Exaggeration and Blank Verse
Hero of Canton
Home
Battlestar Galactica
Horatio Hornblower
Firefly
Crossovers
Essays
Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel the Series

"What, I can't have layers?"- Cordelia Chase, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Wait, you say, why is Crazy Girl opening an essay about badass mercenary Jayne Cobb with a quote from the head cheerleader of Sunnydale High?

Well...because it works for him, too.

At first glance, Jayne is very simple. He is such a guy, with every stereotypical male trait that implies cranked up to 11. He's crude, rowdy, obnoxious, insensitive, and he cleans his guns at the dinner table.

His surface persona can be summed up in three words: greedy, stupid, amoral. If you dig into each, though, things get more complicated. He does his damnedest to hide it, and his crewmates tend to ignore it, but the boy has layers.

"Can't say I see the percentage in that.": Greedy
Obviously, I'm not going to try to argue that Jayne doesn't love money. It's emphasized repeatedly throughout the series, for both comedic and dramatic purposes, that accumulating cash is his primary objective. I'm simply going to go all armchair-psych on you and offer my views on why that may be, and what it can tell us about him.

One of the things I love about Firefly is that it doesn't offer a scrubbed, sanitized utopian society of the future. (Yes, Star Trek, I'm looking at you.) Serenity flies through a harsh and dirty universe, and life on the border worlds (where it's strongly implied that the "working-class" members of the crew grew up) is punishingly hard.

I don't think it's a stretch to posit that Jayne grew up dirt poor, watching his family get pushed around by the local powers- that is, the people with the money. (He shows a certain amount of sympathy toward the residents of the Heart of Gold, who are in that very situation...of course, he has other motivations in that episode as well, so I'm not sure how much to read into those scenes.) If you accept that as part of his background, his story becomes a bit of an echo of Lindsey McDonald's characterization on Angel. (Oh, those wacky folks at Mutant Enemy and their self-references!) He's chasing money to keep from being put down by anybody ever again. He wants to make his own rules and tell others what to do- or at least where to go- and the best way to do that is to have cash in hand.

This feeds into the care he takes with his guns (they're the source of his livelihood, after all), and the way he expresses his guilt over the incident on Ariel: he buys the crew a crate of apples. He symbolizes his apology with a material object, and considering the hints we get that fruit is a luxury in the Firefly future, a rather pricey one. Material things are important: they're proof that you're independent. Giving them to the others is a significant gesture for Jayne.

Material objects are actually important enough to stand in for a person. Vera is an equitable trade for Saffron (of course, at this point Saffron is presenting herself as timid and weak, not as someone worthy of respect, so he actually tells Mal that Vera is more valuable than the woman).#

Jayne is hungry for respect, but he doesn't know what to do with it when he gets it. (Cases in point: his reaction to the mudders in "Jaynestown," and Simon's praise at the end of "Ariel," though his guilty conscience plays a big role there as well.) He has a strong sense of himself and exactly what he's worth: he knows he doesn't deserve the adoration in Canton ("There ain't people like that- there's only people like me"), but he knows that he is worth more than a seven percent share ("Out of Gas").

He's perfectly aware that the rest of the crew think he's soulless when it comes to money; witness the bitter twist he gives the line "Don't worry about me- as long as I get paid, I'm happy" in "Ariel." He's telling them what they expect to hear, what they believe anyway, and of course they accept it at face value. He can play their own perception back on them; now tell me again that he's stupid.

"She's in Congress?": Stupid
Not stupid; perhaps "differently smart."

He doesn't have a classical education in the style of the Tams, but then, he doesn't need one. He has street-smarts, the set of skills he needs to survive in his chosen life. He can read people, in some ways; see the interrogation scene in "Serenity," where he immediately knows that Dobson is lying. (In fact, Dobson actually says "I can see you're not stupid," which I use as my "it's canon, dammit" reference point for Jayne having an IQ above that of shrubbery.) Of course, this ability to read people is only in areas where it's useful for him- things like lying. More subtle emotional cues (like when Mal hurts Kaylee's feelings at the beginning of "Shindig") fly right over his head.

