Firefly: A Freudian and Jungian Analysis
Joss Whedon’s Firefly 1 has captured the hearts of many viewers, despite its length of one lonely season. It has all of the trappings of a lovable science fiction drama, which outfits a stellar cast as they brave the new frontier at the edge of the solar system, dodging the law and other dangers at every turn. While the sets and special effects of the show are not particularly awe inspiring, the characters are so thoroughly developed that the audience is immediately drawn into their fantastical world. Whedon has been known to incorporate psychological themes in his characters and story lines. Though he has not publicly discussed using psychological personality traits from psychologists such as Freud or Jung, the writing suggests he at least subconsciously had these ideas in mind. While the characters can stand apart from each other, Firefly is a wonderful show because their dynamic interaction with each other makes them lovable. When the audience can see a part of themselves (albeit exaggerated) in each of the characters, they can begin to understand themselves in a different way. From a Freudian or Jungian standpoint, this can give the audience deep insight into the nature of their own personality.
The first episode of the series, “Serenity,” begins with a flashback of the battle of Serenity Valley from the perspective of Malcolm Reynolds, and depicts his sorrow when he discovers that the resistance against the Alliance has failed and everything he fought for was lost. The show follows Mal and his crew aboard Mal’s ship, Serenity — named after that final battle — as they scavenge the outskirts of the universe for scraps, earning feeble pay for dangerous and illegal “jobs” (like transporting illegal cargo) for various clients. Their crew sports a diverse group of characters featuring Zoey, Mal’s friend from his army days; Wash, Zoey’s husband and the crew’s pilot; Kaylee, the adorable mechanic; and Jayne, an ex-thug whose love for guns and explosions is a running joke throughout the show. Even though the war is over, Mal still fights the alliance whenever he gets the chance.
In need of extra money and a guise for their illegal transporting, Serenity docks at one of the outer rim planets where they accrue an unlikely array of passengers. They pick up a Shepherd (an unexplained religious figure), an undercover federal agent, and a doctor who is secretly helping his fugitive sister run from the Alliance. After a slight altercation, which results in a not-so-happy outcome for the federal agent, Mal finds himself at odds with his simple “do work, get paid” strategy and this higher calling to protect his fugitive crew member. He is torn between his rage against the Alliance and his moral duty to help others. This rage comes to a climax at the end of the series when Mal discovers the connection between the evil of the Alliance and the terrible Reavers (men gone mad at the edge of the universe), who plague the people living on the outer rim. In the end, Mal sacrifices everything to expose the cover-up of the Alliance’s involvement in creating the Reavers.
The Ego and Superego
The writing of this show has many layers of meaning which can be analyzed from a Freudian perspective. As the captain of the crew, Mal represents the Ego. He is constantly torn between Thanatos (rage) impulses (from within and without himself) and that of the higher needs of the crew. The Shepherd represents the superego, as he often voices the needs of the crew in an attempt to make sure Mal has his morals straight. In “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” the crew finds a stowaway woman on the Serenity only to find out that Mal, during his drunken partying with the village the night before, accidentally participated in a wedding ceremony with the woman. The preacher bluntly reminds Mal not to take advantage of her, warning him that if he does, he will burn in the special place in hell that is also reserved for “child molesters and people who talk at the theater.”
While Mal serves his moral callings, through his duty to the crew and his aid for the Doctor and his sister, he also serves the Id which is represented by his rage against the Alliance. He gets in fights with the Alliance and has no pity for those who work for the government or their supposed ideal for peace. While Mal often fights his underlying rage within himself, the true icon of the Id in the Whedon universe is the Reaver.
During the episode “Serenity,” the crew discovers to their horror that a Reaver ship is approaching. They watch in desperation as a ship with red war paint and dead bodies chained to the outside passes slowly by. Zoey explains to the newer members of the crew just how horrible the Reavers are. She calmly describes their method of killing their victims when she says “If they take the ship, they’ll rape us to death, eat our flesh, and sew our skins into their clothing. And, if we’re very lucky, they’ll do it in that order.”
