This week, Malcolm Reynolds got a wife.
The first thirty seconds set us up for the theme of the episode. A man and his wife are driving their cart along the river when they're attacked by bandits. Except the man is Jayne, and his wife is Mal in a pretty floral bonnet. It's all about disguise and reversing expectations.
And then we're introduced to "Saffron." The innocent waif, and a totally meek sexist dream. She absolutely lives to please her husband. She's soft-spoken, looking down to the ground, calling Mal both "Mr Reynolds" and "sir." She asks Mal if he's going to kill her, so that he gets to feel like the kind, reasonable hero. She cooks him delicious meals, shows interest in his life, and in general "needs protecting." She's modest and self-effacing, but she is desperate to "have her wedding night" with the brave, kind man who saved her and taught her strength.
So of course, it's all an act. Because what human being is really, truly like that?
Interestingly, only the female characters distrust her before she shows her true colors. Mal grows to want to help and protect her. Wash says she's "quaint" but loves the food she cooks and is clearly delighted by her quaintness. Jayne really takes Saffron at the level she's presenting herself, and wants to trade his "favorite gun" for her. Even Book warns Mal not to take advantage of this innocent young girl.
This all adds an interesting element to all of Mal's conversations with Saffron, when he gives a feminist-y spiel about how she's nobody's property, how she should try to kill anyone who tries to kill her, how she's not to be bought or borrowed or anything like that. It's all highly valid stuff, but in a way, he's saying it because she's the perfect image of a woman who's not a threat. He gets to play the role of the gentle protector, the caring man in a world of rotten ones who teaches her how she could be. It's empowering to him to teach her to have power. It looks and sounds like feminism and empowerment, but it only exists because Mal buys into the idea that Saffron really is as meek and self-sacrificing as she pretends to be. That this fantasy could be a real person, and he could act out another fantasy by saving her from herself.
Meanwhile, Zoe thinks she's trouble, while Inara calls Saffron's role and attitude "degrading" and ultimately calls her out on her manipulations. The male characters are happy to buy into Saffron's meek act, but the female characters know that something must be up. No one is really like that.
This leaves me wondering about Saffron's appearance at the end of the episode, when Mal catches her and she attempts to seduce him again. Her costume has changed entirely, from the sweet innocent waif to the femme fatale, with her heavy makeup and cleavage-revealing top. It's like she's gone from one fantasy figure to another. Is this supposed to represent the "real" Saffron, as the figure who loves playing everyone around her, or is this another disguise, as she becomes the one-dimensional figure that Mal now expects to see?