[Warning: Firefly spoilers to follow. But if you haven’t seen Firefly yet, why are you reading this article? For that matter, if you haven’t seen Firefly yet, why are you doing anything other than watching Firefly?]
As Jordan and I finish Dollhouse, I’m inclined to say something about Joss Whedon’s well-loved other show, Firefly. Writing a review of Firefly seems like a silly exercise at this point, so instead I thought I’d talk about an oft-overlooked but interesting bit of characterization: Jayne Cobb.
Jayne is Serenity’s tough guy. Mal says that he handles “public relations,” which stands for cracking skulls and shooting everything that moves. It’s not a job that calls for gentility, and Jayne doesn’t display any. His loves are guns, girls, and booze, and his speech patterns and personal habits are as coarse as you’d imagine.
Another director would have handled Jayne one of two ways, both of which treat him as a developing character. First, he might be the traitor: the character who, in the last episode, does something unredeemable and becomes a villain. Second, he might turn out to be a jerk with a heart of gold. There would be a Day in the Limelight episode dedicated to him where he saves kids from a burning orphanage or something and we learn that deep down, he’s really a nice guy after all. At the very least, he would have one undeniably positive trait, such as liking kittens.
Joss Whedon doesn’t go either direction. He’s potentially ready to double-cross the crew if he gets a good enough offer, but he never actually double-crosses the crew (although he does try to get Simon and River turned in at one point). He has his softer moments, like the pensive look he gets when Kaylee has been shot and her life is in danger, but they’re always subtle and balanced out by his completely selfish actions. He isn’t a jerk with a heart of gold–he’s just a regular jerk.
And yet he’s adorable, whether he’s combing a prostitute’s hair, affectionately naming his favorite gun Vera, or wearing a “cunning” hat his mother made for him. He never even comes across as unlikable (from the audience’s perspective; the rest of the crew might have a different opinion), let alone villainous. He does become the butt of plenty of jokes (“My days of not respecting you are definitely coming to a middle,” says Mal), but always in a good-natured way.
Jayne does get his own Day in the Limelight: “Jaynestown,” where they land in a small town that reveres him as a hero. Still, it isn’t played quite the way you’d expect. A standard episode of this sort would be Jayne’s chance to do something heroic and redeem his usual behavior, or even to have the epiphany that finally makes him into a good person. In this episode, we do see the best parts of his character–but it turns out that isn’t saying much. He fumbles to put together some words to say to the adoring mudders, but he also takes full advantage of the whiskey and women available to him. At the end, he struggles with why someone would take a shotgun blast for him. He just can’t figure it out. Any epiphany he had was a very minor one.
Several Firefly characters are unusual in the way they walk the line between the standard archetypes: Zoe as a rare Action Girl whose gender is not constantly emphasized; Kaylee as a Wrench Wench with a strong feminine side. Still, I think Jayne’s carefully constructed combination of likability and a lack of redeeming traits makes him a very unique member of the cast.
By the way, if you like Jayne’s hat, you can buy one or knit your own.
Pictures from the Firefly Wiki.