“Our Mrs. Reynolds” (season 1, episode 6; originally aired 10/4/2002)
Donna Bowman: Sexy space grifters! Oh Firefly, you know me so well. The confidence racket makes for as delightful and rich a fictional milieu as, well, the Western. And the two often join forces, thanks to a landscape full of worthless scrub that can be represented as bounteous veins of precious metals, boomtowns full of just-off-the-turnip-truck yokels eager to believe in easy money, and the minimal presence of law enforcement. In a nice bit of serendipity, this week’s Summertime Roundtable pick (which I selected) is a con-man episode of the TV western The Big Valley. These stories often leave me with deeply divided loyalties; I love to see a well-executed caper, so part of me wants the scammer to pull it off, but on the other hand, I don’t want to see the characters I love get hurt.
Luckily, “Our Mrs. Reynolds” lets me have both. Saffron’s “maiden house” naïveté and creative scriptural improvisation are a joy to behold, even as the temptations of our heroes become too much to bear. Played by the ever-so-womanly Christina Hendricks, Saffron makes her way onto the ship as a stowaway—from the point of view of the crew. But the way she tells it, the elder of the rustic Triumph settlement gave her to Captain Reynolds in exchange for the service the Serenity gang performed ridding them of pesky bandits. At the drink-y, dance-y celebration, Saffron put a garland on Mal’s head and the elder renders Jayne nearly speechless with the gift of a rainstick. And thus, according to the Bible that the Triumph folks favor, Mal is married.
And also according to that Bible, she is to “do for” him. Cooking. And other wifely duties. “On the night of their betrothal, the wife shall open to the man as the furrow to the plow,” she quotes when Mal discovers that she prefers his bed to the quarters he provided elsewhere. “He shall work in her again and again, till she bring him to his full.” “Whoa… good Bible,” Mal murmurs. And despite his determination not to encourage her nuptial delusions before disembarking her in Beaumonde (despite Shepherd Book pointedly warning him that taking advantage will doom him to “the special hell… a level they reserve for child molesters and people who talk at the theater”) Mal succumbs at least to the point of a passionate kiss—which leaves him flat on the cabin floor, Saffron tossing a sardonic “Night, sweetie!” over her shoulder as she bolts.
This is where it’s fun being a first-time viewer. The revelation that Saffron’s a scammer not only twists the episode so far into a pretzel, but allows the next couple of scenes—with Wash on the bridge, and with Inara on the cargo deck—to play out both on the level of what the Serenity crew knows, and what we now know. Saffron’s seduction of Wash is a slightly more impatient version of her go at Mal, what with her facile recitation of the sexually charged myth of Earth-That-Was (“Whoa… good myth,” Wash admits) and her attempts to drive a wedge between Wash and Zoe (“I thought she didn’t seem to respect you,” Saffron says with wide, innocent eyes, referring to the grief Wash took over wanting some of Saffron’s cooking earlier). When she rolls her eyes before resorting to a swift kick in the head, then takes a crack at giving Inara the highly accelerated business, our delight comes from the theme and variations structure, from Hendricks’s shapeshifting, and from the lesson in worldly wisdom that we know our straight-arrow heroes, always threatening to be somewhat foolish in their principles and worldview, temporarily deserve.
My favorite moment in one of the most self-assuredly quotable hours of television I’ve ever seen comes after Saffron has escaped in the spare shuttle. “Inara found you here,” Book informs the recently awakened Mal, and Inara pipes up from her collapsed position, “Then I fell. My head got hurt like Wash.” Nobody cares about why she was unconscious, but she’s groggily determined to get a plausible narrative out there that doesn’t involve her lapse of control in kissing Mal. That’s part of what makes a Joss Whedon script (and Joss Whedon characters) so sparkling; even when nobody else is thinking about them, they’re thinking about themselves.
