[This review contains minor spoilage. It’s a bit spoiler-y. (I feel obliged to put it in Whedonesque terms.)]
Issue #5 of Serenity: Leaves on the Wind has a distinctly Whedon voice. I mean that in every way, not simply the dialogue. In the first few pages alone there’s Whedon’s distinctive tool of telling back story in short vignettes, interrupting an extending a moment of deadly drama. When a big character moment occurs, particularly one involving sudden but inevitable death, Whedon likes to play with his distinctive tonal shifts, elaborate flashbacks and direct editing. An example of this is in Buffy Season 7, in the episode “Selfless,” where Anya’s seeming death by stabbing is interrupted by a long segment featuring the infamous lost song from the musical “Once More With Feeling”, “Mrs.”, the last note of which is interrupted by a cut back to Anya’s lifeless body.
In this case, it’s Malcolm Reynolds who is apparently in mortal danger. Hit in the neck by a flying pair of scissors, rather than see how that plays out we instantly cut to four pages of flashback, starting with a moment from the original Firefly series, featuring Wash. We are then told more about the resistance army and how they were recruited for this desperate assault on the planet housing River’s fellow abductees, including a classic Mal speech. Then, a direct cut back, on Jayne saying “Mal?” in two different contexts, to the present. Though wounded and bleeding, Mal does activate the “emergency return” button for Serenity, first introduced in the classic episode “Out of Gas”.
On other fronts in the battle for the kidnapped children, the ex-Operative scores an impressively gruesome victory in his duel with a former colleague. But once he sees a stern-looking Asian woman with steely brown eyes, even the dignified, reserved Operative whispers, “Dear God,” and tells Bea to lay down her arms. It appears that even the Operative has something that he fears, and in this case it’s an operative even more skilled than he. She is about to dispatch both the ex-Operative and Bea when an army of browncoats arrive, flooding off of the newly-summoned Serenity.
Though the browncoats, recruited from amongst the resistance, do save the day, taking off with the survivors, one of River’s fellow super-kids and one important Alliance officer, it turns out to be a hollow victory. Under questioning, the Alliance officer tells Bea with a smirk that she made the mistake of organizing resistance to the government. Disorganized resistance, or resistance with many, fast-moving cells, is a difficult enemy to fight. But massed, in one place, in one time, like an army? The Alliance can fight and beat that enemy. Though Bea allowed the resistance to furnish Mal with soldiers and opportunity to carry out his rescue mission, it may have caused the death of every member of the resistance that isn’t on Serenity. Zack Whedon doesn’t show us whether that threat is an empty boast or a substantial threat. Instead, he allows Mal to ask the questions for us, the audience.
It’s always a treat in Serenity/Firefly when Mal gives one of his big speeches. Filled with that deliberately antiquated sort of Western phrasing, a peculiar combination of Victorian formality and rough solider talk, Nathan Fillion could deliver those lines with complete authenticity. (Ron Glass and Adam Baldwin were also particularly good at it.) So, while it’s great to read Mal’s speechifying (as they would say), particularly lines like, “You choose to chase me, I’m gonna turn and meet you head on. Be honest, I’m developin’ a taste for it,” it’s made absolutely delicious by hearing them in Fillion’s Alberta cowboy voice.
And the character moment here is no less important. Mal has just been told that the entire resistance army may be in the process of being slaughtered. He breezes right by that pronouncement, presumably thinking that it could be false, kicks over the Alliance offers chair and, with his foot on the man’s chest, asks where Zoe is being held. This shows Mal’s priorities: crew first, and Zoe first out of the crew, the ship second, the “cause” third. The “cause” was lost years ago, in his mind’s eye. If the resistance that showed up are being slaughtered, there’s one more in the victory column for the Alliance. If they aren’t, it’s not like they pose an existential threat to the Alliance. The war is over, and Mal lost. In this moment you can see his acceptance of that, at least for long enough to pivot to his true purpose: rescue Zoe.
Because, causes aside, as Mal himself said in the Serenity film, it’s love that keeps us in the air. He devotion to Zoe is absolute, unquestioned, unalloyed love. Not romantic, but that’s Whedon’s wonderful feminism poking out of the comics’ pages, because in his world, as in the real world, people of the opposite sex can be best friends and not ever be romantically intertwined. Mal loves everyone on his crew, but Zoe is such a big part of him. It’s a brilliant writing decision on Whedon’s part to not give the audience what they think they want (lots of cool fights with the Operative and a revelation of the secret of River) and instead what keeps us coming back to the world of Serenity: the chance to spend time with people, even though they’re in a distinctive genre setting, who we love and who love each other.
The next issue will bring Leaves on the Wind to a close and set the stage for, hopefully, the continuing adventures of the new Serenity crew.