Every Main Character On Firefly Ranked Worst To Best

The great Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, "The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long." Most people think Tzu was talking about the importance of conservation and avoiding burnout. He could just as easily have been referring to the beloved sci-fi television show "Firefly," which graced our screens for 14 sublime episodes, briefly returned via the 2005 film "Serenity," and was never heard from again. Some things are simply too pure for this world.

Browncoats everywhere know the best thing about "Firefly" is the characters (fine, Serenity is cool too, but she's practically a character herself). The crew is a group of disparate castoffs, many of them lovable losers of a kind. Yet, they are all wonderfully unique and perfectly cast, bringing the witty and often surprising dialogue to life.

There are no bad "Firefly" characters. If all was right with the Verse, this would be a nine-way tie. However, by their very definition, rankings put somebody first and someone last. That's sort of the rule. So we'll play by such edicts of polite society, but we won't like it. Every one of these characters is No. 1 in our hearts.

9. River Tam

How is it possible that River Tam (Summer Glau) is both "Firefly's" most complicated character and its worst? Blame this dichotomy entirely on the artificially shortened first — and only — season. River never gets time to develop into a great character. She starts unconscious in a crate, progresses to a nearly catatonic sideshow, and mostly stalls out there. She only develops a personality toward the end of "Firefly's" painfully limited run. All of River's best moments come after the show's halfway mark: "fixing" Shepherd Book's (Ron Glass) Bible and hiding from his hair, killing three men by blindly firing a gun, and rescuing the crew from Jubal Early (Richard Brooks) in the final episode. There are plenty of hints along the way about what she could be, most notably her penchant for knowing things, but even those are misinterpreted as the ravings of a mad woman because, well, she's kinda nuts.

River's "unhinged and off-kilter" vibe gives rise to several hilarious moments. River creeping outside the medical ward and telling Jayne, "I can kill you with my brain," is hilarious, if a little disturbing, because it might be true. Between her maniac episodes and general oddness, it can be easy to forget River is still just a girl. We get a glimpse of her innocent sweetness when she sits outside a corral and talks about the cows. "They weren't cows inside. They were waiting to be, but they forgot. Now they see sky and remember what they are."

8. Simon Tam

While River never has the runway to truly take off as a character, her brother, Simon (Sean Maher), has the misfortune of being the lone straight man in a colorfully eccentric cast of characters. He doesn't know how to tell a joke, throw a punch, or shoot a gun, which is a bit of a problem in this line of work. As Shephard Book (Ron Glass) tells a distraught Simon after he believes he shot someone during a raging gunfight, "I was there, son. I'm fair sure you haven't shot anyone yet."

Professionally bland, Simon makes himself useful patching up the crew of Serenity, who get shot and stabbed with such frequency you have to wonder how they got on before there was a doctor on board. The crew eventually infects the good doctor with their general disregard for the law. It's Simon who masterminds a drug heist to smuggle his sister into a hospital for examination. Still, he will never be one of them, not truly. He's part of the crew and afforded all the privileges therein, but Simon will always be isolated due to his upbringing and his regard for life. And that's part of what makes him special. Simon stops during the heist to save a patient's life because he is a good doctor and a better man.

Simon's best moments come when he is forced out of his comfort zone. That's a large part of what makes his relationship with Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite) so appealing. Well, that, and all the awkwardness.

7. Jayne Cobb

There isn't much going on behind Jayne's (Adam Baldwin) eyes. He's crude, ill-mannered, and entirely self-absorbed. His longest relationship is with his gun, Vera. Anyone in Jayne's life is just somebody he hasn't betrayed yet. The Tams are outsiders among Serenity's crew due to their oddness. Jayne is an outsider because nobody trusts him. And that suits him just fine — so long as he gets paid. In the standout episode "Out of Gas," we learn how all the original crew found their way to Serenity. The least surprising revelation is that Jayne had Mal (Nathan Fillion) at the end of a gun but changed allegiance once Mal offered a better deal. Part of that was Mal's quick wit, but it wouldn't have worked if Jayne wasn't so reliably greedy.

