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In “Safe,” some hill folk on Jiangyin abduct Simon and River Tam just when the crew desperately need a medic. Mal abandons the Tams to seek out medical assistance off-world, despite strong dissent from the crew. Even worse, Mal’s decision forces them to beg for assistance from an Alliance cruiser.

This seems foolishly out of character for Mal, who is normally very loyal to his crew and loath to deal with the Alliance. While he was right that it might be too risky to attempt a rescue of the Tams in the middle of the ongoing crisis, the alternative didn't make any more sense, and it rightfully upset most of the crew.

Did Mal intend to return for the Tams once the crisis had passed? If so, why didn’t he just tell the crew, to address their criticism? If not, what changed his mind later? Both decisions seemed forced and arbitrary to me, basically plot devices to drive an artificial conflict and deus ex machina ending.

Did I miss something subtle? Did Mal actually have good reasons for his decisions that I overlooked? Or have I missed some aspect of his character that better explains why he would behave this way?

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3 Answers

up vote 29 down vote accepted

Because at this point the Tams are only barely crew and Book is about to die

At this point in the show, Simon is moderately useful as a doctor and Mal sees River has a huge liability to the crew. Mal makes this clear in the opening sequence:

MAL So, she's added cussing and hurling about of things to her repertoire. She really is a prodigy.

SIMON It's just a bad day.

MAL No, a bad day is when someone's yellin' spooks the cattle. Understand? (beat) You ever see cattle stampede when they got no place to run? It's kind of like a... a meat grinder. And it'll lose us half the herd.

SIMON She hasn't gone anywhere near the cattle.

MAL No, but in case you hadn't noticed, her voice kinda carries. We're two miles above ground and they can probably hear her down there. Soon as we unload, she can holler until our ears bleed. (to River) Although I would take it as a kindness if she didn't.

(as a matter of reference, all quotes are from the same source)

Mal later basically warns Simon that he is willing to leave the Tams. Remember Mal is actually not known as a "nice guy" and loves to make subtle threats.

MAL Closest Alliance is the Cruiser Magellan. Hours out from here. And I promise you, they ain't coming to a backwater like Jiang.

SIMON Still, I'm not sure it's such a wise suggestion.

MAL Might not wanna mistake it for a suggestion. (beat) Don't worry, we won't leave without ya.

Once Simon is kidnapped, Mal is left with a decision: a) Make the best bet on saving Book or b) risk Book's life and go try to rescue the Tams. As captain he calculates (reasonably) that he can find another doctor but that Shepard, quite like a companion, is a resource unlikely to ever fly with him ever again. He chooses Book.

MAL And now they got themselves a doctor. And we don't. (beat) We're goin'.

Mal moves to the cargo bay controls, begins shutting the bay door.

KAYLEE Wh-what are you doing? What about Simon and River?

MAL Forget them. We already lost two people today. If I can help it, we won't lose a third. (to Wash) Wash, get us in the air.

The end dialogue might make it seem as though Mal had a different opinion all along:

SIMON Captain... why did you come back for us?

MAL You're on my crew.

SIMON Yeah, but you don't even like me. (beat) Why'd you come back?

MAL You're on my crew. Why we still talking about this? (walks off, over his shoulder) Chow's in ten. No need to dress.

But it is very important to remember that this comes after the conversation with both Jayne and Zoe ... two people who don't typically agree on the finer points:

JAYNE That'd be a hell of a lot easier to do without the two most wanted on board. Life would look to be simpler us not carrying fugies.

ZOE (to Mal) He is right, you know.

MAL Yeah. Simpler.

In other words, the conversation at the end with Simon is confirmation that Mal has decided after the events of Safe that they are worth at least some risk. He might not entirely trust them, but he does accept them as crew. This episode is basically a transition for the Tams from being maybe crew to probably crew (sorry, Mal lives in a world of grey).

TLDR Until the events of Ariel, the Tams exist as somewhere between a commodity and a risk for Serenity and Mal knows that. Simon is clearly a commodity, but when you add River - who might ruin Mal's plans at any moment - and the risk of legal pursuit, they're pretty net neutral in terms of helping Serenity keep flying until Mal learns to trust them better.

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Thanks. Framing it that way makes it more clear why Mal left them behind, and why the crew's criticism just seemed to make him more stubborn and angry. But then I don't understand Mal's sudden change of heart later in the episode. Can you explain that too? Basically, I don't understand why he would leave “crew” behind – or rather, why he would consider somebody “crew” that he had left behind. (And the previous couple episodes had given me the impression that he had already warmed up to Simon.) –  Bradd Szonye Feb 25 at 5:19
    
