Within the series Firefly, each of the characters has a very specific role that not only makes them relevant to the crew, but also critical to the continued existence of the community. Most every role in the Fordian Community is taken over by someone in the series and as a result, the individuals are able to function as a unit. This is largely due to Malcolm Reynolds, Firefly’s equivalent to the Fordian Community’s leader. His presence within the show unifies the community established on the spaceship, his choices and actions establishing him as the group’s leader and protector.
In Frisman’s article, it is stated that the leader is,
“a combination of soldier, judge, and priest, symbolizing his intervention, authority, and self-sacrifice. He is purer than the average man in service of such accepted values as tolerance, justice, medical duty, preservation of family, and love” (255).
One of the main points of this is the fact that the leader is “purer than the average man.” This may seem strange at first because Malcolm Reynolds certainly isn't pure in a classical sense, meaning he isn't innocent and optimistic. He has killed in battle; he has been hardened by suffering; he doesn't trust many people, doesn't even really like many people. However, he does operate with a very rigid sense of morality, something that separates him from some of the other characters within the story. At the conclusion of the pilot, he makes a very clear, very telling statement about his sense of chivalry. He says to Simon, “If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake. You’ll be facing me, and you’ll be armed.” This speaks straight to the soldier’s code of honor. Whereas Jayne Cobb will kill anyone, anything, in any way as long as it gets done, Mal is “purer” in the sense that he still maintains this clear sense of integrity.
Also, as the group leader, he operates under the “accepted values” Frisman proposes. When Kaylee gets shot, he does whatever it takes in order to save her. He lets his emotions for her, his emotions for his family, dictate his decisions, regardless of the possible consequences of doing so. Shepard Book even says later in the episode, “He seems strangely protective of his crew.” In this case, he is "in the service of...preservation of family and love."
From this comes an amount of self-sacrifice. When the Reavers fly by the ship, Mal tells Inara to escape, to run and take the passengers with her. He knows that should they be boarded, the Reavers will kill them all. Yet he also knows that there’s no way for all of them to get away. Without victims, the Reavers would chase any fleeing ship. As a result, he willingly stays aboard, partially because he feels it is his duty as captain to go down with his ship, but also because he feels it is his duty as leader to give his passengers the best chance of escape he can.
In addition to this, he maintains a strong sense of justice throughout the show. This is most clearly seen in the beginnings of his relationship with Simon. Originally, he is willing to turn Simon and his sister over to the Alliance. He feels that it is Simon's fault that the Alliance transmission gets out and that Kaylee gets shot. However, at the end of the episode, he reaches the point where he realizes that everything Simon did, he did to protect his sister, his family. That is something Mal can relate to, as he too would do anything to protect his family, his crew, as shown earlier. Simon never wanted anyone to get hurt; he just did what was needed to keep River safe. Acknowledging this, Mal allows Simon and River to stay onboard.
From this, Mal, throughout the series, does everything he can to ensure that the punishment fits the crime. Everything that happened because of Simon’s arrival on the ship was unintentional or born out of family loyalty, something Mal feels isn’t really punishable. However, later in the series, when Jayne betrays them, he nearly sends him out of the airlock. Jayne’s choices were intentional and born from personal gain, causing Mal to respond in a far more severe way. Therefore, he does have a sense of justice, a very clear sense of what he considers acceptable and what he doesn't. Betrayal of family, he clearly doesn't.
Basically, the Malcolm Reynolds idea of justice is summed up in “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” “Someone ever tries to kill you, you try to kill ‘em right back…You got the same right as anyone to live and try to kill people.”
Because of his Fordian characteristics, Mal is definitely comparable to both Ethan and Josey. They are all western heroes, all leaders in their own right. However, they all possess certain characteristics that identify them as individuals, as more than the stereotypical western hero. It is these characteristics that allow for the differences between the heroes to be seen, both in what drives them and what allows them to be the leaders they are.
