I Swear By My Pretty Floral Bonnet
At first glance, the episode “Our Mrs. Reynolds” only nods toward western motifs, with the teaser containing the only explicitly western elements. A gang of desperadoes on horseback surrounds a wagon (or, in this case, barge) pulled by a team of horses as it crosses a stream—a familiar enough western moment. The couple on the barge turns out to be Jayne and Mal (the latter in a cotton dress and wearing a “pretty floral bonnet”), who get the drop on the outlaws, and Mal gets the opportunity to deliver a speech that is both a good example of the kind of tough-guy colloquial posturing that always seems to precede a shootout and a parody of the same:
“Now think real hard. You been bird-dogging this township awhile now. They wouldn’t mind a corpse of you. Now you could luxuriate in a nice jail cell. But if your hand touches metal, I swear by my pretty floral bonnet, I will end you.”
Distracted by the indeed pretty (if extraordinarily large) floral bonnet, the desperadoes don’t realize that Zoe is backing Mal’s play, and the shootout indeed ensues, with the end result a bunch of dead desperadoes.
At this point, the western seems to end, as we change locations back to the township, where the grateful settlers dance and celebrate, and we are soon back on Serenity and remain on the ship for the rest of the episode.
However, things are not as they seem, either in terms of genre or the episode’s plot. As Serenity heads out of orbit, Mal discovers an extra passenger, Saffron, who tells him, “Mr. Reynolds, sir, I’m your wife,” much to the amusement of the rest of the crew (with the exception of the more ethically-aware Shepherd Book and Inara). Mal, we are told, has indeed performed the Marriage Ceremony of Triumph Settlers, and much of what follows involves Saffron’s attempts to prove to Mal that she will indeed make a good wife, punctuated by comic interludes with other members of the crew (Jayne’s attempt to trade his favorite gun “Vera” for Saffron, Shepherd Book’s stern warning “If you take sexual advantage of her, you’re going to burn in a very special level of hell,” a warning he references later by just saying, suggestively to Mal, “Special.”).
The twist is that Saffron is not who or what she seems, and her purpose is not marriage but the theft of Serenity. As Inara discovers, she has been trained as a companion and uses all of her feminine wiles to put the crew off-guard and then take over the ship, felling Mal with an opiate-delivering kiss, and knocking out Wash with a karate kick, which leaves her time to rig the ship’s navigation to carry it toward her accomplices who are waiting to capture it in an electrified net.
Both parts of the plot (the accidental marriage and the twist) have western sources, or at least western parallels. The accidental or unintentional marriage is a not uncommon comic method of illustrating the mishaps that can occur on the frontier where representatives of different cultures meet—and misunderstand each other’s customs. The direct western precursor with which I’m most familiar is John Ford’s The Searchers. Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), the adopted son of Ethan Edwards’s brother, insists on joining Edwards (John Wayne) in the search for the captive Debbie Edwards. At one point Martin ends up discovering (much to the amusement of Ethan) that he has become (without realizing it) married to an American Indian woman, Wild Goose Flying in the Night Sky (Beulah Archuletta), and the comic elements play out similarly to the way they do on Firefly, with Wild Goose trying to find ways to please her new husband.
Saffron’s character type, the confidence man (or woman), appears in various guises in many westerns, frontier tales, and western humor, and her even older precedent is the archetypal figure of the trickster. Although the more explicit and visible western elements disappear once Serenity leaves the planet as we remain in a science fiction setting with few visual reminders of the nineteenth-century American West, the plot itself remains connected to western roots, hidden though they may be beneath the surface.