Serenity is a film about three people primarily. There is Mal, the hero. There is the Operative, the central antagonist, and direct opponent of Mal. And there is River Tam, who I would argue is the central protagonist of the tale. Let’s focus a bit on the younger Tam sibling, and what she brings as a character to Serenity. She opens and closes the story, and if anything could be described as Serenity’s Macguffin, it is her.
What is River’s journey through Serenity? You could say that her character arc was never fully defined in the TV show, being largely interlinked with her brother and cut short rather brutally by the cancellation. If you had to enunciate one at all, it would simply be River finding her place on the ship, one where she can be of use, and demonstrate that the crew is better off with her on Serenity than off of it. That was one of the main ideas of “Objects In Space” after all. In Serenity, I would look at River through the lens of three things her character seeks for herself, or for others: a search for sanity, a search for agency, and a way to act as a cipher for Mal’s needs.
River’s journey is the one that leads back to sanity, or a reasonable level of sanity at any rate. It’s a trip to discovering the thing that’s eating her brain without her even fully realising it up to now, and finding a way to exercise the tremendous push that it has been having on her. The physical and mental abuse suffered by River at the academy was one thing, but Serenity makes clear that it is the tremendous weight of that terrible secret – the “scary monsters” she can neither face down or quantify properly – that is the main problem holding River back from achieving some kind of proper recovery.
Breaking through the barriers in her own mind becomes the key task. The obstacles are many: the subliminal suggestions of the Alliance, the code words of her brother and the sheer inaccessibility of her own memories and dreams, which ran the gambit of pleasant classroom to pile of bodies. River has to fight her way to it, figuratively and literally. Finding out that Miranda is a planet isn’t enough. Until that demon is exercised, River cannot be, as she puts it later, “alright”. When it is exercised, River vomits, symbolically removing the bile of Miranda’s secrecy from her body, and declares herself, from that moment, as “alright”.
Some might say that it is too simplistic for River’s problems to be solved by such an action, but Serenity makes clear that they aren’t fully solved. River’s reading abilities are still something that cause her problems in the resulting finale, and normality is never really going to come back for someone capable of destroying an entire band of Reavers single-handed. But she is, at least, “alright”: no longer dependent on, or holding back, her brother, and able to step up and become a more productive person and character.
River is sacrifice incarnate throughout Serenity, and for much of the film she has little agency of her own. The Alliance deemed her a worthy guinea pig, a talent to be sacrificed for the furtherment of the “better worlds” philosophy. The sins taken away from the “world without sin” have been dumped on her instead. Mal sees her as someone he is morally bound to protect at all costs, even to the extent that friends and crew members suffer for that, and while he knows she is capable of astonishing violence, it is not her mind behind the controls. And Simon essentially puts his life on hold for her, to the detriment of any possible relationship with Kaylee, because River cannot look after herself. There is a potent Jesus allegory in there as well of course: the poor innocent being with powers beyond what we can understand, asked to take the sins of the world (or worlds in this case) on their back for the rest of us. I always noted the way that Simon rubbed River’s forward after removing the needle in the prologue, the small streak of blood and the movement of the thumb making the action look like some sort of baptism.
But in terms of River’s journey, this state of affairs is altered irrevocably by the time the finale comes along. River rejects her role as sacrifice, and someone to be protected, and for others to suffer over. The sight of Simon, her highest protector, bleeding to death in her defence, and as part of the mission to deal with the terrible thing that caused her immense psychosis, is the breaking point. River becomes her own being and seizes her own agency as she flies out the blast doors and takes on the Reaver menace single handed, killing them all and saving the day in the process, no longer content to be passive or only active when being controlled by others. The power of the moment is magnified by River’s actions thus far in the story, as she rejects the seeming inevitability of being a strain on others, and becomes the heroine – the strong female character – she always had the potential to be.
In other ways, River must also repeat her journeys on Firefly – as part of the films soft reboot – and learn to find a way to connect with other people, outside of her brother. The crew of Serenity spend most of the film in fear or awe of River, treating her either as a pitiful child or a dangerous weapon they would rather not have pointed at them. The exception is Mal, who finds himself caught right in the middle. River barely has any interactions with anyone in the story except for Simon and Mal, and those with Mal are marked with an edge. Her first words to him before the heist make Mal grimly introspective (“This is what I do darlin’…this is what I do”) and when Mal tries to talk her down during her little walkabout, he makes it clear that, while he’s staking much on River’s humanity, he hasn’t discounted the possibility that she is just “a weapon”. He can’t help but view her as the ship’s albatross, the good luck that he would be a fool to discard or leave behind. For much of Serenity, Mal is a man looking for something to believe in again, and River’s plight allows him the chance to exercise his own demons over the loss suffered in the war. Mal doesn’t just find a new battle to fight, but finds a righteous one, against an enemy he needed a potent reason to fight once more. River remains mostly a symbol for Mal throughout the film, a living reason for him to fight, and to keep fighting.
But in the end, with the Miranda secret sent out into the ‘verse and no longer confined just to River’s brain, she is able to finally connect to Mal properly. She, more than anyone on the ship, can see into Mal’s thinking, and their final conversation is as much about reaffirming Mal’s faith in his ship and his crew as it is about introducing River as a new pilot for Serenity (which is also a call-back to that previously mentioned idea of River finding her place on-board, ala “Objects In Space”). That last point is important too: the film opens with Mal placing River in a position to help the crew in their work, but it comes with the objections of Simon and the potential breakdown of River at awkward moments. Her abilities prevent the crew from being caught in a Reaver ambush, but she is still an issue. By the end of the film, the entire situation is reversed: indeed, it might not be too long until Serenity is dependent on River for piloting expertise. For Mal, River’s recovery and agency is his victory, the one that was denied him in the Unification War. It did not come without cost, but it’s worth is obvious.
So, the three-fold path for River is followed in the course of Serenity. She takes back her mind, for the most part. She takes back control over her own life and the direction it is taking. And she serves as a method for Mal to reconcile his defeat in the war with his present day situation. Into the river she goes, and others go with her, pushed along the swell, struggling against the pull, finding a current to travel on.