It would be easy to make Jayne a one-note thug, somebody "only in it for the money," but the show's development of Jayne is another reason "Firefly" is so beloved. When we first meet him, Jayne is unquestionably a bad guy. He is borderline mutinous, and he later betrays the Tams. Yet, even the betrayal became a moment of great character development, eventually turning Jayne into a full-fledged member of the crew. On top of all that, many of "Firefly's" best moments belong to Jayne (his "cunning" hat and the absurd hilarity of "Jaynestown"). He's also quite quotable, though not on the level of Mal or Wash (Alan Tudyk). Nevertheless, he's surprisingly good for someone a bit dim-witted. "Time for some thrilling heroics."

6. Inara Serra

Although she would rightly take umbrage with the off-color label, at first glance Inara (Morena Baccarin) seems to fulfill the "hooker with a heart of gold" archetype that is a staple of many Westerns. However, that is a clumsy caricature at best that belittles Inara and demeans the women like her. One of the best bits of world-building introduced by "Firefly" is the role of Companions, which took the seedy and usually unsanitary women that worked frontier brothels and granted them a level of respectability and prestige not enjoyed by anyone else in the Verse. Inara used this clout to aid the crew of Serenity several times, but that was not the reason Mal appreciated her most.

The will-they-won't-they dynamic between Inara and Mal is one of the show's longest-running subplots, a source of much angst and anticipation for fans, especially since "Firefly" ends just as things are coming to a head. Inara is the perfect foil for Captain Reynolds. She's sophisticated and intelligent with a razor-edged wit equal to his own. As a Companion, she knows that Mal wants to be with her, and though she also wants that, she resists seducing or otherwise manipulating him to get it. Unfortunately, she seems determined to let him make the first move, and we just didn't have enough episodes for that to happen. Like Simon, Inara remains somewhat at arm's length from the rest of the crew, which pushes her a bit lower on this list.

5. Shephard Book

There are plenty of hints along the way about who Shepherd Book really is. His backstory is explored in some detail in a standalone graphic novel, but the tidbits we get from "Firefly" are more than enough to understand who he is without ruining the wonderful mystery of the religious man with an intimate knowledge of combat. 

At one point, Book was someone of influence within the Alliance. When the crew takes a mortally wounded Book to the Alliance for help, all it takes is Book flashing his ID. Clearly, Book wasn't teaching Sunday school. He displays a firsthand knowledge of weapons and tactics, and while he may not be about that life any longer, his instincts are finely honed. He knows almost before anyone else when something is about to go down. Book is only the second most dangerous person on Serenity (scroll down for numero uno) because of his reluctance to take lives. Kneecaps are fair game though. 

One of the most interesting things about Book's role in "Firefly" is the juxtaposition of a clergyman in a den of sin. He doesn't partake in any illicit activities, but he isn't above the rest of the crew either. He doesn't condone their actions, and he doesn't condemn them. Book is content to be a person of integrity and a steady hand. He wants to be a good influence. The fact that nobody seems to be picking up what he's putting down doesn't diminish his efforts.

4. Hoban 'Wash' Washburne

Wash is probably the hardest character to rank. He's second only to Kaylee in terms of lovability, and he's hands down the single funniest character in a cast of ringers. He's also sort of a doofus. The first time we see Wash, he's playing with dinosaur toys. That scene gives us the all-time great line, "Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal," but it's still a bit silly. That's Wash in a nutshell: charmingly irreverent and also a bit useless at anything that doesn't involve flying a spaceship. Behind the controls, he's "a leaf on the wind." Otherwise, the best he can usually offer are wry observations and witty commentary. Usually.

Similar to Jayne, Wash could've been a one-note character, there for quick laughs and not much else, but again, this is why "Firefly" is so cherished. Wash desires more than just being the funny-but-harmless sidekick because real people don't like being pigeonholed. In the episode "War Stories," Wash insists on accompanying Mal on a dangerous mission instead of his wife Zoe (Gina Torres), partly out of latent jealousy about Mal and Zoe's relationship and partly to prove that he is a man — hear him roar. Things don't go as planned, leading to Mal and Wash being tortured. While Zoe eventually rescues her husband, Wash insists on loading up on guns and heading right back to get Mal. He's completely out of his element, but that's what makes him stand out.

