Subversion of Traditional Western Elements in Joss Whedon’s ‘Serenity’

Serenity1_Small Writer/Director Joss Whedon’s 2005 film Serenity combines genre conventions of both Westerns and futuristic science fiction films.  Though the events of Serenity and the Fox television series that inspired it, Firefly, take place a little over 500 years in the future, everything from the character typology and dialogue to the stories and costuming are more akin to classic Westerns than sci-fi films.  However, though series-creator Whedon more heavily utilizes elements from Westerns, he does not simply transfer them unchanged.  Instead, Whedon rewrites traditional Western conventions in order to make them more reflective of and relevant to contemporary society.

Before examining how Whedon alters meaning, it is important to examine what about the Western genre allows for such changes.  According to Jim Kitses essay, “Authorship and Genre: Notes on the Western,” as long as a few basic elements are used, “a wide range of variation is possible in the basic elements of the form.” [1]  What Whedon takes from the Western genre, with slight variations that are explained below, is the iconography and themes typically associated with it.  Kitses explains that, “it is only through mastery of these [icons and themes] that a film-maker can both engage his audience and order the form in a personally meaningful way.” [2]  So Whedon is able to skew his reworking of the Western so far from the original concept because, as Kitses explains, “so long as the world evoked is other, few limitations exist.” [3]

The first element Whedon retains in a minimally altered form is the historical and political environment typical of most Westerns.  Kitses states that at its most basic, “the western is American history,” and that, “American frontier life provides the milieu and mores of the western [emphasis in original].” [4]  Whedon does not use the traditional frontier timeframe, which Kitses describes as, “from about 1865 to 1890 or so,” [5] instead recreating a similar environment in a future frontier.  Like such films as John Ford’s The Searchers or George Stevens’s Shane, Whedon places the narrative in a post-civil war political climate in an uncivilized wilderness.  As Rhonda V. Wilcox and Tanya R. Cochran explain in their introduction to the collection of essays Investigating Firefly and Serenity, “Firefly follows the Western historical pattern in that it is set after the time of a civil war.” [6]  Placing the narrative post-war allows audiences to relate to the film’s universe, or ‘verse as the characters call it, in the same way as classic Westerns.

By establishing a post-civil war world, Whedon sets up the basic conflict between morally correct rebels and a corrupt and oppressive empire often seen in earlier Westerns.  In the Firefly/Serenity universe, the Alliance, synonymous with the Union, defeated the Browncoats, proponents of individual rights who importantly do not share the Confederate Army’s support for slavery, and united the “Central Planets.”  The Alliance stands in for the corrupt capitalist villains who try to force individuals to follow their way of thinking such as the mining company in Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller or the cattle rancher Rufus Ryker in George Stevens’s Shane.  The Alliance, essentially a recreation of the Galactic Empire in George Lucas’s Star Wars films, represents the advance of evil capitalistic civilization that is unconcerned with individual freedom.  In contrast, the crew of the “Firefly-class” spaceship, Serenity, some of whom fought against the Alliance in the war, represents the oppressed individuals who fight against a purely capitalist civilization that attempts to civilize the frontier through a sense of community.  As Lorna Jowett explains in her essay, “Back to the Future,” “Firefly’s Western/science fiction hybrid contrasts physical humanity, often on the frontier planets, with alienation and dehumanization under the Alliance.” [7]

However, Whedon does not only provide the typical capitalist enemy that threatens individual rights, he also includes the threat of the frontier often embodied by Native Americans in classic Westerns.  In the case of the Firefly/Serenity universe, the savage pseudo-humans called Reavers represent the savage threat of the untamed frontier.  Though typical Westerns do not typically include both types of threats, Whedon links both threats and makes them two ends on the spectrum of civilization between which Serenity’s crew stands.  As Lorna Jowett characterizes them “frontier inhabitants (or marginal operators like Serenity’s crew) are resistant to both civilization (epitomized by the Alliance) and to the wilderness and its ‘primitive’ attitudes.” [8]  However, both the Alliance and the Reavers represent a loss of humanity.

