Firefly Fridays – Episode 13: “Heart of Gold”

The last of the unaired episodes, but not the last produced. Weirdly, it contains the most scenes in the shooting script that were cut from the episode of any episode I’ve seen while following along on this re-watch, and some of them are pretty solid, though unnecessary to the plot. I’ve picked two to mention in the review summary, though I can’t find videos of them online and don’t have my copy of the DVD box set (and don’t remember them being on there).

SUMMARY

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The episode starts at the Heart of Gold brothel in the middle of what appears to be a wasteland. A group of thugs approach on horseback, followed by their leader in a hovercraft. They’re met by Nandi (Melinda Clarke), the madam. The leader, Rance Burgess (Fredric Lehne), says he’s come for what is his. Nandi states that Burgess isn’t welcome, but he ignores her and tells his men to find a girl inside. Nandi says the girl is gone, but Rance’s men drag a girl named Petaline (Tracy Ryan) out of the brothel. Rance says she’s carrying his baby, which Petaline denies. Rance takes a DNA sample and promises to take the baby back, even if he has to cut it out of her, before departing. Nandi tells the other girls that she’s going to call in some help. They state that nobody would help them against Rance.

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First, distract target. Next, block his blind jab, counter with cross to jaw.

Inara approaches Mal in the dining room as he’s cleaning his guns, spooking him in a hilarious manner that I cannot convey properly in words. The closest I have is shocklarious. They talk briefly, with Inara accidentally calling Mal a “petty crook” again, irking him. Wash enters, telling the pair there’s an emergency call, but it’s for Inara.

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Lotta guns, there, Mal.

Inara tells Nandi that she’s confident the crew will help her. Nandi mentions that Inara was ordered by her Companion Guild House to shun her after Nandi left, but Inara says that she never cared about that. Nandi thanks her and signs off. Mal, who was eavesdropping, tells her that it sounds like the Companions on the planet need help, but Inara responds that they’re whores. Mal questions her use of the term, but Inara says that it’s the truth, because they’re independent of the government system. Mal agrees to help out of principle, but Inara tells him that he’s going to be paid, because she wants to keep it professional. This clearly hurts Mal, but he still agrees.

Everyone seems on board with helping except Jayne, who comes around instantly when he finds out that they’d be helping prostitutes. At the whorehouse, Inara introduces Mal to Nandi, who seems to deduce that Mal has a crush on Inara from the way he verbally jabs at her. Jayne immediately enters and starts asking about getting “sexed,” which Mal finds repugnant.

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Jayne is not what you would call “subtle.”

In the shooting script, there’s an additional scene where, after being told that Jayne is great in a fight, Nandi tells one of the girls to show Jayne what a “Palestinian Somersault” is. Much like Jayne, I was confused as to what a “Palestinian Somersault” is, so I checked online and found no definition of this term, even on Urban Dictionary, so I can only assume it’s an act so perverted that humans won’t figure it out for centuries and that couldn’t be referenced on network TV. Either way, Jayne seems excited.

Zoë, Mal, Inara, and Nandi go off to discuss business, leaving the rest of the crew in the bordello. Simon goes to tend to Petaline with River, while Kaylee looks at the male whores and Jayne goes off to get sexed. Wash asks Kaylee if she would actually sleep with a prostitute and Kaylee responds that it’s not like anyone else wants her. Two girls approach Book, which he immediately rejects, but it’s revealed they just want a prayer meeting. Kaylee, seeing this, remarks that everyone has someone, before asking Wash if she’s pretty. Wash responds with one of my favorite Wash lines in the series:

“Were I unwed, I would take you in a manly fashion.”

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“Cuz I’m pretty?” “Cuz you’re pretty.”

Such a weirdly sweet compliment.

Mal asks about the odds of Burgess being the father of Petaline’s baby. Nandi says 50:50, but also that it’s irrelevant, Petaline shouldn’t have to give her baby up. Burgess is revealed to be so wealthy that he could actually independently fund a modern city on the planet, but that he declines to so that he can continue to act like a cowboy. Basically, he owns WestWorld, but with poor people as victims instead of robots. He’s an asshole is pretty much the takeaway. Inara and Mal decide to go meet Burgess that evening at the theatre.

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Her jewelry could buy Serenity.

Mal and Inara meet Burgess in the middle of an anecdote about forcing a boy to marry a woman he slept with, because she was “clean.” Mal uses this to compliment Burgess on his “old-fashioned values” as a way to get into the conversation. Mal inspects Burgess’s laser pistol, which has an auto-targeting correct that isn’t legal for civilians. Mrs. Burgess (Sandy Mulvihill) responds that her husband doesn’t equate legality and morality, something Mal agrees with. Mal and Inara depart, with Mal telling her that his plan is now to get everyone off the moon ASAP. Burgess receives a call and tells his wife that the child is his.

