Mal fights a duel to defend Inara's honor... or maybe he's just being pretentious

By Jeff Jensen
March 21, 2011 at 03:00 AM EDT
Everett Collection
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  • TV Show
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  • Action Adventure

Week Three of Science Channel’s Firefly revival brought us a “Shindig,” a lighter, more playful affair than the bleak thriller that was “Bushwhacked.” I wasn’t blown away by “Shindig” when I first saw it back in the day, and perhaps Fox wasn’t, either. During the original 2002 run of Joss Whedon’s sci-fi/western, “Shindig” was the third post-pilot episode produced but the sixth episode that aired, losing its spot in the intended order to “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” aka The One That Had Joan From Mad Men In It. Episodes like “Shindig” that fell more on the oater axis of Firefly’s sci-fi/western mash-up tended to feel the most contrived to me. If these future humans were advanced enough to fly spaceships, terraform inhospitable planets and play 3-D virtual reality billiards, why did they insist on living all Little House On The Prairie-ish on their colonized rocks? Ironically, my “Huh?” bafflement was similar to the Mal moment in “Shindig” when he arrived at the Jane Austen-goes-Bonanza high society soiree of the episode’s title and tried to make sense of the anti-gravity chandelier undulating in the rafters: “What’s the point of that, I wonder? I mean, I get how they did it. I just ain’t seeing the why.”

And yet I greatly enjoyed me the “Shindig” last night, without any hang-ups or reservations. It was the third time I had seen the episode – the first time in about six years, at least – and I found myself less fixated on its perplexing bits of eclectic world flair and more riveted by the thematic richness and sharp characterizations. With Firefly, perhaps familiarity breeds less contempt. I was arrested by another observation, as well: Even though Firefly is approaching 10 years old, it doesn’t appear dated at all. In fact, here is where the western/sci-fi thing actually flatters the franchise, because the classical western trappings give Firefly a timelessness that, say, the original Star Trek series lacks. Firefly wears its age well. Is it getting better with age, too? It’s a hypothesis I’ll be testing more in the weeks to come.

PRIDE AND PRETENTIOUSNESS

In which the measure of a man is counted by the jabs of his jib, and the worth of a woman is deemed irrelevant to the frills of her frippery.

BADGER: I had a problem with your attitude. Felt you was… what’s the word?

JAYNE: Pretentious?

BADGER: You think you’re better’n other people.

MAL: Just the ones I’m better than.

What does it mean to make an honest living? What does it mean to live honestly? The questions danced around and sparred with each other in “Shindig” like bickering would-be lovers who can’t decide if they love or hate each other – which is to say, like Mal and Inara, paradoxes held together with stitches of rationalization always threatening to come undone. Mal was a smuggler willing to offer his ship to anyone willing to pay, no matter what side of the law his clients reside, but possessed great integrity and decency. He’s a proverbial whore with the heart of gold. Inara? Just a whore. Sorry: Companion. Which in the wild weird world of Firefly was a legal and honorable profession, as Companions were as erudite and sophisticated as they were glamorous and beautiful. But that doesn’t make the business of buying and selling intimacy and pleasure any less morally murky and emotionally fraudulent. Maybe that’s why, legalities and lexicon aside, Mal felt justified in calling her a “whore” up until this point in Firefly. Of course, Nathan Fillion’s performance suggested that Mal felt so much more for Inara than just mere indignation. We tend to hurt the ones we love – and probably a little more so when they’re sleeping with other people and not you.

NEXT: Walking Sheep, Piggish Captains

“Shindig” began with a scene set in a roughneck frontier tavern, and so the bar brawl was inevitable. Mal and Jayne shot pool with a fellow smuggler who proudly bragged about making a killing from shipping unwilling human cargo. Enslavement, in several of forms, was another recurring theme of the episode. Mal feigned friendly interest in this loathsome sod only for the purpose of getting close enough to pick his pocket and liberate his thick wad of repugnantly acquired cash. Mercenary Jayne slurped from a bowl of mead and prepared to back up his boss if and when things got hairy. Meanwhile, Inara watched, being something of a sports fan. (Also see: her keen interest in last week’s Crazy-Ball match.) She wasn’t impressed with Mal’s self-righteous rationalization for his own criminality. It’s not like Mal was being all Robin Hood about it; he intended to line his own pocket with that blood money. Mal didn’t much care being preached to by a Companion. So began their “Shindig” warring.

After the pool hall brouhaha on Santo, Team Firefly boogied to Persephone to drum up some work. The show’s other funky fusion – a blended Asian-Western culture, produced by the union of space-faring allies China and the United States – was brought to life in the form of a bustling Chinatown-meets-Deadwood. A vision of pure purrrtynesss stopped them in their boot tracks: A high end dress shop, where a living model sported a frilly-poofy pink gown – a country girl’s idea of alluring cosmopolitan glamour. (Full disclosure: When it comes to describing female couture and characterizing a woman’s relationship to fashion, I have no f—ing clue what I’m talking about.) No one was more agog than Kaylee: “Only place I ever seen something so nice is some of the things Inara has.” Zoe replied: “Guess she needs all that stuff, life she leads.” Kaylee: “Well, sure. And sometimes the customers buy her things. She knows some real rich men…”

Mal cut her off right there. All their Inara envy rankled him. Even though their words had nothing to do with him, what he heard in them was judgment. You’re not good enough for her. Which pissed him off. And he took his self-loathing out on Kaylee, the loyal young lady that looked up to him if not loved him as a big brother. Mocking her frock fawning, Mal cracked: “What would you do in that rig? Flounce around the engine room? Be like a sheep walkin’ on its hind legs.” Kaylee was stung. Zoe coldly dismissed him. Mal knew he messed up, even if he didn’t realize how.

