Aimin’ to Misbehave: Jeremiads and Justice in Joss Whedon’s Firefly
Anyone paying attention to current popular culture may notice repeated references to a cancelled television show called Firefly. Popular shows such as Fringe, The Big Bang Theory, Castle, Futurama, and Community all feature off-the-cuff references to this one-season wonder. In terms of popular fiction, Firefly is an oddity—as a show it combines the western and sci-fi, with religious-moral conflict and pirates. This genre-hybrid was unpopular at the time of its release but quickly gained popularity after its cancellation and has since evolved into a cult classic with a sizable fandom. Firefly ran from September 20th, 2002, to December 20th, 2002; the series lasted for all of fourteen episodes before it was rudely ripped from television screens. However, its intense underground fandom prompted a revival in the form of a movie, titled Serenity, in 2005. Both Firefly and Serenity were created, produced, and primarily written by Joss Whedon, a writer-director-composer-producer popular for his cult-classic TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff, Angel, as well as other work in television, film, and comic books. The sheer popularity of both of these shows, as well as Firefly and his other works, have pushed Whedon’s name to the top of Hollywood’s A-list.
Firefly centers around Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds, a soldier who became a smuggler after serving on the losing side of a galaxy-wide civil war. Mal’s response to the end of the war and the new regime it ushered in is one of disillusionment and disappointment with the evils of society that led to the current status. Far from unusual, Mal’s reaction to the new world order in fact parallels a popular American literary narrative pattern: the jeremiad. Originally a religious text, the jeremiad has evolved to act primarily as a vehicle of criticism, particularly socially or politically. Mal acts as a Jeremiah: one who preaches of the moral bankruptcy in a community and traces its cause to specific societal ills. He centers his critique on the new Alliance rule. To Mal, the galaxy’s downfall can be traced to certain groups that ushered in an age of decline as punishment for their immoral behavior.
The rhetoric used by Mal to describe the post-war depression closely resembles the rhetoric used by another underdog: the American Civil War South. The speech used by both parties is very similar in nature and calls for very similar ideals. Mal compares the oppression of the Alliance to tyranny and insists that it is interfering with his rights and livelihood; likewise, many Southerners believed that the North’s attempts to halt the spread of slavery encroached upon their fundamental rights as Americans. Both Mal and the South largely glorify war and the valor of the soldiers on the losing side. Additionally, both sides repeatedly use gendered or religious rhetoric when describing their plight. Mal’s Jeremiah preaching of the evils of his new society closely resembles many rhetorical concepts used by the American South before, during, and after the Civil War. This essay examines both the jeremiad narrative as it applies to Firefly with Mal as a Jeremiah and the parallels of the rhetoric used by both the show and the American Civil-War-era South.
Space Cowboys and Sermons: An Overview
Firefly has been aptly described as a “space western” set approximately 500 years in the future in a galaxy far, far away. Earth-That-Was became depleted of resources, so mankind traveled to a new galaxy of planets that were terra-formed to very closely resemble what is now called Earth-That-Was. The inner ring of planets, reaping the benefits of technology and wealth, is under the rule of the Alliance—a governmental system which functions as a militarized parliament of sorts. The Alliance wanted to spread their rule out to the distant border planets, an idea rejected by the Independents, or “Browncoats,” who lost their years-long war against the Alliance.
Enter Malcolm Reynolds, captain of the Firefly-class spaceship Serenity and a sergeant among the Browncoats in the war. After the war, Malcolm buys his ship to fly through the galaxy out of reach of the Alliance, accepting small jobs where they come and embracing his freedom. His crew is varied and eclectic: Zoe, his stoic first-mate and former war comrade; her husband Hoban “Wash” Washburn, the eccentric but capable pilot of Serenity; Kaylee Frye, the girl-next-door genius mechanic; and Jayne Cobb, the gun-toting brawn of the operation. This crew takes whatever jobs they can find, regardless of their questionable legality—Mal justifies his illegal activity as based in morality and therefore necessary to combat the ills of the Alliance. The crew are joined in their journeys by several non-crew members: Inara Serra, a registered companion who rents a shuttle on Serenity to run her business out of (a registered companion is basically a very respected, very well-educated prostitute); Shepherd Derrial Book, a nondenominational Christian preacher who has a mysterious backstory; and Simon and River Tam, brother and sister fugitives of the law. Simon broke his genius telepathic sister River out of a government-run research and torture facility. One of the main story arcs of the series is the Tam siblings’ ongoing attempt to evade Alliance detection and find out exactly what the Alliance did in their research of River’s brain and psyche. Together, this misfit band works most regularly in smuggling or cargo transportation. Working with a combination of advanced technology like hovercraft and the basic, non-electrical technologies found on underdeveloped border planets which still resemble the colonial American West, this crew forms odd relationships with each other and try to live life with their independence and dignity intact.
