Serenity: A How-To-Live Manual

© Universal Pictures

“We’re close to gone out here. We get a job, we gotta make good.”
— Mal Reynolds

I don’t know what it’s like to cling to the edge of survival. On a material level, I’ve been lucky; I’ve been able to go to college, and then university, and I make enough now to live alone in a city I love. All the same, sometimes, survival feels like a struggle. Am I going to wake up and go to work and come home and eat and sleep in an unending cycle? That doesn’t sound like living to me. Most of my adult life has been spent skipping from city to city, existential crisis to existential crisis. What will I do? How shall I live? Where? With whom?

Enter Serenity. I first saw the film in high school, long before I ever watched Firefly. I didn’t know the characters from the TV show; I didn’t know the story’s background. All I knew was that I liked science fiction, and I liked snappy dialogue, and that, at the time, this movie was unlike anything I’d seen before. It had a mix of slick futurism and dusty Western motifs that scratched an itch I didn’t know I had. Under the crew’s dysfunction and the ship’s rusting shell lay a bleeding heart that beat in time with my own.

I know every line of dialogue by heart, every plot point, every jump scare. I know the color shifts and the character beats and every single jokey aside. But just thinking about this film cheapens the effect; I have to watch it. Serenity, for me, is a warm quilt on a sick day, my first choice when I’m feeling tired or discouraged or can’t stand the thought of watching any other movie. I listen to the soundtrack often. Serenity entertains when all other movies fail. It is also, conveniently, an excellent manual on how to live.

“Earth-That-Was could no longer sustain our numbers; we were so many.”
— the Teacher

It’s 500 years in the future, and Earth is dead of pollution and overpopulation. So humanity has settled into a new solar system, full of terraformed planets that can support life. The rich central planets are the core of the Alliance, a governing body that rules over the entire system. The outer planets are less well-off, more like outposts in old Westerns than cities. Desperately poor, they resent the Alliance for beating them years before in a war that cost the outer planets their freedom but didn’t do much to fix the problems the Alliance claimed they would solve.

Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) is a ship captain and sometimes outlaw, an angry libertarian space pirate who lost his faith at the same time that he and the “Browncoat” rebels lost the war with the Alliance. His grudge runs deep. He named his ship after the Battle of Serenity Valley, where the rebellion lost the war. He and his crew wander the fringes of the system in the nearly-derelict Serenity, looking for work, legitimate or otherwise. The crew is a classic Joss Whedon band of misfits: the free-spirit mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite); pacifist pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk); his tough, Corporal wife Zoe (Gina Torres), and mercenary muscle Jayne (Adam Baldwin). Also aboard are two siblings: Simon (Sean Maher), a doctor, and his clairvoyant and “crazy sister” River (Summer Glau), both of whom are on the run after Simon broke River out of an Alliance facility that had been brainwashing her to become a living weapon. They’re all desperate, trying to scratch a living out of petty theft and trying to stay a step ahead of the Alliance. Complicating things is the Alliance operative sent to track Simon and River down and kill them. Being clairvoyant has its drawbacks, especially when the mind-reader in question learns state secrets that could prove detrimental to the ruling regime, and that have a negative effect on her own mental health. Crew loyalties are tested by the dangerous passenger in their midst, as well as by the long arm of the law pursuing them across the solar system.

“Yeah, but he coulda made ‘em family.”
— Kaylee

Which brings me to the first item in the Serenity Manual of How to Live: Family is too precious to be left behind. Simon risks his life and spends his family fortune to break River out of the Alliance facility where’s she’s been experimented on. It’s mentioned that he gave up a career in medicine and significant social standing to do so. Simon chafes at the dusty, desperate existence left to him in the outer planets, but it’s worth the sacrifice to keep his little sister safe. Simon’s devotion kicks off the events, but it also provides a pulse below the story’s skin. Everything Simon does is to keep River safe. When she is finally able to stand up and defend him, it isn’t to repay a debt; it’s because she loves him just as much as he loves her.

Serenity also makes the case for found family being just as important as blood family. These are the people you can’t live without, related or not, no matter how gross or argumentative or inconvenient they might be. Serenity works because the entire crew is family, despite how boorish Jayne might be or how stubborn Simon or Mal are. Mal insists that Simon and River need to “cut loose” and “learn to stand on [their] own,” but the moment the siblings run into real danger after leaving the Serenity, Mal brings them back to the safety of the ship. “Hell, I had every reason in the ‘verse to leave [them] lay and haul anchor,” he confesses, but he finds himself unwilling to leave them for the Alliance. He’s just as bewildered by his own decision as his crew is. And yet it makes sense. Simon and River have insinuated themselves into every corner of the ship during their eighth months’ stay.

The plot of Serenity revolves primarily around the crew aboard the ship—the blood and found family—but the film’s thesis is best summed up on two separate occasions by the Serenity’s remaining family members and two former crew members: Inara (Morena Baccarin), a high-class prostitute, and Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), a priest with a less-than-savory past. We might or might not be able to choose the people we call family, but they shape our beliefs and the way we see the world.

