simplistic. As stated, the Operative is a man who believes so much in what the Alliance is doing, so much in the ideal of a “better world”, that he is willing to kill children in order to attain it. Maybe the higher-ups of the Alliance don’t even know what the Operative is doing exactly, they only know the promised end result, and the Operative is willing to take that responsibility and that guilt onto his shoulders, sacrificing himself for the greater good of the Alliance.
But seeing the origin of the Reavers breaks something inside him. He sees that the people he trusted, the people and system who must have raised him and moulded him, are as bad as he is. He sees that far from being the singular individual who is sacrificing his soul for the greater good, he is only one of many, hundreds, thousands doing so, believing the lie that it will result in the world without sin. The people the Operative is helping get to such a place are as sinful as anyone, having orchestrated the deaths of 30 million people in an effort to eradicate any kind of resistance to their rule, any kind of unwanted emotional experiences. They have done this, and they have not even had the decency to acknowledge this fact. They have hidden their shame, and stayed silent as the end result rampages across the ‘verse.
When the Operative tells Mal that a great deal of “innocent people are dying” above them as they speak because of what Mal has brought with him, it betrays a sympathy and loyalty to not just the Alliance as an organisation and an ideal, but also to the men and women who make it up, the soldiers and sailors that he serves with. He has that bond with them, the people he commands, and the experience of watching the Reavers mow through them is not a pleasant one for him. It makes him angry in fact, and all the more ready to go after Mal. When the truth is revealed, that his own paymasters are responsible for the carnage of that day and every other day the Reavers have arrived on some unfortunate planet, it tears the Operative’s world apart. Like Javert, he cannot reconcile his set in stone world view with this sudden, glaring contradiction, and sees his identity destroyed.
It is not just his fellow soldiers, it is not just his idea of what the Alliance represents, that he has lost. It is his very identity. He was the Parliament’s man. He was the Alliance incarnate. But when what is left of his moral system is triggered by the revulsion of the Reavers origins, he is left with nothing. All he can do is to let Serenity and its people walk away, recognising now that they are in the right: that the Alliance, that meddlesome entity, is something that must be fought. The Operative is too broken up and damaged to truly care: as he tells Mal, “there is nothing left to see” of him. In effect, while Mal was honest in his own way when he said he was not going to kill the Operative having subdued him, he has all but destroyed him anyway. He is now a man alone, without support, without friends, and without any kind of higher belief to put his faith in. The Operative was destroyed on that moon. The world without sin, that great promised land ideal, was destroyed too.