The Gospel According to Mal

Malcolm ReynoldsMalcolm Reynolds may very well be the most good-natured, and pure-hearted antihero ever to be imagined. He joins such bad boy favorites as Han Solo and the Duke boys on the pedestal of our hearts. (Mal owe much to the forerunner of the genre, Northwest Smith. But that’s for another post.)

Unlike Bo and Luke Duke, Malcolm Reynolds is driven to dark places of rumination through trauma, failure and vast disappointment. With the help of those few who Mal trusts, he emerges an immovable man built on a bedrock of beliefs. Those beliefs form his worldview. That worldview is the focus of this post.

I invite all those who sympathize with the cause of the Independents to read, ponder and debate.

Introducing Captain Malcolm Reynolds

Raised on a ranch on a world called Shadow by a mother figure and a few dozen ranch hands, little is known about Malcolm before his stint in the resistance. After unification, his ready association with the defeated Browncoats pushes Mal to the fringe of the civilized universe, otherwise known as the core planets. There he purchases a Firefly class space ship which he names Serenity. And the stage is set.

His second in command, Zoe Washburn, is a fellow Browncoat with which Mal shares many harrowing adventures and narrow scrapes, both during the Unification War and after. Captain Malcolm also crosses paths with a couple other associates from his sergeant days, including Tracey Smith and Monty.

A libertarian at heart, Mal’s incessant need for freedom from tyranny drives him into circles filled with the immoral, the scurrilous and the psychotic where his unflinching pirate’s code continually runs amok of the locals.

Herein lies the fun.

Malcolm’s God

Captain Reynolds’ worldview is anchored by the theistic belief in a singular, personal and infinite God. This belief reveals itself most vividly in episode 1 during a brief flashback of the battle over Serenity Valley. Hopelessly optimistic and driven by a sense of spiritual destiny, Sergeant Reynolds of the Independents is shown kissing his cross for luck. He also explains to a fellow soldier, “We are just too pretty for God to let us die.” (~Ep. 1, Serenity.)

Mal fights Alliance forces heroically while waiting for reinforcements. Of course, instead of sending reinforcements, the Independents give up the fight at a critical juncture. The result is rapid unification of the ‘verse by the Alliance.

After the devastating loss at Serenity Valley Reynolds is portrayed as openly hostile to God and his representatives on more than one occasion. Speaking to Shepherd Book he says, “If I’m your mission, you best give it up. You’re welcome on my boat. God ain’t.”

In the episode, Safe, religious hill folk warn Mal from “thwarting God’s will.” Reynolds responds, “Y’all see the man hangin’ out of the spaceship with the really big gun?…Man’s lookin’ to kill some folk. So really it’s his will y’all should worry about thwarting.”

While some may see this shift as a transition from Theism to Atheism, I do not agree. The rest of the tenets of Reynolds’ worldview (as will be discussed) ally closely with theism. Reynolds’ open hostility toward religion portrays him as being angry at God, and thus serves as a sign of his belief rather than unbelief.

All things considered, Malcolm Reynolds comes across as a theist with a grudge against God (and religion). He is unwilling to cast off his beliefs altogether. But by his estimation, God has some serious explaining to do.

Any and all efforts made by religious folk to do the explaining on God’s behalf (since the defeat at Serenity Valley) have only galvanized Reynolds’ anger further. This explains his aversion to Shepherd Book as further illustrated in Safe. Book: “Folks like a man of God.” Mal: “No, they don’t. Men of God make everyone feel guilty and judged.”

Malcolm’s Reality, Humanity and Ethics

The other main tenets of worldview are the perspectives on reality, humanity, evil and ethics. These can become intertwined and difficult to handle independently from each other, so I’ll lump them together.

Reynolds’ reality is both tangible and mystical. His views on reality are best illustrated by his attitudes toward his old Browncoat buddy, Tracey Smith. Smith is a cutup who never quite gets his life on track after the war. During the war Mal explains to him that, “Everybody dies, Tracey. Someone’s carrying a bullet for you right now, doesn’t even know it. The trick is, die of old age before it finds you.”

Later in the episode, The Message, Mal ends up shooting Tracey to protect his crew. While dying, Tracey accuses Malcolm of murdering him. Mal picks up the theme from before, “No, son. You murdered yourself. I just carried the bullet a while.”

The bullet and the harsh realities of Malcolm’s life are very tangible, yet the method of delivery of those realities can sometimes be quite mystical. Mal is able to embrace both. In another episode Zoe expresses her unease over a mission. “She [Patience] still has the advantage over us.” Mal responds, “Everyone always does. That’s what makes us special.”

While reality is final, Malcolm Reynolds never completely surrenders himself to the dictates of his reality.

When it comes to humanity and ethics, Malcolm believes in a universe where rules and civility become more important the further one removes oneself from civilization. (This sentiment is best stated by Simon Tam, yet it can be extrapolated to the captain of the Serenity as well.)

The Reevers represent what happens when humankind crosses the line and “forgets what it’s like to be human.” This sort of inhumanity is shown as the antithesis to Captain Reynolds’ worldview throughout the series. Thus the Reevers are shown to be evil. But Evil, with a capital ‘E’ is reserved for the folk that created the Reevers. (I don’t want to give too much away for the uninitiated.)

During the episode, Out of Gas, another ship’s crew attempts to double-cross Mal. They succeed in shooting him, but fail to commandeer the Serenity. Malcolm gains the upper hand. As the defeated captain leave the Serenity he shrugs and says, “You would have done the same (meaning tried to kill the other captain and take everything).” Malcolm responds, “We can already see that I haven’t. Now get the hell off my ship.”

In true libertarian form, Reynolds believes the enforcement of civil rules should remain at a familial and communal level (not with the Alliance). For the Captain, that means Serenity and crew. Throughout the series, loyalty to crew/family is held up as the epitome and climax of humanity. (Jane almost learns this lesson the hard way.)

The Bottom Line

In the end, Mal’s decisions are based first on the needs of his family/crew and then second on the needs of the needy, the weak and the oppressed. Good and Evil are very real, but Mal is beholden to no single system of ethics that attempts to define such terms. His decisions are based on human need in the moment rather than religious tenets. As long as God remains under the control of human religion, Malcolm Reynolds will have no part of him.

Malcolm Reynolds is above all else a family man. And when everything else comes apart in life, isn’t family what we need the most? As the Browncoats always say, “When you can’t run anymore, you crawl. When you can’t crawl, when you can’t do that…you find someone to carry you.”

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