Firefly’s “Serenity” as a Case Study of Relational Power
In their world, Earth as we know it is gone, humans have terra-formed other planets, a central governing body (The Alliance) hoards resources and caters to the rich, and yes, Asian-futurism manages to Other Chinese culture across time-space. Set in 2517, Firefly (written and directed by Joss Whedon) may be a space-Western about the not-yet-but-possible, but it is also a show about humanity in the here and now. Firefly is ultimately a character-driven show, as 9 very different people manage their relationships and conflicts in the more deserted ends of space.
I find Firefly fascinating because of its interesting relational dynamics—between siblings, sex worker and preacher, husband and wife, and captain and crew. As a communication scholar, I work in an area called critical interpersonal and family communication (CIFC). This area of study is concerned with how power plays a role in family, relational, and interpersonal communication. Power, in this framework, can be many things. It may be gender or race or simply the role you inhabit, like the power that medical professionals have over clients.
Firefly is an excellent text for understanding relationships and power because we see power emerge in many ways. We watch as the characters negotiate those terms of power over time. The original pilot, “Serenity,” (if you watch the show out of the order in which it aired; it’s complicated) sets the stage for these relationships to grow in beautiful ways.
As a summary, the ship, Serenity, is owned and captained by Malcom “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a former Sergeant who lost in his revolutionary cause against The Alliance. Zoë Washburn (Gina Torres), a woman who fought alongside him in the war, is now with him aboard the ship, with her pilot husband Hoban “Wash” Washburn (Alan Wray Tudyk). The other two people on the ship, Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin) and Kaywinnet “Kaylee” Fry (Jewel Belair Staite) are the ship’s security and the ship’s mechanic, respectively. Together, this crew takes on illegal jobs, like selling stolen cargo. They often travel with Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin), who is a companion, or a trained and certified sex worker.
The crew picks up a few more passengers, including Simon Tam (Sean Maher), a young doctor, and Shepherd Derrial Book (Ron Glass), an older pastor. There is one other person on the ship who (spoiler alert) doesn’t stick around long and another stowaway who (spoiler alert) is Simon’s genius sister, River Tam (Summer Glau) who he’s stealing away from a facility that has kept her hostage. There are many other plotlines in the first episode, including murderous cannibals from the far edges of space, and lots of other folks with guns, but for the most part, these are the characters we’re introduced to who stick with us for the rest of the show: Mal, Zoë, Wash, Jayne, Kaylee, Inara, Simon, Book, and River. These characters each give and take power in different ways, and below I explain a few ways this occurs.
Relational Power Conferred by Social Capital and Status
One way that people may accumulate power within relationships is through social capital and social status. A person’s social status can make the power in relationships unequal. For instance, if a billionaire owner of a world-wide company was in a relationship with an impoverished worker, the billionaire already comes to the relationship with much more power.
In Firefly, the most interesting case of power through social status is Inara’s, which is unexpected because of the criminalization and de-valuation of sex work in our world. In the world of Firefly, Inara’s occupation as a companion gives her a high social status. She is able to move through the world with more ease and with more respect because of her job. It’s interesting that Inara’s social status is juxtaposed with Shepherd Book’s. In our world, religious leaders—particularly in some communities—are held in high regard. In this world, Book does receive some respect because he is a pastor, but not as much as Inara. However, they both have some social capital because of their respective occupations.
We see these two meet for the first time in “Serenity,” when Mal introduces Inara to Book as “ambassador” and Book mistakes her for a state official. Mal finds this funny, as he tells Book that Inara is a whore and questions if Book has a problem with her. Inara is the one who backs away from this first encounter, recognizing that perhaps not all of the passengers want to meet her.
However, it is Inara, at the end of the episode, who is comforting Book. Book is questioning how far he’s come from home, how difficult (and murderous and dangerous) the trip has been so far, and how foreign this part of space is to him. Inara provides words of wisdom. In their closing scene together, it is Inara’s hand on Book’s bowed head, as if she were the one blessing him.
These first encounters between Inara and Book demonstrate how they both have social capital in various contexts that seem to be in opposition. Although Book may have had more power in the Abbey he came from and in the world he came from, in the outer edges of space it is Inara who has the most power, as a person who is familiar with the territory and whose very presence inspires awe and respect. In this first episode, we see Book and Inara testing how they will negotiate their power as passengers together on the ship.