In both The Outlaw Josey Wales and in Firefly, the heroes bring together rather ragtag groups of people, acting as the unifying force between them. On his journey, Josey befriends two Native Americans and later, a family from Kansas. At first, it does not seem as if this union could work. The grandmother of the family is largely prejudiced against almost everyone, including Josey himself. Josey is an outlaw on the run. Everyone comes from such different walks of life that there doesn’t seem to be any common factor between them, a common thread to hold them together. Yet, Josey, with his determination and his desire to do the right thing, somehow manages to do it.
A similar situation takes place in Firefly. Everyone on the crew comes from someplace different. There is a Shepard, a professional companion, a doctor, a mentally disturbed girl, an excitable ship’s mechanic, a pilot that plays with dinosaurs, and war-hardened soldiers who fought in a rebellion. Few personalities even seem compatible, Kaylee’s optimism contrasting Mal’s dark sarcasm, Inara’s gentleness contrasting Jayne’s gruffness. Still, like with Josey, Mal is able to keep them all together. His morality and strength draws people to him and causes them to stay.
Aside from this main parallel and the fact that they were all at one time soldiers, Ethan, Josey, and Mal are actually quite a bit different. Ethan and Josey are driven by revenge. This is what leads them to every choice they make, what causes them to set out on their journeys in the first place. They both want to hunt down and destroy the people who killed their families. However, this is not the case for Mal.
Throughout the show, it is clear that Mal does carry a great deal of anger and hatred towards the Alliance. He never really accepts the fact that they've taken over, that they killed so many good men and won the war. Still, particularly in the pilot, he isn’t driven by an obsession to find them and exact his revenge. Most of the time, he actually attempts to avoid the Alliance altogether. He doesn’t spend his time plotting ways to take down the government, doesn't scheme and plan until he is able to tear the organization down for what they did to him. Rather, he stays out of their way and really wishes they'd stay out of his.
Josey and Ethan though, do take very active roles in plotting their enemies' demises. Both of them make all of their decisions on the basis of getting revenge, on what will get them closest to the men they want to kill. Whereas Mal's resentment is more subtle, a restrained anger, Josey and Ethan's resentment is obvious, powerful, unwavering. Josey is determined to kill the man who destroyed his family and Ethan is determined to kill the Comanche chief who killed his family. These are their driving goals, the things they strive towards throughout the entirety of their films. While Mal hates the Alliance, he does not actively work to tear it down. He'll oppose it, yes. He'll break their laws, yes. But this isn't what drives him. Destroying the Alliance is not Mal's goal in life, separating him from the revenge driven Ethan and Josey.
However, it must also be acknowledged that like Ethan and Josey, Mal carries on the western hero tradition of “Never surrender.” Neither of the main characters in the westerns we have watched gave in to the Union. They both refused to go to the surrender and as a result, never even pretended that their loyalties had changed.
Though the war has ended, Mal never accepts the Alliance as his government, as his commanding force. He flies under the radar, doing illegal salvage work, smuggling, refusing to bow down to the law that is being forced upon him. He doesn't respect the Alliance and as a result, doesn't obey it.
His attitude towards the Alliance is equally telling. He even says in the pilot episode, “That’s what governments are for… get in a man’s way.” This idea of the Alliance being useless and ineffective, appears multiple times. Later in the series, in the episode “Bushwhacked,” the crew comes into contact with an Alliance member. The Alliance Commander says, “Seems odd you’d name your ship after a battle you were on the wrong side of,” to which Mal replies, “May have been the losing side. Still not convinced it was the wrong one.”
He remains, in attitude and in action, openly rebellious towards the Alliance, refusing to surrender just like Josey and Ethan. Even though the war is over, in Mal’s mind, the Alliance is still the enemy. Losing doesn’t mean that beliefs change, and Mal holds to his rigidly. This stubbornness, this inability to give in to something that he believes to be wrong, is a classic characteristic of western heroes throughout history.
Because of all of this, Mal is the Fordian leader. He is the unifying force, the only one capable of bringing the mismatched group together and keeping them together. It is his development as a western hero that allows this. He inspires loyalty, determination, rebellion, and through all of this, creates a family, similar to the one Josey manages to build. With a reigning sense of justice and (slightly skewed) morality, Malcolm Reynolds, captain of Serenity, becomes a leader, establishing his own slightly off-kilter community that carries on Ford's westerns, even in outer space.