The Reavers embody the idea of the Id, which Freud described as untampered libido and Thanatos. This kind of horror has to be contained, otherwise it could wreak all sorts of terrors on society. Reavers are the most feared enemy of the galaxy, striking terror in the hearts of even the Alliance army. It is not until the very end of the series, when Mal and his crew discover the true origins of the Reavers, that his conflict with the Alliance is finally resolved. Though Freud is content to simply say that the Id is inherent and not directly accessible, the season finale takes the Id (or the Reavers) a step further, symbolically showing how an inquiry into the origins of rage can resolve conflict and restore peace.
From Freud to Jung
Freud’s philosophy of personality is fairly limited to general provinces of the mind and stages of development that leave most readers uncomfortable due to their sexual nature. Jung, a former friend of Freud, takes off where Freud stops in his theory of personality. Jung’s additions to Freud’s theories cost him his status as Freud’s “successor”, and the two eventually parted ways. Jung believed that there was more to the unconscious than what Freud posited. He took the idea a step further when he introduced his idea of the “collective unconscious.” According to Jung, it was this unconscious through which ideas from our ancestry are transferred. This collective unconscious is his explanation for universal themes such as “God” or “mother.” It is also where Jung argues a part of our personality come from, which he terms “archetypes.”
Jung believed that a personal experience corresponding with a latent primordial image “activates” an archetype. Jung’s philosophy at first glance seems more akin to Asian mythology than a respectable theory. However, new information from the field of physics suggests that Jung’s archetypes might pose a valuable connection for the “Cartesian split” between body and mind 2. While Jung argues that there could be any number of archetypes that manifest, there are a select few that are extremely common. Whedon’s Firefly characters conveniently portray the characteristics of these common archetypes.
The Persona vs The Self
In “Serenity,” episode one, we are introduced to Simon’s character. He is stoic and wears expensive clothing that sets him apart from the dusty, dirty bystanders that crowd the streets in front of the docked ship.The doctor represents what Jung would call the “persona” which is the outward face we display to the world. We put on a persona for various reasons. For the doctor, it was important to appear reserved so as not to draw dangerous attention to himself. To the crew, he appeared aloof and distant, but inside he was afraid. Throughout the series, he constantly puts on this front as he attempts to shield his sister’s mental condition from those around him so as to avoid suspicion.
The other archetypes are more authentic, and Jung would argue innate in everyone to some degree. Kaylee’s character represents the “self.” This is your true and authentic self as it naturally moves towards growth and perfection, without the adornments of a persona. In “Shindig,” Kaylee accompanies Mal when they go to a fancy ball to discuss a deal with a client. She attempts to fit in with the other ladies at the dance, only to be ridiculed for her “store bought dress.” Mal later finds her sitting with a group of young men, happily chatting with them about the proper models of spaceship parts one should use. She is perfectly content to simply “be herself.” Jung describes how the “self” draws upon all of the other archetypes for strength, thus making it the most authentic personality type. Unsurprisingly, this is why Kaylee is one of the most popular figures of the series.
The Animus and Anima
Jung introduces the archetypes of Animus and Anima, which Zoey and Wash’s relationship exemplifies. The Animus is the masculine archetype in women while the Anima is the feminine archetype in men. Zoey and Wash defy gender stereotypes, with Zoey being the rational and tough leader (a role usually given to a male character) and Wash being the emotional supportive character.
Wash tries to reverse this dynamic in the episode “War Stories” by having Zoey stay behind and accompanying Mal in her place for a dangerous mission. After things go south, Zoey resumes her role as the calm and strong character in order to rescue Wash and Mal from the clutches of the crime lord, Niska. Even though we might not like his adherence to cultural stereotypes, Jung points out that there can be feminine and masculine characteristics in anyone. Wash fought his role because he felt emasculated, but this fight against his own nature only put Mal and himself in danger. At the end of the episode, Zoey is seen cooking dinner for a wounded Wash and all is right again. Both characters accept that they can have masculine and feminine characteristics without jeopardizing their love for each other.
The Great Mother and Wise Old Man
Jung presents two archetypes “Great Mother” and “Wise Old Man” that could also be present in any person, man or woman. Shepherd Book represents the Wise Old Man, with his sage wisdom that appeals both to reason and emotion. When Kaylee sat outside Serenity recruiting passengers for their next flight in episode one, she noticed he was spending more time looking at the ships than their destinations. When she asks him why he doesn’t care where they are going, he says “Because how you get there is the worthier part.” Inara represents the counter archetype, the “Great Mother.” She is a “Companion” or as Mal says to Shepherd Book in “Serentiy,” “she’s a whore, preacher.” The clash between the Id of Inara’s line of work and the Superego of the preacher’s profession makes Mal uncomfortable as he stands between them at their first meeting, and he confronts the Shepherd about this asking, “this isn’t going to be a problem for you, is it?” before the Shepherd even has a chance to say anything.
