The return of The Operative in the previous issue of Serenity: Leaves on the Wind excited fans all over the world, but it sure didn’t excite the Serenity crew. Though we all love Chiwetel Ejofor’s performance in the movie, and he really was a Bad Guy for the ages, as fans we sometimes forget what this witty, cultured and urbane character did. He killed Mr Universe (with a sword, as that character pointed out on his deathbed) and ordered the killing of Shepherd Book and everyone else on Haven and a half a dozen other colonies. We could even lay Wash’s death at his feet if we’d like. So it’s not like the crew welcomes him into their fold with open arms, even if he does sport a beard and a supposedly reformed conscience.
That point is made very clear in the first page of Issue #4 of Leaves on the Wind, with Georges Jeanty’s always-superb artwork telling the story in four panels, showing all of the characters’ disapproving scowls, looking down as Mal leads him onto Serenity. Mal’s line, “Welcome Aboard” is of course ironic. Jayne immediately, and somewhat clumsily, offers to kill The Operative, to which Mal responds, “What if I want to kill him?” Jayne chews on that thought for a moment before retorting, “Well, then the fairest thing’d be to draw straws.” Zack Whedon once said that he could “write Jayne dialogue all day,” which is one of the reasons why he so perfectly captures that character’s voice. But that underestimates his achievement here: he nails every character’s voice, right down to their history and their past conversations.
Speaking of villains, Jubal Early is unceremoniously tossed out of the airlock over a planet on the very next page, presumably falling to his death. So long, Jubal. We hardly knew ye, and I would have liked to see some more of his story. But with The Operative back into the narrative, I suppose that’s one super-villain too many.
The actual mission Serenity’s crew hopes to take on, involving The Operative, is to break into the Alliance Hospital where Simon saved River all those months ago. River swears that there are more like her there, more innocents that the Alliance has captured and experimented upon for their own purposes. Mal’s noble instincts move him to take on the rescue mission, even though it takes them far into Alliance territory. He figures, with some justification, that the presence of The Operative will shield him and his crew from the worst of it.
The crew, as demonstrated by a whispered conversation between Kaylee and Inara, is disgusted with having The Operative on board. Kaylee freely admits that she would “rather die”. Inara comforts her, and herself, by pointing out that things have changed and they can’t play by the same rules. Mal the Realist has already come to this conclusion. One wonders what Zoe would have thought about the whole thing.
Zoe, for her part, is still playing out the role assigned to her in the Prison Planet of Sci Fi Cliches. When we catch up to her she’s – guess what? – in a fist fight in the exercise area. Being threatened by a longtime inmate with a scar. Being told that there’s no stockade fence, only endless desert in every direction, making escape as pointless as it is impossible. I feel like I’ve seen this scenario about dozen times too many. Because of my respect for Zack Whedon, I’ll keep up my mind curious about where he’s going to go with this storyline. But my skeptometer is certainly picking up disturbing readings.
The actual mission that the Serenity crew is undertaking requires another ship, one that won’t get noticed by the Alliance authorities who are on the lookout for a Firefly-class transport. It turns out that the new crewmember, Bea, has ties to the resistance against the Alliance. And in those circles, Mal is still a legendary hero. Bea has other opinions, especially since her crew died under Mal’s watch, but she swallows her disdain and leads them to the resistance forces, where a simple glance at Mal’s face gets them a ship, fuel, and everything they need to lead the assault on a heavily fortified Alliance facility. The Operative provides them with the access codes and the cover to get them in the door, where the crew meets little formal resistance.
That is, until they actually break into the lab. As The Operative has a sword fight with Alliance Bald Bad Guy #16, our heroes find the inner sanctum, where the rest of the captured children hang in liquid-filled capsules, surrounding a single old scientist. The scientist remembers River, and he calmly opens one of the capsules. River looks up, her memories returning, and as she sees the face of the altered human, modified and bent scientifically to the Alliance’s will, something scares her. Her final line, “run”, is a great way to set up what is sure to be the climax of Leaves on the Wind.
What’s the Alliance’s use for these children? It wasn’t really a big secret in the series. They were going to be altered into some sort of elite fighting force, the “Operative 2.0”, I suspect. It was only Simon’s tenacity and devotion to his sister that exposed this huge apparatus in the first place. In its way, this is a much bigger “find” than Miranda, but it really only exposes what we already know about the Alliance: they’re completely amoral and willing to take any measure to protect their own power. Their approach to doing this is to lie, fabricate and make those who question feel as if they’re the problem, not the structure. It worked for the Soviet Union, it works now for Corporate Culture, and it’s the blend of those two sorts of unappealing totalitarian governance that Serenity quite properly puts in its crosshairs. Whether they can be in any way effective or not remains to be seen.