If the answer is yes, then 'Trash' was for you. Otherwise: Eh.

By Jeff Jensen
Updated May 09, 2011 at 03:00 AM EDT
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Credit: Fox
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  • TV Show
network
  • The Science Channel

“Trash” is one of three episodes of Firefly that Fox declined to air during the show’s original run in 2002. Those shelved treasures have since been seen by any and all who care via DVD and previous cable network telecasts. “Trash” brought back Mad Men’s Christine Hendricks as Saffron, the sexy silver-tongued scam artist who duped Mal into marriage and tried to sell Serenity for scrap. It also exposed Nathan Fillion’s backside — and nearly all of his frontside — to the world: The opening and closing sequences featured Mal in the desert, wearing nothing but his birthday suit. Looking almost Thinker-esque as he sat on a rock pondering the skyline, the pants-deprived Captain Tightpants opened the show by saying: “Yep. That went well.” Fillion’s line reading suggested sarcasm. Fake-out! When we returned to the exact moment in the final act, we realized he was being totally sincere: The risky scam that cost him his clothes — but gained him a priceless treasure plus sweet vengeance against Saffron — had gone very well indeed. So much so that he seemed unbothered if not utterly oblivious to his nakedness. His shipmates were as surprised as we were to find their leader in the buff, but were more amused than uncomfortable by the spectacle. If Mal was unashamed of his nakedness, neither were they. So it goes in the ironic iron Eden of Serenity, where morality is relative, innocence is a state of mind, and snaky deceit is acceptable — as long as you’re not screwing your crew.

“Trash” had a slick premise. Mal and co. reluctantly teamed with Saffron to steal a priceless artifact – an original “hand-held laser pistol,” “the forerunner of all laser technology” – from a rich antiquities collector. Said antiques also included dollar bills, a phone booth, and… the Mona Lisa?! And said collectors turned out to be Saffron’s first husband — a little detail among many that she neglected to mention to Mal when she pitched him on the scheme. Saffron’s fibs within lies within treacheries produced a series of complications. We were left to wonder if Saffron’s evil was willful or pathological. Did she choose to be a snake, or was she the scorpion whose nature demanded that she betray the poor frogs that trusted her? And what was her real name, anyway? Was it possible that she had somehow forgotten? Regardless she was loathsome for her willingness to prostitute emotional intimacy as well as her body for money. Mal may have been fooled by some of her misdirection, but he never questioned her utter inauthenticity. This fundamental distrust of her — his confidence that she would always betray him, no matter what –allowed him to walk her right into the trash-can trap he had arranged with Inara. The scammer had been scammed. Saffron underestimated — or is that overestimated? — both Inara and Mal. She never thought the principled Companion Inara would get her hands dirty, never thought that Mal would use even her in his dirty work. (If only Saffron had been privy to the scene earlier in the ep, where Mal and Inara argued over the very issue — a scene that effectively set effectively us for that last, triumphant twist.) Put another way: Mal used one “whore” to bring down another. Neat.

NEXT: “Trash” = Allegory for Firefly’s behind the scenes struggles?

With a title like “Trash” it’s tempting to wonder if Joss Whedon and his team produced the episode anticipating the show’s demise or knowing it was a goner. This was a story about Mal and co. trying to make a fortune off a precious, rustic sci-fi western artifact — and then scrambling to save it from the garbage heap. Shifty Saffron and Proudly Bare Mal speak to Firefly’s creative struggle. From the beginning, Fox and Whedon clashed over the best way to launch the show to the public, modulating Firefly’s form at the risk of compromising its identity for survival’s sake. Maybe it was foolish for Fox and Whedon to think that something as unruly as Firefly could work; interesting, then, that we got the scene where Saffron chastised her antique-collecting ex for thinking she’d be content to be a settled, kept woman — that she could be tamed and domesticated. (Which is not to say Fox is a bad guy. In fact, if the husband is the network in this messy allegory, then it’s interesting to note that guy that Saffron has portrayed as a dirty rotten scoundrel turned out to be a relatively sweet if self-deluding fat cat.) But Naked Mal was the show making a declaration: I am what I am, and I feel good about that. If I go down, so be it, and that would be a shame, but it would be worse to go down pretending to be someone that I’m not. (To be clear about the tortured analogy: “I” = Mal = Firefly.)

The more I think through “Trash” the more I like it, but I must confess I wasn’t bowled over by the episode when I was watching it. I liked the episode’s conceit and thematically rich expressions of deceit, but the execution fell short for me. Even the performances seemed to be lacking — including the usually compelling Fillion. There were moments when he seemed oddly subdued and other moments when he seemed oddly strained. Could he not connect with the material? Was he bummed out from having just been told that the show was getting canceled? Did the prospect of having to bare his butt on national television mess with his head? I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me.

At the risk of really pissing off the Browncoat set, let me put forth these fighting words: Watching “Trash” anew — and doing so knowing its status as a never-aired installment, as a casualty of Firefly’s early demise — I saw the episode as an argument for the network’s decision to cancel the series. To be clear, I wish they hadn’t. I’m just saying that “Trash” — no matter how enjoyable — exposes Firefly’s limitations as a weekly, long-running storytelling machine. Here was yet another heist yarn, and one with fewer character revelations and less emotional resonance than “Ariel.” The individual motivations for everyone’s morally murky behavior were somewhat forced. (Mal wanted to… impress Inara? Inara wanted to… impress Mal? Zoe was okay with doing business with Saffron because she… got to punch her? Oh, and everyone was “acting” around Saffron as part of the scam?) The special effects required to bring the world to life and for the drama to work were ambitious (see: those floating estates; the flying garbage drones) – maybe too ambitious for weekly TV. Some shots were impressive, others weren’t. As much as I wish Fox had allowed Firefly to ride out a full season, I can see why they weren’t wild about the prospect of more and more “Trash.”

@EWDocJensen

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Firefly (Flashback)

Nathan Fillion stars in Joss Whedon’s tragically short-lived space western. Join us in revisiting the complete run of the series
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  • On Hiatus
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  • The Science Channel

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