PAIRING: Mal Reynolds/River Tam
SPOILERS: Serenity spoilers
NOTES: The screencap comes from Leave me the White.
River—River is a brilliant, mentally-traumatized seventeen-year-old girl. She is psychic and can read people's thoughts and pasts, but often suffers from flashbacks or violent episodes in response to things that trigger her past owing to the frightening behavioral modifications done to her at the Academy, where she was formed into the ultimate weapon.
Mal—Mal is the captain of a smuggling ship; he's a hard, bitter man, but one who's learned that the most important thing in his life is his ship Serenity and his crew. He still has both the protectiveness, and sometimes the ruthlessness, of a military commander (he served as sergeant in a big war that he lost). He's angry and hard, but always willing to sacrifice to keep the people he thinks of as his.
Serenity the pilot—This episode is the first time we see River (unless we were subject to the very bad airing schedule Fox network originally chose). Mal tears open the crate holding a cryogenic chamber in which River is curled, nude. I find this gesture symbolic on so many levels, that Mal is the one to take her out of the box that she's been placed in, to set her free. Later in the episode, when River, hysterical and disoriented, has been sedated into sleep, he stands, just watching her, and while his expression is (as so often!) enigmatic, one can sense a burgeoning protectiveness towards her. This protectiveness he fulfills later in the episode when River is being held at gunpoint by a federal agent. Mal shoots the man without even breaking stride in a gesture of breathtaking decisiveness; it's no longer a question for him whether he wants to leave River and her brother Simon to the law. She's become his, a part of Serenity, something that becomes clear later in the episode when he suggests to Simon that they stay on Serenity. Certainly pragmatism has its place in this decision (the crew could certainly use a doctor), but it's also clear that for Mal, the mysterious transformation has taken place whereby River and Simon have become his people, to be protected.
Safe—Safe is the first episode in which River and Mal have any kind of extended interaction. It begins irritably enough, when Mal goes to ask Simon to shut River up so she doesn't spook the cattle. The whole time he's talking to Simon, he keeps obliquely addressing River over his shoulder, acknowledging her even as he apparently ignores her to address Simon. A little later, when River talks about how the cows didn't know how to be cows until they saw the sky, Mal has a perfect, hilarious line in which he says, "Is it bad that what she said makes perfect sense to me?" This sets up the fact that, of all the crew, Mal is perhaps the quickest to get who River is and what she's saying. Some of this is because he comes to her with less preconceptions than her brother. More of it is that the two simply click in some odd fashion.
And then comes the denouement: River is about to be burned as a witch by some backwards hill folk, with Simon loyally at her side. And then Mal strides in, gun out, ready to be, as Zoe puts it, a big damn hero. The settlers protest that she's a witch, and Mal says, "Yeah, but she's our witch. Now cut her the hell down" as he stands protectively in front of her with his rifle. Mal explicitly claims River as his in this line, and the delivery is absolutely exquisite as his voice drops down to a dangerous, angry huskiness on his last words.
Our Mrs. Reynolds—The deleted scene from Our Mrs. Reynolds is one of the funnier ones in the entire show, but it also reveals some of what River is thinking. Upon discovering that Mal has inadvertently gained a wife, River decides that she has to marry Simon. She has seen married people (Wash and Zoe) before without making this rather unlikely decision, but Mal being married means that she has to be with someone else. She then goes on to tell Mal and the others that Saffron is a thief; while Saffron manages to deflect this accusation, Mal still listens to some extent, reflecting the growing trust he begins to have in her.
Ariel—Ariel begins with River having a violent episode, seeding tension within the crew, and concern in Mal. He doesn't, once again, dump River and Simon, or even do very much more than tell Simon clearly that he needs to keep better watch over River. What he does do is accept a fairly dangerous (though lucrative) job that allows Simon to get River to a diagnostic machine that will allow him to better help her.