Perhaps the crew's objections finally got to him, and he realized he was being a stubborn, temperamental jerk about it? –  Bradd Szonye Feb 25 at 5:36
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So to be completely honest I just finished rewatching the whole thing and assumed that would be the next question, so I updated the answer. Basically I don't think we should take Mal's sudden change of heart as accidental or lighthearted - he made a very conscious decision, in the face of trusted peers, to accept Simon as crew and go back and save them. This is poignant in that it fundamentally shifts his relationship with the Tams. –  joshbirk Feb 25 at 5:50
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Well upvoted the question because it is clearly the core conundrum a viewer should have in mind when watching the episode in general. This is not a convenient plot point to expand on Book, it's a specific one that tells the situation on the ship between Mal and the Tams. Which is pretty close to the core conflict of the show. –  joshbirk Feb 25 at 5:58
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I think he trusts Jayne more after Ariel because Jayne finally understood that everyone on the ship was "on the crew" and deserved Jayne's loyalty. Jayne showed that by wanting to have Mal cover up his treachery to keep the crew's good opinion when Mal was going to kill him. –  Oldcat Feb 25 at 18:05
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I actually disagree with the previous answers slightly.

I think that Mal had absolutely no intention of abandoning the Tams. They had been kidnapped but kidnappers do not normally kidnap and immediately kill people, what would be the point? Hence Mal knew he had time before the Tams' situation became life threatening.

However, Book was literally dying and needed medical assistance immediately.

Mal tried every trick he could think of and had to be forcefully prompted by Inara before he went to the Alliance ship for aid. Once Book had been treated they immediately came back for the Tams. Unfortunately a series of unlucky events had landed the Tams at the point of death anyway but these events could not have been predicted! It seems fairly clear that if there had been a dangerous situation (e.g. the kidnappers were not caught busy at a witch burning but were armed and ready) then Mal would have taken his crew in to forcefully extract the Tams. They are a part of the crew

Nutjob: The girl is a witch.

Mal: Yeah, but she's our witch. So cut her the hell down.

Having them was also a way for him to keep fighting the alliance, as Jane said "The alliance starts the war and you volunteer" and Zoe observes that he always ends up in an Alliance bar on Unification day - he took any chance he could to continue his battle with them. He reflected that life would be easier without them and, of course, he is right but I felt it was more a moment of self reflection than genuine doubt over whether he should go back for them.

As for explaining himself, Mal does not explain himself. He is the Captain and feels that once he has made a decision he does not need to explain it and the crew should follow orders whether they like it or not.

For a good example of him not explaining himself watch 'The Message'. If he had explained his plan to Tracey he would have gone along with it but Mal would not he just gave the orders.

For a good example of him telling the crew to follow orders whether they like it or not watch Serenity and see how he reacts when telling the crew to disguise the ship as a Rever ship.

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Hmm, good point about Tracy. That's another time when Mal could have saved himself and his crew some grief just by opening his mouth. It's sort of a consistent character flaw with him. Although I think that may be consistent with joshbirk's answer too. Because I think Mal was genuinely peeved with both Tracy and Simom in these instances. Still, thanks for the alternate perspective. +1. –  Bradd Szonye Feb 25 at 14:44
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Another way to phrase the question is: Did Mal always intend to return for the Tams? It is hard to answer because there is a lot of focus on Mal and Book while the Tams are kidnapped. I think it is his response to Zoe's line where he has actually decided that he will. He agrees it is simpler, but Mal's never really been the one to choose simple for what he thinks is right. And his justification to himself is that yes, they are indeed crew. –  joshbirk Feb 25 at 17:39
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"They're in his crew". That's why he was always going back for them. However, there was no reason to think their life was in danger - those kidnapped were kept for their job skills - and Book needed help. He didn't have time to hunt for the Tams. –  Oldcat Feb 25 at 18:00
    
They don't actually know that those kidnapped were kept for their job skills, only that "tradesmen and the like" are taken. And as the events on planet show, there would be every reason to be concerned River would not be kept alive. Nor do they know how well treated Simon might be - even if he was alive ... or if he'd even be kept on planet. I think Mal has real indecision about whether River is worth the trouble here. He decides she is, but I don't think that was certain through the whole episode. –  joshbirk Feb 25 at 20:47
    
Having the Tams on board was just another way for him to fight the alliance. Like Jane says "the alliance starts the war and you volunteer". I don't think he had any intention of abandoning them even though he reflects that life would be easier without them –  Stefan Feb 25 at 23:53
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In addition to the well-written answer from Joshbirk, we see on numerous occasions that Captain Malcolm Reynolds is not a man given over to explaining his decisions to the crew - even to the extent of making him seem cold and calculating.

For example, in Bushwhacked, he only tells those people who he needs to about the booby trap. In Out of Gas, he expects Wash to return to the bridge and work on getting Serenity flying (as this will help all of the crew). Then in The Message, he ultimately causes his old friend to die because he doesn't explain why he is doing what he is doing. And in the Big Damn Movie, he orders the crew to use the bodies of their fallen friends to disguise their ship.

However, we see over and over that Mal is a sentimental man, and will go out of his way to help people - even if it's going to hurt him in the long run (the end of The Train Job, taking Jayne back into the crew at the end of Ariel).

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