In the cult-classic space western Serenity, created by Joss Whedon, issues of moral relativism are shown at their finest. What is moral in open space might not be seen as moral on a civilized planet, and it all depends on perspective. Throughout the film, the importance of the past in creating right and wrong, choices made, and having deep roots in their morals all demonstrate each character’s desire for their morality to be accepted. This is evident in all of the characters, but it is most seen in the opposing forces of Mal and The Operative.
Five hundred years into the future, Old Earth has become depleted and the entire population is forced to leave. The two remaining superpowers, China and the United States, unite together to form the Alliance and began populating a new solar system, terraforming planets to make them habitable. The core planets are the richest and have high standards of society, but the planets along the outer rim tend to have a more questionable nature. It is along the outer planets that the spaceship Serenity, a Firefly-class transport vessel owned by Captain Malcolm Reynolds. She gets her name from “The Battle of Serenity Valley”, one of the last stands of the Browncoats, a group resisting total Alliance control of the solar system. The battle ended in a crushing defeat for the Browncoats, and Mal and his first mate Zoe Washburne were the only ones of their original platoon to survive. Also on Mal’s crew are Kaylee Frye, the cheerful mechanic, Jayne Cobb, the tough gunman, and Hoban “Wash” Washburne, the cautious pilot of Serenity and is also Zoe’s husband. In addition, Inara Serra, a Companion, rents one of the shuttles but also interacts with the crew. By the time the film begins, they have taken in two fugitives. River Tam is a psychic genius that the Alliance had been experimenting on before she was rescued by her brother Simon Tam, and both took refuge on the ship with Simon also serving as the ship medic. They are in constant need of movement due to the fact that the Alliance is in hot pursuit of River. As The Operative reveals, she had been in the room with several members of Parliament and had likely gleaned potentially dangerous knowledge through her psychic powers that could be used to destabilize the government.
Mal’s past clearly helps define his views and develops him into the antihero. As an ex-Browncoat, he values his freedom and ability to go about his own business higher than anything else. He is a space pirate and a robber, but he does so only to keep his ship in passable repair and support himself and his crew. Mal will go through anything in order to make sure he is able to keep this freedom, and will help others defend this freedom as well. Also likely due to his military experience, he values members of his crew very highly and will go out of his way in order to help them. This is evident especially in Inara Serra’s wave to the ship that revealed she was in danger and it would be a trap for Mal to go help her, but he did so anyway because she was part of his “family”.
Most significant in Mal’s freedom and closeness to his crew is his treatment of Simon and River Tam. Both are fugitives, and the mere presence of River on Mal’s ship has brought more trouble upon the crew than any of them could have imagined when they took the two in. However, despite protests of some of his crew, most particularly Jayne, he harbors them and treats them the same as anyone else on his ship. He does this not just because they are a thorn in the Alliance’s side, but because all they want is to be free and to be a family again, the very values Mal holds close. However, after the Reavers nearly get a hold of River, Simon vows to leave the ship with his sister and Mal, while warning him about the dangers, does nothing to stop him. This shows that Mal values people’s ability to make their own decisions very highly, even if it means losing a part of his family. Despite Simon’s cutting words and departure from the ship and River’s subsequent attack on the pub that the crew was visiting, where she killed several, injured more, and even knocked Jayne unconscious, Mal is willing to accept them back because they are family. He is also aware of the danger of having River on board, and protects his crew by keeping her locked up after her attack and attempting to subdue her after she escapes until he is sure that she will not bring his crew harm. It is apparent that he has reservations about such actions, but he does so for his crew.
