Serenity is a film that shouldn’t have happened. Commercially failed TV shows don’t normally warrant a Hollywood blockbuster. Nevertheless, Firefly fans rallied behind Joss Whedon and as a result the director’s debut is his finest film to date. Like in Avengers and its sequel Age of Ultron Whedon managed to introduce a wide array of characters and give them their own compelling stories. Which is no surprise given the man’s TV talent for ensemble writing. But enough about those gorram Browncoats. I’m here to talk about Serenity‘s greatest triumph – The Operative.
Played by Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) the Operative is the film’s antagonist. He works for the Alliance and has a very clear mission – kill River Tam. And that right there is what makes the Operative one of cinema’s greatest villains – he’s simple.
That singular drive to complete his mission makes him incredibly dangerous. “Like this facility, I don’t exist,” he explains in his opening scene. As Inara (Morena Baccarin) says: “He’s a believer. He’s intelligent, methodical, and devout in his belief that killing River is the right thing to do.” I’m certain that’s exactly what he believes. Until the end of the movie of course. Which is what turns him from villain to hero. More on that later.
During their first clash in the training house, Mal (Nathan Fillion) says “the Alliance wanted to show me reason, they shouldn’t have sent an assassin.” This hits the Operative hard. He refuses to reply directly but his face betrays his feelings – calling the Operative an assassin is the biggest insult you could throw at him. It’s an oversimplification. The Operative isn’t an assassin. He’s less than that; he’s whatever the mission needs him to be. He’s not a common hitman; he prides himself on being able to fulfill any quota no matter what. He describes (in the past tense during the movie’s close) his relationship with the Alliance as being “their man.” Mal’s oversimplification of The Operative is what first gets him into trouble:
Operative: I want to resolve this like civilized men. I’m not threatening you. I’m unarmed.
[pulls gun and shoots Operative in the chest, grabs Inara and readies to leave]
Operative: [grabs Mal from behind] I am, however, wearing full body armor. I am not a moron!
Mal thinks he’s got the read of him in this scene and in a play right out of the Captain Reynolds Handbook cuts to the chase and shoots him. But while the Operative is very confident in his abilities it’s like he says – only a moron wouldn’t wear body armour!
In the scuffle that follows the Operative is unflappable, not remotely worried. “They’ll come when they’re needed,” he explains when Mal suggests he call for backup. With a sword at his disposal he remains unarmed and instead lets the fight play itself out. Because he knows he’s going to win! Mal’s sloppy swings have nothing on the Operative’s precise and efficient martial arts.
He is precise in everything that he does. The straight sword he carries, the smart blue suit, the minimalist hair, the soft-spoken and eloquent English. And he fights the way he works – precisely and efficiently. Every single strike is thrown at a pressure point, designed to do maximum damage or immobilise his opponent. After a strike he barely moves, instead waiting for the next attack and dealing with it accordingly. He even uses just one finger to wipe sweat from his brow. There’s zero energy wasted!
The Operative is willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done. But that ruthlessness isn’t as black and white as you might think. Examine this scene where he kills Dr. Mathias. Look at his face in the clip’s final moments:
This is a good death. There’s no shame in this. In a man’s death, a man who has done fine works. We’re making a better world. All of them – better worlds.
Sadness. Regret. Uncertainty. It’s tricky to pin down what’s going through the Operative’s head here. I don’t think he regrets killing Dr. Mathias. But I think he regrets having to kill him. He genuinely believes that he’s making “better worlds” and has utter conviction in the delivery of that goal. However, he seems sad that it is necessary to kill in order to get there.
“I don’t murder children,” Mal snarls later on in the film. The Operative’s reply is (as always) simple – “I do. If I have to.” The Operative doesn’t take pride or joy in the killing of children (and we can be certain he has killed plenty in the past!) but he’ll do it without question in a heartbeat. Why? Because “sorta man they like to send believes hard. Kills and never asks why.” -Shepherd Book (Ron Glass).
See, belief doesn’t require proof. Which is what makes it so nice. You can believe whatever you like. And it can be wonderful. But that lack of required evidence is incredibly dangerous.
Mal: Do you even know why they sent you?
Operative: It’s not my place to ask. I believe in something greater than myself. A better world. A world without sin.
Mal: So me and mine gotta lay down and die so you can live in your better world?
Operative: I’m not going to live there. There’s no place for me there. Any more than there is for you. Malcolm, I’m a monster. What I do is evil. I have no illusions about it, but it must be done.
If someone knows that they’re evil then they’re deadly! You can’t reason with the Operative and talk him out of killing children. He knows that it’s evil but he’s willing to do it nevertheless. For the greater good. A greater good that he doesn’t understand. Hell, he doesn’t even try – or want – to understand it. There must be a nice calmness that comes with never questioning anything. In a way he is exempt from all blame because he is nothing more than an instrument. Can you blame the gun for killing someone? Or can you only blame the person who shot the gun?