Did Mal really mean the demeaning sentiment of his words? Did Mal really feel that Kaylee wasn’t worthy of the dress? No: I think Mal felt that the dress wasn’t worthy of her. For him, the dress was a worthless status symbol, given his low opinion of what’s considered respectable in Alliance culture. Still, for all his haughty opposition to the dress, Mal had no problem buying it for Kaylee and making her wear it as a means to scoring a job. His old frenemy Badger tipped him off to a mucky-muck who needed some cargo shipped – cattle, as it turned out. And so it went that Mal lowered himself to clean up nice in a backside-enhancing suit and squired a dolled-up Kaylee to the Shindig to make contact with the man. Behold the moment that earned Mal his legendary nickname! Kaylee, rolling her eyes at Mal’s blather that her purpose was to “flatter” him: “Yes sir, Captain Tightpants.”

NEXT: Ball Busting

The country ball stood in subtle contrast to the episode’s billiards-and-brawling opening scene, wherein Inara took anthropological delight in observing Mal at work and play in his natural element. By contrast, Mal felt instantly uncomfortable among all the “real rich men” in a setting he called “Inara’s world.” And she was there, working it, serving as weekend Companion to a bratty aristocrat named Atherton Wing who claimed to love Inara enough to want to make their temporary relationship a permanent one. No, not marriage — ownership. He-liked-it-but-didn’t-wanna-put-a-ring-on-it… just a branding mark. Wing was clearly smitten with Inara, though he had a Mal-odorous way of expressing his feelings for her.

ATHERTON: Half the men in this room wish you were on their arm tonight.

INARA: Only half? I must be losing my indefinable allure.

Atherton: Not that indefinable. All of them wish you were in their bed.

The Mona Lisa smile on Inara’s face slipped right off her lips. Even her most ardent admirer had a way of making her feel like a mere doxy. Such is the way for the Holly Golightlys of the galaxy. Does Inara control her sexuality – or is she controlled by it? Is she mistress – or is she mastered? One for the Graduate Students at The Whedon Academy for Feminist Studies to debate, if they haven’t already.

The sight of Inara with the wealthy and allegedly better Wing ruffled Mal. He got in her business just to subvert it. He asked for a dance, and as they went through the motions, their bickering intensified.

INARA: You have no call to try to make me ashamed of my job. What I do is legal. And how is that smuggling coming?

MAL: My work’s illegal, but it’s honest.

INARA: What?!

MAL: The lie of it, that man parading you on his arm as if he actually won you, as if he loves you, and everyone going along with it. How can that not bother you?

Mal’s insecurities again seeped through – but his points about Inara weren’t wrong. Inara wanted to believe that an allegedly refined fellow like Atherton and Persephone’s upper crusties viewed her as one of them, or at least “good enough” for them. Mal called bulls—t: “He treats you like an ornament.” When Inara told him that Atherton had asked her to become his Longtime Companion, Mal scoffed. “That’s as romantic as a marriage proposal. No, wait — it’s not.” Yet Mal backed down after Inara dropped the P word. “It would be a good life, Mal. I could belong here. Call me pretentious,” she said, “but there is some appeal in that.” Mal conceded he had no business impeding her self-determination, but his Sudden Onset Quiet seemed to suggest that Inara’s vulnerable confession changed the way he viewed her. Like everyone else, Inara longed to belong – to a place, to a people, to a person. And like most of us, she was willing to make all sorts of compromises – some more troubling than others – to satisfy the yearning.

Nonetheless, Mal wasn’t about to cede anything – or Inara — to Atherton. When the uppity ass interrupted the Mal/Inara dance/debate to rudely reclaim his date with a rough hand, Mal decided to take it upon himself to defend her honor by clocking Atherton across his smug mug. But when you go undercover in an alien culture, you best be hip to the local customs. Ignorant Mal had failed to do his homework, so he didn’t know that among the Shindig set, striking a gentleman = challenging him to a duel – “with the use of a sword.”  The latter phrase set up my favorite Fillionism of the episode:

MAL: Use of a swhat?

NEXT: The difference between a great man and a just “all right” one.

No, Mal didn’t know a saber from a Subaru, and so Inara had to teach him Fencing 101. Amid their thrusting and parrying, there was more back and forthing about their respective paradoxes. This time around, it was Mal’s turn to be vulnerable.

INARA: You have a strange sense of nobility, Captain. You’ll lay a man out for implying I’m a whore, but you keep calling me one to my face.