He can also make fake IDs well enough to fool the scanners on Ariel; he indulges in a little bit of math humor in "Serenity" ("Let's see...nothin', divided by nothin', carry the nothin'...") and shows a bit of vocabulary with my favorite line of the series in "Shindig" when he summarizes Badger's opinion of Mal: "Pretentious?" So. Not a complete blockhead, our boy. What gives the impression that he is?

Well, he has tunnel vision. He tends to focus intensely on one aspect of the situation at hand and completely ignore everything else. Sometimes this is a good thing, like when he's being dangled out of the bottom of a spaceship and trying to land on top of a train. Other times, it turns embarrassing ("You're coming through loud and clear." "That's because I'm standing right here.") or dangerous ("Ariel").

In times of crisis, he reaches for the material, the physical, something concrete. When the ship encounters the Reavers in "Serenity," he immediately goes for his weapons.* His response to any situation of emotional stress is to lash out and inflict a physical solution (which probably, in the Firefly 'verse, works a good 90 percent of the time). If he's denied that, though (as when Mal gives the Tams his protection), he can come up with a more subtle plan. It's just not his first choice, or what he's the most comfortable with. His assumption that other people think along the same lines (find a simple, concrete solution to the problem) may be why it never occurs to him that the Feds might not come through with their part of the deal.

He doesn't go in for the heavy introspection. That's understandable, really; it tends to be frustrating and painful to analyze why you're doing what you're doing. It's much easier to avoid it altogether; that's what most people tend to do. But there are moments that show glimpses of Jayne's inner life. In particular, the conversation he has with Book over Tracey's coffin in "The Message": "My kind of life don't last long, Shepherd, so I suspect I'm invested in making good sport of it whilst I can." There's that self-awareness again, the side he tries to keep out of the way as much as possible in favor of the simpler, surface things: sex, guns, making fun of Simon.

The fact that he reveals this side of himself to Book is an example of another fascinating development of the character, one that makes me curse extra loudly at Fox for cancelling the show. Of all the people on the ship, Jayne was developing a friendship with the preacher. They're workout buddies in "War Stories," they have that talk in "The Message," and they shoot the breeze over coffee in "Objects in Space." The impression I get from the latter two scenes is that Book is gently feeling out Jayne's worldview and trying to steer him toward conventional morality- and Jayne's mostly going along with it. But I also think that while the rest of the crew would tell him he's crazy, Book knows he's not starting with a completely blank moral slate.

"Tell us where the stuff is, so I can shoot you.": Amoral
Let's be clear: Jayne is not a "good person" in the early-21st-century sense. He is a mercenary. He either threatens to or actually does kill people for a living. He turns the Tams over to the Feds for the promise of a big fat figurative bag of money. He not only robbed the mayor of Canton, he threw his accomplice out of the escape vehicle instead of tossing the money. He is, in conclusion, a very bad boy.

With that said...again, there are layers.

The people we see him threatening and/or shooting are all people engaged in the same shady dealings the Serenity crew pursues. They're people who've chosen the underworld life. He doesn't beat up ordinary people just going about their business; he doesn't shoot at women or children. When he turns River and Simon in, he doesn't see them as innocents- they're a danger to the ship (and in particular, to him; River was pretty good with that butcher knife). He also, most likely, thinks Simon is exaggerating what the Feds will do to them. After all, Simon and River are rich kids. What do they know about hardship, about a little suffering? After he hears the screams of the Feds killed by the men in blue gloves, that opinion gets revised. His reaction to those screams, I think, shows that he realizes what he was trying to do was wrong, even before Mal explains it to him with a wrench upside the head.

The last scene of "Ariel" is a great one for looking into Jayne's character: it's where we find out that he does have a conscience, and that the opinions of the rest of the crew can get to him. When he's accepted that Mal is actually going to let him die, there's a mixture of pride and vulnerability that says a lot about Jayne Cobb. He's not going to cry or beg, but he doesn't want to be remembered as a traitor. Better to be remembered with a lie. Mal sees something in that moment as well- that Jayne can acknowledge that there's such a thing as going to far. That he can be sorry for what he's done. And that if given a chance, he just might learn some loyalty, even if he does think blind loyalty is breathtakingly stupid.