Relational Power Assumed by Roles and Material Resources
Another way that people may have power in relationships is through their roles and their material resources. Some relational roles are automatically endowed with power, such as parents, while other roles are given less power, such as children. To be a parent is to have the ability to control the life of a child, such as when they eat and sleep and what they wear. In the same way, Malcolm Reynolds, in his role as the ship’s captain, controls the ship’s resources, dictates where the ship goes for what reasons, and what each member of the team does.
We see Mal embracing and wielding this power freely throughout “Serenity.” For instance, when everyone is arguing about what to do with Simon and River, Wash asks “Can we maybe vote on the whole murdering people issue?” to which Mal replies, “We don’t vote on my ship, because my ship is not the rutting town hall.” He also uses his power to enforce the kinds of interpersonal talk and relationships he wants onboard. An example of this is when Jayne makes a lewd comment about Kaylee over dinner with everyone present, and Mal forces the other man to leave the meal because he doesn’t comply.
Mal’s power as captain also creates tension between Zoë and Wash early on in the episode and later on in the series. It’s most evident in the following conversation:
Wash: “What if we just told Mal we need a couple days ‘stead of asking him?”
Zoë: “He’s the captain, Wash.”
Wash: “Right. I’m just the husband.”
Zoë : “Look, I’ll ask him.”
Wash: “Don’t forget to call him ‘Sir.’ He likes that.”
Wash feels that Mal has too much control over their lives, to the point that he resents needing Mal’s permission to take a few days of vacation with his wife. Ultimately, Mal makes many autocratic decisions on the ship, such as allowing River and Simon to stay on the ship and deciding what they should do when (an outrageous number of) conflict and problems arise.
However, Mal’s power is not absolute as a captain. Although he has power due to his role, we see several instances when he yields his power to others. When Kaylee is shot, he initially wants to turn Simon in but Simon uses Kaylee as leverage to keep himself and his sister on board. Mal yields to Simon in this scenario. He also lets Book pray silently over the meal and delegates tasks in such a way that others are empowered through their vital roles on the ship. In this way, although Mal has the most power as the captain of the ship, others are able to wield their relative power, as well.
Relational Power Garnered by Relational Interdependence
A last way of conceptualizing power in relationships is a more traditional way of conceptualizing power in interpersonal and family communication that doesn’t necessarily come from a critical perspective. This is the idea that relational power is the ability to influence others and resist influence in relationships. Here, I would like to focus on siblings Simon and River Tam, whose relational interdependence results in an exchange of power between them.
Simon and River’s relationship can be classified as a close relationship. Close relationships are those relationships that go beyond interpersonal relationships. They have all of the features of interpersonal relationships (that there’s some interaction over time, unique interaction patterns, and mutual influence) plus, close relationships have an emotional attachment, need fulfillment, and a sense of irreplaceability. For these reasons, Simon and River have a great amount of influence over one another.
River’s influence over Simon is immense. Simon left a prestigious career as a young trauma surgeon and the comfort of the Core planets to rescue her. He risks his life and her life for the chance of bringing her to safety, though he is not sure where safety is. River needed only to communicate her situation to Simon and he dropped everything to find her.
Simon, I argue, has more relational power in this sibling pair, because of River’s psychological state. She is effectively disabled by the experiments that The Alliance has done on her body and mind for years and is often confused and afraid, with short bursts of clarity. Simon leverages his power to administer River’s medicine, get her to sleep, and generally take care of her. So, Simon uses his influence as both a doctor and brother to make medical decisions for River.
Now that they are so close on the ship, their interdependence grows. Accordingly, each sibling’s influence over the other grows with their new physical proximity. We see them exerting influence over one another in more obvious ways as the show progresses.
Relational Power as Communal Resource
By the end of the episode, we see how power flows through these various relationships as a flexible resource that is shared between members of the crew and is wielded in various ways. From some, we see how power is contingent on the social capital built within particular contexts. From others, we see power by way of their role on the ship. And from others, we see power as a shared resource of influence in close relational bonds.
The first episode is just a taste of how these relationships develop over time. Most importantly, “Serenity” sets the stage for exploring how power is a communal resource on this ship throughout the duration of the series. Through the rest of the episodes, we witness how each member wields and yields their power to achieve individual and communal goals that ultimately make “Firefly” the feel-good, team show that it is.