Firefly has deeply resonated with audiences despite its short run-time and remains a fan favorite over a decade after its release. Its long-term impact on audiences implies that its audience likely shares underlying ideologies or common beliefs with the show itself. Part of the show’s success can be attributed to the popular good-guy-versus-bad-guy storyline and a phenomenon that Joy Davidson called “hero porn,” which states that audiences like good guys, hate bad guys, and love seeing good guys beat bad guys (9). Additionally, the popularity of the show is directly related to its incorporation of established narrative patterns of popular American literature that have persisted through various evolutionary stages. One of the oldest and most evolved of these narrative patterns is the above-mentioned jeremiad. Mark Stephen Jendrysik argues in his article on the American Jeremiah that the jeremiad takes its roots in early American Puritanism, stemming from sermons “condemning corruption and calling for moral reform” (17). The jeremiad narrative itself has a basic step-by-step structure, simplified here: things were great; now they are terrible; these are the reasons why; this is what we can do about it. Puritans believed that God visited plagues and hardships upon humanity as reparations for the ills of society. The voice of the jeremiad sermon usually identifies the reasoning behind the recent hardships as sinful behavior in the community, and members of the community are urged to give up their evil ways and return to the glory of the past. In this updated adaptation, Mal is the Jeremiah preaching of the evils of society as the cause for Alliance rule and the collapse of civilization as he knew it, a sci-fi version of good versus evil rooted in ancient American tradition.
“We’re Too Pretty to Die”: Mal as Jeremiah
Mal assumes the role of Jeremiah after his defeat in the war, preaching in his own subtle way that the Alliance’s rule of the galaxy and the moral decline it has caused takes its roots in evils within society as a whole. The jeremiad structure emphasizes a focus on the past as a glorified period of justice and moral supremacy. Though Mal’s past is rarely directly referenced, the audience can make inferences based upon information provided. In “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” Mal tells his new wife about his childhood on the planet Shadow, where his mother ran cattle and raised him with the help of many farm hands (Firefly ep. 6). His tone is fond in his brief moment of recollection, implying nostalgia for what may have been simpler times. The lack of bitterness toward the Alliance in his story also implies that the Alliance was not yet so powerful a force and folks could live a simple, happy life without their interference. These short insights into Mal’s history provide framework for his idealized past, but his past truly comes to life in his crew. Nathan Fillion, the actor who played Mal, believed that each member of the crew represents an aspect of Mal that he has lost: “In Wash, he has a lust for life and a sense of humor he’s lost. In Jayne, he has selfishness. In Book, he has spirituality. In Kaylee, he has innocence” (Whedon 23). Mal’s past and present experience mark the beginning of his jeremiad sermon as he “call[s] for a return to a former innocence and moral strength that had been lost,” a common theme within the jeremiad (Bercovitch 263).
The roots of Mal’s jeremiad sermon can additionally be traced to the war and the loss of his idealism. In the opening scene of the series, Mal fights on the side of the Browncoats against the Alliance in the Battle of Serenity Valley, one of the final battles of the War. In this introduction, Mal is shown as a stark contrast of what he becomes later in the series: he is hopeful, cheerful, humorous, and religious. He exudes confidence that he and his squad will come out alive and that the Alliance will be crushed, since he and his men are “too pretty for God to let [them] die.” However, his hopes are dashed when the Browncoats surrender and the Alliance wins the battle and ultimately the war (Firefly ep. 1 “Serenity”). It is here that the jeremiad structure begins to take shape; following the modern American adaptation of the jeremiad, Mal experiences “idealism and dreams of success followed years later by feelings of disillusionment, loss, and disappointment” (Bercovitch 263). Fast-forward to six years later, when Mal and his crew salvage for scraps, just looking to survive in the new Alliance-ruled universe. For much of the remainder of the series, Mal expresses bitter resentment over the rule of the Alliance.
