“Shinding” (season 1, episode 1; originally aired 11/01/2002)
Donna Bowman: Ah, so here’s the fun everybody’s been talking about! Not that I haven’t had a terrific time with Firefly up until now, but “Shindig” is where Nathan Fillion becomes, well, the awesomeness that his reputation had promised me. And let me make the case that it’s all due to a character that I gather is not nearly as universally beloved: Inara.
I’ve always felt protective of characters on television that get the short end of the coolness straw. When it came time to pick crushes from the Teen Beat magazine, I stubbornly professed love for Frank Hardy rather than Joe, and Jon Baker rather than Frank Poncherello. Later I transferred this solidarity to Deanna Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation solely because everybody seemed to hate her. Now I feel that same contrarian defensiveness about Inara Serra, who has in common with Troi that her character is defined by her femininity, and that the show seeks a way to make strict gender roles and characteristics into strengths that allow the individual to be respected professionals. I’m in no way a living example of this—I got where I am in my field by embracing the masculine definitions of academic scholarship rather than making a virtue out of my otherness—yet at some level I dislike that these characters get slagged (I think) for being too womanly.
Surely you can’t hate on Inara and also deny that her character is the catalyst for this enormously entertaining episode. The Serenity crew is excited about spending some time on Persephone (the shopping! The diversity! The be-hatted crooks liable to kidnap you right in the street and frogmarch you to their shipping-container headquarters!), which for Inara means a chance to choose a high-society customer, wear a fabulous gown, and be the belle of the ball. She rejects an adorably tongue-tied suitor (“Then the honor you do me flatters my… my honor!”) and picks Atherton Wing, a regular whose attentions to Inara spark Mal’s jealousy. While at the elegant party, turning graceful figures under the floating chandelier, Atherton asks Inara to remain on Persephone as his personal Companion.
But Mal crashes the party thanks to a potential commission from Badger, who needs a more respectable-looking surrogate to propose cargo services to local bigwig Warrick Harrow. And with him is Kaylee, resplendent in a frothy wedding-cake of a pink dress over which she had sighed earlier in the street—an indulgence for a mechanic like herself that Mal oafishly mocked as “like a sheep walking on its hind legs.” I’m glad Kaylee winds up with the upper hand in “Shindig,” because it’s crushing when the society women cut her to ribbons over her enthusiasm for the buffet table. “It was better last year,” one informs her. “What’d they have last year?” Kaylee asks, all innocence. “Standards,” the rich bitch answers, as Kaylee’s face falls. But an older gallant escorts her to a group of machinery enthusiasts who make her the center of attention for her encyclopedic knowledge of spacecraft. Score one for the misfit girls.
Does Inara really want to join this snooty company? She moves confidently through them, and recognizes a few other Companions in attendance; here she doesn’t seem so defined by her profession. But leave it to entitled douche Atherton Wing to treat her like property, and then leave it to Mal to get distracted from his errand by her situation. The scene where Mal and Inara perform a complicated round dance together, weaving in and out of the figures without ever halting their intense conversation, reveals that Mal is far from the rough outlaw that it sometimes suits him to pretend to be; if it’s fine manners and elegance Inara wants, he’s not devoid of them. On the other hand, after Mal punches Atherton and thus commits himself to a duel, Inara turns out to have something he needs, too: basic knowledge of how to handle a sword.
Duels always remind me of one of my favorite scenes in all of cinema, the exceedingly rule-bound swordfight between Win Candy and Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff in The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, from which director Michael Powell sends the camera floating away just as the action starts. And in their preparations the night before, rules become the point of contention between the life Inara is contemplating with Atherton, and the philosophy by which Mal lives. “You think following the rules will buy you a nice life, even if the rules make you a slave,” Mal accuses. For her part, Inara suggests Mal simply rejects all rules, no matter what society they form and protect, in a knee-jerk anti-authoritarian stance. But when Mal has Atherton at his mercy in the duel, he appeals to a universal rule: “Mercy is the mark of a great man.” Then he pokes Atherton a few more times with the pointy end and proclaims himself not great but just “all right.”