Back at the bordello, Mal tells everyone that they’re going to run. Burgess has too many guns and believes he’s in the right, which means that, even if they were to beat him, he’d just come back with more men until he won. Everyone would die, eventually. Nandi calmly accepts this, then says that she’s not leaving. Mal admires this and the crew agrees to stay. Book offers to help reinforce the windows and doors while Kaylee helps secure a solid water supply for the house. Just then, Petaline goes into labor.

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Everyone prepares for the assault while Simon helps Petaline through her contractions. Much like in the last episode, everyone is dealing with the impending likelihood of death differently. Book reassures the girls that everything will be alright, Jayne accepts that people are going to die and gets laid, and Wash and Zoë discuss having children. Wash doesn’t want kids, due to their lifestyle, but Zoë does.

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His humor and piloting skills, her literally everything else: That kid will conquer the ‘Verse

Later that evening, Mal and Nandi are talking, with Nandi mentioning that Jayne is the only one sleeping with any of the girls. Mal points out that Jayne’s pretty much the only man on the ship that would, since the others are a shepherd, a married man, and Simon. Nandi points out that Mal didn’t mention himself. Mal says that he’ll get around to sex later, but Nandi says that she hasn’t seen Mal looking at any of them. Nandi brings up Inara, implying that Mal is too focused on her to consider the prostitutes. Nandi says that she’s surprised that Inara chose to leave her base planet, since she was focused on being a head priestess.

Simon, Inara, and River are helping Petaline deliver, but Simon determines that it’s going to be a long delivery, due to her not being fully dilated yet. Petaline says she knows it’s time, but the other three prepare to wait. Back in Nandi’s room, she and Mal are drinking and discussing the incident with a dulcimer that caused Nandi to leave the Companion Guild and found the brothel. Her devotion to it came from years of working hard to build it up. Mal calls her remarkable, leading to some heavy flirtation… then some really corny flirtation, then some clever flirtation, then finally some very TV-friendly but sensual fornication.

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In another deleted scene, Book gives a sermon to two prostitutes, who then try to seduce him. Book resists, laughing it off, though he does, apparently, seem to at least consider the offer for a half-second.

Burgess meets with one of the prostitutes, Chari (Kimberly McCullough), who has told him about Mal and the crew being at the brothel. Burgess jokes to his men about calling the assault off, before revealing that his forces number in the dozens. Burgess thanks Chari, before going off on a rant about a “woman’s place” and forcing her to get on her knees to “do some chores.” It’s creepy as hell.

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The next morning, Inara catches Mal leaving Nandi’s room, dressing. Mal tries to cover up, but Inara says she’s happy for them and is not concerned about who Mal sleeps with because unlike him, she’s not Puritanical. Mal seems pleased she’s okay with the situation, until Inara finally digs at him by saying that she’s disappointed in Nandi’s taste, leaving him speechless. We then see her openly crying in a corner. Mal focuses on the fight, calling Wash and Kaylee en route to Serenity, telling them to provide air cover using the ship’s engines. Inara goes to check on Petaline’s progress before Nandi finds her. Inara and Nandi communicate wordlessly, before Nandi realizes her mistake: She’d thought that Mal was in love with Inara, but she didn’t realize that Inara was also in love with Mal. She tries to apologize, but Inara says it’s okay.

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Nandi confronts Mal about not telling her that Inara had feelings for him, but Mal starts to say that he didn’t know what those feelings were, before the bad guys arrive and interrupt. Everyone seems shocked at the number of people and the quality of weapons they’ve brought. Mal calls Wash and Kaylee about air support, but the pair are ambushed by Burgess’s men. Back at Heart of Gold, the bad guys start unleashing hell, but the crew and the hookers unleash it right back.

A firefight ensues, with Burgess’s men bringing in some heavy weapon after another, which the crew deals with using their superior planning and experience. Petaline finally gives birth in the middle of the assault, while Chari lets Burgess into the building through a hidden passage. Back on Serenity, Wash and Kaylee manage to trap the mercenaries in a hallway, but it results in Wash being trapped in the engine room.

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No one nails “comically dawning on him” like Alan Tudyk.

Burgess comes into Petaline’s room to claim his son and grabs the baby. Nandi confronts him, before Inara puts a knife to his throat from behind. Burgess surrenders the child, but then elbows Inara and shoots Nandi, killing her. Mal arrives and grieves for a moment over Nandi’s body with Inara, before running off to kill Burgess. Mal kills a mercenary and steals his horse to pursue Burgess’s hovercraft. He pulls the man off the craft and pistol-whips him rather than killing him.