In Serenity: The Official Visual Companion Whedon says:
“I realized that what I loved [the Operative] for was that he’s a better person than my hero. He’s polite, he’s open-minded, he cares about the future so much that he’s willing to sacrifice his soul to make a future better for other people.”
For all intents and purposes the Operative is a decent-seeming guy. If he came to dinner he’d arrive on time. He’d bring an expensive bottle of wine and some flowers. He’d help clear the table. He’d leave not so early as to be rude, but not too late as to overstay his welcome. We just seem to be catching him in the middle of a killing spree, that’s all.
If a person believes that killing someone will save the whole world then they’ll do it. And nothing will stop them. That’s what the Operative is – a fanatic with unfaltering faith. Combine that strong conviction with his efficient tactics and you’ve got a terrifying deadly force. The Operative has thought of every possible situation and prepared for it. Methodically speaking he’s practically a machine. But this is where Mal – our plucky here – comes in.
Two people who understand Mal completely are Fanty & Mingo: “You’re unpredictable, Mal. You run when you ought to fight, fight when you ought to deal.” And that’s the key – Mal is unpredictable. Which is why he is the perfect opponent for someone like the Operative. They are polar opposites of each other. Not just in ideologies and physical styles but in methods. In that the Operative has all of them and Mal has none. Mal never plans further than a few minutes ahead. He wings it. So how can the Operative apply his tactical brain to someone like Mal? Well, he can’t.
Operative: I have a warship in deep orbit, Captain. We locked onto Serenity’s pulse beacon the moment you hit atmo. I can speak a word and send a missile to that exact location inside of three minutes.
Mal: You do that, you’d best make peace with your dear and fluffy lord.
[Mal tosses mechanism at the Operative]
Operative: Pulse beacon.
The Operative never saw that coming. And his face shows that he’s mildly amused that someone has just outsmarted him. I don’t image that happens very often, if at all! The Operative’s inability to predict Mal’s movements is what ultimately leads to the failure of his mission.
Who could have predicted that Mal would emerge from that cloud with an army of Reavers behind him? Absolutely no-one! It’s 100% insane! Suicidal even! Now I’m not convinced that he had the plan as laid out as he claimed. I think it was 50% planning, 50% “let’s do this and see what happens!” He creates chaos. And as someone who is unparalleled in thinking on his feet that’s where Mal is most comfortable. For the first time in the movie, the unflappable Operative loses his cool. After arrogantly proclaiming “Bastard’s not even changing course,” the Reavers break from the cloud and all hell breaks loose:
Target the Reavers. Target the Reavers! Target everyone! SOMEBODY FIRE!!
He has absolutely no idea what to do which is what leads him to becoming so angry at Mal later on in the third act. The duo’s final clash is predictable – despite all of Mal’s greatness the Operative is still the far superior fighter. He gains the upper hand and gets Mal with his trademark nerve trick, paralysing our hero. But Mal had that nerve cluster removed. Of course he did! Because no-one could have predicted that. And that’s Mal all over. The Operative won the fight. But Mal’s unpredictability came through once again.
A good hero/villain battle should always show opposites. And the hero should be the only one who can take the villain down. You could have sent Zoe or Jayne to fight the Operative. They’re far superior fighters. But only Mal was unpredictable enough to take him down.
I mentioned earlier that the Operative is the true hero of Serenity. And I hold to that. Mal is merely an instrument of that heroism. You can take down operative after operative but they’ll keep on coming. To truly make a difference you have to change the way people think. The Operative was as blindly faithful as it gets. But if he can change then anyone can. Everyone can turn against the Alliance if “their man” can do so first. So by turning on his own people he has triggered a revolution that will change the universe. Maybe not today or tomorrow. But maybe a hundred or a thousand years from the events of Serenity.
But as inspiring as the Operative’s story is, it’s also sad. When Mal and the rest of the crew are patching up Serenity he appears to say his goodbyes:
Mal: They take you down, I don’t expect to grieve overmuch. Like to kill you myself, I see you again.
Operative: You won’t. There is nothing left to see.
There’s a small, grim smile across the Operative face as he says those lines. He has dedicated his entire life to an ideology. And that ideology has been shattered. He’s no longer an Operative of the Alliance. He’s just….. well….. he has no name. He’s nothing. No-one. That’s incredibly sad. Who knows where that man goes next. Maybe he simply wanders off somewhere to die. Or maybe he starts his life from scratch and completely reinvents himself. In truth I don’t want to know.
Nevertheless, that man is unquestionably one of the most complicated and compelling characters to ever grace our screens. Expertly written by Joss Whedon and perfectly brought to life by Chiwetel Ejiofor, I never want to see that man again.