Spoilers: All television episodes of Firefly, aired and unaired. No movie spoilers.
Personal Website: http://dianamichelle.5u.com
Firefly can be summed as a 'space western' and it means about as much as summing up The Odyssey as a story about a guy who took the long way home. True from a certain perspective, but ultimately meaningless if that's all you say about it. Firefly is a space western, but it's about the meaning of freedom, of tolerance, and of humanity. To paraphrase Joss Whedon, it's about nine people looking into the black (the void, the Abyss) and each seeing something different.
In much the same way, Mal and Inara can be easily classified as a 'type', as bickering almost-lovers in the vein of Beatrice and Benedict. They know each other, insult each other, flirt and touch and care, without yet daring to go the next step. But, as with the show itself, the meaning of the pairing is very different and much more complicated, based on the difficulty of resolving fundamental differences in ethics. What does it mean to love someone who was on the opposite side of a moral war that, in your soul, you've never stopped fighting? What does it mean to love someone who thinks of what you do as beneath you, as dirty?
A. Ladies and Gentlemen
Inara Serra is both lady and whore, the sacred prostitute, the heart's daughter of Aphrodite. She joins Serenity for reasons of her own, reasons that are never fully explained in the series. From her first moment on board, she is demanding and charming, full of the knowledge of her own worth, yet because of the circumstances, it seems clear that she's running from something ("We're all running from something, I suppose." -- Inara, Bushwhacked). Our introduction to her tells us much -- her occupation is 'honest', yet her client shows little respect (accusing her of cheating him of his time). Despite what the Companions would have you believe, they are often treated as 'whores', a messy result of the incomplete blending of two major cultures.
Malcolm Reynolds is a gentleman and a thief, all broken faith and tattered dreams. He fought on the losing side of the great war, and he's still fighting, wearing his army gear and taking advantage of the system whenever he can. Once upon a time, he had faith, and he lost it when he lost his war, when his superiors stopped fighting back and his men died at his feet. Mal is someone who knows how to talk to people, how to get them to trust him even when he's offending the hell out of them. He can kick a man into a turbine without flinching, but would still prefer to try the diplomatic way first.
B. Text and Subtext
I'll be considering the progression of the relationship as per the order of the episodes as they appear in the dvd set.
In Serenity, the two-hour pilot, the dynamic of the Mal/Inara relationship is neatly set up. In the first conversation between them that we see, Mal calls her a whore in front of one of the new passengers, a preacher. Because of Mal's lack of faith, it is clear that this is meant to put Shepherd Book off-guard, but it does show one of the basic problems in the Mal/Inara 'ship -- he does not respect what she does for a living. We also see the converse here -- after he's insulted her in front of one of the passengers, he doesn't realize that he's hurt her until she's pointedly used his word for what she does.
In Inara's next scene, with Shepherd Book, we get to hear just why she's so 'fascinated' with Mal.
Inara: "Why are you so fascinated by him?"
Book: "Because he's something of a mystery. Why are you?"
Inara: "Because so few men are."
Inara is drawn to him because of the conflict, because he doesn't just hate her job or care for her, but manages to do both at the same time. Because he can accept Kaylee's easy sexuality while abhorring Inara's more expensive variety. Inara finds Mal interesting because she can't put him in an easily labeled box. He doesn't despise sex or even selling sex, he hates prettying it up and pretending that it's cleaner than it is.
Once Kaylee's been shot, Mal and Inara very much play the role of parents, yet almost as estranged ones. They argue, unable to agree -- Mal bends because of Kaylee's pain, not Inara's words. They both obviously care for Kaylee, they stand together over her -- and they just barely avoid meeting each other's eyes. They don't yet see eye-to-eye on such things. That's the fundamental problem with Mal and Inara in the beginning -- they are not yet capable of operating as a unit, still trapped by what they see and what they've believed in the past. And when Inara threatens to leave the ship, Mal says that it might be for the best, because she's not a part of this business, not a part of the thievery, of operating outside the law. They're still very much on different sides of the line here.
In their next scene together, they exchange barbs of banter as sharp as shattered glass. This is a raw relationship, filled with unintended hurts and side-long glances.
Mal (to Simon): "What's your business here?"
Inara: "It's my business. I gave the boy a free thrust, since he's not long for this world. What are you doing in my shuttle?"
Mal: "It's my shuttle. You rent it."
Inara: "Then when I'm behind on the rent, you can enter unasked."
Mal: "Thought you were leaving anyhow."
Inara: "I guess that depends on you."
