During the upcoming Salt Lake Comic Con, there will be a panel titled “The Morality of Firefly: Right and Wrong Aboard Serenity.”
As a member of the Utah Browncoats (those aficionados of Joss Whedon’s dead-too-soon sci-fi series, Firefly), this peaked my interest. And, as I’m not a panel member, I decided to see if I could contribute to the discussion this way, after a great many of us chimed in on a facebook thread from one of panel members.
Note that I don’t have a psychology degree, or a religious studies background, or even a philosophy degree. These are just the ramblings of a fan of a TV show, who has spent his life watching how people behave. Right? Wrong?
Cool? Then let’s begin.
The moral code of this little corner of the Whedonverse is unique, almost as unique as each Serenity’s inhabitants, whose moral codes seem to be as varied as their backgrounds.
Let’s look at a few.
With the exception of River Tam, whose mind and behavioral norms have been shattered from experimentation by Alliance scientists, each of the remaining crew act in ways indicative of their personal upbringings and experiences, but which all fall along a somewhat “normal” or expected spectrum.
But even River, as erratic as her behavior is, can be said to exhibit some clearly defined moral traits, even if they are subject to the physical alterations of her mental faculties. This often negates a “normal” moral response, instead replacing it with a “programmed” response from her Alliance tormenters, or driving her response or behavior to extremes.
First, love: River is capable of love. Clearly, she loves her brother, Simon, who risked everything to save her from further Alliance experimentation. Never is that more clear than in the follow-up film, Serenity, in which she is able to piece her mental state back together into a somewhat “normal” condition. Severely stymied and stunted, she is forced to deal with the sense of control she is beginning to regain over herself. Finally coming to fruition during the Reaver siege, River blends the abilities and behaviors she found herself fighting against for so long with her natural protective instincts for her brother.
Those instincts are wrapped up in another moral trait: Regret. River regrets the price Simon has paid to keep her safe, despite the fact that she knows it isn’t her fault, and that he made the choice to do so willingly, freely, and without hesitation. Joss Whedon’s script summed up this regret with two simple words as she debates with herself about what to do when Simon is injured and can no longer protect her: “My turn.”
River then commits an act of what she can only assume will be self-sacrifice by exiting the safety of the bunker to try and save him. Though ultimately surviving the ordeal, River is clearly making a moral choice: one for many, though it was likely only consciously considered to be a choice of “Simon lives or Simon dies.”
Simon Tam, River’s brother, has a moral code that is somewhat similar to his sister’s but varies in subtle ways. Just one example of the increasingly flexible nature of Simon’s moral code is demonstrated by his often high-handed disregard for the Serenity crew’s choice of jobs—i.e. the illegal kind—but who then, in the episode “Ariel,” hires the crew to get River and him inside an Alliance hospital in an attempt to diagnose exactly what was done to her. As payment, he offers not money, but knowledge, and the planning of a heist at the same hospital. Not only does Simon compromise his morals to plan and participate in a crime, but he invokes one of the most cited justifications for said crime, albeit indirectly: it is a “victimless” crime, as the medical supplies that the crew will steal will be quickly replaced and no one will go without. Simon compromises his morals in order to help his sister. He chooses to do “evil” in an attempt to undo an evil done to Summer.
Shepherd Book has one of the most complex moral backdrops in the show. He is presented as a simple Shepherd, a man of God, but over the course of the series, we learn that he is a man with a past, one not so holy, that he left behind. In the pilot episode, we aren’t yet aware of Book’s background, but we can already see his asserted moral barricades buckling under the pressure of being aboard Serenity. After protecting an Alliance mole, he watches as Mal kills the man as he threatens the crew, and Book finds himself lost. As he tells Inara in her shuttle, he’s not sure killing the mole was the wrong thing to do, and that he believes he is on the wrong ship.
From what (little) we learn later about his past, Book had likely thought himself free or cured of the moral decrepitude he comes to find on Serenity, embodied in Mal’s behaviors and belief system. He finds himself farther from the safety of his abbey in both physical and metaphysical distance as time goes on. In fact, in a later episode (“War Stories”), as the crew prepares to mount an armed rescue mission for Mal and Wash, Zoe notes the bible’s disapproval of killing, to which the increasingly comfortable Book agrees, but notes that it’s a little vague on the subject of kneecaps.
In Captain Malcolm Reynolds, though, we find the personification of the moral hallmarks of the show. As Mal notes in the feature film, Serenity, “I got no rudder. Wind blows northerly, I go north.” What might at first blush sound like the justification of a man willing to do whatever he needs to simply to further his own survival, may, in fact, actually be the key to deciphering the entire morality of the show.
Mal’s goal is freedom and independence. That’s it. He doesn’t want to conquer a moon and become a dictator; he simply wants to be able to go, to be, to exist in a way that no one will infringe on. And he hates those that keep people, any people, from doing the same. Obviously, in the Whedon-verse, that can’t happen.
So then why is the rudder comment so important? Because, if you realize that he may, in fact, mean that he always navigates towards that goal, to the exclusion of all other considerations. He is not a criminal, per se, although he performs criminal acts. He takes legitimate work when he is able, but always, always, with an eye toward achieving his ultimate goal.
He will go against a criminal with a reputation for holding a grudge (Niska) instead of stealing medicine from sick colonists, performing a “good” act to avoid an “evil” act. He will desecrate the bodies of people he knows and cares about in order to find out why the Alliance is after River, performing an “evil” act in hopes of accomplishing a “good.” He will threaten his closest friends with violence if they don’t help him with this.
While this could be considered as subscribing to the theory that “the ends justify the means,” I don’t think Malcolm Reynolds is that simple. Even when placed in a situation where he could legally and understandably kill a man in a duel (“Shindig”), he chooses the slightly less barbaric option of humiliation, after some internal (and external) debate about his own goodness. Mal has no illusions about his moral code. But he does have one.
Similar to the Operative in the feature film, Serenity, Mal wants to find a world where he can simply live and work, but knows that such a place does not exist, so he works to undermine the world he sees as unwelcoming to folk like him. Those that make such a world impossible.
In the end, it would be easy to try to paint the show in shades of black and white, right and wrong, good and evil, but that would do it a disservice. While individual events might be evaluated against a specific standard, taken in total, there can be only one real conclusion:
Life is messy. It is a constantly shifting mass of circumstances and environments, requiring one’s actions to be constantly evaluated, to determine which is the greater good, even if that greater good contains within it a bit of evil.
Now, maybe somebody can use some of that, argue for or against some of it, or just ignore it all together. Fellow Browncoats, ball’s in your court.