Every story needs a love plot – only kidding, of course they don’t– and Serenity’s, leaving aside the touched upon attraction of Mal and Inara and the marriage of Zoe and Wash, finds its plot in the form of those two lovable kids still slouching towards the inevitable conclusion: Simon the doctor, and Kaylee the mechanic, who have been making puppy dog eyes at each other as far back as that dinner scene in “Serenity”. It’s a very small part of the overall experience in Serenity, but it forms the basis of these characters’ personal journeys in the film, outside of Simon’s interactions with his sister and Kaylee’s problems with Mal (that were cut down in the final film from the first draft, as you’ll recall).
Opposites attract, and these two have been opposites from the start. And I mean that in more than just the educated/non-educated, posh/not posh dynamic that defines much of their conversations. Simon, when it comes to moment of action and consequences, be it a gunfight like in “War Stories” or the medical emergency he happens upon in “Ariel” can take charge and do something, even if he might fail to hit anybody. Kaylee isn’t that person, and is often seen to freeze up and become emotionally fraught in moments of crisis, such as the same gunfight in “War Stories” and with the engine calamity in “Out Of Gas”. But Simon is also seemingly incapable of having a conversation with somebody he is romantically interested in without seizing up and saying something completely stupid – “Safe”, “Jaynestown” and “The Message” all offer fine examples of this recurring problem – while Kaylee, blunter, more straightforward and better used to the kind of world that Serenity inhabits, has always been able to get along with people far better.
Serenity establishes all this fairly early on, in that opening crawl. Simon clashes with Mal (as does Kaylee) and later is seemingly oblivious of the nice way that Kaylee speaks to him, her forlorn look as he walks away saying more than pages of dialogue ever could. It’s a slight reset: Simon is depicted as not being aware of Kaylee’s interest in him, despite the two openly talking about it at one point in the TV show, as part of his role as River’s guardian. This was for new audiences who hadn’t seen Firefly off course, but the dynamic isn’t that far off from the series anyway. Kaylee’s attraction and Simon’s non-understanding is reinforced in the scene where the crew are rescued from the Reavers, as Kaylee inquiries about Simon’s health first – despite the fact that he wasn’t involved in the fracas – and Simon (and Mal) pay no attention to her aborted attempts to calm down the situation between captain and doctor.
There’s something undeniably adorable about the way that Kaylee sees off Simon and River in Beaumonde, pointedly the only crew member to do so. She can’t bring herself to say goodbye properly, and can only comment on Simon’s cleanliness – a mark of his upbringing, something that has always been a wedge between them, displayed most vividly in “Jaynestown” – and on what ship he should choose to fly in now, masking her pain with her knowledge of engines. In the end, she has to leave without any kind of farewell, and it is only in that moment that we get the first glimpse that Simon is more aware of things than he has previously let on. His “Kaylee…” is heavy with regret, but there’s nothing else to be said: he has to look to River, always, and she no longer considered it safe to be among the crew of Serenity. Kaylee’s subsequent haranguing of Mal sees her talking about her attraction to Simon more openly, now that he is no longer in earshot, and it’s a playful mix of longing (“I carried such a torch…”) and lustful feelings of frustration (“Going on a year now I aint had nothing twixt my nethers weren’t run on batteries…”). When Mal bites back, Kaylee’s accusation of hypocrisy, regards Inara, rings alarmingly clear.
The fates conspire to put Simon and Kaylee back on the same boat, but for most of the remainder of the film their paths are separate. Simon is mostly concerned with River, and has only a few lines of dialogue with anyone else, while Kaylee is reduced to a mostly minor role. Their first proper interaction afterward comes on Miranda, when Simon unsuccessfully tries to spare Kaylee the horror of the hermitically sealed office building corpses she unintentionally bumps into.
Later, during the flight to Mr Universe’s moon, the engine room goes up in flames, and Simon is the one dragging Kaylee to safety. That was a bit of traditional male-focused physical heroism on display I suppose, but it makes sense given the characters: if there’s one thing Kaylee would abandon only in the greatest duress, it’s the engine room, and she’s already been shown to not be quite equal to a life or death crisis – notwithstanding her shooting along with the others in the final combat sequence.
Facing the imminent, and even likely, possibility of death, all pretensions are abandoned and the truth comes out, in a blunt manner that is very much unlike similar scenes in other movies. Simon still can’t bring himself to openly declare his feelings for Kaylee, and his own sexual needs that he has been ignoring, beyond a regret that he and Kaylee were never “with” one another. The declaration is enough to snap Kaylee out of despair in the face of the Reaver assault, even if the only thing on her mind in such a moment, perhaps understandably, is the possibility of finally consummating the relationship. But that will require surviving.
Both Kaylee and Simon are badly injured in the resulting fight, Simon more seriously, and the gut punch that is the bullet he takes is one that hits the audience harder than it might have because the tantalising possibility that Simon and Kaylee might actually work things out has just been dangled: and, of course, because we’ve already had the deaths of crew members, a topic that will talk more on in time.
River’s efforts to save Simon and combat the Reavers is both an overt and symbolic severing of the cord between her and Simon, showcasing her own independence and ability to survive, leaving the way open for Simon to pursue his own wants and needs. We see that wordlessly in the closing montage, as Simon and Kaylee appear to have finally gotten over every obstacle to form a physical relationship. Where that will lead is something that will remain left to our imaginations. Knowing Whedon, it led towards tragedy: just look at Wesley and Fred, the closest equivalent in his other work.
The romantic sub-plot offers some key characterisation for Simon and Kaylee, some nice comedic moments to take the sting out of the drama, and a good cathartic resolution, perhaps the only uniformly happy part of an otherwise bittersweet ending. It has something that the Mal/Inara relationship, always a bit more overwrought and serious, just doesn’t, and can form a more positive part of the final act because of that. In other words, it does exactly what it is required to do, while offering fans of the larger canon a satisfying resolution to something they had been hoping to see the ending of for a long time.