It is a truth universally acknowledged that everyone who loves Joss Whedon’s Firefly has seen all 14 episodes (and the film, obviously) at least a hundred times over. At least. They’ll probably know every single scene by heart; every look, every nuance, every punchline. And I know this because I am one of these diehard fans.
I thought I knew everything there was to know about Firefly, essentially. But when I rewatched the series again recently, I quickly realized that I had missed out on… well, on one shiny detail that was seemingly suddenly staring me in the face.
I’m talking, naturally, about the oh-so-subtle and beautiful love story between Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin) and Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite).
Further Listening on Kaylee Frye
Scrappy, kind, sex-positive, and utterly authentic, Firefly’s Kaylee Frye shows that women can be both hopelessly romantic and totally practical. Listen to our audio article on Kaylee | “One Day, We’ll Watch Firefly and Talk about Kaylee” – A Letter to My Daughter
The Case for Kaylee and Jayne
Now, before you get too angry with me, I want to make one thing clear: I am not, in any way, shipping these two above everyone else. In fact, I love that Kaylee and Simon (Sean Maher) wind up together. Theirs is one of the great sci-fi romances; a ballad that will ring out across the depths of the ‘verse until the end of time, because they are cuteness personified and therefore endgame.
Still, though, I can’t help but feel that a lot of the love between Jayne and Kaylee has gone largely unappreciated until now – and I’m here to set that right. Because, as Jewel Staite herself notes in Firefly: A Celebration (2012), Kaylee is “soft with Jayne.”
“Even Jayne trusts her,” she adds, “and he cares about her… I love that they have these scenes where they’re just talking about everything that’s going on around them and venting at each other.”
Staite finishes: “I think she really does care about him.”
This in itself isn’t the biggest revelation ever; Kaylee, after all, is unerringly sweet and views all of her crew as a family. She thinks the best of all of them, even when there’s some pretty compelling evidence to the contrary.
Here’s the thing, though: the feeling is clearly mutual. Because the man they call Jayne is… hmm, how to put it? He’s a selfish and trigger-happy mercenary-for-hire – one with an extensive arsenal of guns, and not all that much care for other people. So, yes, his treatment of Kaylee feels important, because it’s so at odds with what we know of him as a person.
Think about it: right from the very get-go, Jayne’s love for Kaylee is underlined in a big red pen when, during the very first episode, he takes vigil beside the infirmary window and watches over her after she’s been shot. When he is hellbent on murdering the son of a bitch who dared fire a bullet at his Kaylee. When he gets, let’s face it, more than a little (for want of a better word) jealous of Kaylee’s crush on Simon.
“Little Kaylee here just wishes you were a gynecologist,” he jokes spitefully in the Firefly episode ‘Serenity’ (S1, Ep11), humiliating Kaylee in front of Simon and prompting Mal (Nathan Fillion) to banish Jayne from the room.
Their banter is easy, their chemistry incredible, and their deep friendship clear for all to see. Do you want some examples? Of course, you do. How’s about the fact that, in the opening scenes of the Firefly episode ‘Bushwhacked’ (S1, Ep2), Jayne and Kaylee move almost seamlessly together during a game of basketball – her jumping lightly onto his shoulders to hitch a ride to the nearest hoop, ball in hand? Or the fact that she slugs him playfully in the arm whenever he takes his teasing of her too far? Or the look on his face in ‘Shindig’ (S1, Ep6), when he realizes Badger (Mark Sheppard) had taken Kaylee as his hostage? Or the way that, in ‘War Stories’ (S1, Ep10), our girl Kaylee turns immediately to Jayne to ask, “Can they do that?” when she learns that Zoe (Gina Torres) and Wash (Alan Tudyk) are planning a daring rescue mission?
Not enough for you? I didn’t think so, but don’t worry; there’s more. Like, say, the moment during the Firefly episode ‘Ariel’ (S1, Ep8) when Kaylee – unlike everyone else aboard Serenity – is more concerned about Jayne than River (Summer Glau) when the latter slices at the former with a kitchen knife.
