The Best Mal Reynolds Moments In Firefly And Serenity, Ranked

"Firefly" premiered on Fox in 2002 and soared for 11 glorious episodes before crashing and burning due to network meddling and gross ineptitude. Three unaired episodes were included on the subsequent DVD release, bringing the final episode tally to 14. The series was briefly resurrected with the 2005 film "Serenity," which concluded the narrative in a satisfying enough fashion. For diehard Browncoats — the moniker super fans have given themselves — the series has an outsized hold on our hearts despite its criminally shortened lifespan. As the theme song says: "You can't take the sky from me (us)."

Though "Firefly" is an ensemble, Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) is the protagonist and its best character. He is the catalyst for most of the dire situations the group finds itself in, but his heart is in the right place. For Mal, life is simple: Find a job, see to your crew, and keep flying. He is often crass and sometimes mean-spirited, occasionally sentimental, and always quick-witted. You'd be hard-pressed to find a steadier hand in times of trouble, or a more loyal ally when your back is against the wall. Mal has a ton of memorable quotes, exciting scenes, and rousing moments — these are the best.

13. Mal kicks Crow into Serenity's engine

In "The Train Job" — the first episode that aired but the second episode in chronological order (thanks Fox) — Mal and the crew take a job from Adelai Niska (Michael Fairman), a crime boss with an Eastern European accent who is a hobbyist torturer. The job involves a delicate heist from a moving train. Niska takes pains to demonstrate that double-crossing him is a no-no. To drive home that point, Crow (Andrew Bryniarski), the number one sadist on Niska's payroll, opens a sliding door to reveal a dead man hanging upside-down by his feet. It's Niska's nephew, by marriage (as if that makes it okay).

Mal tries to return the money once he sees who they're stealing from. Crow isn't having it — he promises painful vengeance. What ensues next is textbook "Firefly," a special blend of highly comedic action, and the reason the show is so beloved.

For a brief moment, Mal looks disappointed, then he abruptly kicks Crow into one of Serenity's turbine engines. The big man is instantly pulverized. Without skipping a beat, Crow's number two is pushed to his knees and Mal starts giving him the exact same speech. The goon interrupts, enthusiastically accepting, and agreeing it's best for everyone. The whole scene takes less than a minute (landing it at the bottom), but is a great microcosm for the show as a whole: witty exchanges, abrupt reversals in fortune, and a casual disregard for violence. And, in a word — hilarious.  

12. Mal naked in the desert

You have to wonder about Mal's decision to do business with Saffron (Christina Hendricks) after she tries to kill him and the entire crew as part of her plot to steal Serenity. Mal is many things, but unless Inara (Monica Baccarin) is involved, he's not a fool. He couldn't be dumb enough to fall prey to her twice, could he? The framing of Episode 11 — the aptly named "Trash" — plays into this bewilderment, beginning with a very naked and aggrieved Mal sitting on a rock in the desert. It's clear something went not according to plan. And then we shortly get the who: Saffron is back.

Hard up for a decent score, Mal goes against his better judgment — and everyone's counsel — to partner up with Saffron on a heist. From that point on, there's no question that Saffron will betray the crew. It's just a matter of when, and if the crew has already anticipated her moves. There is a bit of back and forth as one side and then the other gets the upper hand, but in the end, Mal ends up staring down the barrel of his own gun. Saffron strands him in the desert on her way to pick up the treasure, but not before ordering him to disrobe.

It seems a disastrous turn, but Inara beats Saffron to the punch. She returns to collect a very happy Mal, who thinks nothing of his nakedness and flaunts it for all to see. It is a memorable (and cheeky?) end of the Saffron story arc. Still, there are other episodes that stand out even more.

11. Mal gets married

"Our Mrs. Reynolds" is one of the weaker episodes, but it manages something no other storyline does: it makes Mal the rare butt of the joke. The typical "Firefly" formula has Mal dishing witty non sequiturs and casually besmirching the character of those he encounters. But this episode flips the script, as Mal stumbles into accidental matrimony. As they say, shenanigans ensue.