Whedon works to code the Reavers as inspired by typical representations of Native Americans seen in classical Westerns.  The Reavers’ ships are distinguished from normal ships by the red war paint covering their exteriors.  This paint is reminiscent of the war paint typically worn by Native American aggressors in classic Westerns.  The ships also have protuberances on their outer shells that resemble the ornate feather headdresses often featured in older Westerns.  Whedon even references the idea of scalping and physical mutilation in the fact that, after cannibalizing their victims, the Reavers wear their skins.  The Reavers act as extreme versions of the prototypical Native American savages seen in earlier Westerns.

Whedon’s depiction of the Reavers is most like that seen in John Ford’s The Searchers.  In that film, Scar and his dangerous band of Indians raped and murdered John Wayne’s character Ethan Edward’s family and even took some of their victims’ scalps.  However, the savages in Ford’s film were not seen as completely beyond humanity as the Reavers in Whedon’s film.  Through the fact that Natalie Wood’s character in The Searchers, Debbie becomes accustomed to living with Scar and even briefly wants to stay with them indicates that humanity is not irretrievable after living with Native Americans.  The Reavers on the other hand are never depicted as redeemable.  Zoë Washburne, Serenity’s second-in-command, characterizes them in the series pilot “Serenity” and it never changes much.  When asked what will happen if they board the ship, Zoë replies, “They’ll rap us to death and sew our skins into our clothing.  And if we’re very, very lucky, they’ll do it in that order.”  Whedon even addresses the impossibility of regaining humanity after experiencing the Reavers’ horrors in the episode “Bushwhacked” when a man who watched Reavers murder his friends is so traumatized he becomes like them—much like the hysterical women in The Searchers who have gone irrevocably mad after living with Scar’s men.

Why Whedon chooses to make his savages irredeemable ties into why the Firefly/Serenity has dual villains.  In their essay “Reavers and Redskins: Creating the Frontier Savage,” J. Douglas Rabb and J. Michael Richardson suggest that, “Whedon is attacking and deconstructing the ‘savage Indian’ found in 1950’s ‘B-Westerns.’” [9]  Certainly, the Reavers could be read as a rewrite of the earliest and most stereotyped depictions of Native Americans in popular Western culture, but it seems a little rash to suggest, as Rabb and Richardson later do, that this depiction should somehow paints Serenity’s crew as prejudiced.  Their acceptance could perhaps occur if the Reavers were the least bit humanized, but throughout the series and the film, they remain simply evil savages that pose nothing, but danger and an abomination.  The closest Whedon ever comes to humanizing the Reavers is in the film.  Rather than showing them as having any redeeming qualities, Whedon explains what made the Reavers so vicious.  In doing so, he also makes clear why he uses the Reavers and the Alliance as dual villains.  Through River’s ability to read minds, the Serenity crew discovers that the Reavers were created when the Alliance drugged the inhabitants of the planet Miranda in an attempt to remove all signs of aggression.  While 99.9% of the population became so peaceful they eventually lost the will to live, the rest had the opposite reaction and became hyper-aggressive savages.  In this way, Whedon retains the idea of the wilderness as a place populated by vicious savages who constantly threaten Serenity’s crew while also making the oppressive Alliance the ultimate evil power.

Just as Whedon uses settings and villains similar to classic Westerns, Firefly/Serenity’s characters are just as fitting with the genre’s iconography.  The ship on which the main characters live, Serenity, can be thought of as equivalent to the small town on the outskirts of civilization.  Like Shinbone in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or Tombstone in My Darling Clementine, Serenity represents the ideal small town that is the hope of civilization for the frontier.  The ship’s name even suggests that its status of a haven.  However, like the slightly darker names of the aforementioned films, within the context of the Firefly/Serenity world, the ship’s name represents the final and bloodiest battle of the war, The Battle of Serenity Valley, between the Alliance and the Browncoats.  Though the ship’s captain, Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds never explains why he names the ship after the battle where he and his second-in-command Zoë were the only survivors in their platoon, it is likely the battle represents the moment Mal realized captaining his own ship would be the only way to find the freedom he desires.

