“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.” All of these shows dialogue with genre, but Firefly drives its genres into new frontiers.
Obviously Joss Whedon wasn’t the first person to make a crossover of space opera and Westerns. Star Wars is the most obvious prior example of that bricolage (and indeed, it’s a clear influence on Firefly), and even Star Trek dabbles in it (and influences Firefly more than it would like to admit). Space opera has obvious roots in Westerns. Where Firefly innovates is its recognition of the relationship between the two genres and making it explicit. It forces science fiction and the Western to confront each other in a way that Star Wars didn’t. Firefly’s frontiers aren’t a mere set piece for adventures — they’re the Serenity crew’s quotidian, tedious workplace. This is a working class drama set on Tatooine. Nowadays networks would assassinate a writer for even pitching that — though in Whedon’s day, they simply fucked shows like that with scheduling that prevented anybody from ever seeing them.
In Joss Whedon’s version of history, the Alliance seeks to bring every planet under its rule to arbitrarily seek power. The Independents who fight back are simply freedom fighters nobly sticking it to the man. Space, the final frontier, is simply an unexplored landscape which the heroes can profit from.
Sound familiar? Indeed. It’s a bloodless, ahistorical reflection of Lost Cause and Manifest Destiny mythology. Firefly uncritically recreates white supremacist historiography on network television. The United States and China merge to create a superpower (a bizarre geopolitical event that Whedon never unpacks), resulting in a weird Orientalist universe of Mandarin slang and no Chinese people whatsoever.
Compare this to real history. Deadwood, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, was built on Sioux land. It’s one of the locations that white settlers stole twice: the United States ceded the Black Hills to the Sioux in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. Infamously genocidal Custer came to the Black Hills, manufactured a story about gold, and caused a gold rush that drove the Lakota out of the Black Hills. Dodge City was built on Indigenous land by wiping out the buffalo that fed the Indigenous population. The Western, perhaps even more than the Victorian adventure story, is a genre explicitly built on genocide.
Yet any grappling with this history is completely absent from Firefly, which recreates the Reconstruction myth of downtrodden freedom fighters laboring under the regime they fought to defeat while erasing the genocide and slavery of their fight. It’s not new to point out that Malcolm Reynolds is Robert E. Lee in space, but it’s a vital observation when Reynolds says the Independents “may have been the losing side. Still not convinced it was the wrong one.” Given that Lee spent his latter years touring colleges to lobby against integration, it’s safe to say Reynolds hews pretty close to the ex-Confederate playbook.
OK, let’s be fair. Firefly does sort of grapple with Indigenous genocide. It does this by uncritically recreating the “Indian raids” trope with the Reavers, a race of mindless, pillaging, raping serial killers whose humanity the Serenity crew regularly debates. Whedon has explicitly acknowledged the roots of the Reavers: “every story needs a monster. In the stories of the old west it was the Apaches.” Even more grievously, he claims to have solved the racial problems of vicious Apache stand-ins: “I used that example to say that anyone who goes out into space and goes mad can become a monster.” Yes, Joss, you solved the problem of your racist characters by having them recreate the “mindless brute” stereotypes about Indigenous people. Well done.
Where Firefly becomes more interesting is its break with the allegory of its premise. Yes, the war against the Alliance is clearly a “War of Northern Aggression” stand-in. The Reavers are an explicitly racist stereotype. Yet Serenity, the feature film that serves as Firefly’s finale, breaks the Western metaphor altogether, turning the story of Mal’s crew from a Western into a cyberpunk thriller.
Serenity focuses on the relationship between Simon and River Tam, two upper-class refugees from the Alliance who’ve gone on the lam after scientists tortured River into madness. The depiction of River’s mental illness is, unsurprisingly, catastrophically ableist: she’s referred to as “paranoid schizophrenic” without the writers clearly demonstrating they know what that means, has superpowers because of his madness, hallucinates all the live-long day, and can masterfully perform any skill of which she’s capable. River has roots in the Western — particularly Natalie Wood’s character in The Searchers, who is kidnapped by the Comanche and slowly loses her white humanity — but as a victim of far-future scientific torture who also kicks ass with a sword and a gun, she’s far more at home as a cyberpunk protagonist. Neal Stephenson or Warren Ellis could have created River Tam on a bad day.
But the moment that breaks Firefly’s status as a space Western is the major revelation that kicks off Serenity’s third act. The Serenity crew lands on the planet Miranda, where they find the corpses of 30 million people that the Alliance chemically induced into such docility that they literally died of sloth. Aside from the silliness of this (and granted that the corpses in their offices is the most powerful image Joss Whedon has ever created), the mind-blowing fact here is that some colonists went insane from the chemical treatment and turned into Reavers, meaning that the Alliance created a race of mindless killers.
This is batshit and, more interestingly, genre-breaking. Most Westerns don’t have a moment where we discover that Ulysses S. Grant sicced the Lakota on the Stonewall Brigade. The medical experimentation gets kinda close to the Tuskegee experiments, but is broken by the fact that the Tuskegee victims, well, were killed. The Reavers being a passive, accidental creation of the Alliance is just a bizarre turn of events. It’s politically simplistic in how it originates from the instinct to go “everybody I don’t like is on the same side” — and it makes the show as a whole more interesting. It turns the Alliance into a cyberpunk power whose passive atrocities unleash additional, unintentional catastrophes across the cosmos. This incredibly stupid concept is the most politically astute idea Joss Whedon has ever had.
This facet of Firefly and Serenity is weirdly transformative in a helpful way. This is a fundamentally conservative series, whose portraits of women as wisecracking broads for the menfolk to look after is miles behind the radical vision of women in some Westerns, such as Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West or Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar. Firefly is Orientalist, misogynistic, ableist Lost Cause propaganda. It helped unleash the fucker who coined Gamergate, for fuck’s sake. And Whedon is alarmingly (and, really, quite tellingly) uninterested in the idea that any great hegemonic power will pursue an agenda against a minority, or ruthlessly dedicated to accruing capital and profits. But for a moment, Whedon’s myopic aim to misbehave squarely hits the rivet on the head. He dares to envision a cosmos dominated by a power that accidentally kills millions of people. For all the bloodshed on the trail to Serenity, we owe the monster Joss Whedon one thing: across 14 episodes and one movie, he showed us the playbook of abusive monsters.