The Operative, on the other hand, was likely brought up in the high society of the core planets, or at least in their teachings, and strives to see a world where these rules are followed by every man, woman, and child. In short, he strives to see “a world without sin”, and he trusts that the Alliance is working towards the same goal. He is willing to do anything to see his vision come into being, despite what he himself must do to make it happen. Unlike Mal, he has little regard for himself or those serving him, but he always acts cool and courteous towards his enemies. He admits that killing a little girl (River) is wrong, but he also believes that if it serves the greater good it must be done, and therefore he finds that he can do it if asked. His view of serving the greater good is shown at the beginning in the killing of River’s supervisor after watching a video of her escape, noting that it was a noble cause to the man to die for.
Other characters also have their backgrounds play a role in their actions. Jayne grew up in a very cutthroat world and as a mercenary he tends to look out for number one. He fears what would happen if he angered Mal, which keeps him somewhat in line, but he is always the first to suggest ditching the Tams because they are a danger that he deems unnecessary. Contrary to Jayne, Kaylee grew up in a very loving environment and as such reflects this on the rest of the crew. She is the closest to River aside from Simon, and often takes the role of the caring pacifist of the group. Zoe, like Mal, came out of the war hardened, and serves under him with a very rigorous military demeanor that hardly falters even when Wash is killed. Simon and River come from a stable loving family, and their only desire is to have this back again. Wash lived on a quiet but polluted planet, and therefore has a love for the skies and a voice of reason. Inara is brought up with the belief that she cannot get emotionally close to any man, and thus any potential with Mal is hindered.
Throughout the movie, many choices are made by both Mal and The Operative. Mal makes lots of decisions throughout the movie that might seem questionable to some people, but to Mal they are the most moral decisions he could have made at the time. Upon the first Reaver attack, a man begs to be taken with Mal’s crew, but Mal kicks him off of the transport cart and shoots him. While this may seem heartless, Mal realizes that the extra weight of both the man and the loot would leave them all vulnerable. Once the decision to leave him behind is made, his choice to shoot the man makes sense as it would spare him the horrors that the Reavers would subject him to. However, the decision to leave him behind instead of the loot is interesting. However, as discussed earlier, Mal looks out for his crew first, and their need to eat and repair the ship explains this questionable action and justifies his actions with his morals.
Mal also makes the decision to help Inara very quickly, causing Wash to react with “But what about the part where it’s a trap?” He disregards his own safety in order to help his crew. It should be noted that “crew” in this sense is not just Inara. She is in the most immediate danger, but by Mal’s seemingly rash investigation he finds out what they are up against and thus is better prepared to protect the Tams and the rest of his crew from The Operative, allowing his decision to be morally sound.
Mal also seeks a conscience in his decisions. He recognizes that sometimes he can act too harshly and thus seeks out the advice of Shepherd Derrial Book, a former passenger on Serenity. While he may not care much about the shepherd’s religious teachings, he readily acknowledges Book’s wisdom and knowledge and turns to the man for advice on how to deal with the Tams and The Operative. This choice helps drive his other choices towards his idea of a moral “right” and also allows him to understand how The Operative sees what “right” is and how to change that.
The decision that drives the entire movie is Mal’s willingness to keep River on board. He does this because he sees it as the right thing to do, despite the risks and objections it may cause. It is this decision that pits him on an inevitable crash course with the Alliance and likely certain death or imprisonment, yet he chooses this path anyway. He knows at least part of their story and he knows what they are fighting for, and it aligns so much with his own moral decisions that he cannot resist aiding them even if he is risking everything by doing so.
The final driving choice of Mal’s is the decision to use Mr. Universe’s equipment to broadcast the information about Miranda to the entire solar system, likely resulting in the Alliance killing him before he could do so. The decision to do so was one he did not take lightly and thus offered everyone on his crew the chance to leave. Their resolution to stay shows that his choice to allow these certain people to become his crew was the right one. More importantly, it shows that they were all set on getting the truth out there so that everyone could know what was going on and make their own decisions as to the morality of the Alliance. Mal values the freedoms that being in Serenity has allowed, and the thought of the Alliance trying to create people that are entirely passive is revolting to him.