MAL: I might not show respect to your job, but he didn’t respect you. That’s the difference. Inara, he doesn’t even see you.

And then:

INARA: Mal, you always break the rules. It doesn’t matter which “society” you’re in! You don’t get along with ordinary criminals either! That’s why you’re constantly in trouble!

MAL: And you think following rules will buy you a nice life, even if the rules make you a slave.

And then:

MAL: Don’t take his offer. … I said before I had no call to stop you. And that’s true. But, anyways. Don’t.

At dawn — The Duel. Wing relished the prospect of satisfaction. Mal gulped at the prospect of meeting the reaper via rapier. He seemed to gain an early edge, but Atherton was toying with him, and down he went, bloody and deathbound. Inara suddenly spoke up and begged for Mal’s life. Wing was distracted, and Crafty Captain Tightpants took advantage and gained the advantage. Down went Atherton, bloody and deathbound. The rules demanded that Mal finish him off. But that wasn’t his way —  though he had no problem getting in some extra licks. After declaring that “mercy is the mark of a great man,” Mal jabbed him in the shoulder with his sword. “Guess I’m just a good man.” And then he jabbed him again. “Well, I’m all right.” Mal was being spiteful, for sure. At the same time, I liked the idea that Mal was taking the measure of his own character with those jabs, until he reached an honest assessment of his own goodness. First cheap shot? Nope. Not there yet. Second cheap shot? Yep. Feels right.

The episode ended with Mal and Inara sitting in Serenity’s cow-filled cargo bay, burying the hatchet and toasting their new mutual understanding with a steel mug of wine. Inara announced she had declined Atherton’s offer. She also claimed she was never going to take it, anyway, though I wondered if what sealed the deal in her mind was hearing Mal tell her that Atherton didn’t really “see her” for who she was – and hearing Mal plaintively ask her not to go. We all want to belong, to someplace or someone – but we also want to be accepted for who we are, as we are. Mal was offering all of that, and maybe more.

INARA: Oh, someone needs to keep Kaylee out of trouble. And all of my things are here. Besides, why would I want to leave Serenity?

MAL: Can’t think of a reason.

And Mal received the unspoken thing she was giving him with a warm smile, and left it at that. Because that’s a mark of a great man – or at least, just an all right one.

NEXT: On Kaylee, Zoe and Wash, and Jayne.

Speaking of things left unsaid, there’s so much I’m not discussing, like:

KAYLEE, THE BELLE OF THE BALL. The Firefly mechanic felt like Cinderella in her flamingo-hued frippery, but she was an object of derision for a trio of cruel debutantes who blasted her for her garish threads (they suggested she fire her slave for making her something that looked so store-bought) and for generally being unworthy of their company. But then a kindly gentleman – radiating a Mal-esque cynicism about his own high society — came to her defense. He indicted the clear leader of the mean girl trio for her slutty rep (talk about low standards) and dismissed all of them: “I simply detest useless people.” Kaylee, utility incarnate, found herself the belle of the ball, dazzling the more salt-of-the-earth gents in attendance with her grease-monkey savvy. While I have issues with utility being used as the value of human worth (are we then but cattle?), I was happy for Kaylee and that affirmation of her Kayleeness. The episode left her in her quarters, back in her work clothes, admiring the dress hanging from a hook – a reminder that clothes don’t make a man or a woman; a symbol of the gosh darn purrtyness she felt about herself.

THE ZOE AND WASH POST-SEX PILLOW TALK SCENE. In an episode about perverse forms of intimacy, beauty and value, we got a great scene between Firefly’s most admirable companions. After a roll in the bunk, it was Acting Captain Zoe, well serviced and deeply satisfied, who wanted to turn over and go to sleep and her (first) mate Wash who was left begging for more. Classic Wash: “Sleepiness is a weakness of character, ask anyone!” Then he waxed a darkly comic imagining of her murder by Jayne and all the things her grieving husband would say at her funeral. It was witty if odd way of saying I love you, my wife – but I’m guessing “witty” and “odd” are two of the things Zoe loved most about her husband, and she laughed hard and suddenly found the energy to give him more. It was a sweet scene… and then I remembered Serenity, and it became a bittersweet scene. Wash’s morbid joking plays like ironic foreshadowing now. Was that the intention? I don’t know Firefly lore enough to know.

JAYNE. The Zoe/Wash half-serious/half-joking worrywarting that mercenary Jayne might kill them to gain control of the ship reminded me that I never quite bought that ongoing subplot about Jayne. It made sense, and I liked his character — I just never believed the conflict would ever produce meaningful drama. Consequently, I kinda resented the idea; the bogus tension squandered the time given to the character. Maybe I’ll feel differently during this tour of duty. I’ll elaborate in the weeks to come.

I would explore the mythological significance of River’s “Blue Sun” mumblings, the thematic significance of her psychic reading (and impression) of Badger, and the metaphorical meaning of “Tall Card” (i.e., chore poker), but I’m out of words. But I invite you to use as much message boards as you wish to shoot the “Shindig” sh—I mean, gos se. See you next week.

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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