As we close in on the Scoundrel Round-Up, I don’t think anyone will be surprised by the last few entries here. Coming in at Number Two, we have a scoundrel who may not have graced our screens for very long, but he definitely made an impression. He’s the source of more nerd-rage towards the Fox Network than letting Seth MacFarlane have total control of Sunday night (except for the half hour The Simpsons held on to) for a few years. You know who I’m talking about but if you don’t, I’ll spell it out for you. Scoundrel Number Two is Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds from Firefly.
Firefly didn’t last long enough to reveal all of Mal’s backstory, but we know enough to find that even his history fits the scoundrel archetype perfectly. We never quite learned what the war between the Browncoats and the Alliance was about, but we do know a few things. First of all, the Alliance definitely wanted to control the galaxy in a way that brought about order at the price of freedom. Secondly, we know they were willing to go to some extreme lengths to get it. (For those of you that haven’t watched Serenity, I won’t spoil it for you, but those of you that have should know what I’m talking about). Finally, we also know that the Browncoats lost and when they did, Mal was shocked. The Browncoats surrendered in Serenity Valley and it was a defining moment in the life of Malcolm Reynolds. He even named his ship Serenity after that battle. With the Browncoats’ surrender, Mal decided to head out to the frontier planets where a man could make a living without living under the thumb of the Alliance. With his old war buddy, Zoe, at his side, he bought the Serenity and started taking odd jobs for basically anyone but the Alliance in order to live a life free of their interference. We also know that Mal gradually assembled his crew and sought out like-minded individuals like Hoban Washburne (his pilot), Kaylee Frye (his mechanic), and Jayne Cobb (his muscle). Inara Sera initially started as a bit of an outlier compared to the rest of his crew, but even Inara became close with Mal, though their relationship was always somewhat playfully adversarial. Mal’s relationship with his crew is very telling. Part of what makes a good scoundrel is that they inspire loyalty from their crew, even when what they’re doing is dangerous for a wide variety of reasons. Mal’s crew trusts him implicitly and they’ve shown time and again that they’ll follow him through whatever comes their way because they know Mal will find a way to make it through. Wash even rallied the entire crew to go back and rescue Mal from Niska after Zoe bought his freedom and this was after Wash had been pissed at Mal over his close relationship with Zoe.
When we first meet Mal and his crew on the first episode of Firefly, they’re scrambling for another job. The job they had went south and so they need money. However, Mal’s code of ethics limits their options. Mal winds up getting stuck with the Alliance supplies he’s stolen and decides to pick up some passengers in hopes of making some money transporting them while en route to his one last possible buyer for his stolen supplies. That’s where we meet the rest of the people that would join up with Mal. Kaylee was in charge of finding passengers for the ship and brought in a secretive young man, a shepherd (space pastor), and an undercover Alliance agent. Surprisingly, the Alliance agent wasn’t after Mal and his crew, but rather the secretive young man named Simon Tam. Simon’s big secret was that he was smuggling another person, his sister River, along with him to protect her from the Alliance. When Simon’s cargo was revealed, Mal nearly threw him off his ship because smuggling humans so grossly offended his sense of honor. Learning the story behind the smuggled River Tam changed his mind, but it showed that there were certain lines Mal would not cross to make money. As the series progressed, we would see more of Mal’s sense of honor on display. Mal risked the wrath of a gangster named Niska after he learned the medical supplies he was hired to steal from the Alliance were actually bound for a mining town stricken with a terrible disease brought on by the chemicals the mine used. Rather than profit from the suffering of others, Mal snuck the supplies back and gave Niska his money back for the job. Of course, that didn’t satisfy Niska and he would later capture and torture Mal and Wash, but Mal was willing to risk such treatment because of his code of honor.