Though Mal is at first hostile towards Inara, we later learn that he has deep feelings for her. The Great Mother is characterized by Jung as fertile and nurturing. The opposite side also lies in the Great Mother, as she has the potential to destroy as well. On par with her representation of the Great Mother, Inara holds Mal’s heart in the palm of her hand, thus having the power to nurture or destroy him.
The Shadow and the Hero
Jayne represents the shadow, which Jung defines as the undesirable qualities we possess but do not want to face. While Jayne has that tough yet endearing (and at times even innocent) personality, he also portrays the bane and crude thoughts or desires that many individuals have but would not admit to. Unlike the other characters, there is no filter to his flaws, causing his crude behavior to be unavoidable. He even betrays his friends at one point, which Mal confronts with mercy. Jung argues that we should come to know our own shadow, and that it is our “first test of courage.” It is possible that Mal saw a part of himself in Jayne when he confronted him of his betrayal, which caused Mal to act with compassion through allowing Jayne to remain with the crew.
Mal, of course, is the Hero archetype. For Jung, the Hero is a powerful person who also has a “tragic flaw.” Even though Mal is no longer a soldier, he keeps his dignity through his unwavering insistence for decency. When the doctor asks Mal in episode one how he could know Mal would not kill him in his sleep after what happened, he replies “You don’t know me, son, so I’ll say this once. If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake. You’ll be facing me, and you’ll be armed.” Other characters who do know Mal see this heroic side of him. While discussing a deal with “Badger,” a criminal they were working with on the planet Persephone, Badger tries to insult Mal when he says, “What were you in the war? That big war you failed to win. You were a sergeant, yea? Sergeant Malcolm Reynolds. Balls and bayonets brigade. Big, tough veteran. Now you got yourself a ship and you’re a captain. Only I think you’re still a sergeant, see. Still a soldier. Man of honor in a den of thieves.”
Jung’s Hero archetype always has some sort of flaw or weakness, which for Mal is represented by River, the doctor’s sister. She is the innocence of the world that Mal always strives to protect. Even though there are times when Mal becomes terrified by River’s psychotic outbursts due to her previous torture at the hands of the government, he always does his best to protect her at the expense of risking the entire crew to exposure. River’s escape caused panic in the government, who feared she would expose their closely held secrets. Their hunt for her poses a constant threat to the Serenity crew.
Despite all of the dangers and terrors of deep space the crew faces, they have each other. In a conversation between Inara and Simon in the episode “Serentiy,” she tells him “You’re lost in the woods. We all are. Even the captain (Mal). The only difference is he likes it that way.” Mal walks into the room and interjects “No, the only difference is the woods are the only place I can see a clear path.” It is the joys as well as the sorrows that bring out the best and worst personalities of these characters. In Mal’s case, he finds himself in the heat of the struggle. Jung and Freud would argue that if we look closely enough at these characters, we will find a part of ourselves in each of them. While we are not in a western space odyssey, we all have our own trials and challenges.
Freud and Jung were skeptical as to the effectiveness of self-analysis, but Freud’s “Id” and Jung’s “self” can be used to give deep insight into the nature of one’s own psyche 3. Through an analysis of and connection to the characters of Firefly, we can also begin this journey of self-discovery. The question then becomes one of personality, and an inquiry into the origins of our self and our traits or behaviors. The characters of Firefly often attempted yet failed to ignore these questions. We can learn from their mistakes and begin to analyze our own personalities through an examination of theirs.
- Whedon, J. (Creator/Producer). (2002). Firefly. US: 20th Century Fox Television. ↩
- Stevens, A. (1995). Jungian psychology, the body, and the future. The Journal of Analytical Psychology, 40(3), 353-364. ↩
- Plaut, A. J. (2005). 2. Freud’s ‘id’ and Jung’s ‘self’ as aids in self-analysis. The Journal of Analytical Psychology, 50(1), 69-82. ↩
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