Mal is one of few characters the audience is exposed to who sees the Alliance as a tyrannical force that is destroying the universe he once knew; to most, the Alliance is a shining beacon of logic, reason, and justice. How, then, does Mal justify his malice toward the ruling party? Though he makes few direct statements decrying the Alliance, viewers are able to see for themselves the kind of rule brought on by this hegemonic power. Following the theft of life-saving drugs from a poor mining community, a squad of Alliance soldiers flees the scene and leaves the townspeople to die rather than offer their assistance. (Firefly ep. 2 “The Train Job”). An Alliance ship refuses Mal’s desperate pleas for medical attention for a dying Shephard Book until Book’s mysterious past, shown only on his ID card, provokes the Alliance to assist (Firefly ep. 5 “Safe”). The Alliance allows, in a “civilized” society, the existence of such barbaric practices as slavery and indentured servitude (Firefly ep. 2, 4). During the war, the Alliance invented chemical warfare to wipe out all life in any specific area so they could raid for supplies and resources. (Firefly ep. 11 “Trash”). And of course, the Alliance imprisoned River in a research facility, experimented on her, and lobotomized her (Firefly ep. 9 “Ariel”). The Alliance’s almost unquestioned control is clearly a negative force in the universe, both according to Mal and as evidenced by their injustices—particularly in the film Serenity, where Alliance intervention is shown to truly be the cause of many of the universes’ ills.
The first two stages of Mal’s jeremiad, “things were good” and “now they are terrible,” are illustrated subtly in his past and present; the second two stages, “these are the reasons why” and “this is what we can do about it” are portrayed through Mal’s critiques of society and the Alliance. Jeremiahs often seek the moral high ground and use the narrative structure as a vehicle for cultural critique, with some criticism on sexual morality (Jendrysik 23). This high ground is evidenced by Mal’s strict moral standard for sexuality, as seen in his frequent labeling of Inara as a “whore,” even though she is not. He repeatedly disrespects Inara and her profession because in his eyes, companionship is dishonest and immoral (Firefly ep. 4 "Bushwacked"). Furthermore, at their first meeting Inara states that she supported unification, to which Mal replies, “I’m sure you’re not the only whore who did” (Firefly ep. 8 "Out of Gas"). This suggests that morally/religiously/spiritually lacking people will of course support evil over good and that this tendency assisted in the creation and supremacy of the Alliance. With this statement, Mal illustrates a direct correlation in his mind between the dishonesty of companions and the evils of the Alliance. As Mal preaches it, as well as within the jeremiad, the result of immoral societal behavior is partially the result of the acceptance of companions and sexual freedom.
Even though Mal is technically a criminal himself, he also believes that the immorality of criminals is a cause for the negative state of the world and looks down on criminals who do not operate based on his moral code. Modern jeremiad structures place the fault for the hardships not within the community itself, but within other groups of society (Jendrysik 20). Though Mal himself engages in what he calls “clandestine dealings” (meaning criminal activity), he sees himself as morally above other criminals such as Badger and Adelai Niska due to his moral code and his service in the war. Badger is a small-time criminal mastermind who leaves Mal to die when a deal goes south, while Niska is willing to steal from the poor and sell to the rich as well as brutally torture and murder those who oppose him. In the jeremiad according to Mal, the illegal and immoral activity of these crooks is also partially responsible for the direct decline of society. This theory is evidenced when Niska plans to steal medicine from poor and dying miners, as well as in the advancement of the hated Alliance, when Badger turns Mal and his crew in to the authorities (Firefly eps. 1, 2, 5). Though an outlaw himself, Mal sees himself as above the immorality of other criminals—or, as he states, “[j]ust the ones I’m better than” (Firefly ep 1). Just as these characters prove why society has fallen, Mal steps up to reclaim it. A characteristic of the modern jeremiad is the call for new leadership to assert itself and foster a renewal of the morality of society (Jendrysik 31). In remaining a moral man in an immoral criminal world, Mal seeks to balance the evils of society and fight back against the oppressive force of the Alliance. Mal’s unwavering integrity acts as the “this is what we can do about it” stage of his jeremiad—he believes that his honesty and morality are reminiscent of a more peaceful time and can call society together to return to former salvation. Whether consciously or not, he seeks to lead by example as a moral criminal in an immoral criminal world.
Mal speaks subtly of the decline of society and its causes. His disillusionment with the changing society following the Browncoats’ defeat in the war signaled the beginning of his internal jeremiad sermon. Likewise, to the American South, the Civil War marked the end of their dreams and the beginning of a decades-long struggle to reclaim Southern identity. In fact, Firefly shares many themes with the Civil War, specifically in the rhetoric used by Mal to describe the Alliance in comparison to that used by the South before, during, and after the war. The rhetoric used by Mal in Firefly parallels that used by the American South and contributes to the larger framing of Mal’s experiences within the jeremiad as he perceives it.
