Okay, we’re now truly into the f*ckery that was 2002 Fox Network. So, after skipping “Serenity” and airing “The Train Job” and “Bushwhacked,” Fox then aired “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” interrupted the broadcast the next week for Baseball, aired “Jaynestown” and “Out of Gas,” then finally aired this episode. Now, some people would say that nothing in this episode really impacts the three that aired before it, and that’s true, but this episode leads directly into the next episode “Safe,” and that episode has several character developments that build into the three episodes that now had aired already. In short, sh*t be whack.
Well, whatever, that’s over and done with, so let’s review the episode.
The episode starts with Mal and Jayne playing holographic pool with some men at a bar. Inara is watching, amused, until Mal reveals that he’s picked one of their pockets due to their occupation as slave traders. Unfortunately, he’s caught and a bar brawl ensues.
Back on the ship, the crew prepares to return to Persephone, the planet on which they originally picked up Book and the Tams. On the way down, Inara arranges to spend a few days with a regular client, Atherton Wing (Edward Atterton), which irks a jealous Mal. Still fuming over Inara, Mal insults Kaylee’s femininity. The entire crew, aside from Jayne, leave Mal to his own devices, which results in Mal and Jayne being abducted by Badger (Mark Sheppard), the gangster from “Serenity.” Badger has a deal in place with a man named Warwick Harrow (Larry Drake), but Harrow refuses to deal directly with Badger. So, Badger hires Mal to act as the go-between at the same party that Inara and Wing are attending.
As a sort of apology to Kaylee, Mal buys her the fancy dress she wanted and brings her as his date to the party. Meanwhile, Wing offers to make Inara his “personal companion,” which would take her off of the ship.
Back on Serenity, Book, Jayne and Simon play cards, wagering chores they have to do. River wanders around, but then tears the labels off of several cans while saying that “they’re always reaching out.” It’s revealed, though not commented upon, that the containers she destroys all bear the “Blue Sun Corporation” logo. Wash and Zoe are seen in bed, happy. As this is a Joss Whedon property, you can rest assured that they’ll both be together forever.
At the party, Kaylee is insulted by the local elite girls, until she is saved by a group of older gentlemen who admire her technical knowledge. Mal makes contact with Harrow and proposes Badger’s deal, but before he gets an answer, he is interrupted by Inara and Wing. Mal and Inara dance, angering Wing, who pulls them apart. Wing states that she is his property for the night, and almost calls her a whore, before Mal cuts him off by punching him. Wing says he accepts. Mal, confused, is told that his punch constitutes challenging Wing to a duel in the morning. Mal offers to shoot him now, but is told that he’ll be using a sword.
Harrow offers to be Mal’s second on the grounds that he liked watching Mal punch Wing. However, Wing is an expert swordsman who has apparently killed a dozen men in duels before now. Mal tries to practice with Inara’s help, but, unfortunately, he sucks at it.
Badger is sent to Serenity to keep the crew from mounting a rescue. The team tries to figure out a way off of the ship and suggests a diversion. River emerges from the back of the ship and, adopting a surprisingly good accent, pretends to be from Badger’s home world. She mocks him and his aspirations, as well as his false image, calling him “sad little king of a sad little hill.” She then leaves, letting Jayne say that her performance was “exactly the kind of diversion [they] could have used.”
The morning arrives, and Wing toys with Mal during the duel, to the point of setting up ridiculous feints and jests. To every observer, Mal is outclassed. However, Wing breaks Mal’s sword and gets distracted by Inara, leading Mal to punch him with the handle, pick up Wing’s blade and put it to Wing’s throat. The observers insist that Mal kill him, but Mal refuses, saying “Mercy is the mark of a great man.” He then changes this to “good man” and then “alright” after poking Wing in the stomach a few more times.
Wing threatens Inara, but she counters that, as a companion, she actually has more power than he does, and says that he’ll never be able to use her service again. Harrow, impressed with Mal, agrees to contract with him. Mal and Inara talk about the events while Kaylee looks over her nice dress. The episode ends with a shot of the cargo: A herd of cattle.
Alright, so, this episode appears to have very little in terms of scenes added or subtracted to compensate for the re-ordering, although, that’s probably because this episode was actually re-ordered LATER in the show. So, mercifully, I’m gonna leave that out of this review.
Whedon likes dichotomies, and this episode is no exception, with two pretty big ones.
