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In the first, double-length episode "Serenity" of Firefly (not to be confused with the film Serenity), Mal and his crew attempt to cut a deal with the dodgy Patience. Before their meeting, Mal sends Jayne around the valley to deal with the snipers that he's sure Patience has in place. We see a few cuts between Mal talking with Patience and Jayne watching through the sights of the sniper rifle. When it becomes clear that Patience is out to get them, Jayne starts the shooting.

How did Jayne know exactly when (or whether) to act? Sure, he could see through the rifle sights that Mal had just tossed the money back to Patience, but there could be other reasons for that - it was too little, or he was just checking it before their exchange of goods, or they'd amicably decided to back out of the deal. If that had been what had happened, it would've been Mal's side who started the violence unprovoked.

Out of universe, of course it's "cool" to have the hero complimenting the enemy sharpshooter's hat and the henchman shooting it off right on cue. I'm looking for an in-universe explanation.

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Mal knew all the way that Patience was going to betray him no matter what:

MAL See you in the world.

He hits a button, ending the talk. He stares down at the console for a long beat.

MAL (cont'd) I believe that woman's planning to shoot me again.

JAYNE She meant to pay you, she'd'a haggled you down some.

WASH Just a little effort to hide it would've been --

So he’s prepared for that. The remarks by Mal are actual commands to Jayne via comms:

JAYNE I buried 'em good. The equipment's back on the boat. (into comm) Testing. Testing, Captain, can you hear me?

MAL (deadpan) I'm standing right here.

JAYNE (into comm) You're coming through good and loud.

MAL 'Cause I'm standing right here.

JAYNE Yeah, well... but the transmitter's...

So when the time comes:

MAL Two-Fry. Nice hat.

Two-Fry is BLOWN off his horse by a shot from the unseen Jayne.

Note the way the phrase is constructed: "Two-Fry" to identify the target. "Nice Hat" to signal the action.

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    I thought 'nice hat' was to indicate to Jayne which guy to shoot (i.e. the guy with the nice hat) – Valorum Jul 18 at 11:59
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    Confirmed. The script indicates that "nice hat" was in reference to the hat that he was wearing, not a pre-arranged code; PATIENCE (pauses): That'd be Two-Fry, here. [Two-Fry smiles. He is scruffy and mean, and wears the shiny top hat] MAL: Two-Fry. Nice hat. - myths.com/pub/tv/firefly/script-serenity-part-1-2.html – Valorum Jul 18 at 15:56
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    Mark It seemed to me like it was not pre-arranged at all, how would they know that any of the guys would definitely be wearing a hat? It could just be casual Mal conversation, or it could have been an on-the-fly way to let Jayne know which guy Mal was talking about, since Jayne was farther away and might not have been able to see everything (if he didn't have a hat it could have been any other distinguishing feature that could be seen from far away). – user3067860 Jul 18 at 20:48
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    Yes, but Mal saying "Hey, I'm going to describe something obvious the guy is wearing, then you shoot." Would make "Nice hat" a pre-arranged signal. From my interpretation, it's pretty clear that the line is a straight signal to Jayne to start shooting, which means it had to have been discussed at some point prior (making it pre-arranged, even if the hat part was not) but given Jayne's propensity for violence, I suppose it's just as likely he started shooting because he wanted to. – Mark Jul 18 at 20:57
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    Jayne started shooting because Patience (radio in hand) was about to order her men to draw down on Mal. Mal then asked her who the best shot was (the highest value target) and then identified him to Jayne over the radio, trusting Jayne to realise that he should start shooting. There's no pre-arranged signal here, just a team of military pros working well together and anticipating each other's needs. – Valorum Jul 18 at 23:32
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Jayne was able to shoot on cue, because he could hear the cue. He was listening in to Mal's conversation over the radio.

Jayne: [over radio] Testing. Testing, Cap'n, can you hear me?

Mal: [Standing next to Jayne] I'm standing right here.

Jayne: You're coming through good and loud.

Mal: 'Cause I'm standing right here.

  • 10
    Well duh, I forgot that part. Thanks. – Rand al'Thor Jul 18 at 10:49

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