Heart of Firefly

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The Heart of Firefly

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First aired: The Signal: Season 6, Episode 14
Written by Helen Eaton
Read by Helen Eaton
Edited by Dave Tomasic

The Heart of Firefly

By Helen Eaton

It is now nearly two years since I first started writing the articles which eventually, rather belatedly, became known as Heart of Firefly. When I began writing these articles, I wasn’t a member of the Signal crew and I was simply writing for my own enjoyment. I found that rewatching the Firefly episodes with an eye open for the themes running through them was a way to enhance my appreciation of them. And writing my thoughts down helped me to see more clearly the way the themes were woven into the episodes.

If Firefly were simply a collection of well-written stories about great characters having exciting adventures in a cool futuristic setting, I’d still be watching. But Joss Whedon and his fellow writers clearly have something more to say, that goes deeper. Each episode has its own themes, but there is also overlap between the episodes. So taken as a whole, what is it that lies at the heart of Firefly?

You found me broken.
It's broken.
You're lost in the woods.
It doesn't make sense.
That don't make no sense.
We’re still flying

Mal and his crew are not on a grand mission. They are not explorers, or soldiers, or ambassadors. Their mission is simple: keep flying. In order to do so, they must keep finding the next job, making enough money to fuel Serenity and feed themselves. Inara believes they are all lost in the woods and are all running from something. For Mal and Zoe, Serenity is a means of keeping out of the reach of the meddling arm of the Alliance. For Simon and River, the ship serves a similar purpose. Book boards Serenity not looking at the destination, but believing the journey is the worthier part. It seems that Wash and Kaylee simply join up to get away and see the stars. Jayne comes on board for the promise of more money and his own bunk. All the characters have left something behind to sail with Serenity and all are finding their way through the woods of their lives. As we progress through the episodes, we see glimpses of their lostness and brokenness and the lack of sense in what happens to them, but as the series ends, they’re all still flying.

They don't seem to be playing by any civilized rules that I know.
Rules can be a mite fuzzier.
You think following the rules will buy you a nice life, even if the rules make you a slave.
Ain't never have to be under the heel of nobody ever again.

Another theme that can be seen at the heart of Firefly is the tension between the core and the rim, or civilisation and savagery. Mal and his crew are somewhere in the middle, caught between avoiding the rules and restrictions of the Alliance and the brutality of life on the rim. Mal chooses a life that keeps him away from Alliance interference, but doesn’t always manage to fit in with the rules of life on the rim, getting on the wrong side of Badger, Niska and others. Book struggles to reconcile the rules of his faith with the realities of life away from the core. Inara seems to belong more to the core, but chooses her home, and family, on Serenity over Atherton’s offer in Shindig. Kaylee experiences a little of Inara’s world at the ball on Persephone and Wash tries out Zoe’s job in War Stories. Jayne has the chance to be a folk hero on Canton and Simon has his turn at being a criminal mastermind on Ariel. But at the end of the day, the one place where all nine characters truly fit in, is on Serenity.

I think it's more home to her than any place she's been.
Journeys end when and where they want to and that’s where you make your home.
You’ll do it? You’ll get me home?

Simon and River look first at Serenity as simply a means of escape, but then she becomes their home. For Inara, Serenity starts out as a “mutually beneficial business arrangement” with Mal, but becomes a home that she loves. Book wonders in the pilot episode whether he is on the right ship, but nevertheless chooses to stay. Other characters that we meet in Firefly are also searching for a home, or trying to keep one. Nandi has carved out a home for herself and her girls in Heart of Gold and is willing to die to defend it. In The Message, Tracey wants to get home, but sadly only manages to do so in a coffin.

Everybody plays each other. That's all anybody ever does. We play parts.
Ain't about you, Jayne. It's about what they need.
One cannot always be one's self in the company of men.
There ain't people like that. There's just people like me.
You wanna meet the "real me" now...?

Throughout the course of the series, many characters get to dress up and play parts. Whether it is Mal in a soft cotton dress or Jayne as an EMT just bursting to say his lines, or the schemes of Yo-Saff-Bridge, there is much humour to be had with all the play acting. But there are serious moments too, such as when Jayne sees that the mudders’ view of him as a folk hero, even when it is false, gives them hope. And when Jubal Early comments of Book, “That ain’t a shepherd”. Meanwhile Mal and Inara, and also Simon and Kaylee, dance around each other, hiding their true feelings. It is only under the torture that takes place during War Stories that Mal’s “real me” comes out, and only after the brush with death in Heart of Gold, that he becomes “kind of truthsome” with Inara.

Mal, you don't have to die alone.
We’re all just floating.

One result of all the play acting and hiding of true selves in Firefly is that many characters remain cut off from each other to some extent. Book and Inara remain silent about what lies in their pasts and a part of Mal remains in Serenity Valley. Perhaps River most of all remains alone though, detached from reality as a result of the damage done to her mind by the Alliance.

You're on my crew.
You turn on any of my crew, you turn on me!
And however little we may like or trust each other, we're on the same crew.
Y'all gonna be here when I wake up?
You find someone to carry you.
Permission to come aboard?

Although aloneness is clearly a major theme in Firefly, conversely, so is the idea of a created family. Serenity’s crew gradually becomes more and more a family, headed by a captain who views any betrayal of a crew member as a betrayal of himself. Even characters like Jayne and Simon, who do not even like each other, reach a pragmatic détente in order to function as part of the same crew. Mal’s strength turns the crew into a family and by the end of the series, Inara decides to break away from this. The tension between staying free and independent, but enjoying the strength of others, has become too much. As Inara is preparing to leave though, River comes closer to truly belonging, after Early’s attempt to break the family up in Objects in Space.

Joss Whedon said that Firefly is about nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things. We as viewers can also see different things in Firefly. As for me, I see characters trying to make their way in a broken and nonsensical ‘verse, finding their place between the oppression of the Alliance and the brutality of life on the rim, searching for a home and realising they have already found one, playing parts yet slowly revealing their true selves, reconciling the desire for independence with the strength that comes from depending on each other and creating a family together. That, for me, is what’s at the heart of Firefly.

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