3. Zoe Washburne

On a ship with criminals and killers (love them all, but Serenity's crew can be a rough bunch, with some obvious exceptions), Zoe is the baddest of them all. Stoic and even-tempered, Zoe is mostly content to follow Mal's lead and let her sawed-off shotgun do the talking. While she is a loyal number two, Zoe Washburne is no yes-man (or woman). It just happens that Mal does a good job making the most out of bad situations. Zoe trusts him implicitly after serving with him in the war and as his first mate on Serenity, but if Mal made a bad decision, Zoe would be the first to call him on it. She'd just probably do it behind closed doors as a sign of respect. Then again, when Mal found himself engaged to Saffron (Christina Hendricks), Zoe called everyone to the cargo bay to poke fun at the captain. 

Zoe's no-nonsense attitude is in direct contrast to the sort of shenanigans the crew typically finds itself in, but maybe she likes being the calm in the storm — she did choose to marry Wash after all. It is in that pairing that Zoe reveals who she is underneath her tough exterior. She is a fiercely passionate woman, expressive in a way she can't be with anyone else. Zoe also has a wicked sense of humor and is more than capable of going joke-for-joke with her zany husband. Ah, wacky fun!

2. Kaylee Frye

Kaylee is pure joy. There is something so endearing about Serenity's mechanic that's made all the more precious because she has grease smeared on her cheeks. She's the little sister, cute and seemingly innocent but secretly mischievous. Part of her charm is her wide-eyed, gee-whiz attitude about practically everything. Her enthusiasm is simply infectious. As she notes when visiting a brothel, "They've got boy whores. Isn't that thoughtful?" Although she seems innocent, that's more a sheen of inexperience. After all, this is the girl who slept with Mal's first mechanic just to get a closer look at Serenity's engine and then stole his job outright. 

When it comes to machines, Kaylee is a prodigy. She's the finest mechanic in the Verse. It's people that give her fits. Most of that angst is directed toward Simon, but we can see it in little moments, too. When Kaylee attends a ball in the episode "Shindig," she doesn't immediately realize the society women are making fun of her off-the-rack dress. She just thought they were real friendly-like. Watching the light slowly fade from her eyes invokes a visceral reaction. Nobody puts Kaylee in the corner.

Mal is Serenity's captain and probably the closest thing to its brain (which explains a lot, come to think of it), but Kaylee is its heart. She is the glue that holds the whole thing together and the binding that turns a group of strangers into a family.

1. Malcolm Mal Reynolds

It seems clear that Malcolm Reynolds began as a Han Solo clone. They both have a certain roguish charm and are entirely at ease operating on the wrong side of the law. Both men wear guns slung low on their hips and embrace a ready-fire-aim mentality. They even look and dress similarly. Oh, and they fly under-appreciated freighters that are more hunk than junk. Mal may have started out reminiscent of Han, but by the end of "Firefly," he escaped Han's shadow and even eclipsed the iconic character in some ways. 

There is no "Firefly" without Mal. He is the rickety engine that makes it all go. He's often ill-tempered and uneven in the treatment of his crew. Parents may not have favorites, but it's clear that Mal does. Even when he's short with Simon or Jayne, his harsh reactions (mostly) come from a place of love. They are his crew, and that means more to Mal than just about anything. It's a non-negotiable fact of life. He may not like someone, but he'll stand by them if they are one of his — whatever may come. 

Mal is also endlessly quotable. His screen-time-to-great-lines ratio is second only to that of Wash. It's a lot easier to like a character when they make you laugh, even if they are a jerk sometimes, or as Mal said when he had someone at sword point, "Mercy is the mark of a great man." Stab. "I guess I'm just a good man." Stab. "Well, I'm alright."