There’s a plot point I need you to get straight for me, Noel: Saffron runs quite a complicated con to get on the ship and point it at the scavengers’ net. But when we first see Corbin (Benito Martinez, better known to me as Aceveda on The Shield) and Breed discussing Serenity, they act like they’re learning about her for the first time and are debating whether she’s worth going after. Does the grift actually make sense as presented?
Noel Murray: I think they’re seeing the ship for the first time, but that Saffron already told them to expect her. My presumption is that Saffron saw Serenity and its crew, sent a wave to Corbin, and then commenced to connin’. Breed is skeptical, but Corbin knows Fireflies, and knows Saffron.
Anyway, the net’s just a metaphor, wouldn’t you say? Not in some kind of deep, heavy way, but just in the sense that our heroes like to avoid entanglements, including petty bureaucracy, matrimony, and, y’know, electronic spider webs. We get a good sense of what drives the Serenity crew this week when Wash—at long last, Wash!—talks about his home planet, where the pollution was so thick that he couldn’t see the stars. “Sometimes I think I entered flight school just to see what the hell everyone was talking about,” he tells Saffron. And now that he’s seen the stars, he’s happy to keep on seeing them, rather than being imprisoned—or worse.
That’s why I love the two big switcheroos in “Our Mrs. Reynolds.” The first comes early, as we see a happy montage of the crew dancing and drinking and donning flowers and smiling at each other in an “it doesn’t get any better than this” kind of way. And then: “Zoe, why do I have a wife?” Note the way that Zoe initially underestimates the threat that Saffron poses, seeing at as an opportunity to make fun of her Captain. (And Kaylee joins in too, winkingly reassuring a weepy Saffron that Mal “makes everybody cry… he’s like a monster.”) But note also that when Mal’s nuptials are announced to the crew, there’s a quick insert shot of Inara, looking distressed. It’s not just that she suspects Saffron’s no good—in fact, she probably suspects nothing at all at that moment—and it’s not even that she’s dismayed that another woman landed Mal before she could, necessarily. It’s more that there’s a lifestyle that she’s become accustomed to, and part of that lifestyle is having flirty arguments with Malcolm Reynolds. And now that’s all about to be destroyed.
And then there’s the Saffron switch, which is fun no matter how many times I’ve seen it. One minutes she’s modestly telling Mal, “I’ll not be anyone’s doxy,” and suggesting to Zoe in the kitchen that “everything’s laid out if you’d like to cook for your husband.” Then after we learn she’s a big fake, we get to see how she tries to play Wash the way she played Mal, ending up by rolling her eyes at his loyalty to Zoe and then kicking him hard in the head. So, so awesome. (Also awesome: Saffron answering Inara’s admiring, “You’re amazing; who are you?” with a curt, “Malcolm Reynolds’ widow.”)
In the end, Malcolm escapes Saffron’s clutches—and the electric net her confederates wield—because, “I got people with me.” (Shades of Buffy The Vampire Slayer there.) We even see that in this episode’s funny opening scene, where Mal wears a “pretty floral bonnet” in order to fool some highwaymen, and jokes with his “husband” Jayne, saying, “How can you shame me in front of new people?” He’s being quippy, but there’s an assumption there. “New people” are not “people” per se—at least not in the “I got people with me” sense.
DB: What makes “Our Mrs. Reynolds” such a superior episode is that it’s not just slam-bang quotable good fun. The contrast between Saffron (fiercely independent because, as a grifter, she knows no one can be trusted) and Mal lies in those “people” you mention. “Everybody plays each other; that’s all we do,” Saffron tells him. “We play parts.” But Mal triumphs (temporarily?) because he trusts that those who’ve yoked their lives to him aren’t playing a part. They won’t consider dropping one persona and picking up another as it might redound to their individual benefit. They’ll be there when he needs them. That’s a deep theme for a Western, the genre of outlaws, loners, drifters, and men without names. If the choice of how to live a life on the margins of society is represented by, say, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre and The Magnificent Seven, Mal opts for the Seven and asserts that even though the Serenity crew has been thrown together from a bewildering muddle of tangled personal histories, they’re going to stick.
