“Oh Goddess of Inspiration, help me sing of wily Odysseus, that master of schemes!” Homer, The Odyssey
“We got us some crime to be done.” Malcolm Reynolds, “The Train Job”
Some would argue that comparing Joss Whedon to Homer is an insult to Homer. (Others, mostly high school students forced to
read The Iliad or The Odyssey against their will, would call it an insult to Joss Whedon. If they knew who
that was.) Personally, I think Homer would be pleased to know that thousands of years later, someone is still writing about
larger-than-life heroes struggling against impossible odds, and incidentally saying that blind people can be totally bad-ass
(see the Angel episode “Blind Date”). However, I also think that Homer would find Firefly a little
familiar. And demand, if not royalties, at least a punning reference in the movie.
It’s true that the primary structure of The Odyssey- the parallel narratives of Odysseus telling his tales in
the Phaeacian court while Penelope and Telemachus hold off the suitors in Ithaca- is absent in Firefly. Mal Reynolds
has no wife, no son, no kingdom. And indeed, when the first vague idea of this essay occurred to me, I dismissed it, because
what’s the point of The Odyssey if Odysseus has no home to strive for?
But through discussion with other fans of the show, it came about that Mal does have an Ithaca that he desperately
wants to reach. Our brown-clad Captain’s Ithaca is serenity, with a small “s”: the state of mind that he
yearns for so strongly he named his ship after it. Serenity takes many forms for Mal; perhaps his memories of life before
the war, certainly the sense of purpose and purity of belief he had in the Independent cause, most likely the adherence to
his personal moral code of loyalty and protecting the downtrodden, and possibly the dream of finding a patch of space outside
the reach of the Alliance.
“...and we'll never be under the heel of nobody ever again. No matter how long the arm of the Alliance might get...
we'll just get us a little further.” Mal, “Out of Gas”
So Mal’s Ithaca is a dream, a myth, an idealization in both the past and the future, something that can never be reached.
This is perhaps even more tragic than Odysseus’s longing, because even though the Greek captain feared his kingdom and
love might be lost to him, he at least could set foot on Ithacan soil one last time. There is no more Independent movement.
Mal is reduced to defending his lost love’s honor in bar fights every Unification Day. But he keeps the faith, remembers
the dream, wears his brown Army jacket seven years later.
Whether you accept or reject the idea of an Ithaca-in-Mal’s-mind, this framing narrative is not the most famous part
of Odysseus’ story. No, the images most readily associated with the Greek general’s journey home are the ones
he relates in the books at the heart of the saga, the tales he tells in the Phaeacian court. They are the adventures of Odysseus
and his crew, from when they take their leave of Troy until the captain is shipwreck on Calypso’s island. It is these
adventures that are given ghostly tips of the hat in the fifteen filmed episodes of Firefly.
Here be Monsters
1. The Lotus Eaters/ “Ariel”
In the land of the Lotus Eaters, Odysseus’ crew falls under the spell of magical food that drains away their ambition
and memories. Odysseus himself does not eat of the lotus, and is able to get his men back on the ship and away before too
many are affected.
When Serenity takes Inara to the planet Ariel, Jayne falls under the spell of Alliance cash. When the Feds betray him, he
rectifies the situation on his own before any members of the crew are lost, but it’s still the Captain’s job to
make sure everything is shipshape and under control again at episode’s end. In the confrontation scene at the end of
“Ariel,” Mal is not only reprimanding a crewman for being seduced by something detrimental to the Captain’s
personal mission, but making sure it won’t happen again.
2. The Cyclops/ “The Train Job” and “War Stories”
Odysseus defeats Polyphemus the Cyclops with his wits and a stone to the eye. His arrogance after the battle, shouting his
true name to the defeated monster instead of maintaining the ruse that “Nobody” had defeated him, comes back to
haunt him when Polyphemus’ father Poseidon seeks vengeance.
In “The Train Job,” Mal and the Serenity crew cons Adelei Niska out of the medicine he wanted stolen. Even though
they return the up-front money for the job, Niska doesn’t like being tricked by petty smugglers. He probably also doesn’t
really appreciate having one of his men kicked through an engine intake, though I’m not sure that’s entirely equivalent
to blinding him. Still, Mal’s arrogance in the last scene of “The Train Job” does indeed come back
to haunt him (and Wash) in “War Stories,” when Niska kidnaps and tortures them.
It’s also interesting to note that Niska is the only character in the series to wear eyeglasses. A slender nod to the
defining feature of a Cyclops, but amusing nonetheless.
3. Circe/ “Our Mrs. Reynolds” and “Trash”
Circe is a witch-goddess who transforms Odysseus’ crew into swine and imprisons them on her island home. Odysseus resists
her powers with the help of Hermes, but spends a year living in luxury as her consort.