When the ship is in danger, he wants Inara to escape, along with the other 'civilians'. She's still on the outskirts, he touches her but still pushes her away, just as he's but an intruding commentator on her life. This isn't the beginning, but it is still the first chapter.
By the next episode, Inara's spectator status has already begun to change. At the start of the episode, she's a distraction and a spectator, able only to pray for the safety of the crew. By the end, she's become a key element in getting Mal out of trouble (a role that will become more familiar for her over the episodes).
In the beginning of The Train Job, Mal and Inara again banter about whether or not he's allowed in her shuttle and about her job, but there's a lightheartness here that was missing in the beginning. Perhaps as a result of what happened in Serenity, when Mal doesn't toss Simon and River off the ship.
Inara: "What did I say to you about barging into my shuttle?"
Mal: "That it was manly and impulsive?"
Inara: "Yes, precisely. Only the exact phrase I used was "don't"."
Apart from extracting his mechanic from getting her hair brushed by Inara, Mal also went to speak with her specifically to warn her about the person that they were going to see. Trying to keep her away from the dangerous and dirty part of his work, even while he continues to show that he considers what she does to be just as dishonorable in its own way.
And on the side of equality, Inara gets to slap Mal, order him, and insult him freely near the end of the episode, which possibly cancels out all the whore name-slinging he does. Or not. She had fun, at least.
Again, in Bushwhacked, we start out with Inara (along with Simon and River) above, looking down on the world of the crew, still not quite on the inside. Even when Simon seemed poised to make the leap downward, Inara stays up top (of course, the Reavers throw them all off-balance). Again, in this episode, Inara makes mention of the fact that she can't quite figure Mal out, which is what keeps her interested.
In Shindig, a good part of the episode focuses on Mal and Inara and a look at what being a Companion means. We learn here just where Mal stands -- he respects Inara, but he does not respect the idea of Companions. In a direct contrast with The Train Job, Inara is in the thick of it from the very beginning, with Mal handing Inara the money that he's stolen from the slavetrader. Once back on the ship, we get to finally see how Inara picks her clients. When Mal comes in, they banter about clients and time and overall, Mal again shows his distaste for his lifestyle. Even ends up accidentally hurting Kaylee because he's upset over Inara, which speaks volumes as to how much thinking about Inara can throw him.
Mal ends up at the same party as Inara (she's there with a client and he's there for… shipping concerns), and she's naturally upset to see him. He asks her to dance in a way that would make it hard for her to say "no" (as he actually asks the client she's with).
Here, we get to hear what Mal thinks and why he doesn't respect what she does, while still respecting her.
Inara: "You have no call to make me feel ashamed of my job -- what I do is legal. And how's that smuggling coming?"
Mal: "My work's illegal, but at least it's honest."
Mal: "All this: the lie of it, that man parading you around on his arm as if he actually won you, as if he loves you. And everyone here going along with it."
Inara: "These people like me and I like them. I like Atherton too, by the way."
Mal: "Well, sure, what's not to like? I'm liable to sleep with him myself."
Inara: "And he likes me, whether you see it or not."
Mal: "Of course."
Inara: "He's made me an offer. You think he doesn't honor me, but he wants me to live here. I'd be his personal Companion. I could belong here. Call me pretentious, but there is some appeal in that."
Mal: "You're right. Got no call to stop you. You got the right to a decent life."
And then we do see his point -- her client, Atherton, may make a show of respecting her, but because she's a Companion, he is of the opinion that he owns her (and wants to own her full-time, as his personal Companion). We see another reason why Independent (what his side of the war was call) Mal doesn't like the idea of Companions -- it's too easily made slavery, dressed up in a pretty package. And Mal has no respect for people who buy and sell humanity.
Atherton: "She's mine."
Mal: "Yours? She don't belong to nobody."
Atherton: "Money changed hands -- that makes her mine for tonight. And no matter how you dress her up, she's still-"
At this point, Mal punches him, shuts him up. Why is acceptable for Mal to say that Inara is a whore and not Atherton? He explains his reasoning in a later scene. Atherton challenges Mal to a duel (with swords) and Inara has slipped in to help Mal -- first, she wants him to escape, but she relents and tries to help teach him how to handle a sword.
Mal: "Why're you still attached to him?"
Inara: "Because it's my decision, not yours."
Mal: "Thought he made it pretty clear he's got no regard for you."
Inara: "You did manage to push him into saying something, yes. Made a nice justification for the punch."
Mal: "He insulted you. I hit him. Seemed like the thing to do. Why'd this get so complicated?"
Inara: "Well, it's about to get simpler. There's a back door, the desk clerk is on alert. He'll let us out."