“He’s bleedin’,” she points out, as everyone else fusses over the girl who can kill people with her brain.
There’s the blink-and-you-honestly-will-miss-it moment in ‘The Message’ (S1, Ep14), when Kaylee shelters behind Jayne during Mal and Zoe’s showdown with Tracey (Jonathan Woodward). And a thousand or so of the other teeny-weeny looks and glances that so often prove fodder for shippers everywhere.
The Shared Trust Between Kaylee and Jayne
I’m not here to convince you of an impassioned love affair, though. Because the foundation of Kaylee and Jayne’s relationship is more important than stolen moments and breathless first meetings and accidental hand brushes. In fact, it’s almost entirely hinged upon the fact that the pair trust one another absolutely and innately.
“A blessed thing it is for any man or woman to have a friend, one human soul whom we can trust utterly, who knows the best and worst of us, and who loves us in spite of all our faults,” notes clergyman Charles Kingsley. And, while I’m not usually one for religion, he’s kind of onto something. This makes Jayne and Kaylee’s love story all the better, in my opinion.
In the Firefly pilot episode, ‘Serenity’ (S1, Ep1), Jayne gently lifts and carries a barefoot Kaylee from the infirmary to the engine room. He props her down against a wall, gets flustered when he realizes how tricky the job at hand is, and cools off immediately when she tells him to “look where I’m pointing.” Just like that, he’s calm again; he doesn’t get angry, he doesn’t throw things, he doesn’t raise his voice. Instead, he follows her instructions, trusts her to know what to do, and damn well does it, too.
Then there’s ‘The Train Job’ (S1, Ep2) in which Jayne straps himself into a harness and allows Kaylee to lower him – from a spaceship – onto a speeding train. Because, yes, he trusts her. God how he trusts her.
You want more? Think, then, about the events of ‘Trash’ (S1, Ep13), in which Jayne and Kaylee are tasked with some Thrilling Heroics of their very own; riding Serenity in the open air, equipped with goggles and space-age screwdrivers, to reprogram a flying trash bin. Remember how he helps her clip her safety harness and clamber on top of the ship? Remember how he has her lie flat and throws one arm over her protectively? Remember how she screams and grasps for his tether when he’s knocked unconscious, throwing every ounce of her strength into saving his life? Because I do. That scene lives rent-free in my mind forever.
And then there are the events of ‘Ariel’ (S1, Ep8), in which Jayne tries to collect the bounty on Simon and River from The Alliance by throwing everyone under the proverbial spaceship. Mal, naturally, finds out and locks Jayne in the airlock for a stern talking-to and a few threats about his impending death.
“What are you gonna tell the others? ‘Bout why I’m dead?” asks Jayne desperately.
“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. And it’s this writer’s humble opinion that “the others” Jayne refers to – the people whose good opinion he so craves – is, in fact, his favorite crew member: Kaylee.
Further Reading on Jayne Cobb's Redemption
Over Firefly and Serenity, Adam Baldwin's Jayne Cobb goes from merc without morals to someone worthy of his legacy as Hero of Canton | Jayne Cobb's Redemption Gives Us All Hope
Platonic Love in the Case of Kaylee and Jayne
I know, I know: I’m lurching horribly into shipping territory with that one. But, quite honestly, I think one of the reasons I’m so obsessed with Jayne and Kaylee’s relationship is because theirs is a love story that is utterly devoid of any physical or obvious romance whatsoever. Truly.
Indeed, according to Sarah Fader at Better Help, platonic relationships tend to run deeper. They are built on a foundation of “openness, honesty, flexibility, longevity and a more unconditional kind of love,” she tells Vanguard.
“This is largely because we are less afraid of losing our friends in the same way that we fear being rejected by an intimate partner.”
It’s a theory that makes a lot of sense, especially when you consider how vulnerable Kaylee and Jayne allow themselves to be with one another. They can snap and jab and tease, always knowing that theirs is a love that will not bend or break. They can say whatever’s on their mind – whether that’s the fact that Jayne’s hat is “the sweetest hat ever”, or that Jayne could “stand to hear a little more” about what’s been ‘twixt Kaylee’s nethers. And they can rest easy in their bunks at night, knowing they have someone worth giving a damn about – and that someone gives a damn about them, too.