Well, Mal doesn’t entirely resist Saffron’s charms, and they certainly don’t get a full year out of their
“relationship,” but she definitely makes the rest of the crew look like pigs (or maybe jackasses) in “Our
Mrs. Reynolds.” She imprisons them on the ship and leaves them for dead, but Mal is able to come up with a plan that
saves the day, even without a higher power to appeal to. Circe doesn’t reappear in the original saga, but Saffron returns
in “Trash” and seemingly has them all fooled again. In the end, though, it’s revealed that Mal was in control
the entire time, in finest Odyssean tradition.
A side note on Saffron as Circe- in both episodes, Inara is a key element in bringing off Mal’s plan, even contributing
information from outside the plan in “Our Mrs. Reynolds.” Looking at the original story, it could be argued that
Inara is serving as Athena and/or Hermes, bringing Mal aid from the gods.
4. The Sirens/ “Heart of Gold”
The song of the Sirens will lead sailors to crash their ships on the rocks. Odysseus orders his crewmen to cover their ears,
but has himself tied to the mast so he may hear the song without endangering the rest.
In synopsis, “Heart of Gold” has echoes of the Siren story: The crew is called to the aid of a group of women
of ill repute. But in fact, the episode subverts the myth. Mal doesn’t order his crew to stay away from the women
of the Heart of Gold; they have his full encouragement. (The fact that all but Jayne choose to stay away is irrelevant.)
It is the Captain who intends to abstain from the beginning. In this case, Odysseus covers his ears, while the crew
keeps their eyes on the horizon and row merrily ahead (except for Jayne, who swims over to the rocks and has his own personal
5. Voyage to Hades/ “The Message” and “Out of Gas”
Odysseus descends to Hades and encounters the shades of Greek heroes, the ghost of his mother, and the prophet Tiresias.
Tiresias is the one who tells Odysseus how to get home to Ithaca.
There are two Firefly episodes that nod to Odysseus in the underworld. In "The Message," the character of Tracey is
certainly a ghost from Mal and Zoe's Independent past, and he does "return from the dead" in one of the key twists of the
plot. However, Tracey doesn't have anything terribly important to tell Mal; his presence on the ship is part of a scam gone
wrong. The other episode, "Out of Gas," has a much greater resonance with the idea of Mal's Ithaca being a state of serenity.
In the flashbacks woven through "Out of Gas," he encounters the "ghosts" of his past self and his crew. The memories help
give him the strength and motivation to save save Serenity, the crew, and himself. At the episode's end, as he's about to
pass out in the infirmary, he forces himself awake one last time, asking in wide-eyed panic if they'll all be there when he
wakes up. They assure him that they will, and he is able to fall asleep.
The family created by the crew- the loyalty and sense of belonging they find with each other- is a key part of Mal's life
on Serenity. It's a cornerstone for the new Ithaca he could build in the present if he'd only let go to of the past. And
in that moment, frantically seeking reassurance that they'll still be there when he wakes, he knows it.
6. Scylla and Charybdis/ "Bushwhacked"
Odysseus must navigate his ship through the strait between the six-headed monster Scylla and the raging whirlpool Charybdis.
The Reavers, clinging to the edges of space, spoken of only in whispers, are the monsters off the edge of the map in Firefly's
universe. In "Bushwhacked," Mal and crew salvage goods from a ship destroyed by Reavers, wind up with a proto-Reaver onboard
Serenity, and are terrified that the original Reaver ship might come back. Not quite six heads, but bad enough. When they
think they've evaded the Reaver problem, they run smack into an Alliance vessel and some Feds who aren't exactly pleased to
see them. Mal's contempt of Alliance bureaucracy doesn't quite extend to calling them a sucking whirlpool of death from which
there is no escape, but he's probably thought something similar.
Odysseus' crew was not a crew of heroes, like Jason's. It was the ordinary men of the Greek army. Likewise, the crew of
Serenity was a ragtag collection from all over the 'verse. They're the everymen (and -women); no Heracles here.
If the show had been allowed to continue, I think Firefly would've followed the pattern of Joss Whedon's other two
shows, a pattern that weaves well into this view of Mal's personal (albiet unconscious) mission in space. Like Buffy and
Angel, Mal would have gradually realized that you can't dwell in the past forever. You have to let both the mistakes and
the triumphs of your history go and focus on building a new home and family-of-choice in the here and now. It's anyone's
guess how the story of the crew of Serenity will go now that they've been moved over to the film world, but I like to think
that if they'd been given a full run as a television series, it would've ended with Mal standing on the steps above the kitchen
on his ship, smiling down at his crew, realizing that after all his wanderings, he'd finally found himself at home.