There are so many best bits of Joss Whedon’s sci-fi western series Firefly. The characters, the language (Gorramit!), hell, even the title music… I could have written about any number of moments from the all-too-soon cancelled TV show, but when I think about what really makes this show so beloved it’s Captain Malcolm Reynolds. Specifically, his dry sense of humour. Without that, he isn’t Mal, and without Mal, Firefly doesn’t work.
A cross between a no-good outlaw and an honourable gentlemen, Mal is a complicated character who only really works thanks to Whedon’s superb writing and actor Nathan Fillion’s expert delivery. The Captain of a starship which often works outside the law, he leads his band of good-hearted criminals with a strong but loving hand. Serenity is his ship and anyone who doesn’t like it can get off, but he’s shockingly loyal and cares deeply for his crew. These twin personality traits are no more apparent than when he’s making a joke.
Remember when Mal misguidedly defended Inara’s honour in Shindig by accidentally challenging her client Atherton to a duel? After a brutal fight, Mal finally bests his opponent and as he stands over him, pointing his sword at his chest, he proclaims: “Mercy is the mark of a great man.” Then he stabs Atherton. “I guess I'm just a good man,” he says. Deciding that’s not enough, he stabs him some more relenting, “Well, I'm all right.” This is classic Mal. Despite all the ‘bad’ things he does, he’s found himself in a situation where he’s nearly been killed to protect one of his crew and as he’s about to keel over from blood loss he finds time to make a joke about his integrity. Yes, he doesn’t like Artherton and wants to hurt him, but the most important thing is that he maintains his infamy.
The show is littered which such examples. When faced with almost certain death, Mal proclaims: “We are just too pretty for God to let us die.” When Shepard Book asks if he minds if he says grace, Mal replies with: “Only if you say it out loud.” When Zoe points out that another group has the advantage over them, he quips: “Everyone always does. That's what makes us special.” Basically, inappropriate humour in the face of danger is this guy’s MO. And that’s what makes Firefly great because if everything was all doom and gloom it wouldn’t be fun to watch, and if Serenity's crew were all genuine bad guys you wouldn't care about them. If the leader of that crew was just some straight-shot tough guy, there’s no way you’d be as fascinated by him. Not that I’m obsessed with Mal. Definitely not.
As Wash says, they’re crooks. If everything were right they’d be in jail. But everything is not right. In fact, in Firefly the universe is pretty messed up, and if you can’t make a joke about your imminent death, incarceration, or torture, then what can you do? Mal’s seemingly inappropriate jokes don’t diminish the bad things that are happening. In fact, they often highlight them, but it does enable his crew (and you) to handle them better. And that’s why Mal’s dry sense of the humour is the best bit of Firefly.
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