Almost done with our summer trip through Joss Whedon's outer space Western "Firefly" (which will definitely extend an extra week, since I watched the "Serenity" film yesterday with a friend), with a review of "Heart of Gold" coming up just as soon as I sneak up on a fellow while he's handling his weapon...

"Well, lady, I must say: you're my kind of stupid." -Mal

"Heart of Gold," like "Shindig" before it, is heavy on both the Mal/Inara sexual tension and Old West imagery. (In fact, it's the first episode with unmistakably Western trappings since the opening scenes of "Our Mrs. Reynolds.") Yet where both those aspects bothered me in "Shindig," I quite like "Heart of Gold."

What's the difference? A couple of things. First, on the Mal/Inara front, "Heart of Gold" isn't full of the banter between the two of them that's meant to be cute and charming but comes out mean and ugly. It takes the characters' repressed feelings for each other seriously, and in showing Inara's grief-stricken response to the knowledge that Mal slept with her friend Nandi(*), it makes clear just how deep those feelings flow from her side. This isn't an episode trying to tell me two people are in love when I don't really want to see them together; it's showing me how messy their emotions are and how hard it is to have them in the arrangement they have.

(*) Melinda Clarke, in between Lady Heather from "CSI" and Julie Cooper from "The O.C."

Second, by explaining that Rance Burgess(**) is a rich man who's moved out to the rim so he can live out his cowboy fantasies, it helps justify doing an episodic riff on the defending-the-fort Western archetype.(***) I still think the Western stuff works better as metaphor than as a literal translation on the show, but if part of the idea is that the rim is filled with spoiled rich men like Burgess who have taken the exodus from Earth as an excuse to role play, then it doesn't seem quite as ridiculous.

(**) Fredric Lane, shortly before he played Marshal Mars on "Lost."

(***) The best of these is Howard Hawks' "Rio Bravo," with John Wayne, Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson. It was so good, in fact, that Hawks and Wayne essentially remade it twice (as "El Dorado" and then "Rio Lobo") and no one much minded.

The Western trappings, and the focus on whores who, as Inara is quick to point out, are not Companions (even if Nandi was trained as one) also allows Joss and company to revisit one of his pet themes: the way women are treated in traditionally patriarchal societies. We've seen that the future of "Firefly" has balance in some areas: on the Alliance planets, the Companions have more power and prestige than most of their clients, while no one at any point comments on Zoe's gender when it comes to her skills as a soldier. One of the downsides of the freedom from civilization that Mal seeks is being in places like this where men can get away with viewing women as property, where Burgess can give a speech about how he intends to remind everyone "What a woman is to a man" right before he orders Shari the traitorous whore to perform oral sex on him in front of a frenzied crowd of mercenaries.

But the whores, with some help from Mal and the crew, turn out to be much tougher and more resourceful than Burgess took them for, and though Nandi dies, it's clear from Petaline's actions and attitude in killing Burgess that she's going to help carry on Nandi's tradition of strength and independence for the other ladies of the house.

Mal, meanwhile, finally has sex (remarkably deep into the series for a character nicknamed Captain Tightpants), then has to grieve Nandi's death along with Inara. And he has to see that his night with Nandi has pushed his complicated relationship with Inara past the breaking point, to where she decides it's time to leave.

Her desire to do so is something the series wouldn't have to deal with long-term, what with the cancellation and all, but it did lead to Morena Baccarin's strongest work of the run, and an hour that made me wish that I had gotten to see more of the evolution of Mal/Inara than "Serenity" could ultimately provide.

Some other thoughts:

  • While the movie would deal with Inara's departure from the ship, this episode hints at a storyline that we unfortunately never got to see: Zoe's desire to have a baby with Wash. There are many stories I would've loved to see if the show had kept going, but Zoe finding the balance between mother and  warrior woman would have been high among them.
  • Some good Kaylee-related humor in this one, including her opinion of the male whores ("Isn't that thoughtful?"), and her need to get Wash to compliment her - "Were I unwed, I'd take you in a manly fashion" - because she feels lonely seeing so much of the crew paired off.
  • Also a very good Jayne episode. Yes, he immediately starts taking out his payment in trade, but he turns out to have chosen a simpatico whore (she gets aroused by talk of loading his pistols) and is his usual capable self during the fight.
  • I haven't had much time to browse the deleted scenes as I watch these episodes, but was there a bit that got cut where Kaylee has to fly Serenity while Wash runs the engines? That seemed to be what was being set up by their fight on the ship, with Wash locked on the wrong side of the galley, but there was never a payoff.
  • Back in "War Stories," Book justifies his gun-toting role in the rescue mission by noting that the Bible is fuzzy on the subject of kneecaps. I imagine it's much less fussy with his role here, where he's using a non-deadly weapon in the fire hose, but using it to set up Burgess's men to be killed by Zoe. Book's struggle to follow his faith as he got further assimiliated into the crew was yet another ongoing subplot we never got to see much of, alas.

Coming up next: the final episode of the TV show, the foot fetish-istic "Objects in Space." And, as mentioned above, the plan is to do some kind of write-up of the movie (even a brief one) on the 14th to close out these reviews.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com