First, there's the crew ribbing Mal about the ordeal. Wash (Alan Tudyk) gets in a few choice lines: "We always hoped you two kids would get together. Who is she?" Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) is a bit more fire and brimstone with his commentary. "If you take sexual advantage of her, you're going to burn in a very special level of hell. A level they reserve for child molesters and people who talk at the theater." Seeing a flustered and confused Mal left squirming is a rare delight.

And then there's Mrs. Reynolds herself, the alluring Saffron, who plays the babe in the woods oh-so-capably. She alternates between the shy country bumpkin and the woman that wants to shag, Austin Powers style. That it's all just a clever ruse doesn't diminish the sheer hilarity of the situation.

10. Mal locking Jayne in the outer bay

Entering our top 10 moments, Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin) has been looking for an advantageous opportunity to betray the Tams since he first met them, and he finally finds what he's looking for in Episode 9, "Ariel." The crew executes a heist within a heist by smuggling the Tams into a hospital so that Simon (Sean Maher) can run a brain scan on his sister before robbing the place of its valuable medicines while they're in the neighborhood. The job leaves Jayne alone with the siblings, and he predictably takes advantage by calling the Alliance.

The one thing you can trust in the 'Verse is that you can't trust the Alliance. Jayne is arrested along with the Tams. They manage to escape, but Mal knows who's to blame. He locks Jayne in an outer airlock and cracks the door while the ship is in flight. That's enough to coerce Jayne to confess, but it doesn't assuage Mal's rage. "You turn on any of my crew, you turn on me." And he starts walking away!

Though Mal seems to take Jayne's betrayal personally, it's actually the fact that Jayne endangered the crew that so angers Mal. Though he's quite comfortable with violence, Mal isn't a killer; until you threaten those under his care, then the guns come out. Jayne finally shows concern for others when he asks Mal to lie about why he's dead. That's enough for Mal to stay his hand. He didn't want to kill Jayne, but he would if that's what it took to keep everyone safe.

9. By my pretty little bonnet

The episode "Our Mrs. Reynolds" includes one of the show's most memorable opening scenes. A group of armed men on horseback hijacks a stagecoach, bringing it to a stop. Jayne is driving the wagon, and he sits beside a woman in a bonnet straight out of "Little House on the Prairie." The lead bandit demands everything on the wagon, and maybe a little private time with the missus. Jayne remarks that he might want to reconsider that last part: "I married me a powerful ugly creature."

The woman lifts her head, and we discover it's actually Mal in drag! "How can you shame me in front of new people?" Jayne and Mal banter before drawing their guns. Mal tells the bandits, "if your hand touches metal, I swear, by my pretty floral bonnet, I will end you." 

This scene doesn't make any sweeping statements about Mal's character or force him to make a tough choice. It doesn't even include some of his best dialogue (though, in true "Firefly" fashion, the dialogue is still pretty great). It is such a memorable and fun scene, no such list of Mal's best moments would be complete without it. And there's more where that came from.

8. Mal's quick draw reaction

Though the similarities between Mal and Han Solo are obvious, they are mostly surface-level and archetypical. But there is one place where both men agree: shoot first. There are several instances where Mal draws and fires almost instinctually, as easily as some men breathe. At such times, he's a gunslinger in the Western mold. The best such instance comes during the film "Serenity."

An Alliance fixer named the Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is dispatched to locate the Tam siblings. He's a casual psychopath but also a true badass. The film takes great pains to establish that this is not a guy to cross lightly, which makes his first encounter with Mal so sweet.

The Operative captures Inara in order to draw Mal in. It's a trap. Mal knows it and walks into it anyway, in part because it's Inara, but also because he likes being the contrary. The Operative greets Mal with polite gentility, saying, "I want to resolve this like civilized men." And, as a token of his intentions, he admits he is unarmed. Mal quick-draws his gun and shoots the Operative square in the chest, sending him flying out of his chair. The move is so sudden and unexpected, it takes our breath away, precisely because we know the Operative is one bad dude. But what we admire most is Mal's chutzpah; he's a big damn hero.

