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Character Analysis

Firefly | Jayne Cobb's Redemption Gives Us All Hope

Over Firefly and Serenity, Adam Baldwin’s Jayne Cobb goes from merc without morals to someone worthy of his lengend as Hero of Canton.

“Jayne!
The man they call Jayne…”

‘Hero of Canton, The Ballad of Jayne Cobb’

On paper, Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin) is a difficult man to love. And that’s because, at first glance, Firefly’s intimidating mercenary-for-hire and gun-toting maniac (not to mention the wearer of the “sweetest hat” in the whole goddamn ‘verse) was seemingly written into the show to serve as a foil to the rest of Serenity’s crew. To act as the immoral flipside to their moral compasses. To… well, to add some friction and jeopardy to proceedings.

In my opinion, though, this couldn’t be any further from the truth.

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Jayne Cobb is Flawed, But is He Hopeless?

Now, we all know that Joss Whedon has a penchant for Badder Than Bad Guys With A Sweeping Redemption Arc – just look at James Marsters’ Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, if you don’t believe me. But Jayne, unlike his vampiric parallel, doesn’t have to redeem himself from a past of murder and violence. Well, fine – he does. But he ALSO has to break down all of his ever-present character flaws, too.

Character flaws like, say, being a total money hog. Or making wildly inappropriate comments whenever he feels awkward. Or being incredibly spiteful towards his friends when he’s wrongfooted. Or always always ALWAYS thinking with what’s in his trousers rather than, y’know, the brain in his head. 

The Relatable Rogue

Jayne isn’t a glamorous bleached blonde vampire with a soul to earn, essentially. His flaws are lower, meaner… and far more relatable than any of Whedon’s other antiheroes. This is saying a lot, considering this is, essentially, a futuristic Western set in the depths of space.

Now, a lot of this is down to Baldwin’s imagination, because he dreamed up a pretty “oh my god, I feel so seen” backstory for his beloved Firefly character. 

“I see Jayne as sort of a black sheep of a middle-class family,  who just got bored with his middle-class life and was looking for adventure on the frontier,” he told one Firefly fansite.

“He escaped from whatever they may have been, with no [feelings of] animosity towards his family… [he just saw this as a] way of escaping, seeing what’s out there. It’s just his sorta way of going to college; the school of hard knocks.”

We’ve all at some point dreamed of escaping the drudgery of our 9-to-5 existence; Jayne is what happens when you try and escape via a homemade shortcut. You fall into bad ways, bad habits. You fall in with a bad crowd. And that’s you done, destined for a life of misery and (most likely) misbehaving…

Except, in this instance, our good kid gone wrong gets lucky. Because he learns how to misbehave in the RIGHT way.

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Jayne’s Shot at Redemption

As seen in the Firefly episode ‘Out of Gas’ (S1, Ep5), Jayne is involved in a trigger-happy heist aboard an old Firefly-class ship when, just like that, he gets a bigger and better offer from the intended target – one Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion). It is at this point that history is made. Because this fateful meeting proves a turning point for Jayne – albeit not right away, obviously. 

Jayne Cobb and two cronies hold Zoe and Mal at gunpoint as they stand on the cargo ramp of Serenity.
A younger and dirtier Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin) tries to shake down Zoë Washburne (Gina Torres) and Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) in the flashback in the Firefly episode ‘Out of Gas’ (S1, Ep5). | 20th Century Fox, 2002.

Slowly, slowly, slowly, though, we see the man who would shoot his partner for a big beautiful bag of cash – who would toss his oldest friend out of a fast-moving vehicle for an even bigger, more beautiful bag of cash – turn into someone who…

Well, fine. Someone who would try and turn Simon (Sean Maher) and River Tam (Summer Glau) – the newest members of Team Serenity, and therefore his colleagues – over to The Alliance for a big beautiful bag of cash. We saw him do as much in the show’s eighth (ninth, in Whedon’s preferred run order) episode, ‘Ariel’ (S1, Ep8)… 

Or did we?

Digging into Jayne’s Act of Betrayal

According to Baldwin, there’s more to Jayne’s third known betrayal (in chronological order, he first chucks his partner from a moving spaceship in the events that later trigger ‘Hero of Canton’ (as seen in the Firefly episode ‘Jaynestown’ – S1, Ep4), then he betrays his fellow criminals to join Mal’s team – as seen in the flashback of ‘Out of Gas’ – and finally we have the events of ‘Ariel’) than meets the eye.