Mal is the ship’s most important inhabitant in that he is its moral center; if Serenity were in fact a town, he would likely be its sheriff.  Mal’s clothing and weaponry code him as a traditional Western hero.  He typically wears a long brown coat that not only signifies is devotion of the rebel cause, but also recalls the costuming in films like Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West.  Mal also carries a single pistol reminiscent of the guns used by Leone’s characters.  As Mary Alice Money notes in “Firefly’s ‘Out of Gas,’” “the weapons evoke the American West of reality, classic movies and television adult Westerns, and television’s science fiction West.” [10]  However, Mal is not a sheriff on the side of the law, he is a smuggler constantly at odds with the Alliance because he fought as a Browncoat.  He is most akin to John Wayne’s character Tom Doniphon in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  Mal is coded as a hero in the vein of Leone’s heroes, but with a far stricter moral code.  As David Magill characterizes Mal in his essay “I Aim to Misbehave,” “Three main beliefs comprise Mal’s ethics…: take care of your crew; protect the weak and help the needy; exercise lethal violence with restraint.” [11]  Indeed every action Mal takes within the series and more importantly the film, which is discussed below, indicate his moral code.

The characters that inhabit Mal’s ship, or really his town, also represent the major character types represented in classic Westerns.  However, in typical fashion, Whedon slightly alters each character to make them more fitting with contemporary character types.  There is the morally correct preacher, Shepherd Book who provides Mal with a constant reminder of what is correct.  However, there is always the suggestion that Book had a violent past and may have worked for the Alliance.  He is just as proficient in combat as the rest of the crew and during the film, he is able to give Mal insight into how the Alliance will attack them.  There is the doctor Simon Tam who, unlike typical Western doctors like My Darling Clementine’s drunkard Doc Holliday, is so proper he has difficulty connecting with the crew.  Simon is the civilized man of the Central Planets, representing the East in terms of the American West, who has trouble adapting and does not want to adapt to frontier ways, much like Jimmy Stewart’s character Ranse Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  Jayne Cobb combines the unintelligent and lecherous qualities of the Gorch brothers in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch with the mercenary qualities of the Man with No Name character in Sergio Leone’s Dollar’s Trilogy.  However, Jayne represents the first instance in which a character breaks with its classic Western roots.  Unlike the mercenaries of Leone’s films, Jayne’s willingness to betray his crew for money does glorify him, but marks him as inferior to the rest of the crew.  It would be difficult to imagine Mal or the ship’s pilot Hoban “Wash” Washburn, who acts as the series and film’s comic relief, betraying the crew.  Rather than a hero, Jayne is seen as a necessarily violent, but unstable part of the crew as well as the butt of many a joke at the expense of his stupidity.

Though the male characters offer interesting examples of Whedon’s alteration of Western character iconography, the female characters offer far more engaging material in that they reflect contemporary views of femininity.  The ship’s mechanic Kaylee Frye represents the kindly young innocent of the town whose childishness endears her to the characters and audience, but she is also endowed with masculine attributes and is far more sexualized than the typical character typology would allow.  Though the young innocent typically plays the damsel in distress, Kaylee—in the traditionally masculine role of mechanic—is characterized as having an exceptional understanding of machines and is the only person who can keep Serenity in the air.

During the eighth episode “Out of Gas,” Kaylee’s arrival on the ship is explained in a manner that displays both her prowess as mechanic and her sexuality.  As Mal searches for Serenity’s former mechanic to ask why the ship is not fixed, he stumbles upon him having sex with a woman.  As the mechanic explains the ship is beyond repair, Kaylee, revealed as his lover, quickly fixes Serenity.  Mal offers her the mechanic’s job and she runs home to ask her parents’ permission.  While the scene enforces Kaylee’s skill as a mechanic it more importantly displays her sexuality.  Sexual desire, specifically displayed by her crush on Simon Tam, is an inextricable aspect of Kaylee’s character, but her girly innocence is continually reinforced throughout the film and series.  Despite the fact that she was presumably having a one-night stand with the mechanic only moments before, Kaylee still has to ask her parents’ permission to join Serenity’s crew.  Even on the ship, Kaylee retains her childish qualities in her relationship with Mal who treats her more akin to a daughter than just another woman.

