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In Serenity, Mal first fights the Operative at Inara's home. Mal and Inara both get their butts kicked; the Operative finds a sword and starts making a big speech before he goes for the kill, when Inara surprises him by saying:

and that's not incense.

Boom! Flash bomb.

Mal and Inara escape, and the Operative is found lying on the ground surrounded by Alliance soldiers.

Mal had his gun. There was also a sword lying around somewhere near the Operative. Mal also had his hands as a weapon (to choke the Operative to death).

If Mal knew that the Operative was hunting down River and was obviously prepared to kill anyone who got in his way, and also had time to escape, why didn't Mal just kill the Operative right then and there?

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The time it would take to deliver a coup de grâce had the potential to allow the Alliance flunkies to get there. We see Mal and Inara running out and almost immediately afterwards we see the soldiers enter the room and the operative say it was just a flash bomb.

Mal knew the operative had people with him and he knew they would come running when they heard the explosion hence the priority is to get away from this battle and be free for the next battle.

MAL : No back up? We're making an awful ruckus...

JUDE : They'll come when they're needed.

In short it was a pretty sound tactical decision given the information Mal had at the time.

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    Agreed. Also, he knew from earlier that the Operative was covered in bulletproof armor, so a quick shot or two to the body wouldn't have done it. – Omegacron Dec 9 '14 at 19:25
  • +1 Also worth noting: Mal had no way of knowing how effective the flash bomb would be. If he'd turned to execute the Operative, he might have seen him standing up right then, ready to fight. – Nerrolken Jul 29 '15 at 21:17

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