Jayne tries to turn River and Simon in, and Mal's reaction is terrifying. He hits Jayne over the head with a wrench, and leaves him in the airlock, threatening to allow him to be sucked out into space for what he's done. The protectiveness of his reaction here is extreme, and while some of it is for Simon, and a general need to be able to trust his crew, I can't help but think that a large portion of it is for River, a girl so damaged that she awakens his every protective instinct.
War Stories—War Stories begins by showing a playful River and Kaylee chasing after one another in the cargo bay. "One of you is gonna slip and fall," he bellows, "and I'm not cleaning it up." Mal's affection for Kaylee is well-documented, but in this scene, we can see that he's beginning to gain a similar degree of affection for River. He's grown accustomed to having her around, accustomed enough that he can treat her with a similar kind of playful, aggressive affection.
Later, when Mal has been taken prisoner by Niska, and the entire crew goes in afterwards, River steps up heroically for the first time in the series, taking the gun from Kaylee's shaking hands and dropping three guards in a matter of seconds. River has never been able to do this to defend herself, even when it would have been extremely helpful. With Mal in jeopardy and the rest coming to the aid, however, she uses these deadly skills buried deep within her to save them all.
Objects in Space—Objects in Space is the River/Mal episode, though it's a difficult one in terms of their relationship. The episode opens with River sleep-walking through the ship and picking up a gun without knowing what it is. Everyone tries to make her put it down, but it's only Mal who has faith enough (and a sense of responsibility strong enough) to go to her (calling her "sweetheart" distractedly in the process) and take the gun from her.
This incident, along with Kaylee finally revealing the truth about what happened in War Stories, begins to shake Mal's faith in River. He does not decide to rid himself of River and Simon, but is extremely disturbed by the dangerous possibilities River presents. During the crew's discussion of this, Mal says two things of interest. First, he claims that he finds River "pleasant enough," which I believe is a crock. He's shown affection and protectiveness towards her before, so here, he's simply trying to distance himself from the situation so that he can, as captain, maintain some objectivity. Secondly, he talks about her being a psychic, and is apparently the first to have voiced this possibility. This is another example of the way that Mal gets River, as none of the rest of the crew do, having faith enough to find sense in her madness, and consider seriously the possibility of her being psychic.
The whole discussion becomes somewhat irrelevant when a bounty hunter named Jubal Early sneaks on the ship with the intent to take River away. River executes a brilliant scheme to outwit him, and it's to Mal that she trusts the final part in her plan, even though she has, logically, no reason to trust him at this moment. As River descends from Early's ship, floating through space, Mal catches her, in a shot that I find just as significant as him tearing open the crate that encloses her at the beginning of Serenity. After all that has happened, his face bears a full-on, crinkly-eyed smile, and when she asks for permission to come aboard, he doesn't answer, just tells her she isn't quite right (still smiling) and then to go on and beat up Simon for messing up her plan. The scene is incredibly intimate, despite being played in space suits, and the black behind them frames their intimacy: two people without any reason to trust somehow coming together.
Serenity the film—I actually shipped River/Mal some before seeing the Big Damn Movie, but it was Serenity that really made River/Mal completely inevitable for me. The mirroring shots, the physical contact, the emotional intimacy all conspired to show that this was, indeed, the pairing for me. I will try, though, to talk about this without narrating the film in its entirety.
Serenity opens with Mal taking River on a bank heist. At first, his attitude is disturbing: he's behaving like River and Simon aren't crew, at least when he speaks to Simon. As he prepares for the job, she stalks towards him slowly. He calls her "little one," asking if she knows her place in all this. "Do you?" she responds cryptically, calling attention to the fact that Mal may or may not understand both his own place and hers. "This is what I do, darlin'," he replies, and his endearments here seem a lot more natural than the "sweetheart" in Objects in Space. She's also the only one towards whom he uses them in the movie.
The bank heist comes to an abrupt end when Reavers hit the town, and in the flight from the bank, it's Mal who hauls River out of there, dragging her by the wrist, and physically puts her onto the mule, taking her to safety. While he's behaved (towards Simon) as though her safety weren't of paramount importance to him, here he plainly shows that it is.