I’m glad you pointed out the effect Saffron’s spousal revelation has on Inara, because she seems to me to be at the heart of this episode’s conflict. She is playing a part, just as Saffron suggests; it’s her training and her comfort zone. Does that put her on the fringes of the Serenity family, along with Jayne who plays the part of the ally of convenience? Kaylee, Wash, Zoe, Simon, Book—they may have secrets (especially Book, to whom Mal comments “One day you’re going to tell us all how a preacher knows so damn much about crime”), but they basically wear their hearts on their sleeve. What you see is what you get. Can you have the kind of trust Mal boasts about to Saffron without that transparency?
I argued in our last installment that Inara is a more interesting character than some (I gather) give her credit for. Now she’s got me even more intrigued. “I guess we’ve lied enough,” she tells Saffron before their quick mutual admiration society. People who are professionally trained to inspire trust without ever having to resort to giving trust themselves are professional parasites. And that takes me back to The Big Valley and its cobbled-together family and to Heath’s determination not to take what isn’t his by right—not to even covet it. Because otherwise you’re just a con man, a barnacle, a locust in a drought-stricken landscape. You’re alone.
- Mal has a lonely position even though he’s surrounded by the people he’s got. He’s the captain and the captain has “captain-y things to do.” “You just have something to eat for yourself,” he tells Saffron while escaping from the galley, “and I’ll go… captain.”
- Jayne’s jealousy of Mal for getting Saffron plays out in a way that’s a joy to behold. He complains that it’s not fair that all he got was “that dumb-ass stick, sounds like it’s rainin’,” and so tries to trade Mal his big gun “Vera” for Saffron. (“I don’t wish to be lent to the large one,” Saffron later confides to Mal.) Then Vera gets her very own spacesuit as Jayne shoots key components of the scavenger’s net to disable it just before Serenity sails through. The very capable actor and director Vondie Curtis-Hall choreographs this sequence beautifully; I especially like the gun’s soundless firing through the helmet’s faceplate in the vacuum of the airlock.
- Mal’s reaction to Jayne pointing Vera at him: “My days of not taking you seriously are certainly comin’ to a middle.”
- When Saffron starts crying in Mal’s cabin while relating how the other maidens were sold off to “blubberous” husbands, Mal’s vanity gets the better of him: “Why, is there blubber?”
- It’s not just Saffron’s flesh that renders Mal powerless against her. To the accusing eyes of the crew who believe he either took advantage or was embarrassingly manipulated, he protests: “But she was naked and all… articulate!”
- Years ago, The A.V. Club ran an enormously popular Inventory of Simpsons quotes that turn out to be useful to trot out in everyday situations. If we assembled such a list for Firefly, at the top would surely be Mal’s capitulation to Saffron’s advances: “Oh, I’m gonna go to the special hell.”
- Wash, however isn’t seduced by Saffron because he’s terrified of Zoe, who he says can “kill me with her pinky.” And it’s not just her power that keeps Wash in line. When he admires Saffron’s cooking, Zoe shoots him a look and says, “Remember that sex we were planning to have, ever again?”
- Wash’s after-the-fact excuse to Zoe for not kicking Saffron off the ship when he had the chance: “There are all kinds of twists and cul-de-sacs! It’s wild!”
- Nobody’s tongue-tied quite like Malcolm Reynolds is tongue-tied. When Saffron says that she’s meant to cleave to him, he says, “To what of who?” And when he wakes up from being knocked out by Saffron, he asks, “What happened about me?”
- From the “Here’s where society is at in the early 2500s” department: Wash has a ready example for the strange diversity of customs in the galaxy, saying, “I spent six weeks on a moon where the principal form of recreation was juggling geese. My hand to God! Baby geese, goslings, they were juggled!”
- From the “You don’t pay Jayne Cobb to talk pretty” department: When the crew breaks down how Saffron felled Mal, Jayne says, “That’s why I never kiss ’em on the mouth.”
- Next week: We pay a visit to “Jaynestown.” There will be balladry.