“I don’t care what you believe. Just believe in it.”
— Shepherd Book

“He’s a believer. He’s methodical, intelligent, and devout in his belief that killing River is the right thing to do.”
— Inara

Item two in the Serenity Manual of How to Live: Our beliefs drive our way of life. This might seem overly simplistic, but Serenity draws this statement out in several ways. Belief, according to this film, is both the thing that sustains everything we are, and the thing that can destroy us, whether or not we have explicit faith in a higher power. Despite being hostile toward organized religion, Mal is perhaps the character best defined by his beliefs. “I ain’t lookin’ for help from on high. That’s a long wait for a train don’t come,” he says, but at the same time, he operates from a quiet and stubborn conviction that people should be free, free from tyrannical rule, free to make their own mistakes and free to live as they see fit. Mal’s beliefs drive him to act, even when no one else around him understands why he does what he does—and ultimately, it is Mal’s stubborn belief in doing what is right that saves him and his crew from being killed by the Alliance.

At a pivotal moment in the film, Shepherd Book urges Mal to do one thing: “I don’t care what you believe. Just believe in it.” However, Serenity is not simply a call to believe, or to act, on any convictions that come easily. Beliefs can sustain, they can comfort, they can motivate—and they can just as easily destroy.

The Alliance Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is described as “a believer,” one who honestly thinks “that killing River is the right thing to do.” The Operative claims to believe in “a better world—a world without sin,” and that in order to create this better world, he must commit the atrocities no one else in the Alliance is willing to commit. Killing people who betray state secrets, even inadvertently. Hunting River. Forcing friends to betray each other. All in the name of keeping the Alliance in power. The Operative is under no illusions: he knows and admits that his actions are evil, but he believes that his actions must be carried out in order to bring about the utopia his handlers in the Alliance wish to create. In claiming his role, The Operative nurses a twisted kind of Messiah complex, in which the utopian ends of the Alliance justify the hellish means of the operative.

This mistaken belief stems from the same ideals that caused the Alliance to experiment on the human population of a small planet, trying to make people “model citizens”—docile, peaceful, and most importantly passive—through airborne drugs. The drug worked too well; most of the people gave up the will to live. The rest of the planet’s population reacted negatively to the drug, becoming aggressive, cannibalistic zombies—“Reavers”—that prey on the unprotected outer planets. The Alliance does not officially confirm the existence of Reavers, but they float around the edge of the solar system, sending out raiding parties. This is the secret River uncovered, what the Operative was trying to suppress.

The Operative believes just as hard as Mal does. Belief is neither good nor bad, but our beliefs inform our actions, ultimately affecting the impact we have on the world.

“No more runnin’. I aim to misbehave.”
— Mal

Item three in the Serenity Manual of How to Live: Our actions shape our world. The crew of the Serenity could slip away into the outer planets just like they always have, leaving behind their problems, but once they know the truth they can’t just leave well enough alone. Mal knows the Alliance will try their experiment to make people more tractable—“better”—again, and he knows that this situation is not tenable.

It is impossible to force people to be better. The Alliance claims to act with the intention of making a peaceful, enlightened civilization, but their methods are despotic and their tools include murder and mind control. The Alliance claims they want peace and comfort for everyone, but only in exchange for the free will of their subjects. Government aid is scarce in the outer planets, but the long arm of the law is ever-present.

A “better” world is impossible if people are unable to choose for themselves how they will live. Mal chafes at the limits he’s been given, taking work however he can, and breaking the law when he has to. He hates being a petty thief, but often it’s the only option available to keep his ship in the air and his crew fed. The Alliance’s attempts to control, to make the outer planets “more civilized,” have in fact forced Mal into a life of crime. It’s Mal’s choice to defy the Alliance and uncover their secrets, to behave outside the box that the Alliance has forced him into, that brings about the possibility of freedom for more than just the crew.

“I’m all right. I’m all right.”
— River

The final item in the Serenity Manual of How to Live: Confession heals.

River has been carrying the secret of the Reavers’ origin around in her head since before Simon broke her out. Her mental state has deteriorated as a result, and Simon hardly knows her as the precocious baby sister he grew up with. The rest of the crew are uneasy around her. A coded message in a crowded barroom stirs dead-eyed violence in her, and she beats the patrons nearly to death. No one except Simon trusts her enough to get close. None of this is River’s fault. She’s not guilty of the things the Alliance has forced her to do. And yet she feels that guilt, is driven by it to take the Serenity’s crew to the planet where the Alliance created the Reavers.

As the crew comes to understand the horrible secrets River has been living with, she says—finally—that she’s all right. It’s a good argument for therapy, or at least for finding friends who would listen (and then act). It’s a good argument for being not just one who confesses, but one to whom people feel they can confess as well.

“She’s torn up plenty, but she’ll fly true.”
— Zoë

I am a young professional in my mid-20s. I have a job. I’m healthy. I have not lost my home, my family, my career, or any wars. I’m not hunted by the government. And yet I see myself in the members of the Serenity’s crew. River’s self-doubt. Mal’s stubbornness. Shepherd Book’s faith in the goodness of humanity (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary). Like the crew, I don’t know where I’m going in life; sometimes I too feel adrift in the cosmos. I don’t know what I’m doing or where I’m going, but at least I have an idea about how I’m going to go about getting there.

If I had to pick one movie to live by for the rest of my life, I’d choose Serenity. Not because it’s the world’s greatest film, or even a classic, but because it is my comfort movie. It’s also an excellent manual on how to live—although it is not explicitly spelled out; on the surface, it’s a zombie conspiracy Western set in space, but it contains depths. This film requires a closer reading to pull out its underlying truths, and there are details that surprise me every time. Every line, every character beat makes sense; it’s a swift end to a short story, but it’s crafted with love. And love is the beating heart that makes the rest of the film. “Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down,” Mal says of his ship. “Tells you she’s hurtin’ ‘fore she keens. Makes her a home.”

I want that too. I’ll keep flying by the manual.