In fact, he feels Jayne’s actions on Ariel don’t just take place because “the money was too good”; rather, it was his character’s way of keeping himself and the rest of the Serenity crew safe. 

“I think he’s truly inspired by the way Mal is able to hold together this crew – this family, this dysfunctional family. He really does feel a [sense of] loyalty,” says Baldwin.

River Tam stands over Jayne Cobb in the mess of Serenity, having just slashed him with a kitchen knife.
Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin) is slashed across the chest by River Tam (Summer Glau) in the Firefly episode ‘Ariel’ (S1, Ep8). | 20th Century Fox, 2002.

“And he didn’t really betray the crew [in ‘Ariel’]. He thought he was doing the right thing by getting rid of the very reason that The Alliance was going to rain destruction down upon them. They were having a pretty easy time until they brought along these fugitives… [so he] miscalculated.”

This makes a lot of sense, especially when you consider Jayne’s comments after River slashed him across the chest with a kitchen knife.

“Next time little sister gets in a murdering mood… it might be you she comes calling on,” he tells Mal furiously. “Or maybe Kaylee, or Inara. You let them stay, we’re gonna find out.”

Mal, naturally, finds out about Jayne’s attempted betrayal and he is understandably furious. He knocks Jayne out and locks the hired muscle in the airlock, before informing him that he fully intends to release Jayne into the suffocating nothing of open space as punishment for his mutinous behavior – a punishment which Jayne all too readily accepts.

Jayne Cobb, wearing the dark blue uniform of an EMT, looks out of the open airlock.
Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin) comes round in the airlock of Serenity as Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) confronts him with his betrayal in the Firefly episode ‘Ariel’ (S1, Ep8). | 20th Century Fox, 2002.

“What are you gonna tell the others? ‘Bout why I’m dead?” he asks eventually.

“Hadn’t thought about it,” replies Mal.

“Do me a favor. Make something up,” pleads Jayne. “Don’t tell them what I did.”

It’s this moment of shame, of raw humanity, that convinces Mal to give Jayne a second chance. Or, as Balwin puts it, “I think he was able to redeem himself with Mal because Mal realized he wasn’t doing it with malice.” 

Yes, the big beautiful bag of cash (200,000 is a pretty good bounty) had something to do with it – but so did River’s frightening behavior; she was, after all, a human weapon. So did the threat of The Alliance coming down hard on the Serenity crew. And so did Jayne’s growing jealousy over how easily Simon had been accepted by everyone else… especially – in this writer’s humble opinion, at least – Jewel Staite’s Kaylee. 

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The Merc with a Mouth

While the majority of Jayne’s flaws are relatable, it’s also worth considering that some of them are…

Well, they’re downright covetable, too. 

As Adam Baldwin himself puts it to Sci-Fi Online: “Jayne is this guy who says what everybody wishes they could say. He’s that big elephant in the room that will just spew the truth… and I think people relate to that.”

Don’t we just? Jayne has zero filter – and it’s a character trait that gets him into trouble more time than we can count. But it also makes the events of Serenity (2005) all the more interesting.

Jayne in Serenity: “Do Something Right”

Throughout the events of Firefly, we see Jayne as the unpredictable one. He zigs where others zag, and he loses his temper at least once an episode – except during the bar brawl on Unification Day, which is when Mal could really use a little of that muscle power. And then there are his childlike moments of sweetness to temper it all; the homemade woolly hat – made by Ma Cobb – which he proudly dons with not a moment’s hesitation, the way he names his very favorite guns, and his playful banter with Kaylee.

Nothing is quite as unpredictable, though, as his reaction to Mal’s big suicide plan in the Serenity movie.

There are hints throughout the movie that Jayne is a changed man; for example, when a televised subliminal message triggers River’s more violent instincts, he doesn’t – like Mal – draw a gun on her. Instead, he tries to restrain her, all while frantically telling her, “it’s me, girl!” 

Despite this, it’s still a surprise to see Jayne throw his support behind Mal when the latter informs the crew that he intends to expose the Alliance’s big secret: their mistakes on Miranda.

“Y’all got on this boat for different reasons, but y’all come to the same place,” Mal tells them. 