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Mal drags Burgess back to the Heart of Gold, where Petaline introduces him to his son before shooting him dead. The remainder of his men leave. The Heart of Gold buries Nandi, and Mal and Inara talk onboard. She says she was glad that Mal gave Nandi a night of comfort. Mal says that life’s too short not to act on your feelings, clearly about to tell her how he feels. Inara tells him that she realized from Nandi that when you have a family like the brothel, then you never want to stop being part of it. She then tells him there’s something she should have done long ago and she’s sorry she took so long to say: She’s leaving.

She walks past a stunned Mal.

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END SUMMARY

Well, this was the Mal and Inara episode that we had kind of been waiting for this entire season, except for the part where everything goes to shit.

Well, let’s look at the positives:

First, I love that Mal sees himself in Nandi. In some ways, her refusal to obey the Companion Guild rules is basically a mirror of Mal’s refusal to obey the Alliance. When Inara is describing them, Mal supplies the word “independents.” This really explains why Mal is so eager to help them, aside from his usual charitable nature, and why he bonds so quickly to Nandi. Also, Melinda Clarke’s performance is so powerful you really do find her entrancing even if she’s playing a stock character (the hooker with a heart of gold). The comparison between Mal’s position to Nandi’s is a bit problematic in the sense that this makes the Alliance Companions while the Independents are whores, but I guess that still works.

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The Heart of Gold just wants the freedom to conduct their business as they see fit, while the Companions require a large amount of training and have to obey strict rules. The problem is that the Heart of Gold has no one to turn to when things go wrong except the kindness of strangers, while Companions have a huge amount of punitive authority and legal force to keep them safe. It’s really the best metaphor for libertarianism and authoritarianism on film: Both have their positives and negatives, but in the end, they’re just about screwing people to get money. I assume communism is just a free orgy where everyone starves to death. (Okay, that’s not an accurate representation of Marxism… or really any of them, but I thought it was funny, and it’s my blog).

Rance’s moon sort of supports my theory about the planet from “Jaynestown,” although I maintain that the lack of automation is still dumb. Non-AI robots are a fine servile class, since they, you know, aren’t capable of suffering. Rance intentionally keeps the planet poor so that he can do whatever he wants with it. The episode ends the same way it eventually does for all such people: They get killed by the people they kept trying to screw over.

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Sometimes more literally than others.

Except for, maybe, “The Train Job,” this is the most Western episode of the show, since both episodes are just futuristic interpretations of Western tropes. In this case, it’s the Alamo-style last stand, but with machine guns, air support, and lasers. The part where Mal sizes up the enemy beforehand, but also kind of sees a little bit of himself in him, is also a Western tradition. He and Burgess both don’t tend to obey laws, it’s just that Mal has a seemingly higher moral code than the law, whereas Burgess has a much lower one. The problem is, they could just as easily be the other way around when measured by a different society, something that legality usually ameliorates to an extent (though, history doesn’t look kindly upon fundamental immorality, even when it was legal). This clearly impacts Inara a bit, since, as a Companion and a supporter of Unification, she tends to favor rules and laws.

Wash and Zoë talking about kids is great, especially since they take the opposite points that characters with their emotional profiles usually take. Wash, who is so open and loving, doesn’t want to bring a kid into such a crazy world, but Zoë, who is usually a stoic, wants to have a family with the man she loves. It’s a great juxtaposition that really makes me feel how much they love each other.

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My God, I love them.

Also, everything about Jayne’s interaction with the hookers is hilarious. Literally every line.

Now for the negatives:

Rance, like Womack in the last episode, is just a poorly-written villain. He’s so over-the-top that it basically extends into generic anime bad guy status. When he’s been beaten at the end, he’s still demanding the obedience of the people present, showing no recognition of his position. His statements on the position of women and the “correct behavior of whores” would be backwards in the 1950s, let alone the 2500s. I couldn’t believe anyone would realistically hold those positions, except that there was a guy shouting it in front of the sandwich place near my apartment the day after I finished writing this, so I had to update it. Apparently, God wanted to tell me that Rance isn’t quite as unbelievable as I thought. Still, he’s not a great villain.

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Also, he misses with an auto-targeting laser at 10 feet. Twice.

The sci-fi elements of this episode are… not good. The Heart of Gold looks awful. They justify it as “solar sheeting,” but 1) you have a much bigger surface area nearby to catch the sun and 2) you’re telling me we can’t make aesthetically pleasing solar panels 500 years from now? Also, there are other power sources that seem commonplace that would blow solar out of the water, so why have it? Rance’s hovercraft looks okay for long-distance shots, but in the close-up looks cheap. Also, it can’t outrun a horse. We have interplanetary engines everywhere, but you can’t build a hovercraft faster than a car? The laser, similarly, appears to fail when trying to shoot Mal from like 10 feet, despite having an auto-targeting system. Then, three shots later, we find out that the battery’s dead. That’s not a great weapon, future.