Mal’s crew was loyal to him, but with him loyalty was definitely a two-way street. We saw this first when Simon Tam, the newest member of his crew, confronted him about his intentions. Simon knew that Mal could make a lot of money if he just betrayed him and turned him over to the Alliance and, to be honest, Mal was pretty pissed that Simon’s actions put his crew in danger. However, Mal assured Simon that if he was ever going to shoot him, he’d have a gun in his hand and a fair chance to fight back. That speaks volumes about Mal’s character. He may not have liked Simon at that point in their relationship, but he wasn’t going to throw him to the wolves without letting him defend himself. We saw similar bonds with much of the rest of the crew. Mal and Inara always had a complicated relationship because Mal didn’t really like that she was a companion (space geisha). However, while Mal attended a party to make a contact for a possible cattle smuggling operation, he saw Inara with her client. It was clear that this client didn’t respect her and Mal confronted him about it. The client challenged Mal to a duel and while things didn’t go well for him in the fight, with Inara’s help, Mal turned the tables on him and beat him but refused to kill him. When Inara later asked Mal about why he fought that client for disrespecting her even though Mal had said far worse things about her career, his response was that he may not respect her job, but the client didn’t respect her as a human being. Even Shepherd Book benefited from Mal’s loyalty. During a hijacking attempt aboard the Serenity, Book was shot and severely wounded. The closest medical facilities were run by the Alliance and under normal circumstances, Mal never would have gone to them, but his desire to save his friend was stronger than his hatred for the Alliance and he willingly risked capture (and had to hide Simon and River in some increasingly clever ways) to save him. Finally, we have to talk about Mal’s relationship with Jayne. Jayne was definitely the most mercenary of the crew, a fact borne out by the fact that he tried to sell out Simon and River when they were in Alliance space and very nearly succeeded, only to be betrayed by the Alliance official he made his deal with. Out of pure self-interest, Jayne helped Simon and River evade capture and they thought he was a hero, but Mal knew different. Mal threatened to vent him into space and told Jayne that if he was going to shoot him in the back, at least have the courage to do it to his face. However, Mal also believed in second chances and took Jayne’s apology at his word and allowed him to stay on the Serenity. It’s hard to believe Mal ever fully trusted Jayne considering Jayne joined his crew when Mal made him a better offer while Jayne and his old crew had him at gunpoint, but Mal also knew Jayne, while a bit scummy, could be a decent man. After all, Mal was the one who saw Jayne’s reaction to the mudder kid that died protecting him and his legend. Jayne knew he was no hero and the only reason he dumped the money over the mudders was because the ship was damaged, but it turned him into a folk hero and it bothered him that some dumb kid believed the legend of Jayne so much that he was willing to die for him.
Of course, no discussion of Mal is complete without getting into his actions in the movie Serenity. If you’re a Firefly fan and haven’t seen this movie, first of all, welcome to Firefly fandom, now seriously, watch it and secondly, spoilers ahead. After the Alliance makes a concerted effort to find her by triggering some deeply-buried hypnotic suggestions, Mal and the rest of the crew learn why the Alliance is after River Tam. Their experiments made her a psychic and she gleaned information about a deep, dark secret the Alliance had: the truth about Miranda. Mal was initially unsure what to do with this information, but after the Alliance operative that was trailing them killed all their known associates (including Shepherd Book), Mal decided that he had nothing left to lose and snuck the ship through Reaver space to the coordinates the River had in her brain. There, they learned just how sinister the Alliance actually was. Miranda was an early colony and the Alliance decided to experiment on the population to make them more docile and stabilize the population’s moods. Of course, such an experiment on its own would be horrifying, considering how the Alliance could use it to pacify rebellious populations. However, the experiment went horribly wrong. Much of the population lost the will to live and just laid down and died. Unfortunately, not all the population reacted this was. The remaining people became savage and violent, giving birth to the dangerous Reavers. This experiment took place shortly before the war, meaning this was probably the Alliance’s last ditch option to prevent a war and it went horribly wrong. Armed with this information, Mal decides it’s time to pay the Alliance back and enlists the help of their ally, Mr. Universe, to broadcast the report with all this information to the universe. Of course, Mr. Universe was already being held by the unnamed Alliance operative and Mal was walking into a trap. Mal realized that it was probably a trap, though, and decided to goad the Reavers into following him and use them to distract the Alliance so they could reach Mr. Universe’s broadcasting equipment. The Reaver distraction still caused problems for Mal and his crew, though, as some ships followed them down to the planet. Mal’s crew stayed behind, risking certain death, to buy Mal enough time to broadcast the Alliance’s dirty little secret. Mal once again fought with the Alliance operative and defeated him thanks to a relatively smart trick, but Mal refused to kill the operative, instead leaving him alive but trapped to watch the information about the Alliance’s actions before the war firsthand as it was being broadcast around the universe. The end of the movie shows that the Alliance operative is still alive, but no longer associated with the Alliance and warns Mal that the Alliance may still come for him one day, but not while they’re too distracted by doing damage control regarding the Miranda incident.
Lastly, we have to examine Mal’s look as a character and again, we see some pretty obvious scoundrel elements. To oversimplify things, Firefly is basically a Western set in outer space. Mal’s look definitely draws inspiration from Westerns and he has a scoundrel/gunslinger vibe to him and that’s a great call. The long duster not only looks cool but allows for some great flourishes in scenes and it’s something that you often seen being worn by the outlaw characters in Westerns. Mal’s a good guy at heart, but his wardrobe is more in line with scoundrels.
So, we close out entry number two on the Scoundrel Round-Up. I think it should probably be pretty apparent who Number One is, but you’ll have to wait to see. As it stands, though, Mal is a great representation of a scoundrel and probably more than anyone on this list probably owes his inspiration to our Number One scoundrel on this list…who will be revealed next week!