Over the course of the last while I have talked about the roles of Mal, River, Simon, Kaylee, Wash and Book in Serenity. That leaves three crew members left unaccounted for: Zoe, Jayne and Inara. What are their roles in the story?
Zoe’s is actually fairly under-stated. She is, for better or worse, largely defined in Serenity by the two central men in her life, Mal and Wash, a continuation of the same plot in Firefly without the time to really do it justice. Early on she serves as a reminder of what Mal had during the war, and what he has subsequently lost, his loneliness and desperation a marked contrast to the more fulfilled Zoe. Yet she remains the faithful first mate: any misgivings she has about Mal or his course, though they grow louder and louder as the film progresses, do not stop her from following orders. On the other hand, even with that loyalty, she remains intertwined with Wash, though they only have a small number of scenes together to really showcase that.
Zoe exhibits her competence and authority throughout the film, but it is not until the finale that she really gets the opportunity to own the screen. The death of Wash occurs while she is essentially a spectator: her grief is quickly covered over by seemingly icy military preparedness, which in turn is then engulfed by a calculated rage, that has a tinge of suicidalness to it as well. The sheer power of Zoe as a warrior, one wronged and out to take as many of the enemy with her before her own end, is firmly on display in the finale: even when she is badly wounded, Zoe keeps on shooting.
But the storm passes, and Zoe remains. Wash is buried, and remembered: Zoe takes on the persona of Serenity itself briefly, the ship used a metaphor for her own condition. Zoe is hurt, deeply, and much of what made her different to Mal in terms of their post-war experiences must have died with Wash: her future remains uncertain, as the rather hard stare in our last glimpse of her might indicate. The comics went in a somewhat unexpected direction, but I’ll get to that in time.
Jayne gets a bit of a soft-reboot in Serenity, his actions in “Ariel” and subsequent renunciation of his distaste for the Tams largely forgotten. He briefly attempts to sell River out again, but is swiftly convinced otherwise; his true rebellion comes elsewhere, as he directly challenges Mal in a manner he never dared to in Firefly, flat out telling Mal that he would be a better leader of the crew than the captain. Mal, in a desperate positon, accepts the abuse but does not relent. When it comes right down to it, Jayne follows orders, reaffirming the dynamics of his relationship with Mal, a person he often chaffs under, but whom he eventually follows.
Serenity doesn’t have room to give hum much of an arc at all, but it does have the time to showcase what his presence on the ship entails. Jayne is no mindless “heavy” on-board. He has a code and he has a sense of justice: it is important that, when Mal finishes his “I aim to misbehave” speech, Jayne is the first to respond positively. Even the most amoral creature on Serenity can recognise the moral righteousness of the cause Mal is asking the crew to fight for.
Beyond that, Jayne is essentially some much needed comic relief, alongside his obvious role in action set-pieces. His relative lack of intellect contrasts nicely with other characters throughout, as seen in the midst of some truly terrible situations: he still has the ability to provoke some laughter in the audience, whether he is dangling off the back of the hovermule (“Don’t shoot me first!”) or pitifully comforting himself with the thought that, of all the crew, his survival is more likely in the finale (“I might…”). Our last look at him is with food in his mouth, no stirring last lines or noticeable events. That’s Jayne.
And lastly there is the companion who starts off separated from Serenity, her character more about her absence from Mal’s life in many ways, than her own. For the uninitiated, Inara is a true enigma, a mysterious and beautiful woman whose overall importance to Serenity and its captain is hard to get across.
It would be easy for Inara to become just an object for Mal to aim towards, a narrative prize to win upon successful conclusion of a quest. But the relationship shown in the course of Serenity is more complicated than that. Inara and Mal don’t seem like good couple material: it’s so odd that they have an interaction without bickering, that it is immediately apparent that Inara is in trouble and unwillingly leading Mal into a trap. When Inara does get back on-board there are no embraces and declarations of love: Mal rescues Inara because he feels an obligation, partially responsible for her temple being in trouble in the first place, but is only more torn up emotionally by what her being back on the ship entails. The only time we really see Mal come close to breaking is in the scene where he becomes as “truthsome” with Inara as he ever does, criticising her for her ability to “mess me about”. Mal hates complication: he can deal with the Alliance in a fashion, but Inara is something more difficult.
Satisfyingly, for me, the sub-lot gets no firm resolution. No kisses before credits here: Inara simply declares her willingness to stay on Serenity, the thought making both her and the captain smile. It doesn’t mean, comics be damned, that anything is actually going to happen between the two, but it does mean that the possibility is there. Inara seemed very scared and upset with the man that Mal briefly became in his hunt for Miranda, but by the time the credits do roll she seems to have reconciled her attraction to this other aspect of the captain.
And those three make nine, showing that, even with just a few scenes, the achievement of Serenity in showing these nine very different characters and hiving them all distinct personalities was a supreme, and ultimately fruitful, effort.