“The special hell” (Firefly’s paradox)

“We can’t die, Bendis. You know why?” Captain “Mal” Reynolds asks one of his soldiers during a pivotal battle in the first scene of Firefly. “Because we are so very pretty.” A moments later, Mal’s side, the renegade “Independents,” is defeated by the Alliance, an autocratic interplanetary supergovernment. As the Alliance’ spaceships descend from the sky, Mal watches in horror at the collapse of everything he’s stood for. It’s a terrific prelude, without which the remainder of Firefly would be robbed of context and drama.

After the collapse of the Independent cause, a spiritually broken Mal captains Serenity, a space cruiser in which he and a crew of vagabonds and refugees do odd jobs and bicker at each other in Whedon’s signature deadpan. The premise is essentially “Stagecoach meets The Wild Bunch,” where characters from different social and cultural backgrounds attempt to scrape by on the economically depressed galactic outskirts. Through it all, Mal is an obstreperous yet sympathetic juggernaut, knocking over anyone who gets in his way, but always looking after the crew that constitutes his found family.

On rewatching Joss Whedon’s Firefly for the first time in years, two things strike me. One is that Firefly is Joss Whedon’s finest work by orders of magnitude. The other observation is that Firefly is Whedon’s most politically grotesque work. For all that Whedon’s abuse of crew and actors behind the scenes is now widely known, Firefly’s pernicious influence has broadly been overlooked. It’s guaranteed that this is partly because Firefly is the martyred younger child of Whedon’s pantheon, slaughtered in its manger by Fox not even a full network season into its run. But this beloved child packed a lot of reactionism into its 14 episodes and one feature film. All of which is to say, Firefly is one of the most interesting texts to come out of post-9/11 network television.

Joss Whedon’s work had largely fallen out of favor with consensus even before his public outing as an abusive and manipulative boss. Since then, it seems to have taken a step down in the popular consciousness. And for all that a lot of this seems to be performative (why people feel guilty about liking a TV show 20 years before they find out about the creator’s abusive behavior is beyond me), it’s also not hard to see why. Whedon’s work is permeated by 90s male feminism, the tropes of early Aughts network television, and the knowledge of the banter-ridden genre dramas that would come after it. These things aren’t Whedon’s fault as such, but they aggressively ride against the legacy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.

Firefly has aged slightly better than Whedon’s other shows by merit of having a stronger premise than them. Buffy, for all its genuine innovations at the time, has a premise that doesn’t boil down to much more than “what if a teenage girl kicked ass?”, Angel is simply about someone’s boring ex-boyfriend being sad, and Dollhouse never seems to realize that its premise is just “rape victims for sale.”…

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