This becomes clear again when Simon decides that he and River need to leave the ship. Mal agrees, but in the Maidenhead Bar, River reacts to a subliminal message by going, not to put it too nicely, all psycho ninja on everyone's ass. Mal, seeing the destruction she's causing, goes for his gun. River has one two, and they stand, guns pointed at one another for what seems an endless space in time. Neither of them has any reason to hesitate. Mal knows that he's dead if he does; River is apparently a killing machine, not in control of her actions. She's already killed and beat most of the bar. Yet both hesitate long enough for Simon to come in and shout a safe word, putting River to sleep.
This is when we get that Moment, equal to Mal taking River out of her crate or catching her as she falls through space. Mal moves down to the floor where River lies, picking her up into his arms and taking her back to Serenity. Though he's just learned that she's a bigger danger than he could ever have imagined, he won't leave her there to be picked up by the Feds. He takes her back to the ship, handcuffing her and locking her in the pantry.
River spends the next long while stuck in the pantry, and the only River/Mal shot we get is him staring down at her sleeping figure, trying to work out what to do with her in a shot that echoes the one described in Serenity the pilot. In one of the deleted scenes, there is a moment when Mal tells Shepherd Book that it wasn't River who killed the people in the bar, thus highlighting his understanding of what River is and is not.
Ultimately, another betrayal by Jayne leads to River breaking free, and Mal, again, has the courage to approach her as she sits in the cockpit. She short-circuits any attempt he might make to bring her down by pointing a gun at his head, and so he begins to talk, telling her that he needs to know whether she's anything more than a weapon, and that he's staked his crew's life on the idea that she's an actual and whole person. Tears start in her eyes, and then, significantly, she shows him what Miranda is. This is another example of the way in which Mal is the only one who can breach River's perimeters. Even Simon isn't granted this kind of access into the things that haunt and torment her mind.
When they land on Haven to sort things out and find everyone slaughtered, Mal comes up with what is, quite frankly, his craziest plan yet, that they should pose as Reavers to pass through Reaver space and get to Miranda. The whole crew protests, and he tells them, roughly, that anyone who won't go along with this can say goodbye right there, and if they try to stop him, he'll shoot them. Significantly, River is not among the crew when he addresses them.
They go to Miranda and learn the truth, and then we get The Speech. During The Speech, wherein Mal details his determination to make the whole 'verse know what happened on Miranda, both River and Mal are foregrounded, bathed in the same light as seen above. Once more, Mal is speaking to the crew, but River is not precisely among them. She's far closer to him, nearly by his side.
Then comes the battle with the Operative and the Reavers, and we get our next big River/Mal moment at the end of both these battles. Mal comes through the doors, having successfully sent out the broadwave, and checks over his crew, then asks where River is. Just then, the blast doors open, revealing River on the other side of them, bloody, armed, and kind of psychotic-looking. For a long moment, she and Mal simply stand there, mirroring each other. The others lie between them in various states of physical disrepair, but they both stand, facing each other.
And then the final scene, the one so dear to the heart of each Mal/River shipper. Mal leaves Inara to go to the cockpit, where River is waiting for him. He calls her "little albatross" and she shows him that she'd perfectly able to help him fly the ship. And then he tells her "the first rule of flying," which I must quote in its entirety: "Love. You can know all the math in the 'Verse, but take a boat in the air you don't love, she'll shake you off just as sure as the turning of worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells ya she's hurtin' 'fore she keens. Makes her a home." Mal is here at his most poetic, and his most vulnerable too, his voice husked with emotion. "Storm's getting worse," River points out, and Mal promises that they'll pass through it soon enough, as they sail the ship out into the black, together. *happy sigh*
Mal as protector—Throughout the series, Mal is shown to be extremely protective of his entire crew. What's different about River, though, is that while she needs him, needs his support, understanding and, yes, protection, in another sense, she has no need of him. She's a better shot than he is, a better fighter than any of them. Hence when we see them mirrored at the end of the Reaver/Operative battle, it becomes clear that she is the only woman on the crew who can stand up before him as an equal. She's not a damsel in distress as Inara is (in the film, anyway), and yet she is, in a way that gets to him very profoundly. She's damaged and broken, and yet Mal can see the parts of her that are real and whole, and he loves that in her.