“So now I’m asking more of you than I have before. Maybe all. Sure as I know anything, I know this – they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten? They’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people… better. And I do not hold to that. So no more runnin’. I aim to misbehave.”

Everyone sits in silence for a moment. Then Jayne – Jayne, the one we’ve come to know and love for being a selfish money hog – takes a swig of something strong, and says simply:

“Shepherd Book once said to me, ‘If you can’t do something smart, do something right.’”

It’s a startling moment – and evidence of Jayne’s transformation under Mal’s leadership. This is, after all, the same man who tossed an old friend seemingly to his death rather than part with his money. Who was willing to team up with The Alliance for the right price. Who tried to convince us all that he didn’t care about nothing or nobody (even though he VERY begrudgingly helped plan and execute the big rescue mission when Mal got himself in a mite of trouble in ‘Shindig’ – and again in ‘War Stories’).

Come to the events of Serenity, though, Jayne has changed. He still has edges, true, but they’re softer edges. And he’s still a gruff merc with a mouth, but that mouth – occasionally – is connected to a brain and a heart, which means it SOMETIMES says the right thing at the right moment.

Addressing Jayne’s metamorphosis into a cowboy with morals, Baldwin says: “In my own personal life I think it’s more important to do something right than it is to do something smart because smart is subjective. I guess ‘right’ can be as well, so there is a confusing choice that he has to make. 

Wash, Kaylee, Jayne, and Zoe stand with faces set.
‘Wash’ (Alan Tudyk), Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite), Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin), and Zoë Washburne (Gina Torres) mount a last stand against the Reavers in Serenity. | Universal Pictures, 2005.

“But obviously the politics that I see in this film – I don’t want to get into any heavy-handed thing – it’s obvious that totalitarianism is the biggest threat to societies around the world, and humankind needs to stand up to and against those ideologies and forms of government. 

“The choice is tyranny and subjugation and slavery, really. At this point, the ‘verse is going to come crashing down unless they reveal this secret, so Jayne [knows that he has to] go along with Mal’s decision.”

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If Jayne Can Change… So Can We

Essentially, then, Jayne learns over time that there is something bigger and more important than himself and his own needs. This means that, in a way, Jayne’s redemption arc looks a lot like the way a child learns and develops empathy.

Think about it: studies show that around two years of age, children start to show genuine empathy, understanding how other people feel even when they don’t feel the same way themselves; not only do they feel another person’s pain, but they actually try to soothe it. And by the time a child is about four years old, he begins to associate his emotions with the feelings of others.

This only happens, though, if they have a good role model. Because children start their empathic journey through “social referencing” – looking to their caregivers for information. And there’s no denying that Mal takes on the role of a sort of caregiver for Jayne, slowly teaching him how to maintain some sense of morality while misbehaving. Hell, look at all the emotions that go unsaid in ‘Out of Gas’, when Jayne bids goodbye to Mal with just one word: “Well…”

It is his respect and his loyalty for Mal that help steer Jayne Cobb back onto the right path and into the light. It is his captain who sets him up for a beautifully realistic redemption arc. And it is their brittle friendship that sets Mal and his big mission in Serenity up for success.

The feet of a statue in the sand with a plaque reading "Jayne Cobb."
The base of Jayne Cobb’s statue in the Firefly episode ‘Jaynestown’ (S1, Ep4). Baldwin broke the head off the statue to keep as a souvenir and it was crudely repaired when reshoots were needed –the crack is viasible in some shots. | 20th Century Fox, 2002.

Yes, it’s easy to dismiss Jayne as a trained ape without the training – but he’s more than that. Much like all of us, he is always learning and growing. And much like all of Whedon’s characters, there are far more shades of grey to this guy than definitive shades of black and white.

All of this means that the fact that he is able to redeem himself? Well, that should give us all hope, really. Because humanity has every chance of a happier and healthier future if even the likes of Jayne – the man they call Jayne – can change into the hero everyone in Canton always hoped and believed he could be.

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Kayleigh Dray has somehow managed to balance her severe sci-fi addiction with a pretty full-on career as a working writer for going on 10 years now. During the week, you can find her hunched over her laptop and tapping away furiously. On a weekend, though, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of hot chocolate, rewatching Stargate for the millionth time, and/or playing Dungeons & Dragons with her friends.

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