To paraphrase David Levithan, then, I feel that the love which Jayne and Kaylee share is something even rarer, and even more meaningful, than the oft-cited true love. And part of the allure behind the unusual pairing is a) the fact that the actors were “genuinely having a lot of fun” together, and b) that both completely and utterly understood the nature of Kaylee and Jayne’s relationship.
Noting that Kaylee is a “huge flirt”, Staite points out that her Firefly alter-ego flirts with everyone on the ship – everyone, that is, save for Jayne.
“I think she and Jayne are like brother and sister [in that sense],” she muses.
Baldwin, for his part, echoes this sweet sentiment.
“Kaylee was more of the little sister who I’d try to protect,” he says simply.
Personally, I think it’s more than that. You’ve heard of soulmates? My mind can’t help but return to the lyrics of a 2009 song by Train, titled – oh so fittingly – ‘Soul Sister.’
“Your sweet moonbeam,
The smell of you in every single dream I dream.
I knew when we collided,
You’re the one I had decided who’s one of my kind.”
Jayne and Kaylee offer each other a soul connection that goes beyond feelings of friendship. They are something like brother and sister, something like best friends, something like playmates, something definitely not unlike lovers. They are absolute opposites – she is a wide-eyed romantic, he’s a loose cannon out to make a quick buck and bed as many women as possible. They didn’t have the same instant fireworks or fizz of attraction that Kaylee and Simon had, nor the endless yearning between the Cap’n and Inara (Morena Baccarin), nor the spiky long-term love of Wash and Zoe; oh no. Theirs is something different.
Further Listening with our Jewel Staite Interview
From X-Files child star to Firefly‘s Kaylee Frye, Jewel Staite tells her story in this video interview | Jewel Staite: Uplifting Women in Film & TV Full Video Interview
Something A Little Different
Jayne and Kaylee are the sorts of people who have come together, gotten to know one another, and felt a slow blossoming of deep affection as the days and months and years have rolled on by. They are one another’s home, in some regards; they are one another’s safe space. They are – if you’ll forgive me for citing yet another fictional couple – the Josephine March and Theodore Laurence of Serenity.
As in, Little Women’s Jo and Laurie. So sue me.
Much like Jo and Laurie, the true nature of Kaylee and Jayne’s relationship will forever be up for debate: lovers, siblings, friends, or a strange incestuous cocktail of all three. Their love for one another is endlessly shifting: it’s boisterous, it’s silly, it’s tender, it’s familial, and it’s (sometimes) wholly inappropriate. But hell, is it authentic!
Who knows what might have happened had the show continued for longer than its (sob) one-season run? I like to think that Kaylee and Jayne would have played out much the same as Jo and Laurie; a fantastically messy showdown, a misunderstanding or two, a possible breaking of hearts, and a coming together anew.
Or maybe, just maybe, Joss Whedon might have done what Louisa May Alcott never dared, and had our delightful duo evolve from something like siblings into… well, into an even greater love story than that of Simon and Kaylee.
Forget taking my money: Whedon can take my love and take my land (maybe even take me where I cannot stand) if he ever decides to make that happen.
I’ll be waiting…
This article was first published on September 8th, 2022, on the original Companion website.
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Further Reading on All Topics
- Scrappy, kind, sex-positive, and utterly authentic, Firefly’s Kaylee Frye shows that women can be both hopelessly romantic and totally practical. Listen to our audio article on Kaylee | “One Day, We’ll Watch Firefly and Talk about Kaylee” – A Letter to My Daughter
- Over Firefly and Serenity, Adam Baldwin's Jayne Cobb goes from merc without morals to someone worthy of his legacy as Hero of Canton | Jayne Cobb's Redemption Gives Us All Hope
- From X-Files child star to Firefly‘s Kaylee Frye, Jewel Staite tells her story in this video interview | Jewel Staite: Uplifting Women in Film & TV Full Video Interview