“I’m Thinkin’ We’ll Rise Again”: Firefly, Rhetoric, and the Civil War South
Firefly has been thematically compared to the Civil War since its creation. Whedon came up with the idea for the show after reading Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels, a novel on the Civil War. Though he did not want to defend the Confederacy’s stance on slavery, he wanted to write about the idea of the losers of the wars ("Firefly” 9). Whedon himself states that the idea originated in the Confederate soldiers who fled to the frontier after the war and “the people history stepped on” (“Just Get Us” 28). Viewers who pay attention will notice references to the Civil War era: the bloody conflict over independence, the Antebellum-esque fashion and societal structure, and of course Mal’s popular line, “I’m thinkin’ we’ll rise again” (Firefly ep. 2 "The Train Job"). Some other themes, like the heroic fight for liberty over an oppressive hegemonic society, are not as commonly associated with the Civil War to the average viewer. Whedon succeeded in creating a “similar world to the post-Civil War South but removing the issue of slavery,” meaning a universe still handling the repercussions of a violent civil war in which the losers are forced to reconcile with a new way of life (“Bonnie Brown Flag” 200). The narratives each use rhetoric that parallels each other and reinforces their respective jeremiad narrative patterns.
Many viewers who know and love Malcolm Reynolds may be hesitant to compare him in any way to the Civil War South, considering the reputation held by Southerners of the time period. The Civil War is largely known as a war about slavery, but it had many complex and layered political and social implications beyond the issue of slavery that led to its culmination. The issue of slavery was indeed one of the greatest issues, but that is not the only reason that many Southerners chose to fight. Like Mal, they wished to defend themselves against what they saw as a direct violation of their rights. Like Mal, they sought to return to a time of peace and prosperity. And like Mal, they desired only to be left to live their lives as they pleased. Though the association of such a hero figure to a group of people with such a distasteful history may feel contradictory, Mal and the South had similar intentions. The comparison between the two illustrates the complexities existing on both sides.
At the core of each side’s rhetoric is the tyrannical government that strips away their rights and liberties. Many Southerners who argued for secession did so based on principles structured in the American political system and guaranteed in America’s many celebrated political documents. The Articles of Confederation, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution were all widely quoted by pro-secession advocates and used to argue for citizens’ rights to property (which at that time included slaves) and for states’ rights to regulate their own laws (in regards to trade and slavery) (Rable 42-44). To them, these documents represented the true American spirit and the ideals laid down by the founding fathers—ideals that were being rejected by the liberal North in favor of “unjust” laws that would strip them of their rights and destroy their livelihood. Thus, pro-South rhetoric stressed a government ruled by the consent of the governed and called for resistance to “Northern and federal aggression” (McCurry 16-17).
Additionally, the uprising was rhetorically framed around other notable fights for liberty: one newspaper wrote after the election of Lincoln in 1860, “The Tea has been thrown overboard, the revolution of 1860 has begun” (McCurry 45). This rhetoric of course parallels the American Revolutionary War when the patriots threw British tea into the Boston Harbor in a concentrated demand for their rights, an act known as the Boston Tea Party. Many Southerners held similar ideas of themselves as revolutionary fighters battling against injustices. Though history often glosses over these ideas, their rhetoric proves that Southern Americans thought that they had no choice but to secede from the Union to protect the integrity of the nation. At this point, the Southern decline had not yet begun and Southerners looked forward to a future rid of the “evils” of the North.
Unlike his Civil War counterparts, Mal fights the Alliance occupation not in defense of some patriotic text but because he thinks it is the right thing to do. To Mal, the Alliance is not just a governmental autocracy but an “occupying enemy force” (Kowalski 27). Mal’s childhood remembrance of his years on the cattle farm included no mention of Alliance, so it is reasonable to infer that they were not present at the time; therefore the Alliance encroachment into the Rim can be seen as a direct threat to Mal’s way of life. In Serenity, a young River articulates this problem: “We (the Alliance) meddle. People don’t like to be meddled with” (Serenity). Mal expresses his own thoughts on the matter, explaining, “That’s what governments are for, getting in your way.” Later, he jokes that the Alliance wanted everyone under their control so that “everyone can be interfered with or ignored equally” (Firefly ep 1 “Serenity”). Mal clearly believes that the Alliance seeks to infringe on his rights and meddle in his affairs—much as the South believed that the North was trying to strip their right to property. Like many post-war Confederate soldiers, Mal chooses to live on the frontier because it is the only place he feels he can exercise his liberty (Kowalski 27).