In her essay “The Threat of the ‘Good Wife,’” Laura L. Beadling characterizes Kaylee as a sexually liberated woman who “resonate[s] with third-wave feminism’s ideal of reclaiming stereotyped versions of femininity in the name of subverting and complicating them.” [12]  Kaylee’s sexuality and masculine attributes certainly complicate her femininity, but the character is still rooted in the Western genre character type.  Like the sweet and helpless characters from whom she is derived, Kaylee, according to Beadling, “also fits the stereotypical variety of femininity that mandates passive and mild-mannered women.” [13]  Indeed, unlike the other women of the crew, Kaylee never engages in battle and is more important as peacemaker than fighter.  As Beadling explains, “Kaylee’s bravery, which she displays so vigorously to defend those in her family, does not extend to her own needs and feelings.” [14]  Indeed Kaylee often mediates fights amongst the crew while refusing to defend herself.  Perhaps Kaylee’s most important peacemaking on the ship occurs between Mal and the ship’s resident prostitute, Inara.

Inara Serra acts as the ship’s registered “companion” which in the Firefly/Serenity universe means she is an Alliance-licensed and trained prostitute.  Though in the film, Inara at first seems the typical hooker with a heart of gold who needs the hero’s saving, like Claudia Cardinale’s character Jill McBain in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, she is far from helpless or ashamed of her profession.  While prostitution typically has a negative connotation in the average Western, Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar being a good example, Whedon legitimizes the profession by making it state-sanctioned and endowing Inara with a surprising amount of dignity.  Unlike traditional prostitutes, companions choose their sexual partners and are highly educated in both traditional subjects and the arts of seduction.  Their status is more akin to geishas than the common whorehouse inhabitant; Inara even interacts publically with heads of state and has influence amongst the higher classes.

However, the aspect in which Inara is most remarkable is in her interactions with Mal.  Unlike the Billie Ellis character in Anthony Mann’s Man of the West, Inara does not fawn over Mal, but instead their relationship is based upon their constant bickering.  Their interactions are more akin to relationships seen in contemporary romantic comedies with their bantering as a mark of their repressed love for each other.  For example in the film, when Inara sends a messages to Mal asking him for aid, he notes that fact that they did not fight as a sign of the fact that she is being forced to lure him there as part of an Alliance trap.

As much as Inara represents an alteration of the typical Western prostitute, one aspect in which she fits with the model is that she often stands as a motivating factor for Mal’s actions.  In the final episode of the series, hurt by the fact that Mal sleeps with another prostitute, Inara decides to leave the ship.  When the film starts, her absence is suggested as a reason for Mal’s uncharacteristically un-heroic behavior.  When Reavers attack the crew at the beginning of the film, a young man begs Mal to save him.  Rather than save him, as his character would traditionally do, he kills the man to spare him the Reavers’ torture.  Back on the ship, Kaylee suggests Mal’s uncharacteristic heartlessness is due to Inara’s departure; a fact only confirmed by the fact that immediately after, he is shown longingly watching a video of Inara’s final day on the ship.

Though Inara and Kaylee offer interesting modifications of typical Western women, River Tam offers the most interesting example.  Throughout the series, River is simply a helpless madwoman who constantly creates trouble for the crew because the Alliance is hell-bent on finding her.  River’s madness, as caused by the experiments performed to heighten her mind-reading abilities, is another aspect by which the Alliance is marked as evil.  However, River’s madness is nearly erased in the film and the she becomes a hero more fitting with the idea of the skilled female warrior seen in Whedon’s other television work, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  In the film, River’s fighting ability is shown as unparalleled.  For example, after River is triggered by a subliminal message sent from the Alliance, she viciously attacks everyone in a bar.  River’s fighting style also reflects changes in the contemporary concept of film action.  Though she is certainly capable with a gun, unlike traditional Western heroes she relies on martial arts.

