“Better Days” was the second major comic release under the Serenity banner. Set at some point in the TV series, seemingly pre “Trash” at any rate, the story involves the crew scoring super big on a job, and how they react to this unexpected financial success. Rather than pick a few specific points, I’d thought I’d spend this post talking about some thoughts that occurred to me as a re-read the story.
I wrote before, on one of my posts on “War Stories”, that fiction is generally the art of creating characters and seeing what happens to them when they must deal with conflict, be it physical, mental or interpersonal. “Better Days” is a spin on this concept, and asks the question, how would characters react to a sudden influx of good fortune? How does a test of character work when the test itself is success instead of more traditional conflict?
You can go through the list of fantasies that make up part of “Better Days”’ make-up, and get a keen insight into the minds and motivations of many characters. The first isn’t even anything to do with the haul of money, but Inara’s thoughts as she engages in her trade with an Alliance officer. Rather than think of her clients, ahem, “skills” at that moment, she pictures herself with Mal in the same scenario, a hitherto unseen indication of her attraction to Mal which, in the show, did not really manifest itself in sexual terms. But Inara is as human as anyone else in the Firefly/Serenity world, and as liable to engage in lustful daydreams as anyone else. That these thoughts are coming the middle of her chose profession is more interesting, a sign that her attraction to Mal has started to spill over from being an infatuated fascination to something much more serious.
Jayne thinks only of power and prestige, laying out a ridiculous scenario where he captains his own ship, complete with impressive uniform, submissive female crewmembers and a fearsome reputation among the Alliance. The crew rightly treats the idea as a joke, but IT says something important about Jayne, and his desire for respect greater than that which he enjoys purely through his physical strength. In essence, he wants what Mal has, but hasn’t the emotional maturity to enunciate that desire in anything but a childish way. Later still, his efforts to gain the skills necessary to “engage” a companion point both to a man desperate to be higher class than he is and a man trying very hard to be Mal, who already has the attentions of a companion.
Wash’s dream is more down to earth and admirable, and speaks to already existing traits of his: a desire to avoid danger, to get his wife away from the command of one Malcolm Reynolds and to live peacefully. So, a cruise ship of respectable business, a wife in a slinky dress and a baby to raise. Wash’s ambitions are probably the most sympathetic, and also stand in stark contrast to the lack of desires elaborated upon by his wife, whose shady past serves as her primary addition to “Better Days”.
Book’s single page picture of him as a crime lord, surrounded by scantily clad women, serves as both a moment of comedy, and as a nod to his suspect past. “A Shepherd’s Tale” was yet to come, and questions remained over Book’s status before he arrived on board Serenity. A glimpse of the kind of man Book might have been in a past life is a both a nod to the audience and their own theories, as well as a respectful bit of satire. In the end, Book has little part to play in “Better Days”.
Kaylee’s ideal life is a mixture of the defining aspects of her character throughout both Firefly and Serenity. In terms of being the ships uber-talented engineer, she wants a business that matches the enormity of that talent. In terms of being the beating heart of the ship’s ideals of family, she wants to run it with her father, mentioned as a struggling mechanic in “Out Of Gas”. In terms of her repeated frustration with Mal’s devil-may-care attitude to ship maintenance, she playfully imagines having an excess of compression coils. And, of course, as the love interest of Simon, she imagines romance, flowers and, well, consummation. And unlike Inara’s vision, Kaylee imagines her and Simon in an arrangement traditionally less romantic and more…passionate. Everything we know and love about Kaylee – her natural talent, her optimism, her sexual liberation – is there to see.
It might also be worth commenting on how many of these daydreams have a sexual dimension. Inara, Jayne, Kaylee, Book in a joking manner and even Wash with his procreation elements, all points to a crew that have sex on the brain. One wonders if some of the interpersonal problems on-board Serenity would be sorted if everyone could just get laid more often.
Simon, with his constant focus on his sister, envisions a world where they are free from pursuit and free to make the most of their talents, helping people and making a difference. Interestingly, Kaylee doesn’t get a look in. Simon’s ideal is an overly-optimistic thing, very far away from the reality that the Tam’s inhabit, even if they happen to be rich, and speaks to his naivety and inexperience with the harsher elements of the ‘verse.
And River, well, River is crazy, her dreams reflecting that with its Alice In Wonderland-esque surreality.
Lastly, of course, is Mal. We never actually see what he wants out of his life. His initial answer is a dismissive joking reference to sexual depravities, and his dodging of the question is obvious. In the end, his desire out of life, even when rich, is as simple as it has always been: having a ship, having a crew, and having the freedom of the sky to enjoy it all with, a goal he will pursue even if it actually damages the financial success of everyone else. It’s debatable whether the closing moments of “Better Days” paint Mal in a good light – Inara herself can’t seem to decide whether they are selfish or sweet – but they do stay true to the picture of the man who first bought his Firefly with the express aim of simply getting ahead of the Alliance’s reach and being free.
In the end, the crew don’t get the opportunity to enjoy much of the sudden wealth, aside from a vacation to a sunny resort, and so we never get to see what kind of reaction they would have to success long term. But in their dreams and aspirations, we do see important things about them.