River as not-crew—I think this distinction, made more than once in Serenity, is key. Mal has command over his crew, must have command in order to keep them safe. River, however, he does not command or need to in the same way. She's not addressed when he makes the plan to go to Miranda and demands complete obedience, nor when he rouses the others to agree to broadwave the vid. Why? Because on some profound level, Mal knows that River is with him, understands him and need not be commanded. She will follow where he goes without hesitation, because he is, at the same time, following where she goes. Both support and inspire each other.
Mal's journey—The film Serenity is, more than anything else, about Mal's journey, though it's one that starts, to my mind, from the moment that he takes River out of her box. Mal is a profoundly broken, bitter man, and River, not Inara, is the one who is able to carry him along, to act as catalyst for his journey towards perfect faith and love. By the end of Serenity, we know, through Mal's speech, that he has fully embraced both faith and love, and a large part of his faith is invested in River. He trusted, when he had no reason to, that she was "a person, actual and whole." More, he protected that person through love, allowing no difficulties or expediencies to stop him.
Mal/River works for me on so many levels, as has probably been made clear through this essay. Mal is, first and foremost, River's liberator, the one who catches her, picks her up, carries her from danger, is her solid point in a shifting and frightening world. And yet he's also the one who can see River's special gifts. He believes in her as a person, and she rewards his faith time and again. He has more of an ability to connect with the deepest part of her than anyone, more than Simon even, and he understands what he sees in her, and loves it. For River, Mal is more than just protector. He's the only one who can understand her, if he will, the only one who has the power to help her heal herself through action. River isn't crew, isn't under his command, and yet she's an integral part of the ship, as key to Serenity as Zoe or Mal. One gets the sense that, if everything fell apart, there are two people who would be walking through the wilderness with Mal, and those are Zoe and River. Zoe already has the non-platonic comrade role filled, which leaves River as his mate, his only possible mate because, unlike Inara, she understands him and can read his emotions, is filled with trust rather than boundaries and jealousies. River is what Mal believes in, and Mal is the only person that River can trust.
Liao Xiao NC-17. Lovely piece, despite the sadness of beginning with Simon's death. Nice first-time story as well.
Rain Dances, Little Dreamer, Broken, Ready, NC-17 overall, all set in the Ranch AU by mollita--This fic wouldn't normally be on my radar, as I'm not big on AU's that take the characters from their 'verse, but this fic breaks down the show's relationships so beautifully and uses rodeo as an amazing stand-in for crime, a way to set Mal up for all the kinds of pain he needs to have inside him to be Mal.
Tell Me More, NC-17, contextless (but very, very hot) smutlet
The Fire That Doesn't Burn, NC-17—this one's got more context, and femmenerd has a good gift for writing River/Mal sex that feels right on, for making Mal yield all that he needs to, which seems to be hard for many of us.
Canticle for These Women by musesfool, R. This fic is complex, and has Mal/Inara as well as River/Mal, but it's a really wonderful, honest handling of the problems with River/Mal and the ways it could be made to work.
Teach Me to Hear the Mermaids Singing by musesfool, NC-17. This is a lovely fic, poetic and beautiful, full to the brim with the sense of the two of them.
Soon Enough by jedibuttercup, PG-13. Included largely because it has the best expansion on the Love speech I've ever read.
Paradise Has a Thousand Doors, by tesla321, maybe R? This fic has some absolutely delightful River, and a gentler Mal than many go for, but whom I love. Also, kink for Mal's eyelashes. God, Mal's eyelashes.
Riverrun, NC-17 overall, by me. This is a twenty-two chapter fic I wrote detailing how River and Mal might find themselves fighting the next war.
Body, fanvid by obsessive24. Big wow for this one. Works perfectly to show all these tiny moments that I can only roughly capture in words. This vid is a ship manifesto in itself.
mal_river--the one-stop LJ comm. for all your Mal/River needs.
The River/Mal fanlisting