“Heart Of Gold” (season one, episode 13; unaired)
Noel Murray: Outside of “The Train Job,” “Heart Of Gold” may be the most Western-y of Firefly’s little Space Westerns, to such a degree that the science-fiction elements almost seem superfluous. Sure, the crew of Serenity arrive on a remote planet in their spaceship, where they offer to help a pregnant woman whose baby’s parentage has been determined by futuristic technology; and sure, the baby’s father leads a siege on the pregnant women’s home with laser guns. But everything else about this story—that the woman is a prostitute, that the house is a brothel, and that the epic gunfight takes place on a dusty landscape—could be transported almost verbatim to a movie or TV show set in the American frontier in the 1870s or some such.
It’s apt though to talk about how to define Firefly—western or sci-fi?—in the context of an episode that to a degree is about definitions. It’s Inara who asks for Mal’s help with the pregnant prostitute, Petaline (played by Tracy Leah Ryan), because Petaline works for Inara’s old friend Nandi (Melinda Clarke); and it’s Inara who tells Mal plainly that Nandi and Petaline are “whores,” not “companions.” They’re not part of The Guild; they’re out on the frontier, doing their own thing, and as a result they’re vulnerable to the pressures of men like Rance Burgess, the wealthy brute who wants to claim the kid he made with Petaline.
Nandi’s outlaw status also makes her more compatible with Mal, at least in comparison to the prissy Inara, who accepts Nandi’s distress call and then gives Mal a withering look when he says, “This distress wouldn’t happen to be taking place in someone’s pants, would it?” Later, back in Big Damn Hero mode, Mal says that he’ll help Petaline out and won’t charge a penny, though Inara insists on covering the costs, so that it won’t muddy up their business relationship. (There’s that concern with definitions again.) So the crew descends on the bordello—with Jayne all duded up and ready for sexing—and while Simon attends to Petaline, everyone else fortifies the establishment and prepares for a shootout with Burgess. And while they wait, Mal and Nandi draw closer, and enjoy a night of passion together, even though she can see that he’s smitten with Inara. What Nandi doesn’t realize is that the feelings are reciprocated, and when Inara sees Mal sneaking out of Nandi’s room in the morning, she tells him she approves of their dalliance, and then slips off to a private corner to weep.
Superficially at least, the main action in “Heart Of Gold” comes next, as the episode cross-cuts between Petaline giving birth, Wash and Kaylee dealing with some of Burgess’ men aboard Serenity, and Mal and company blasting away at Burgess from Nandi’s windows. But the real action occurs at the end, after Nandi gets killed, and an emotional Mal decides that life’s too short not to tell Inara how he feels. But before he can blurt it out, Inara cuts him off and announces that she’s come to realize—through Nandi’s cautionary example—that close relationships can be a trap. And so she’s leaving.
This undoubtedly would’ve been a more important moment in the history of Firefly had the show not ended after only one more episode (plus the movie). But even though the originally intended arc of this love story is now left mostly to the fans’ imagination—and even though I have some qualms about this episode that I’ll table for a moment—I do like how this one decision from Inara crystallizes who she is. Mal, like Burgess, “makes a distinction between legality and morality.” But Inara needs rules, and rituals, especially to do what she does for a living. I commented casually last week that I thought Inara’s clients were getting shortchanged by her constantly being thrown off schedule by Serenity’s adventures. I had forgotten that this was actually a key part of Inara’s character arc, her deciding to leave the crew because her sentimental attachments were bad for business.
Donna Bowman: I’m going to have to go right for those qualms, I’m afraid. My reaction to “Heart Of Gold” was pure schizophrenia. Loved the setup. Hated the interminable gun battle. (It’s like writer Brett Matthews and director Thomas J. Wright forgot that genre clichés are to be invoked in order to elevate or transform them, not to methodically and wearily reenact them.) Was shocked into alertness when Mal succumbed to Nandi’s invitation. Found the actual soft-focus night-of-passion stuff disappointingly cloying and predictable. Then, finally, was moved by the epilogue’s twist when Mal almost confesses and Inara decides to flee.
That epilogue feels like it belongs to a completely different episode. There's a rawness and honesty to it that contrasts sharply with all the business that buries the rest of the hour. What bothers me most about “Heart Of Gold” is how big it tries to be, and how small it therefore ends up seeming. The camera lingers on the hovercar effect as if to say “see what a sophisticated science-fiction show we’ve got here!”, and the whores’ solar-powered house is such a point of pride for the creative team that the many establishing shots of it are buttressed by defensive dialogue about how it’s not silly at all. But it is silly—all of it. The house looks like it’s been covered with space aluminum foil. The hovercar is show-offy at a distance, cheap plywood close up. (I do like Reese’s sheepskin seat cover, though; that’s a nice touch.) The villain’s laser gun is such a prop-tastic mess than even the “Check Batteries” joke thuds. And the straining isn’t just limited to the set dressing and effects. All the slow-motion stunt photography of guys being shot off horses seemed like a boring concession to inevitability rather than a loving homage to the grand tradition of frontier last stands.