Mal: "Woah-ho, I'm not running off. I don't know what you got in your head, but I didn't do this to prove some kinda point to you. I actually thought I was defending your honor, and I never back from a fight."
Inara: "Yes, you do. You do all the time."
Mal: "Well, yeah, but I'm not backing down from this one."
And what Inara doesn't quite realize, because she doesn't see the world the same way, is that this is exactly the kind of fight that Mal doesn't back away from. This is going to an Alliance-friendly bar on Unification Day and getting into a fight because he doesn't think that being on the losing side means he was on the wrong side. This is stealing money from a slavetrader. Returning medicine and saying "no" to a lucrative deal. Mal Reynolds has a very concrete sense of right and wrong, he's just a vastly disillusioned man, a cynical romantic.
Inara: "We're fragile creatures. It takes less than a pound of pressure to cut skin."
Mal: "You know that? They teach you that in whore academy?"
Inara: "You have a strange sense of nobility, Captain. You'll lay a man out for implying I'm a whore, but you keep calling me one to my face."
Mal: "I might not show respect to you job, but he didn't respect you. That's the difference. Inara, he doesn't even see you."
Inara: "I guess death will solve the issue to everyone's satisfaction."
Mal: "This (Chinese swearing) duel is the result of the rules of your society, not mine."
Inara: "You are always breaking the rules, no matter what society you're in. You don't get along with ordinary criminals either… which is why you are constantly getting in trouble."
Mal: "You think following the rules will buy you a nice life, even if the rules make you a slave. Don't take his offer."
Mal: "Don't do it. Just in the case that it happens, it means that he's the fellow who killed me and I don't like fellows who kill me, not in general. I said before that I didn't have call to stop you and that's true. Anyways, don't."
Mal goes to fight the duel. In a moment when all seems lost, Inara calls to Atherton, offers to be his personal Companion if he lets Mal live. It's the first time we see how just deep Inara's feelings for Mal are. Luckily, Mal takes that moment to get an advantage over Atherton, wins and refuses to kill Atherton, though he feels free to take a few free pokes at Atherton with a sword.
Later, on the ship, Mal and Inara have a talk about places people choose to be.
Mal: "Don't care much for fancy parties. Too rough."
Inara: "It wasn't entirely a disaster."
Mal: "I got stabbed, right here."
Inara: "You also lined up exciting new crime."
Mal: "It's good to have cargo. Makes us a target for every other scavenger out there, but that can be fun, too."
Inara: "I am grateful, you know, for the ill-conceived and highhanded attempt to defend my honor, although I didn't want you to."
Mal: "Gracious as that is… as I look back… I probably should've stayed out of your world."
Inara: "My world? If it is that. I wasn't going to stay, you know."
Mal: "Yeah? Why's that?"
Inara: "Someone has to keep Kaylee out of trouble. And all of my things are here. Besides, why would I want to leave Serenity?"
Mal: "Can't think of a reason."
Safe is primarily a Simon and River episode, though we get to see another point of view where Mal and Inara clash -- Inara's first thought to help Book (after Simon is missing), is to go to the Alliance. Mal doesn't even consider the possibility enough to reject it, not even realizing that it is a possibility until Inara mentions it.
Our Mrs. Reynolds, starts out with a moment of fluffy cuteness at the beginning -- Mal and Inara's banter has acquired a softer edge, now that she understands that he does respect her.
The we get to see Inara's side of things -- we see her jealousy and fear and love. Mal says, in the beginning, that the thing that he has in common with Saffron (the woman who claims to be his wife that he married by accident) is that they're the only two people on the ship who don't find the whole thing funny. Even here, it's clear that Inara, too, finds nothing about any of it funny. The expression on her face when she finds out that Mal is 'married' is sick and hurt.
He goes to Inara's shuttle to hide from Saffron, but Inara spends most of the time snapping at him, upset and hurt and unwilling to say exactly why. Something that does shine in this episode is Mal's sense of honor -- Saffron has to work extremely hard to seduce him (showing up naked in his bed and even then she has to talk him into even so much as kissing her, luckily for her, that's all she needed).
After Inara figures out that Saffron is a bit of a rogue Companion who means harm to all of them, she goes to Mal's quarters. When she finds him unconscious on the floor, she runs over to him, clearly devastated, and kisses him deeply before going to call for help (thus getting knocked out by the same lipgloss that laid out Mal). She then spends quite some time insisting that she hit her head. At the end, Mal figures out that some kissing went on somewhere, but either thinks or says that it was between Inara and Saffron. We have found out the depth of Inara's attachment, but Mal has not.