All of that gets spelled out in the next episode, "War Stories," where his disgust at Zoe and Wash's plan to go rescue Mal is painfully clear. ("They're going to rescue the Captain." "Oh. Can they do that?" "NO.") In the end, of course, he goes with them, but he's not going to sit around and talk about why. Some of Mal's moral code is rubbing off on him, entirely against his will.

That's the primary difference between Jayne and Mal, in the end: Mal has a code, a preset system of beliefs and behaviors that he believes in and adheres to in any given situation. Jayne doesn't bother with a code. He evaluates each situation as it comes and takes the course of action that rewards him the most. Overarcing beliefs and deathless Causes will get you shot, after all, like that poor dumb kid on Canton who believed in heroes.

That kid's death once again called up his self-awareness, his acknowledgement that he's a guy who does bad things. He's bewildered by the fact that the boy jumped in front of a bullet for him, even after he'd heard the real story of why money fell from the sky. I don't think that his choices in life keep him awake at night, because as I said, I think in general he tries not to think too much about them. But when he does, he is aware that he has not walked a straight and narrow path through life, and at some point it might catch up with him. Witness this bit of dialogue with Book, from "Objects in Space":
"Have you performed any miracles?"
"I once hit a guy in the neck from 500 yards with a bent scope. Don't that mean nothin' to the man upstairs?"
"Oh, I promise you, it'll be...taken into account."
"You make that sound kind of ominous..."

There are a few scattered hints, including that moment, that suggest he might have been raised with a religious grounding. In "Serenity," he's the first to bow his head when Book says grace; in "The Message," he states with simple certainty that "The Lord should oughta look after the dead." Although it's clear that isn't practicing a devout daily faith, the grounding elements of belief would still be there, in the back of his head, echoing or clashing with his daily behavior. Certain things can't be forgotten.

In Conclusion
He's a guy who makes a dirty joke at Kaylee's expense, then carries her as gently as a child from the infirmary to the engine room. He clashes with Mal over and over in a classic example of male ego pissing contests, but sets up a space suit for the captain in "Out of Gas." His reaction to entering the Heart of Gold is best described by Mal ("Well, that one's kind of horrific"), but he put on a collared shirt and a nice hat to go to the whorehouse in the first place. He robs Simon and River's suitcases the minute he thinks they might be gone for good, but he sends credits home to his family. He's the muscle of the crew, the intimidating one, the guy with the guns- but one of them is named "Vera" and he has a stunning collection of ridiculous hats. (Probably the one his mother made him is the most ridiculous of all, but he puts it on without hesitation and wears it with pride. You can tell a lot about a guy from how he treats his mother.)

He's not a great man. He might not even match Mal at "pretty good" all of the time. But he's not just greedy/stupid/amoral, either. He's got layers.




# On the whole, actually, Jayne seems to have a substantial level of respect for women. He does a certain amount of leering at Zoe, but he never objects to following her orders. He teases Kaylee, but he trusts her not only to keep the ship running, but to rig up those devices that dangle him out of the ship from time to time. You don't trust someone with your life if you don't respect their ability to do their job. Also, it's a minor thing, but he does get dressed up in what seems to be his best shirt and hat to go to the Heart of Gold, and he addresses the woman he chooses as someone of equal intelligence and understanding during the battle preparations. (Hey, he even trusts her with his guns. That means something, coming from Jayne!) I'm not saying he's going to win any awards from NOW anytime soon- there are plenty of crude and cringeworthy moments to choose from- but he's not a misogynist at the heart. I can't imagine him raping anyone, or being deliberately abusive or cruel.

* The Reavers seem to be the only thing he's genuinely afraid of, except possibly dying helpless (given his reactions to the idea of suffocating in "Out of Gas" and freezing to death in "The Message.") If he's going to die, he wants it to be because of something he can fight back against, not an impersonal force. He wants something physical/material/concrete to kill him, because that's what he's ordered his life around and what he understands.

Back to the Essays page

Feedback me.