I can’t not feel for Inara and Mal in that epilogue, though; they’ve earned their emotional crisis over the whole season. Good thing, because they didn’t earn it here, and it would have been crushing for a scene like that to come off as false. When Inara runs away after congratulating Mal on taking advantage of Nandi, I can tell that the creative team wants me to see that she’s devastated. But her weepy collapse is so inelegant, so by-the-numbers, that I couldn’t help wondering in the moment whether there was some other cause of her distress that I had missed. Inara melting down because Mal had a fling with her whore-friend? It doesn’t seem in character, for one thing; she’s supposed to have control of her emotions, so wouldn’t a crack in the armor be so much more effective than a full-scale swoon? And I love Morena Baccarin, bless her heart, but she can’t sell it. Not that I blame her. She should never have been asked to.
I’m not upset about these failures of imagination on aesthetic principle. I’m angry that the next-to-last episode of this scant, abbreviated, wonderful series is so marred by pedestrian conceptualizing. I’m not trying to hate on “Heart Of Gold”; there are plenty of wonderful moments I’d never trade, like Wash reassuring Kaylee about her prettiness as if he’s had to fulfill this role many times before: “Were I unwed, I’d take you in a manly fashion.” But this close to the end, its substitution of the expected for the ambitious kinda breaks my heart.
NM: Oh, I hear you, honey. I all but checked out during the long shootout. And you didn’t even mention the birth scene, which… well, has there ever been a good birth scene on a TV show? I do take issue though with your beefs about the pretensions of grandeur in “Heart Of Gold.” I was thinking to myself throughout this episode that after so many budget-conscious stories set largely aboard Serenity, it was nice to see so many different locations, many of them dressed up with pieces of technology and bits of local color.
I also think you’re shortchanging the Mal/Nandi scenes, however blandly Red Shoe Diaries-esque the actual consummation is. Prior to the whoopee, their long conversation is full of funny exchanges: Her asking, “You’re not sly, are ya?;” him wondering if she was kicked out of the companion profession because she killed a dulcimer in a terrible passion; her describing how she “trucked out to the border, learned to say ‘ain’t;’” him pausing after they kiss, saying, “Just waitin’ to see if I pass out.” Like I said, I find it interesting how much more compatible Mal and Nandi are than Mal and Inara. But the heart wants what it wants, as they say.
There’s more to the Wash/Kaylee chemistry too than just the “‘cause you’re pretty” scene. Though the bordello standoff is fairly flat, the simultaneous defense of Serenity is a lot of fun, both because we see how the now-battle-tested Wash responds to a crisis, and because of the little gag where he mistakenly ends up in the engine room rather than the bridge. (Though I did roll my eyes at Wash trying to bait Burgess’ men and drawing fire in the process. The poor aim of bad guys in situations like that is even more played-out than birth scenes.)
But I’m not going to pretend that “Heart Of Gold” is top-tier Firefly. It’s not that bad overall, but it is probably the series’ weakest episode. If nothing else, it’s bothersome that this is the second episode in a row where the “old friend” ends up getting killed. (The pain is calling, oh, Nandi.) If the series had continued, would the “old friend” have become Firefly’s version of the “red shirt?”
Anyway, I mainly just don’t want you to despair. Because we’re through the rough skies. Our remaining two weeks—“Objects In Space” and Serenity—are going to be beautiful.
- The labors of Book in “Heart Of Gold” include: making a sandwich, and comparing his carpentry skills to Jesus’. It’s fair to say that this is a character who hasn’t really gotten his due.
- One doesn’t usually expect an evening at the theater to feature as many shadow puppets as it does in this episode.
- Wash, trying to sound commanding when Zoe suggests a three-point watch on four-hour shifts: “3.4 hours should do it.”
- From the “Here’s where society is at in the early 2500s” department: Frozen dinners are still a thing, given that Jayne compares Nandi’s reflect-y house to one.
- From the “You don’t pay Jayne Cobb to talk pretty” department: Surveying the wares an Nandi’s brothel, Jayne declares, “My John Thomas is about to pop off and fly around the room, there’s so much tasty in here.” (Wash, on Jayne’s pronouncement: “Would be you’d get your most poetical about your pecker….”)