The final aspect in which Whedon subverts traditional Western genre elements is in the film Serenity’s story.  As mentioned above, the film has a dual villain structure by which Serenity’s crew is terrorized by the Reavers and the Alliance.  Since the Alliance inadvertently created the Reavers in an attempt to make the population more peaceful, the true evil villain of the piece is the Alliance.  The Alliance’s representative throughout the film is a man simply called, “The Operative.”  The character is clearly influenced by the unnamed and ruthless villains of Sergio Leone’s films.  The Operative seems a clear reference to Leone’s villain “The Bad” in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  Like that character, unless Angel Eyes is his actual name, Whedon’s character is never really named.  More importantly, he is willing to do whatever necessary to achieve his goal.  While the Operative’s goal is less selfish than the Bad’s in that he believes helping the Alliance will create a better world, he is just as ruthless and certainly not averse to torture.  For example, after Mal saves Inara from him, the Operative kills all of the friends with whom they could take refuge, including Shepherd Book’s village.  When Mal reprimands him for killing the town’s children by saying, “I don’t kill children,” the Operative simply responds, “I do.”  The Operative’s ruthlessness would typically mark him out for death in a traditional Westerns, just as the Bad must be defeated at the end of the film, but once again Whedon subverts that expectation in the final battle.

Serenity’s resolution splices two traditional types of resolutions in the Western genre.  The first is the fastest-draw gunfight amongst a limited number of individuals—in this case they are Mal and the Operative.  While Mal tries to reveal to the ‘verse that the Alliance created the Reavers, the Operative attempts to stop him.  Their final battle takes place in a circular room reminiscent of the circular corrida structures Leone uses in For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  However, guns are not the means of ending the battle.  Though the combatants do compete for fastest draw, a contest Mal wins, since the Operative wears body armor, they must resort to physical combat.  Consistent again with contemporary film battles, the fight is far more violent and drawn out than Leone’s climaxes.  However, it is in the end result of the fight that it is most unlike traditional Westerns.  Though the evil villain would have to die in Leone’s films, Mal decides to spare him in order to show him that the Alliance is not truly as good as he believes.  Instead, the Operative is allowed to live and reform, in his last scene in the film he expresses is disillusionment with the Alliance.  He seems to reject his violent past and it does not seem too much a stretch to imagine that the Operative will perhaps become like Shepherd Book who seems to also have had a violent past working for the Alliance.

The second way in which the resolution recalls traditions of the Western genre is the battle of a small group of heroes against a mass of faceless enemies.  In this case, the battle occurs between the rest of Serenity’s crew and innumerable Reavers.  The scene recalls the final battles of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch in that the heroes’ survival seems hopeless against their enemies’ sheer numbers.  For a while, it seems Serenity’s crew will die just as Peckinpah’s Bunch did when each of them is injured and they are nearly out of ammo.  However, Whedon once again subverts traditions of the Western genre by finally allowing River to become the invincible hero.  Triggered by the sight of her friends’ suffering, she finally returns to sanity and uses the skills the Alliance taught her.  Like her earlier fight scene, River uses martial arts to defeat the Reavers and save her friends.  Whedon replaces the tragic ending of Peckinpah’s film with a triumphant one in which River finally regains her sanity.

In the film Serenity and the television series Firefly, Joss Whedon subverts the expectations associated with Western iconography to create a world that is clearly connected to the past, but also clearly reflective of the present.  Though the elements are still clearly identifiable, they are also clearly different from the iconography that inspired them.  Through his modifications of story structure, character typology and setting, Whedon is able to create a universe that creates meaning through its relation to the Western genre.



[1] Kitses, Jim.  “Authorship and Genre: Notes on the Western.”  Focus on the Western.  Ed. Jack Nachbar.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970.  p. 10.

[2] Ibid.  p. 25.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.  p. 8.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Wilcox, Rhonda V. and Tanya R. Cochran.  “’Good Myth’: Joss Whedon’s Further Worlds.”  Investigating Firefly and Serenity: Science Fiction on the Frontier.  Ed. Rhonda V. Wilcox and Tanya R. Cochran.  New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2008.  p. 5.

