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Firefly | Why Commander Harken is One of Firefly’s Best Characters

Firefly’s Commander Harken only appears in one episode, but the ‘Bushwhacked’ bureaucrat is one of the short-lived show’s greatest creations.

Warning: This article contains spoilers for the Firefly episode ‘Bushwhacked’ (S1, Ep2). Proceed with caution.

If I asked you who your favorite Firefly character was, what would you say? I imagine it would be one of Serenity’s motley crew members: Noble scoundrel Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), most likely – or the sweet and lovable Kaylee (Jewel Staite). Perhaps the cool and level-headed Zoey (Gina Torres), the always-hilarious, always-affable Wash (Alan Tudyk), the deeply philosophical Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), or the enigmatic Inara (Morena Baccarin). I’d perhaps expect more than a few people, too, to opt for the human equivalent of Marmite that is Jayne (Adam Baldwin), or the mild-mannered Simon (Sean Maher). Some might even opt for the thoroughly wild and dangerous River (Summer Glau) – if only because she might “kill you with my brain” if you say otherwise.

What I absolutely wouldn’t expect to happen, though, is for you to mine every single episode of Firefly for a name that appears in just one of them. Wouldn’t expect it, no, but I would absolutely understand it. Because Commander Harken (Doug Savant) is easily one of the Joss Whedon series’ best additions.

Before I explain why, let’s have a quick run-through of Harken’s episode, ‘Bushwhacked’ (S1, Ep2). As per the synopsis, it sees Mal and the others clamber aboard a derelict ship looking for spoils, only to discover that the crew has been brutally slaughtered by the Reavers.

Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) stands in a space suit as the bulkhead doors open.
Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and crew board the seemingly lifeless ship in the Firefly episode ’Bushwhacked’ (S1, Ep2). This was to be episode three in creator Joss Whedon’s preferred running order. | 20th Century Fox, 2002.

It’s not long before they run afoul of the ship’s sole survivor – a trembling, near-catatonic man whose first instinct is to attack; to lash out. He has seen too much and experienced too much. He has looked into “the darkness. Kind of darkness you can't even imagine. Blacker than the space it moves through.” And, as Mal puts it so poetically, “a man comes up against that kind of will, the only way to deal with it, I suspect, is to become it.”

Still, they haul him aboard Serenity and into the ship’s medical bay. Still, they try to do right by him. But, by the time they’re boarded by the Alliance cruiser that’s been trailing Simon and River, it’s too late for the so-called survivor of the Reaver massacre; he has begun to desecrate his own flesh, do his best to look like the same monsters that raped and ate and slaughtered his friends. But for Commander Harken, whose soldiers find the mutilated man whilst searching Firefly for the hidden Tam siblings, it’s not nearly as apparent what’s happening. Instead, he leaps to the most logical conclusion; that Mal and his crew ambushed that slow-spinning ship out there, murdered everyone aboard, stole all their stuff, and dragged this guy along with them to torture for a mite longer. Presumably for kicks and giggles.

“I haven’t seen that kind of torture since…” a sickened Harken informs Mal during his interrogation, noting that the survivor’s tongue has been sliced clean down the middle. “Well, since the war.”

The uniformed Commander Harken (Doug Savant) flanked by soldiers.
Commander Harken (Doug Savant) boards Serenity in the Firefly episode ’Bushwhacked’ (S1, Ep2). Appropriately for a horror episode, Savant’s roles include Teen Wolf (1985), Trick or Treat (1986), and Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence (1992). | 20th Century Fox, 2002.

And there it is: Harken knows that Mal fought on behalf of the Independents (or the Browncoats, if you prefer) – against the unification process, against the calm and order of the Alliance – in the war. And Harken, too, believes that Mal was on “the wrong side” of history in doing so. History tends to be written by its victors, so the man deserves to be forgiven for thinking the worst of Mal – for thinking he has the potential to be a ruthless and cold-blooded killer. That is, after all, what he has been taught to expect of rebels such as these. And, credit where it’s due, he isn’t wrong about the fact that the Serenity crew picked over the metaphorical bones of that derelict ship and licked them clean: their ship’s hold is filled with loot.

Throw in the fact that the Reavers stick to the edges of the ‘Verse – far outside the grasping reach of the Alliance – and that their monstrous exploits are often dismissed by Central Planets’ folk as “campfire stories”, and it’s an open-and-shut case. To Harken, Mal and his crew are the guilty parties, no question about it. In fact, the fact that they’re claiming that monsters did the killing before they did the thieving is an insult to his intelligence.

“You and your crew are bound by law,” he tells Mal. “Formal charges will be transmitted to the central authority.”

Commander Harken (Doug Savant) stands over Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) in the interrogation room.
Commander Harken (Doug Savant) interrogates Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) in the Firefly episode ’Bushwhacked’ (S1, Ep2). In Firefly: The Official Companion (2006), prop master Randy Eriksen described the Alliance as “always glass and chrome and crisp and clean and bright, and everything else was all dingy and dirty and rusty and crappy.” | 20th Century Fox, 2002.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: how could a fully paid-up believer in all that The Alliance stands for hope to be one of Firefly’s best characters? Ever? Especially considering what we learn about The Alliance in the feature-length Serenity (2005) movie?

Well, because Harken shows some of the most intense character growth in the show’s entire one-series run.

When we first meet the guy, he's everything we hate most about (to quote Whedon himself) “the most antiseptic and annoying bureaucracy.” He’s a stickler for procedures and protocols, and seemingly entirely unable to think on his feet or improvise. He refuses to listen to Mal’s warnings that The Survivor – or The Killer, as he’s referred to in the script for ‘Bushwhacked’ – poses a very real danger to everyone aboard Harken’s cruiser. And let’s not forget that he parrots anti-Independent rhetoric with nary a thought to the words pouring out of his mouth.

It’s worth remembering, though, that we are seeing Harken through Mal’s eyes – and that the latter is every bit as biased against Harken as Harken is of him. He is furious with the Alliance captain for not believing his, frankly, thoroughly unbelievable story – and fails to comprehend why Harken doesn’t instantly take him at his word. You know, despite the fact that absolutely none of the evidence works in his favor whatsoever.

Essentially, these two men – both the sort of leaders who inspire loyalty in their crews – are not the polar opposites you might first think; rather, they are mirror images of one another. Think about it; both believe they are in the right, that they will be remembered as having been on the right side of history. Both are prejudiced against the other. Both seek to do right by others (indeed, Harken immediately has guards stationed at the nursery to protect the ship’s children just as soon as he learns that someone aboard his vessel poses a danger). Both are fond of interrogating their captives personally – although Harken opts for a less menacing approach than we see Mal use in the series premiere (he has Jayne stand over their captured Alliance mole with a terrifyingly huge knife). And both are treading what they believe to be the noblest and most righteous path.

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