The Operative is much simpler in his choices throughout much of the film. He follows the Alliance’s orders without question and will go to any extent to follow these orders. Even his decision to wipe out all of the inhabitants on Haven is explained by his desire to fulfill his orders to capture River at any cost. More or less, all of his decisions stem from his choice not to question the Alliance. It is only toward the end of the film that his decisions become less generic. Upon the Reaver attack on Mr. Universe’s moon, he makes the decision to abandon what he would typically describe as “a noble fight” to pursue Mal, but it is becoming evident that he doubts his orders slightly. He has been shaken by Mal’s passion, and as such he is forced to wonder why Mal would keep on fighting to disrupt The Operative’s idea of a sinless world.
It is his final decision that truly defines The Operative, however. A man with his training would most certainly have been trained how to block out such a simple thing as a video from the mind, yet he watches. He watches the video, and understands what his government has done to the people on Miranda and what the Reavers really are. Because of this choice, he can no longer act on the Alliance’s orders without question. He realizes that he can no longer work for the Alliance, and thus orders his men to stand down and facilitates the reconstruction of Serenity. This choice shows that he recognizes Mal’s stance to the point that he cannot help but to accept it, and thus his morals become aligned with the morals that the movie represents.
Both Mal and The Operative have deep roots in what they believe is right, and it is conflicts like this that bring about the issue of moral relativism. Mal believes it is right for people to make their own decisions and not be controlled, and is willing to fight and die for such beliefs. He loves Serenitybecause in the vastness of space he cannot be tied down very easily and he has a crew that is willing to do anything to help him keep this dream alive. As such, when he discovers that the experimental gas used on Miranda robbed people of any aggression to the point where they did not care to live anymore, he becomes vehemently opposed to such actions and sets out to let every person on every planet know what the government had attempted in the hopes to ward off a second Miranda. He also knows how dedicated The Operative is to the belief that there can be a world without sin, and realizes that the only way for him to prevail is to shake The Operative’s beliefs without having his own fail. Morality is relative, thus it must be relative in his favor if he is to win. However, he also recognizes that others have different beliefs, and is usually willing to listen to his crew when they have opposition to a plan.
The Operative is also very well-rooted in his belief that there can be a world without sin. This is especially interesting given his actions. The Operative even admits that a man like him, who kills almost needlessly without regard to who he is killing, could not live in the world he believes the Alliance is trying to create. Yet he continues this belief and seemingly cannot be shaken from it. The man does not lose his cool even when Mal defeats him or accuses him of being a child-murderer. What does make him finally crack, however, is the appearance of the Reaver ships chasing Serenity. He cannot fathom how creatures based so much on violence and aggression could exist in his world because they simply cannot be tamed. It is this crack in his morals that Mal is able to take advantage of, showing him that the Reavers were indeed created by the Alliance on Miranda. Because The Operative believed so strongly that the Alliance was working towards a world without sin and that such a world would be perfect, he is deeply shaken by Miranda and realizes that some sin is necessary for human survival lest they either give up all desire to live or go mad with aggression like the Reavers did. Interestingly, he is thankful for Mal’s intrusion on his morals and shows it by helping the crew rebuild and clearing River and Simon’s names before departing, presumably to do some much-needed soul-searching. This shows that he has grown as a person and is finally able to listen to another’s views and make his own decisions. While he may have been on Mal’s side regarding Miranda, he very well will not follow all of Mal’s idealism like he did the Alliance, and this is hinted at by their death threats upon departure.
Serenity is, at face value, the story of how the Alliance pursued River Tam. But if one delves deeper, it becomes more apparent that it is the story of Mal as seen through River’s eyes. Mal sticks to his morals so strongly that he is able to turn any situation his way, even if it means destroying another’s beliefs. The Operative also believes that his morals are what are “right”, yet they are in high contrast to Mal’s own morals. Moral relativism recognizes that there is no moral standard that every person can subscribe to, and the film Serenity clearly demonstrates this.