Just as Mal resembles post-Civil War Confederate soldiers in his desire to escape the reach of the Alliance, the two factions also share a common celebration for soldiers on the losing side. Alice Fahs, scholar on literature and culture in the Civil War, proves that the rhetoric supporting the heroic young Southern soldier were nearly limitless—posters, songs, poems, pamphlets, and many other types of propaganda bolstered patriotism and celebrated those brave enough to give their lives for freedom, and indeed much of this media has survived to modern day (Fahs 70). Additionally, the idea persisted among the fallen South that “even though they lost the war, they were heroes in a heroic cause” (Towns 38). The viewer sees similar ideas of respect for soldiers in Mal’s rare discussions of the war. Like the South, he claims that he was on the “losing side” but he’s “not so sure it was the wrong one.” (Firefly ep. 4 “Bushwacked”). He gets into a fistfight on Unification day, a holiday celebrating the Alliance’s victory, after an Alliance war veteran insults Browncoat soldiers (Firefly ep. 2 “The Train Job”). Additionally, after Mal and Zoe learn that an old war friend has died, they insist on carrying his casket themselves and vow to complete his dying wish (Firefly ep. 12 “The Message”). Both Mal and the South celebrate their soldiers both during the conflict and after the war, proving rhetorical as well as moral similarities.
The language used by both sides is markedly gendered in describing the idea of homeland. Southern pre-war rhetoric emphasized the need to defend their Mother Country and referred to the North’s encroachment on their rights as the rape of their motherland. In Southern rhetoric, the state was universally female and the citizen was universally male. (McCurry 306). Southern men were rallied to the cause with assertions that they must defend their women from harm, furthering gendered ideas of home (Fahs 81). Generally, rhetoric that emerged from the South “personalize[d] the nation” as decidedly female (Fahs 123). Mal upholds a similar idea of a gendered home, noted in his repeated references to his ship Serenity as female. Mal’s devotion to Serenity and his desire to protect and respect her mirrors the South’s gendered depiction of their homeland. Repeatedly throughout the series Serenity is insulted or called by an incorrect or insulting name, and typically Mal is the first to defend her. He argues her spaceworthiness after a questioning Inara implies that Serenity is not in the greatest repair; later, he refuses to abandon Serenity after she breaks down—even when faced with certain death (Firefly ep. 8 “Out of Gas”). Serenity is Mal’s post-war homeland and, like the motherland of the South, she must be protected and defended. The men on both sides assumed the role of protecting their very gendered definitions of home while using similar language to propagate ideas of home as exclusively female. Mal and the soldiers of the Civil War South use comparable rhetoric when discussing their right to their freedom, their soldier comrades, and their gendered homelands. Mal’s use of this rhetoric is rooted in his role as Jeremiah, proclaiming the evils that have descended upon society and transformed it into such a desolate post-war environment.
The jeremiad narrative structure has persisted since the sermons of the Puritans in New England, through the Civil War, into the new millennium, and has evolved to suit popular culture. Firefly presents the narrative in a slightly modified form: as a personal jeremiad, as opposed to one focusing on the community. Mal often uses rhetoric that mirrors language used by the American South in the stages of their own jeremiad. Moreover, broader parallels can be drawn between the narrative pattern and the text; for example, Firefly is often categorized as an antithesis to post-September-11th jeremiads as well. Jeremiads written following the 9/11 attacks often stressed that “the health of society requires that the proper authority exercise control and discipline over these disfavored groups [young people, the poor, and racial minorities]” (Jendrysik 18). Disregarding the specifications in minorities and generalizing minorities and disenfranchised peoples as a whole, this is exactly what the Alliance aims to do as a hegemonic head of power. Additionally, while earlier versions of the jeremiad strayed away from the intended educational aspect, post 9/11 jeremiads “were able to return to former ground and chastise the people” (Jendrysik 23). In a reversal of roles with Mal, the Alliance fits the role of the post-9/11 Jeremiah by teaching people the correct way to exist, and the audience is supposed to find fault with this—just as they are supposed to find fault with the Bush administration.
Firefly is in many ways a critique of the post-9/11 jeremiad; instead of following the accepted narrative pattern that supports governmental policies, Whedon chose to use the show to criticize those in power. The primary vehicle for this critique is the Alliance and its parallels to the post-Patriot Act US government. Post-9/11 America was not terribly responsive to strong criticism of the government, which may have led to the Firefly’s cancellation, while later dissatisfaction and distrust in the government following the post-9/11 invasion of the Middle East may have likewise contributed to its later success. Adaptations of the jeremiad narrative pattern make it possible for shows like Firefly to act as instruments of both entertainment and cultural critique and result in the diversification and evolution of the narrative. Firefly can be viewed as an epic about space cowboys, or as a retelling of Civil War history, or as a justified attack on the American government—thanks to its breadth of meaning, the story can reach many diverse audiences while maintaining its cult-classic status.
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