“There’s no place I can’t be since I found Serenity.”
(Yes I am just quoting the theme song. And?)
Dear Joss Whedon: you’re doing it wrong.
Our Mrs Reynolds may be the worst Firefly episode so far. After a night of drunken revelry on yet another backwater planet, Mal finds himself accidentally married to Saffron, a girl who claims she’s never left her planet and who is basically the stereotypical Feminist Nightmare. She thinks herself her husband’s property, cooks for him and offers to wash his feet.
Reactions from the crew vary. Most of them think it’s absolutely hilarious; Inara is horrified and cross; Shepherd Book warns Mal that if he sleeps with Saffron he will go to “a special kind of hell”. The episode itself seems confused about which attitude is appropriate: Zoe and Wash’s ribbing of Mal is admittedly very funny, but as (presumably) feminists ourselves, the show also seems to be asking us to share Inara’s horror and Book’s censure. The nature of Firefly’s ensemble cast means that none of these viewpoints is privileged over any other, which gives us an interesting kind of sandbox in which to think about the ongoing objectification of women in a nominally enlightened world.
This set-up would have been enough to carry the episode through, and would certainly have been less problematic than what we actually get. Because halfway through it turns out that Saffron is not an innocent and naïve virgin but a companion-trained criminal bent on sabotaging Serenity by seducing various members of the crew and knocking them out with her narcotic lipstick. Quite apart from the inherent ridiculousness of the premise that Saffron needed to pretend to be Mal’s actual wife in order to carry out her plan – we already know that Serenity takes passengers, for example – Whedon’s characterisation of Saffron is dramatising the classic patriarchal virgin/whore divide, and though the first half of that divide is very clearly problematised by the episode, the second emphatically isn’t. In fact, Whedon seems to think that the revelation of Saffron’s “real” nature can retroactively justify a scene in which Mal succumbs to Saffron’s seduction even after resolving not to – as Book points out, sleeping with Saffron in her virgin guise would be tantamount to taking advantage of her. And yet he does, and the show tells us this is OK because she’s secretly a whore, even though Mal doesn’t know this. What Our Mrs Reynolds is telling us, in fact, is that because the whore stereotype exists, the virgin stereotype doesn’t; that the existence of the first stereotype negates the existence of the second. This is patently untrue.
Oh, and don’t get me started on the scene at the end when Mal mocks Inara for kissing Saffron, because a) bisexuality should not be played for laughs, and b) the scene is literally only there to set up one of those irritating will-they-won’t-they plotlines that will go on for ages without going anywhere interesting.
As I said, on their own both halves of the episode would have made good watching: the first might have been a bit like Shindig, with its conversation about female power; the second would just have been tense and dramatic. Together, though, they’re just not good.