The first is Character vs. Class. Mal pretty much summarizes this at one point in the episode: “My work’s illegal, but at least it’s honest.” Mal is saying that, while he is a thief, he makes no apologies for being a thief, nor does he pretend to be anything else. Meanwhile, everyone at the party is basically portrayed as being two-faced. Atherton is a powerful, rich, and respected man, but he’s killed 6 people for what is implied to be no good reason and at one point says that he should have “uglied [Inara] up so much no one else’d want [her].” He’s literally a murdering misogynist, and yet, the society considers him to be upper class. Harrow is a Lord, and proud of it, but he also is implied to be engaged in at least gray-market smuggling. The women who put Kaylee down are implied to be completely worthless aside from having money… and, also, they are nowhere near as attractive as her, but that’s another discussion. And, though he himself isn’t an aristocrat, River calls Badger out for trying simultaneously to lie about being an honest businessman, while also lying about how tough of a gangster he is. He’s just a “sad little king of a sad little hill.”
Interestingly, Mal calls Kaylee out for wanting to wear a dress that’s completely impractical for her work, basically reproaching her for wanting to be part of the lie, but this is kind of a contrast for his other assertions, because he ends up regretting it. And that’s because, while it is a lie, it’s also Kaylee’s dream, and it’s not right for Mal to kill that.
Aside from the party, the duel itself is pretty much the penultimate representation of the “lie of it all.” When Atherton challenges him to a duel (or accepts Mal’s unintended challenge, rather), Mal is not averse to fighting him to the death. Mal immediately says that they can shoot each other right now. However, he learns that there is intense ceremony behind the duels which serve the purpose to blur the reality that Mal perceives: This society has decided it’s okay for people to kill each other over mean words.
Now, Mal doesn’t generally seem to agree with this notion, since he routinely refuses to kill people who malign him, but he is okay with the idea of dying for a principle he believes in. Still, this is an odd moment for him, because he’s prepared to risk his life, but he’s being told that he cannot do it in a way which he considers appropriate. Then, ultimately, he refuses to kill Wing, despite all that he’s done and despite the “rules” of the society, because Mal doesn’t believe it’s right. So, ultimately, who has more class: The aristocrats who favor petty murder, or the thief who only favors killing and dying when it is on a firm principle?
Malcolm Reynolds. The answer is Malcolm Reynolds.
The other big theme in the episode is related, but, honestly, it feels a little more shoehorned in. This theme comes up in several episodes, this isn’t the best one focused on it, and it has a little more of a “straw man” representation within the episode, possibly just so that Whedon could make sure that people weren’t considering Mal to be part of a “future Confederacy.” It’s the theme of recognizing the function vs. the person, which here is represented by “slavery.”
The episode begins with Mal pickpocketing some men after finding out that they’re slavers. While Mal is a thief, this usually isn’t his preferred method within the series, which kind of makes it stand out. Basically, Mal’s general level of gentleman theft stops applying when he finds out that these people are slavers… but, apparently, he isn’t planning on doing anything further against them. So, he hates slavery, but only enough to steal someone’s wallet. Still, it’s part of the theme that he doesn’t support removing someone’s humanity by treating them as an object.
Later, the focus of Mal’s hatred towards Wing’s treatment of Inara is that Wing starts to call her a “whore” when Mal punches him. Mal then calls Inara’s school “whore academy,” leading to this exchange:
You have a strange sense of nobility Captain. You’ll lay a man out for calling me a whore, and yet you keep calling me one to my face.
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 this may seem like an arbitrary distinction, but it isn’t. Wing wants to buy Inara. He wants to make her part of his personal collection, because of her beauty and the prestige surrounding having a companion. Mal, who loves Inara, doesn’t objectify her, but appreciates her for the person that she is. He doesn’t try to control her, except in his capacity as captain.
Now, Mal also doesn’t like prostitution, but, I don’t think we ever really get a definitive statement as to why. Even in “Heart of Gold,” when they’re at a brothel, Mal doesn’t seem to really have an objection to prostitution. When asked about getting “serviced,” the conversation implies that it’s not that Mal doesn’t want to get laid, it’s that he’s a person who likes to save it for people he has feelings for, and he feels for Inara. That doesn’t explain why he seems averse to it when he first meets her, but maybe it was because of the tendency for prostitutes to be treated as less than human, even if he fights against that. Or maybe he really just is that kind of “old-fashioned.”
Ultimately, I have a few problems with this episode, too. Like I said, one of the themes seems kinda forced, even if it’s recurring. The dialogue is good, but it’s not quite as snappy as it is in other episodes. River’s scene with Badger is one of my favorites in the series, but it’s only like 40 seconds and, since the team doesn’t capitalize on it, it’s mostly pointless except to let us know that River can pretend to be other people (something that’s ancillary to the whole “psychic super-genius” thing). The duel is kind of a dumb plot device to rest on, especially given that Mal, as Inara points out, doesn’t have a problem running from a fight he’s sure to lose. Also, when Wing is toying with Mal, it really goes too far. Most of the characters in this episode, especially Wing, are a little too one-dimensional, also. Overall, I like it about the same as “Bushwhacked,” but it’s a little bit more entertaining.
Score: 2.6 Fireflies (or 1 Punch to Atherton’s Face)
See you next Friday, Browncoats.
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