7. Mal rescues the Tams

Mal's relationship with the fugitive Tams starts out rather rocky — probably because they are fugitives drawing a bullseye on his ship — and never really progresses beyond barely-contained enmity. Mal is glad enough to have a doctor on the ship when someone inevitably gets shot, but for the most part, he'd be happier without the Tams on his boat.

It seems like the Tams getting kidnapped would be a ready-made solution to his problem. It'd be easy to just fly off into the dark of space, forgetting all about them. In fact, it's what Simon expects Mal would do. He is genuinely surprised when Mal returns to rescue them from the space hillbillies. "Captain, why did you come back for us? You don't even like me." Mal's response is simple but evocative: "You're on my crew." Mal's personal feelings don't come into the equation. The Tams are part of the crew, and that's the only thing that matters.

To Mal, the crew is no different than family. They look after each other in the same way. As the Captain, he is the patriarch. He holds to that in a very Biblical sense, keeping himself at arm's length from most of the crew. He's harsh when he needs to be but it comes from a place of love, and a deep desire to keep the ship and its crew safe. Even if he personally dislikes someone, like Simon.

6. Mal bribes Jayne into joining Serenity

Mal has several moments of pure and utter hilarity. He's witty to a fault and his dialogue often belittles the dire situation the crew is in, such as this ringer while the ship is in-flight: "This is the captain, we have a little problem with our entry sequence, so we may experience some slight turbulence, and then ... explode." Lines like that are part of the reason Mal is so beloved.

One of his best moments comes in the episode "Out of Gas," which explores how everyone found their way to Serenity. Surprising nobody, Jayne originally came to the ship as someone looking to steal from it. He and his crew have Mal and Zoe (Gina Torres) at literal gunpoint. In the ensuing exchange, Mal offers pointers to improve Jayne's technique. "Offering to shoot us might not work so well as an incentive, as you might imagine."

Then Mal turns the tables, asking Jayne what his cut of the job is, and then openly mocking Jayne's suggestion that "seven percent is standard." Mal offers Jayne a deal he can't refuse: a bigger cut, his own room, and full access to the kitchen. It's a fun bit of ad-libbed ingenuity, but it also showcases Mal's shrewd instincts. He both appreciated Jayne's ability as a tracker and recognized that they might be able to easily turn the tables with a bit of careful diplomacy.

5. Mal keeps Wash alive

Episode 10, titled "War Stories," is somewhat of a departure from the show's usual brand of comedic action hijinks. Tired of feeling overshadowed by Mal — and like a third wheel in his marriage — Wash puffs out his chest and muscles his way into accompanying Mal on a supply drop, instead of Zoe. The drop is ambushed by Niska's goons, and Mal and Wash are taken to the crime lord's lair. Then the torture commences. 

Wash isn't accustomed to such rough treatment and begins to fade. Tied up, there isn't much Mal can do to rouse him, so he begins provoking Wash to anger. He plays into Wash's insecurities, reminding him that he and Zoe have been together a long time. He also remarks that she is a good-looking woman. "First thing, we get back — I'm taking your wife into my bed." The ruse works. Wash clings to life long enough for the cavalry to arrive. It's a deft bit of reverse psychology and illustrates that Mal instinctually understands what makes everyone on the crew tick. 

Additionally, as is typical in "Firefly," the moment is eventually turned into a great joke. Once safely back on Serenity, Mal and Zoe discuss sleeping together in the most passionless terms imaginable while Wash looks on and grows increasingly horrified.

4. The duel

In Facebook terms, Mal and Inara's relationship is "complicated." Even though there is obvious attraction and chemistry between the two, they both live in a state of perpetual denial, mostly because Mal is rather clueless. There's also his casual (and often hurtful) dismissal of Inara's chosen profession. This all comes to a head in "Shindig," which sees Mal attend a high society ball in order to make contact with a potential client. It's a fish-out-of-water scenario, and it's fun seeing Mal so out of sorts. 

Things escalate when Atherton Wing (Edward Atterton) gets a bit too possessive of Inara. Mal responds in typical fashion by punching Atherton in the mouth. Nursing his bruised lip on the floor, the socialite looks almost happy. Mal has inadvertently thrown down a gauntlet, which Atherton, a renowned swordsman, is only too happy to accept. The duel will be to the death.