[7] Jowett, Lorna.  “Back to the Future: Retrofuturism, Cyberpunk, and Humanity in Firefly and Serenity.”  Investigating Firefly and Serenity: Science Fiction on the Frontier.  Ed. Rhonda V. Wilcox and Tanya R. Cochran.  New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2008.  p. 102.

[8] Ibid.  p. 107.

[9] Rabb, J. Douglas and J. Michael Richardson.  “Reavers and Redskins: Creating the Frontier Savage.”  Investigating Firefly and Serenity: Science Fiction on the Frontier.  Ed. Rhonda V. Wilcox and Tanya R. Cochran.  New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2008.  p. 127.

[10] Money, Mary Alice.  “Firefly’s ‘Out of Gas:’ Genre Echoes and the Hero’s Journey.”  Investigating Firefly and Serenity: Science Fiction on the Frontier.  Ed. Rhonda V. Wilcox and Tanya R. Cochran.  New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2008.  p.118.

[11] Magill, David.  “I Aim to Misbehave: Masculinities in the ‘Verse.”  Investigating Firefly and Serenity: Science Fiction on the Frontier.  Ed. Rhonda V. Wilcox and Tanya R. Cochran.  New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2008.  p.80.

[12] Beadling, Laura L.  “The Threat of the ‘Good Wife:’ Feminism, Postfeminism and Third-Wave Feminism in Firefly.” Investigating Firefly and Serenity: Science Fiction on the Frontier.  Ed. Rhonda V. Wilcox and Tanya R. Cochran.  New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2008.  p. 60.

[13] Ibid.  p. 61.

[14] Ibid.


[1] Kitses, Jim. “Authorship and Genre: Notes on the Western.”  Focus on the Western. Ed. Jack Nachbar. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970. p. 10.

[2] Ibid. p. 25.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. p. 8.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Wilcox, Rhonda V. and Tanya R. Cochran. “‘Good Myth’: Joss Whedon’s Further Worlds”.  Investigating Firefly and Serenity: Science Fiction on the Frontier. Ed. Rhonda V. Wilcox and Tanya R. Cochran. New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2008. p. 5.

[7] Jowett, Lorna. “Back to the Future: Retrofuturism, Cyberpunk, and Humanity in Firefly and Serenity”.  Investigating Firefly and Serenity: Science Fiction on the Frontier. Ed. Rhonda V. Wilcox and Tanya R. Cochran. New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2008. p. 102.

[8] Ibid. p. 107.

[9] Rabb, J. Douglas and J. Michael Richardson. “Reavers and Redskins: Creating the Frontier Savage”. Investigating Firefly and Serenity: Science Fiction on the Frontier. Ed. Rhonda V. Wilcox and Tanya R. Cochran. New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2008. p. 127.

[10] Money, Mary Alice. “Firefly’s ‘Out of Gas’: Genre Echoes and the Hero’s Journey”. Investigating Firefly and Serenity: Science Fiction on the Frontier. Ed. Rhonda V. Wilcox and Tanya R. Cochran. New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2008. p.118.

[11] Magill, David. “I Aim to Misbehave: Masculinities in the ‘Verse”. Investigating Firefly and Serenity: Science Fiction on the Frontier. Ed. Rhonda V. Wilcox and Tanya R. Cochran. New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2008. p.80.

[12] Beadling, Laura L. “The Threat of the ‘Good Wife’: Feminism, Postfeminism and Third-Wave Feminism in Firefly”Investigating Firefly and Serenity: Science Fiction on the Frontier. Ed. Rhonda V. Wilcox and Tanya R. Cochran. New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2008. p. 60.

[13] Ibid. p. 61.

[14] Ibid.

Bibliography

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Jowett, Lorna.  “Back to the Future: Retrofuturism, Cyberpunk, and Humanity in Firefly and Serenity.”  Investigating Firefly and Serenity: Science Fiction on the Frontier.  Ed. Rhonda V. Wilcox and Tanya R. Cochran.  New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2008.  pp. 101-113.

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