In the fourth episode of Firefly, a slow episode dealing with aristocrats, ruffling dresses, and companions turns into a fast-paced (and, admittedly, bizarre) duel scenario in which Mal fights for Inara’s honor and respect. Yes, Mal gets into a fight. Again. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Firefly.
This is the first episode that didn’t draw me in immediately, but ultimately, I’m ok with that. Whedon is gradually introducing me more to the world of Firefly and I’m not the type of consumer who wants all my answers upfront without any context. Unless I’m halfway through Deathly Hallows and regretting my chapter-a-day project. Only then.
There’s a lot at work here in “Shindig,” and I must say that despite the slow pace, it was nice to see Kaylee in her element. When the crew lands on Persephone, Mal’s usually funny banter pisses off Kaylee and Zoe when he insults her for enjoying a frilly dress. It’s an uncomfortable moment and one Mal deserves. Mal’s interaction with women, which this episode revolves around, is shown to be one of conflicting virtues: alternately, he wants to protect the ones he cares about, but he’s also prone to insulting women with condescending and sometimes sexist language.
(And for the record, I do separate these sort of things from Fillion and Whedon. At the end of this episode, Whedon makes it abundantly clear how Mal’s bogus feelings towards sex work and women can actually damage people, both internally and externally. So bravo for that.)
As soon as this happens and Kaylee, Wash, and Zoe head back to the ship, Mal is hit up by Badger for a job: help transport an illegal cargo from a well-to-do aristocrat who won’t speak to a man like Badger. In order to do so, he gives Mal two tickets to the same ball that Inara is attending with a local aristocrat, Atherton Wing.
What this does is create a situation that sets all of these characters into place like a complex game of chess. Seeing Kaylee walk into that ball room in her frilly dress will probably remain one of the top moments of the entire series. It’s a great apology on Mal’s part, but I enjoy it mostly because Kaylee’s character is so radiant here, so full of life and joy. She fits in the dress because that’s her personality, and it’s hard not to break out into a wide grin when she waltzes into the room. (The scene where she sheds her expected gender role as a companion to talk shop with the men in the room is right below this, by the way. It’s a scene meant to honor Kaylee, not make fun of her, and I really appreciate Whedon’s tone there.)
Now Mal and Inara are ALSO in the room, and their awkward sexual tension begins to build over the next set of scenes. Here’s where things got really weird though. (For a reason, yes, but it’s still weird.) As we’re slowly introduced to high society on Persephone, which includes a form of dance that is very European andâ€¦.look, I don’t know what it’s called. I was going to say it seemed to stem from Renaissance times, but now I sound like a history bigot who knows nothing of older European cultures. What’s the type of dancing they do? YOU CAN ANSWER THIS BELOW?
Anyway, Mal seems strangely interested in Inara’s client, Atherton, to the point that he asks Inara to dance and then a DISASTER of a conversation happens. Mal’s natural inclination to protect those around him seemingly erases Inara’s own wants and desires, making her feel as if Mal thinks he knows her life and her job better than she does. It is a deeply problematic attitude for Mal to have (which he’ll learn very shortly). Atherton has offered Inara permanent companionship on Persephone and Mal posits that Atherton is insincere in his desire to offer her a better life.
Mal is correct that Atherton is insincere and has ulterior motives. I won’t deny that. But what he does here is insist that his opinions overwrite the feelings and lived experiences of Inara. He knows better than she does about what is best for her. It’s a deeply privileged action and, beyond that, flat out rude. Inara’s reaction to this is justified because time and time again, Mal has demonstrated to her that the thinks he exists on some moral high ground above her due to her job.
And thenâ€¦everything goes to hell. Because when Atherton orders Inara to leave with him and then says she must do what he says because “money exchanged hands,” Mal decides it’s now time for him to protect Inara’s honor: by punching Atherton in the face. When this happens, we learn that in this specific social circle on Persephone, that’s actually a challenge to duel. By sword. To the death.
Mal, seriously, must you fight everything in every episode ever.
I’m glad that Whedon is willing to criticize his own characters this early in the season. I think it’s a bold move as a writer to show that your “hero” can be wrong and can make potential cataclysmic mistakes. This is a mistake, no doubt; if Mal had taken a moment to stop being a COMPANION BIGOT and thought that maybe Inara has a bit more life experience in a situation like this, he probably could have avoided this entire situation.
From this moment on, “Shindig” returns to the intense plotting that I’ve come to expect and enjoy from this show. The threat of Atherton’s sword killing Mal is very real, especially since Atherton is a fine swordsman, and Inara and Mal’s relationship is further strained. She visits him in his private suite the night before the fight and has my favorite conversation of the series so far. She points out that Mal is quick to fight those who “offend” Inara (and implicitly his crew) through insults, yet he is also quick to insult Inara by calling her a whore. Mal tries to say that he is only insulting her profession, not her personally, as Atherton did, but he misunderstands her: her profession is her, or at least an extension of her. To insult one is to insult her, and Mal made this crucial mistake becauseâ€¦well, he’s a prejudicial asshole.
CAN YOU HEAR MY HEART WARMING FOR JOSS WHEDON RIGHT NOW
The episode ties up rather nicely, like most of them do, after a sword fight wherein Mal is injured pretty badly. (I’ve said it before and I’ve said it again: A really good writer will allow his or her characters to suffer, experience loss, and hurt. Bravo, Whedon.) Mal gets the transport job and Inara back on the ship. And off they fly to a new adventure in episode five.
- I wanted this review to focus on Inara and Mal, as the episode did, but the rest of the cast deserves nods for how well-played this episode is. The scenes inside Serenity while they play cards are humorous because we know that Mal’s situation is not as dire as they make it out to be, yet the actors manage to convey a sweaty intensity throughout.
- It needs to be said: Nathan Fillion is perfect as Malcolm Reynolds. He’s so good, in fact, that I regret writing off this show AND Castle because the previews for Castle were so irritating. His comedic/dramatic timing is impeccable, but more importantly, he’s believable. And that makes all the difference.
- WHY DID RIVER RIP THE LABELS OFF THOSE CANS. I don’t get it, guys. And how amazing was the scene where she perfectly mocked Badger’s accent and somehow KNEW HIS PAST. Jesus, she is so ~mysterious~
- I like Wash and Zoe. I don’t think I want to see another scene with them covered in that much sweat ever again. Unless, of course, Wash is reciting poetry. I might let that slide.
- “I’ll chip in.” “I’ll hurt you.” BLESS THE DIALOGUE IN THIS SHOW.
- “Is she mad or something?” Jayne, your cluelessness is actually endearing.
- “Yes sir, Captain TightPants.” BEST LINE OF ALL TIME.
- “How can we be sure if we don’t question it?” Again, proof that Kaylee is the best character on the show
- I was actually mad when the other companions dissed Kaylee. FUCK YOU, YOUR DRESS LOOKS LIKE DRAPERY.
- KAYLEE’S ROOM. Oh god, I can’t handle it.