Jaynestown, while primarily a Jayne episode, is also an episode that highlights how far into the circle Inara has come since Serenity -- she independently finds a way to help out the crew (whereas in The Train Job, her participation was prompted by others).
Out of Gas takes us back in time to show us Inara's first meeting with Mal. We see here that she told him in their first meeting that she voted for Unification -- she was on the other side of that war that he failed to win. We also see how attached they are in a simple, longing look, when Inara has to leave Mal behind on the dead and stranded ship.
She's not much involved for most of Ariel and War Stories (though she gets to be appropriately devastated that Mal is hurt), but in Trash, she's not only helping out Mal, she's helping him with his crime. And she gets to be in on the plan from the beginning. This is their most 'together' episode of the series, where they work as a functioning unit for the first time.
The Message is a Mal-focused episode that brings back a soldier who served with him, with Simon and Kaylee's relationship as a major B-plot. In this episode, Mal tries to back away from what Inara helping in Trash meant.
Mal: "Just because you helped out on the job doesn't make you a crook. And I will not have you jeopardizing your career over this."
Inara: "The career you abhor and look down on?"
Mal "I just don't want you in the way of trouble. Take it as you like."
Then, in Heart of Gold Mal sleeps with a woman (not just a woman, but a 'whore') and, despite the fact that Inara sleeps with other people all the time, she can't handle that he's now doing the same. A reversal of the classic situation, where the woman is expected to be pure while the man sleeps around (with the additional complication of her sex being work). And this episode is the one that shows us one reason why the Companions' Guild is a good thing -- because this is how sex workers outside the guild are treated. They have no one to appeal to, while Inara has the Guild and some measure of power.
We also see here that Mal does not have a problem with selling sex, selling a service -- he has, as he told us in Shindig, a problem with the lie of it all. Nandi (head of the whorehouse) doesn't dress up what she does and pretend that it isn't what it is. She's strong and brave and, as Mal says, she's his kind of stupid.
Inara pulls away from him in this episode, even when he tries to reach out to her. She's the one to bring the word 'whore' into the conversation in this episode. Both Inara and Mal hate complications and they really do nothing but complicate each other lives. The hard part is figuring out if the complication is worth it. That's where Inara finds herself stuck. Mal makes her want things that she possibly never planned on wanting, as Nandi tells us that Inara was on her way to the rank of House Priestess before heading off on her own.
When Inara finds out that Mal has slept with Nandi, she congratulates him in public and then cries to herself in an empty room -- she cares too much, something that Nandi realizes when they next see each other. At the end of the episode, Nandi is dead, and Mal is filled with regrets. The two of them have reached a place where they could either move forward or back. Mal steps forward, asks the question. Inara chooses to say no, to leave the ship. Because she doesn't like complication and she doesn't want to be tied to someone, even Mal.
In Objects in Space, Mal and Inara are at an impasse and Inara is planning on leaving Serenity, leaving a clear set-up for the movie. She's gone from not being able to imagine leaving, to needing to leave because she can no longer live caught in the push-pull of her not-quite-relationship with Mal. And we see confirmation of Mal's lost faith -- "None of it means a damn thing."
C. Stories Yet Untold
The reason that I gave Firefly a chance was because I trusted Joss Whedon to make the story more than it sounded like it ever could be. The characters, the relationships, are complex and fascinating and more so with each new glance at the raw material. The first time that I watched Firefly, I had no interest in Mal and Inara -- all my interest was bound up in the pretty doctor and his sister. Then I noticed the first mate and her husband, and fell in love with the reality that glimmered in their kisses and fights. The captain and the mechanic, a family chosen and not born. I noticed Inara, hovering in back, clothed in beauty and mystery, claiming that she was there because of business, while staring longingly at Mal and building up a relationship with Kaylee. Reaching out to the young doctor and the old preacher. Constantly giving of herself -- her body, her clothes, her time.
I blinked, my vision shifted, and I found myself thinking about love stories and rough edges and harsh words. About jealousy and kisses and longing looks. I found myself ever more interested in her story, almost as mysterious as Shepherd Book's.
And once I noticed Inara, Mal/Inara leapt into sharp focus. As seen from Inara's perspective, Mal and Inara is edgy and dangerous and something unwanted and yet desired. Something fascinating.
Fireflight is a review site that's Mal/Inara friendly.
FireflyFans.Net is a more general site that has a fanfic section (the Blue Sun room).
Opaque is a short, angsty piece. Essential is an interesting look at a possible Inara reaction if the two of them did sleep together. Firefly's Glow Archive also has other Mal/Inara stories that you can search for.