We're continuing our summer trip back through Joss Whedon's "Firefly" (at the end of this review, I'll have links to the previous ones) with the fourth episode, "Shindig." A review coming up just as soon as I have money for a slinky dress...
"You think you're better than other people." -Badger
"Just the ones I'm better than." -Mal
In my review of the "Firefly" pilot, I wrote that two of my biggest complaints with the series had to do with the show's depiction of companion culture, and related to that, the ugly tint it gave to the Mal/Inara Unresolved Sexual Tension. "Shindig" is, of course, about both of those issues(*), and while it deals with them in a more interesting way than we got in the pilot, it's still not one of my favorite episodes of the series.
(*) And, as an added bonus, it puts Mal and Kaylee into 19th century formalwear, so it hits the trifecta for my key "Firefly" problems.
There's a scene late in "Shindig" where Inara accuses Mal of hypocrisy for punching her client for implying she's a whore when Mal himself uses the word often in her presence. Mal makes the distinction that he doesn't respect her job, but that he respects her. That distinction makes Mal feel better about himself, and I think Jane Espenson wants it to make us think more kindly on his behavior with her, but it never flies with me. He can have that attitude, and could get away with frequent suggestions that what Inara does for a living is beneath her. Certainly, I've had friends and loved ones with jobs I didn't approve of in one way or another, and we've discussed that and moved past it. It happens. What Mal does, on the other hand, is to be as cruel and nasty as possible in any dealings with Inara that have to do with her profession, and that overrides any notion that he respects her as a person. If he really did, he wouldn't be this consistent an ass to her.
And I'd be fine if we were meant to keep on viewing Mal as a hypocrite, and to acknowledge that even our heroic Captain Tightpants(**) has his flaws. He has a superiority complex, established throughout the pilot and reaffirmed in the scene with Badger I quoted above, and his attitude towards Inara could fit into that iffy character trait easily. But the fencing practice scene, and the Mal/Inara moments that follow in the duel and then on the cargo hold balcony, suggest otherwise; suggest that we're supposed to, like Inara, forgive Mal his cruelty because he does ultmately care about her, and I just ain't having it.
(**) A nickname I've used often in regards to the character, but one whose origin I had forgotten until I re-watched this episode.
One of last summer's DVD projects, "Sports Night," also had a UST set-up with a bitter undercurrent that the show only occasionally wanted to deal with, preferring to keep things on the level of light banter and unexpected flirtation. Nathan Fillion banters as well as anyone in the business, and he and Morena Baccarin had fine chemistry back in the day, but just as I was mainly revisiting "Sports Night" in spite of Dana and Casey rather than for them, I'm glad that Mal/Inara is far from the main subject of "Firefly," even if it is of this episode.
As to companion culture in general, when I objected to it in my pilot review, several of you brought up the historical precedent of geishas (which, given the show's Asian influences, is probably a better analogy than mine to Renaissance courtesans), while others suggested that companions are viewed differently in the sophisticated Alliance planets than they are in the moons out on the rim where Mal and company largely dwell. But Atherton Wing's boorish behavior is the second time in four episodes where we've seen that even Inara's high-class clients view her job exactly the way Mal does. And that's also something that's potentially interesting: that the need for sex and other forms of companionship in post-Earth society became so great that the prostitutes finally wised up and used that need to empower themselves, but that people have certain innate feelings about those who have sex for money that can only be hidden for so long behind all the courtly mannerisms and euphemisms. The problem is that Inara herself always seems surprised when this happens to her. And that's disappointing considering what a smart, tough cookie she's supposed to be.
Given my issues with the larger parts of "Shindig," it's no surprise that my favorite part of the episode was, is and will continue to be Kaylee. It's not exactly an Eliza Doolittle gag - even in baggy coveralls and with engine grease on her nose, Jewel Staite is adorable - but it's still nice to see our resident optimist get to be the belle of the ball, and to do so by being herself. She briefly tries to fit in with the snotty girls, but instead becomes the center of (male) attention from dropping any pretensions and simply talking about engines - while still getting to enjoy the food, drink and how nice she looks in the poofy dress.
"Firefly" unfortunately didn't run long enough to give Kaylee a proper spotlight episode, but at least she gets that moment under the hovering chandelier.
Some other thoughts on "Shindig":
- We're still at the point where the show is figuring out how to reintroduce material from the unaired pilot. Badger and Mal allude to their previous standoff in Badger's office (and enough is said, and conveyed by Mark Sheppard's performance, that viewers could easily fill in the blanks), and Kaylee again goes crazy for a strawberry.
- The story of the ball and the duel are thin enough that there's time to just hang out a bit on Serenity to see Wash and Zoe enjoy some marital bliss, to see the guys play cards (and to see Jayne, naturally, cheat when the others aren't looking) and to see the two extremes of River's behavior, when she freaks out over the can labels in the pantry and then turns herself into a perfect cockney mirror of Badger when everyone is afraid she might somehow give up her true identity to a man who'd have no problem turning her and her brother in for a reward.
- I have a hard time watching elaborately-choreographed formal dance routines like the one Mal and Inara participate in without thinking of this scene from "Top Secret!" (the underrated middle film from the "Airplane!"/"Naked Gun" team).
- Inara takes the high road with Mal about him being a thief, but note that she has a fancy gizmo that allows her to break into locked rooms. (I imagine, given her profession, the value might be more in the idea of being about to get out of such a room in the event of sudden client trouble.)
- While the crew are all horrified by the notion of Jayne disrobing, I suspect there was a Browncoat or 12 throwing things at the TV when that plan was shot down.