The battle sequence is just too long and too many quick cuts. There are some neat points, but, for the most part, the whole thing just seems to be too much of a stock battle scene to kill time.

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Though they did nail the “Alamo” feel.

Kaylee and Simon continue to be an issue… solely because they just won’t communicate, even though they do actually try a lot. I like that Jewel Staite, who is gorgeous, still portrays someone insecure about her appearance, reminding us that insecurity is not about objective beauty, but about state of mind. On the other hand, my god, just talk to the boy, you know he likes you.

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And he’s so pretty.

I hate what happens with Mal and Inara in this episode, because they basically are just driving each other apart. I realize that it was probably building up to the arc of Inara leaving and some other stuff happening that we never got, but it still feels like she and Mal are just a little too unreasonable to each other in this episode, even compared to others. It’s like watching a pair of kids who like each other acting out on the playground, they’re just hurting each other as a way to avoid confronting their feelings.

When Mal sleeps with Nandi, I can understand Inara being hurt by it, but Inara knows Mal has feelings for her, has told him she won’t sleep with him, doesn’t ever talk about her feelings with him, isn’t in a relationship with him, and she has sex with people all the time for money. She doesn’t exactly have the grounds to get THAT mad at either of them, but it really seems like if Nandi hadn’t died, this would have been a grudge. After Nandi dies, Inara does actually seem to realize what that night together meant: They both just needed someone and they were there for each other. Granted, Mal did know Inara has feelings for him, which does make it a little worse on his part, but, again, she stated she can’t be with him and he doesn’t question that until Nandi’s killed. That’s always sort of the problem with emotions, both in writing and in real life. You can logically justify your actions all you want, even to the point that you think you’re doing the right thing, but if a person you care about is hurt by it, you still feel like an asshole.

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And they look so good together.

The first time I saw this, when Inara says that she’s not Puritanical, I actually had hope that this relationship wasn’t going to run through the clichés that usually accompany this kind of situation, but instead it’s immediately undercut by her insult and breakdown. Other fans I’ve talked to thought that Inara’s crying and emotional honesty was refreshing, but I went the other way. I think it’s just playing into a trope we’ve seen too many times and, frankly, doesn’t fit into the relationship they’ve built here. Inara’s so much stronger than to be so broken by this, and portraying it as just a small wound on her that she doesn’t want to admit is there would have been better than her openly weeping for 3 minutes. Then, it ends with her realizing that if she stays with Mal, she wouldn’t leave, so… she leaves. That doesn’t really speak well for her belief in a future as Mrs. Reynolds and becomes INCREDIBLY frustrating during a scene in the next episode when she is apparently just wanting him to tell her how he feels so she can stay. HE WAS OBVIOUSLY 3 SECONDS FROM DOING THAT, INARA! If we hadn’t gotten the movie Serenity, this sh*t might have bugged me forever.

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Speaking of “Would have a super awesome baby,” though…

And, generally, I almost feel like the episode kind of takes women down a notch. Inara’s completely broken by Mal’s actions, Kaylee needs Wash to tell her she’s pretty, Mrs. Burgess appears not to be anything more than arm candy who doesn’t care that her husband abuses prostitutes, a house full of women who have sex for a living doesn’t have anyone who knows anything about pregnancy, and Chari stabs everyone in the back. Her betrayal seems even dumber because she still goes through with it after he forces her to blow him in front of his men and tells her she’s shit. I mean, damn, this really doesn’t feel as empowering as Nandi’s speech suggested the episode would be. But I might be reading too much into that.

Also, the pun in the title bugs me so much I try to suppress it every time. Yes, the phrase “Hooker with a Heart of Gold” exists and relates to Nandi and most of her girls, but it has no other meaning, so it just ends up feeling like a wink to people who are aware of the phrase. If it were just the title, I’d let it go, but they also name the brothel after it. I can almost hear the author nudging me going “Did you get it? You get it? You got it, right?” Yes, I got it, did you have something else to talk about? No? Then let’s move on.

Ultimately, this is another upside/downside episode, but it’s more downside. Some people seem to really love it, but a lot of it just rubs me the wrong way. Still, a bad episode of a great series is better than a good episode of most, so this is really only a weak episode in comparison to the rest of the series.

Next week, the only episode I’d already done when I started, but I wrote a new review just for you guys.

Score: 1 Firefly (or 1 Hovercraft)

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See you next Friday, Browncoats.

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NEXT – 14: Objects in Space

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