6 Lessons I’ve Learned From Firefly’s Malcolm Reynolds

Malcolm Reynolds

For most of January, I was looking after a friend’s house while they visited family in sunny Guatemala. The house was a cozy little place, and I was pretty excited to try the Netflix-enabled TV in their basement. While I’m perfectly content to watch movies and TV shows on my computer, I gotta say, having Netflix at my beck and call via remote was pretty cool. After browsing through the options, I decided it would be fun to rewatch Firefly — an old favorite.

I tend not to watch much television these days, but when I do, I try to get the most of it. Generally, this means I actively analyze a show, rather than veg out and passively absorb it. If an interesting thought pops into my head, I’m not afraid to hit pause and write a little memo on a scrap of paper or in Evernote. Usually these notes are short — just enough so that when I look at it later, I’ll remember what I was thinking.

Anyway, I spent a bit of time contemplating what I could take away from the successes and failures of the lead character, Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the show: Mal is freelance space captain, flying his ship Serenity around the galaxy and doing whatever it takes to keep his belly full, his crew paid, and his fuel gauge above “empty.”

If someone asked me to name another character similar to Mal, I’d cheat a bit and say, “Han Solo in reverse.” Whereas Han Solo begins Star Wars as a smuggler and only later becomes a rebel hero, Mal’s career follows the opposite trajectory — prior to the events of Firefly, he was an idealistic rebel soldier; by the time we meet him in the first episode, he’s a jaded spaceship captain struggling to survive.

In any case, I wholeheartedly recommend Firefly —my only complaint being that it ends far too soon. But without further ado, here is what I had to learn from Mal:

1) Failure is not the end — it’s the beginning

Firefly’s pilot episode, Serenityopens with Mal and longtime sidekick Zoe as rebel soldiers — known as  the “Browncoats” —  fighting in the Battle of Serenity Valley against the Alliance. Despite their best efforts, the Browncoats lose the battle, which eventually goes down in the history books as the beginning of the end for the rebellion.

From the viewers perspective, this means that within the first five minutes of the show, we see Mal’s world fall apart. Conventional wisdom might hold that losing the war should be “the end,” but in this case, it lays the groundwork for a whole new adventure. And while Mal’s post-war life is far from perfect, he still travels the galaxy, meets all sorts of interesting people, and has his share of success.  It’s a reminder that often, events we consider to be “bad endings” are also the seeds of new opportunity.

2) Diversify, both in the work you do and the people you meet

Mal will take on just about any job, as long as the pay sounds right. Because of this, he’s developed a wide range of skills, and is capable of handling himself in any number of situations. In a world where nothing is certain, adaptability is an invaluable skill.

Malcolm Reynolds and the Serenity crew, Lego style

Likewise, his crew is diverse — each member aboard Serenity has their own strengths and weaknesses, yet they come together to form a strong unit. In the episode Out of Gas, we see how Mal met and recruited each member of his ragtag band. It involved a few leaps of faith, like recruiting a defecting mercenary, and hiring the girl banging his mechanic to serve as his new mechanic. You know, the kind of opportunities we should all be looking out for to diversify the people in our lives!

3) Follow through on your commitments

I think this really lies at the heart of who Mal is. When he commits to doing something, he nearly always follows through, regardless of the risk. While that determination is often derided as “naivette” by outsiders, it’s one of the things that makes him special. That is to say, when people deal with Malcolm Reynolds, they know that he will come through — somehow. That’s certainly a good reputation to have.

4) But if the situation changes, feel free to adjust as well

However, when something doesn’t sit right with Mal, he’s not afraid to make adjustments. In The Train Job — which aired as the pilot, though it wasn’t intended as such (way to go Fox!) — he agrees to hijack crates of unknown cargo from a train, for the sadistic crime lord Niska.

After pulling off the train heist without a hitch, he and his crew sneak a peek at the cargo. Turns out it was medicine on its way to struggling outerworld settlers. This doesn’t agree with Mal’s better judgement, so what does he do? He delivers the medicine to the settlers himself, and returns the payment he’d already received to Niska.

Needless to say, Niska isn’t too happy about this turn of events, and in a later episode, he gets a chance to make his wrath known. However, by staying true to himself and his values, Mal shows to his crew that he’s not willing to sacrifice his good name just to make a buck; that despite being an outlaw mercenary, there are still boundaries that he’s not willing to cross. And most importantly, that it’s okay to make adjustments on the fly, if you feel you’re doing the right thing.

But hey now, don’t get me wrong — I’m not trying to say that Mal is perfect! I also picked out a few things to learn from his faults, notably:

5) When traveling, try to respect local customs

It can be hard traveling and passing through different cultures, as Mal has discovered first hand. In Shindig, he punches a dude in the face, only to discover it meant he’d initiated a duel with swords, from which only one man leaves alive. Likewise, in Our Mrs. Reynolds, he accepts a drink from a voluptuous young damsel, only to wake up the next morning to find out he’d unwittingly accepted her hand in marriage. Surprise surprise!

While these are fictional examples, I think there’s a point to be made here: Don’t make too many assumptions when you’re visiting a foreign land. Be wary, and expect to come face to face with ideas that will challenge your preconceived notions of “normal.”

6) Don’t be afraid to let people in

At least in this blogger’s humble opinion, this is Mal’s greatest fault. He truly keeps everybody at arm’s length. Though he has a diverse crew, he compartmentalizes each member, using a given person only for specific tasks. Because of this, he likely misses out on some opportunities, both personal and professional. The “hands-off” nature of his relationship with Inara in particular eats at many Firefly fans.

So, what does this mean for you? Well, look back at point #1. In this case, it means that if you let someone near you, and things go south, it’s not the end of the world. And generally, the gains made by reaching out and becoming close with people outweigh the potential downside. So, when it comes to relationships, don’t be a “Captain Tight Pants“; go out and be friendly with people!

Because in the end, that’s what life is all about.

Header Photo: Dunechaser / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA; Insert Photo: Dunechaser / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Henry Olsen

Writer, adventurer, and humble servant of the universe since 1986.