Mal is quickly bested and is driven to his knees. Inara begins to beg for Mal's life, distracting Atherton long enough for Mal to get the drop on him and bring a sword to his throat. Atherton's life is forfeit; society holds that he must die. Mal refuses to bow to convention, deciding instead to be merciful, in part because it would shame Atherton. His dialogue as he shares his decision is peak Mal: "Mercy is the mark of a great man." He then stabs Atherton. "I guess I'm just a good man." Stab, again. "Well, I'm alright." It's perhaps the best distillation of who Mal is, and is hilarious to boot.

3. Mal returns the medicine

As we touched on already, the heist in the episode "The Train Job" involves the crew stealing something for Niska, a sadistic crime lord. That something turns out to be medicine. When the job goes somewhat awry, Mal and Zoe are left stranded on the train and are forced to blend in with the locals. This gives both of them a first-person view of the slow-moving tragedy consuming the town. The locals are afflicted with a disease known as Bowden's malady, a degenerative condition that affects the bone and muscles. It's a byproduct of terraforming. The only known cure is a drug called Pescaline D, which Mal and his crew just successfully stole.

Mal eventually gets off scot-free but elects to return the medicine to the town. He runs into the sheriff before he can do so quietly. The sheriff remarks, "A man learns all the details of a situation like ours, well, then he has a choice." Mal responds simply: "I don't believe he does." Mal may be a thief — in fact, stealing seems to be his most reliable way of making money — but he is a man of principle. He's a gentleman thief, like a sci-fi Robin Hood, and he won't put his own needs above those who are truly hurting. This trait goes a long way toward getting us to root for him despite the unsavory routes he travels.

2. Mal sees Serenity for the first time

There is a love story at the heart of "Firefly" that makes everything else work. We're not talking about Mal and Inara, Zoe and Wash, or even Jayne and Vera. This is about Mal's love affair with Serenity, the ship. Throughout the narrative, we get ample examples of Mal's affinity for his ship. It's the same pride Han Solo has for the Millennium Falcon, though Captain Solo is often a bit rougher with his affections. Mal treats his ship like a lady — kindly, with respect, and with genuine love.

The standout episode "Out of Gas" is essentially a love letter to Serenity, told by its captain. After a deadly explosion strands the ship in deep space, Mal sends the crew off in lifeboats. He remains behind, not so much as a heroic captain going down with the ship, but so that he might save her. The episode is inner-cut with flashbacks showing how the crew found their way to the ship. But the best scene belongs to Mal as he tours Serenity with Zoe. "Ship like this, be with ya 'til the day you die." 

The ship will be a way to carve out his own life among the stars, where he doesn't have to answer to anyone but those under his care. Serenity was always more than just a ship, though. It's a home. Displaced by war, Mal wants a place he can call his own, full of the people he cares about. A place of laughter and love. With Serenity, he finally gets that.

1. Mal and River on the bridge

Amid all the witty banter and set pieces, "Firefly" has several moments of quiet beauty, most notably when it waxes poetic about the romance of space travel, the importance of crew, and the sanctity of the ship. No such moment is more moving than the epilogue of the film "Serenity" — and the overall series send-off — which ties all three motifs together and earns the top spot on the list.

The ship is in need of a new pilot, but it's still a surprise when we find River (Summer Glau) sitting at the controls. Mal asks her if she knows what the first rule of flying is, and then acknowledges that she already knows what he's going to say (because of her whole mind-reading thing). River wants to hear him say it anyway and then curls up like she's about to enjoy a good book.

Mal fiddles with controls for a moment, almost like he's steadying himself, and then he starts talking. "You can learn all the math in the 'verse, but you 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 you she's hurting 'fore she keens. Makes her a home." Mal's monologue is both a statement of the show's ethos and a moving sendoff. There's a reason the film is named after the ship, and the show is named after the ship's classification. More than anything, "Firefly" is about how this rickety ship ties all these strangers together into something like a family. It's something that Mal alone seems to understand, and it's the reason he fights so hard to keep flying.