A pre-'Mad Men' Christina Hendricks guest-stars as Mal's adoring new wife

By Jeff Jensen
Updated April 04, 2011 at 05:43 PM EDT
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Last week, it was Zac Efron. This week, it was a before-she-was-famous Christina Hendricks – Joan from Mad Men – popping up on Firefly in the memorable role of Saffron, the intergalactic femme fatale who stowed away on Serenity and then took Mal and company for a ride, in more ways than one. Mad Men fans – buzzing from the news this past week that AMC and Matthew Weiner had reached an agreement to produce three more seasons of the Emmy-winning cable hit – might have enjoyed the Science Channel’s re-broadcast of “Our Mrs. Reynolds” more than anyone, as Joss Whedon used his Hendricks-enhanced, Mad Men-ish tale to remind us that it wasn’t so long ago that women could dream of no better role in life than that of a pleasing, pleasurable housewife, and to wonder if even the most modern of men are still wedded to this “ideal” of womanhood, whether they realize it or not.

[Before we dig in: Apologies for the delay in posting today. I was at WonderCon in San Francisco yesterday, moderating a panel about the forthcoming Fox sci-fi series Terra Nova – the footage looked very promising – and when I got home last night, I kinda played hooky on this assignment to watch another AMC show: The Killing. Two words about that one: Instantly Obsessed.]

SUFFERING SAFFRON!

MAL: “But what I got even less use for isa woman won’t stand up for herself. Five days hence we’re puttin’ you inthe world, and you won’t last a dayby bowing and sniffing for handouts.You want something, you take it, or ask for it. You don’t wait to betold when to breathe, you don’t take orders from anyone. Except me – and that’s just ’cause I’m the captain,and people take orders from captains even in the world. But for the rest, damnit, be like a woman is. Not no petrified child. There’s more’n seventy little earth’s spinning aboutthe galaxy, and the meek have inherited not a one. Do you understand what I’m saying to you?”

SAFFRON: “I do.”

(From a deleted scene; the full script of “Our Mrs. Reynolds” can be found here.)

After successfully playing hired-gun vigilantes for a group of outer rim colonists terrorized by rapacious bandits (Mal in a dress, posing as a wife to Amish-ish Jayne on the stagecoach – classic), the quasi-heroic Serenity crew was feted with a party, complete with feasting and folk dancing and … a funeral? (I thought the beat where Book held himself just a little bit apart to give last rites to the slain foes was awkwardly forced and one more example of Firefly’s don’t-know-what-to-do-with-him tone deafness for the man of faith character.)

During the festivities, a seemingly sweet waif crowned Mal with a wreath of garland and served him a cup of wine and then enticed him to dance. Mal thought they were just partyin’. But after sneaking aboard Serenity, said waif, Saffron, revealed that their tango was actually a wedding ceremony, and she was bound and determined to be bound to him and be his better half in the most limiting way possible — a subservient, adoring housewife/slave, incapable of looking Mal in the eye, yet when she did flashed nothing but reverence and yearning for his sacred, superior manliness. Saffron demanded to dote on him – cook for him, clean for him, wash his feet if it so pleased him – and she insisted on doing him, too, because hey: That’s what a wife is for, right? In Mad Men parlance, Hendricks’ Saffron was part Betty, part Joan, but minus the glam dresses.

NEXT: “Whoa. Good bible.”

To his great credit, Mal wanted no part of Saffron, though her charms did work some kind of magic on him. At one point, she got him to open up about his past an his childhood on Shadow (awesome planet name!) – something he never did, with anyone. You got the sense that even though every aspect of Saffron alarmed him, she represented something – or someone – he very much desired. Still, his handling of the situation earned him no credit with Serenity’s female crewmembers – not Inara, who harrumphed cartoonishly with envy (the episode would seem to argue that she burned Mal) and fumed at Saffron’s “degrading” brand of self-prostitution; and certainly not that wonder of strong, empowered Whedonesque womanhood, Zoë. Saffron’s backwards model of wifeyness appalled her. It also bugged her that Serenity’s male members – even her enlightened husband Wash – were even the least bit seduced by Saffron’s retro wiles. (Jayne, the big pig, was so bedazzled he offered to take Saffron off Mal’s hands by trading his beloved gun Vera for her.) At the same time, Zoë didn’t want to see the girl demeaned any more than she was demeaning herself. It bothered her that Wash didn’t immediately turn the ship around and take her home, even if it meant running afoul with the Alliance. And it bothered her that Mal could think of no better solution than quickly divorcing her and dumping at the nearest convenient port. No matter what they did, even if they were they were trying to do the right thing, Mal and the men of Serenity were messaging to Saffron that she was no more valuable than either prized property or unwanted baggage.

Of course, Saffron was another kind of dubious female archetype altogether: The film noir femme fatale, playing a ship full of Fred MacMurray saps for fools. She finally bent a resistant Mal to her will by dropping her clothes and exposing her bombshells.

SAFFRON: I do know my bible, sir. “On thenight of their betrothal, the wifeshall open to the man, as the furrowto the plough, and he shall work inher, in and again, ’till she bringhim to his fall, and rest him thenupon the sweat of her breast.”

MAL: Whoa. Good bible.

Mal – who had been threatened with damnation by Book if he took sexual advantage of Saffron (“You’re going toburn in a very special level of hell.A level they reserve for childmolesters and people who talk at thetheater”) — tried very, very hard not to look, but he couldn’t. He tried very, very hard to say no, but when she kissed him, his lips said yes… and then they said no, but by then, it was too late, and he fell to the floor in a sleepy heap, knocked out by Saffron’s drugged lip gloss. She then tricked Wash out of his pilot’s seat, set Serenity on a course for a spaceship chop shop operation, and then hijacked a shuttle and escaped. Kaylee and Wash managed to regain control of Serenity, and Jayne and Vera were able to save all of their hides from being ripped apart by the carrion house’s electromagnetic net.

NEXT: Question: Did Firefly suffer for being aired out of order?

Mal tracked Saffron to a snowy planet where she was hiding out in a cozy cabin and got some satisfaction from his runaway trickster bride by pinning her down and then humiliating her by asking her a question that exposed the profound loneliness and emptiness of her liar’s life.

MAL: What’s your real name?

Saffron didn’t answer. Or maybe she realized – in that moment – that she couldn’t/wouldn’t answer the question, and you got the sense she felt some loss in that epiphany.

And then Mal punched in the face and left her. “You’d only’ve lied, anyway,” he rationalized. She would be seen again… though not on Fox. More on that a few weeks from now.

+++

“Our Mrs. Reynolds” was the sixth episode of Firefly produced by Team Whedon. (I’m including the two-part pilot in this mix, and as one episode.) But during the show’s original run back in 2002, Fox chose to air it as the third episode, skipping “Shindig” and “Safe,” which the network chose to present as Firefly’s sixth and seventh episodes. The Science Channel is choosing to air Firefly in the order in which the episodes were produced (which I believe is Whedon’s preference), and so the question I leave for you to discuss and debate: How different is experience of Firefly watching the episodes in the intended order – and do you think the series might have fared better on Fox if the episodes were aired in sequence? I thought Inara’s character suffered somewhat from Fox’s strategy… but I’ll offer more thoughts on the matter next week when we get to another out-of-order ep, one very dear to the hearts to Browncoats everywhere: “Jaynestown.” I can hear your singing already…

Twitter: @EWDocJensen

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