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Operative Conditioning

December 5th, 2005 · 3 Comments

Beware Serenity spoilers ahead…

Michae Ghertner at Catallarchy makes a point about the Firefly movie Serenity that had stuck in my head in the theater: At the close of the film’s climactic battle, the Operative has a last-minute conversion (saving the Serenity crew) when Mal shows him evidence that the government had dosed an entire planet’s population with a Soma-like gas called Pax, intended to make everyone peaceful and non-violent, but instead producing in most such profound apathy that they simply wasted to death, while a tiny minority became insanely aggressive, transforming into the cannibalistic space pirates known as Reavers.

Now, what I’d noted is that in many ways this is a morally easy way out: Yes, an “experiment” that ends up killing tens of millions of people, not so good. But what if it hadn’t work? Would the Serenity crew have been as quick to reject the premise that you “can make people better” if Pax really worked as well as Huxley’s Soma? And, in terms of the internal logic of the film, does the Operative’s conversion really make that much sense in light of his evident willingness to kill hundreds, perhaps thousands, of innocents in service of the utopia he hopes to bring about? Mustn’t we just see this as a case of his somewhat unaccountably deciding, as Micha puts it, that it’s OK to break this many eggs to make your omelet, but not that many?

I should probably note that if you factor out the problem of trusting any human institution with this level of control over our wiring (which, of course, you can’t), there’s surely some kind of Pax-like modification that would be a genuine boon—one that cut down on bursts of violent temper that are leftover bits of our evolutionary heritage from the woodland savannah. Barring other sorts of side effects, I imagine quite a few people might be perfectly happy to move into a voluntarily Pax-suffused community.

But let’s deal with something closer to the case in the movie: A more general “pacifying” agent—though let’s assume it wouldn’t necessarily lead to either suicidal apathy or homicidal bloodlust—released by governments on an unwitting population. Is there some reason the Operative might have his mind changed by the failure of the Miranda experiment, even assuming he’s not ruled out the possibility of a non-lethal Pax, and without simply invoking an arbitrary too-many-eggs principle?

I think the change makes a good deal more sense if you’re seeing the film as an existentialist allegory—thinking of the pacified citizens as updates of the affectless Meurseault from The Stranger. The point shouldn’t be taken too literally as a warning against any attempt to control people’s most violent tendencies, but rather as underscoring that what makes life worth living is all the messy, passionate human bits that have no place in a precisely controlled utopia. It wasn’t that the failure of this particular means was too much for the ruthless Operative, but that it revealed his end as less desirable than he’d imagined. Camille Paglia once wrote (I’m quoting from memory here) “there is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper.” Forget for a second that it’s supposed to be a point about gender: What Paglia’s underscoring is that our worst and best impulses are often sides of the same coin. What the Operative sees, we might imagine, is not just an unfortunate (and highly deadly) technical glitch, but that his ideal world is the world of Nietzsche’s last man: Even if the cost were not so high, it no longer seems worth fighting for a world where nothing’s worth fighting for.

Tags: Art & Culture



3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Steven // Dec 8, 2005 at 7:24 pm


    I’m afriad I must come in at all times to defend against all comers on comments about my beloved Firefly/Serenity. On the Operative and why he doesn’t kill Mal, I believe that you have mistakenly ascribed to hm the status of “converted.” The Operative does not kill Mal because of an ideological change, he does not kill Mal because his mission was to stop the information from getting out. The information is out, killing Mal doesn’t fulfill his mission. He says to his first victim in the film, “this is a good death.” Killing Mal, River, and the gang serves no purpose once the film hist the airwaves. He says to his troops at the end, “it’s finished. we’re finished.” The mission is over.

    Despite being enemies, the Operative has a respect for everyone he encounters on Serenity. What sets him apart from his employers and cronies is that he can look into Simon’s face and see the nobility where others see failure, crime, and treason. I think at the end he believes in his cause still, but he has had his own setback, his own Serenity Valley at the hands of those opposed to him.

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Dec 8, 2005 at 9:37 pm

    I think it’s very hard to square the idea of “no conversion” with the final dialogue between Mal and the Operative. Recall he says that he’s tried to convince the Parliament it’s no longer worth bothering with Serenity and its crew, but that he’s not sure how much good it will do because “I think they know I’m not their man anymore.” That makes little sense if all that’s going on is that he’s abandoned a failed mission.

  • 3 Steven // Dec 8, 2005 at 10:25 pm

    Ha, your response is funny mostly because after writing my post I went to enlist Sybil’s support and she thought you were totally right and I’m wrong. I, however, still think that I’m right (inasmuch as one can be about stories). I assumed the final conversation indicated that the the Operative was supposed to be eliminated or that he was on his way to killing himself after the conversation.
    Also, I saw the story sort of along the lines of Mal as a Jeffersonian figure and The Operative as a Robespierre. Transcendence vs. Isonomy, Rousseau v. Montesquieu, something like that.