I’ve neglected the action back on the ship, with Jayne hard at work engineering a plan to overcome Badger and his goons, everyone playing some kind of space poker, and River providing a diversion that the crew is too shocked to take advantage of. Noel, what did you think was going on there, and how does it relate to the class and gender politics at work in Persephone’s toniest salons?
Noel: In a practical sense, what’s going on is that credited writer Jane Espenson is having some fun writing different kinds of dialogue. Down on Persephone, she gets to ape an Edwardian comedy of manners, with elevated language masking real hostility, while up on Serenity she gets to invent a crazy card game, where the players say things like “plums are tall” and “dealer forced to claim the tall” and everyone knows what everyone else means, even though those are words strung together in that way sound like nonsense. There’s a connection there, I’d say, between what’s happening on the ship and at the shindig. Even though the tone of the discourse differs, everyone knows what’s really being said.
Espenson also gets to spend a little more time with Wash and River than any other writer has to this point, helping to flesh out those characters. In the latter case, we see River at her freakiest, manically peeling labels off of tin cans in the pantry; and then we see her at her most strangely cogent, pretending to be a cockney lass for Badger. She strips away the identity of the foodstuffs, and then changes her own identity. (Okay, maybe that’s a little pretentious. And probably not an intended linkage. Still, that’s what happened.)
Even more illuminating is what “Shindig” does with Wash. Early in the episode, he’s in quip mode as always: talking about how he’s looking forward to a long layover and possibly going “land crazy” because he’s “been sane a long while now, and change is good”; explaining away the warning buzzers as he’s landing the ship by saying, “That’s just ’cuz I’m goin’ down too quick… likely crash and kill us all.” But after several episodes in which Wash’s love for his wife has been expressed mostly via his long-distance panic that she might be in trouble, it’s nice to see him begging Mal for money to buy Zoe a slinky dress, and to see him playfully urging her not to fall asleep in bed lest Jayne slit her throat and take command. (Though he says that if she does get killed, “I’ll read a nice poem at the funeral. Something with imagery.”) Donna, you asked about the class and gender politics on Serenity versus Persephone, and the main difference I see is in the intimate give-and-take of Wash and Zoe—what Kurt Vonnegut would’ve called “a nation of two”—as opposed to the complicated rules of etiquette in actual “society.”
As with the previous two Fireflys, “Shindig” serves as a re-introduction of elements previously introduced in the unaired pilot: Persephone, Badger, and Atherton Wing. But it also clarifies why Mal and his crew prefer not to spend much time in places where “you couldn’t buy an invite with a diamond the size of a testicle.” Even Inara, who is most at home among the elegant, seems to realize that much of what presents as “civilization” on Persephone is just an agreed-upon code of dress, currency and language, conveying baser human wants and needs. (She’s flustered, for example, when Atherton openly states that men admire her because they want to have sex with her.) It’s even harder for Mal, who looks at the floating chandelier at the ball and mutters, “I see how they did it; I just ain’t gettin’ the why.” No wonder then that all it takes are a few pro forma chivalrous gestures for Mal to end up in a life-or-death duel, all the while asking, “Why’d this get so complicated?”
Donna: I really like your contrast between the private mores of Wash and Zoe in bed and the public dance of Persephone’s ton. It exposes another ongoing theme Firefly takes from both its Western and more general pulp-adventure genre reference groups: Shooting from the hip versus careful preparation. Or, if you prefer (since you wrote about it earlier this week), improv versus scripting. The supposed virtue of most adventure heroes is that they can make it up as they go along. I see a lot of Indiana Jones in Mal, especially the parts where he’s surprised, dismayed, or otherwise temporarily knocked off his game. (“Use of a s’what?” Mal squints confusedly when swords first come up in discussion of the duel.)
But are the chaotic skills of improvisation, jury-rigging, seat-of-the-pants flying really the most admirable? Kaylee gets the attention of a host of men by revealing that the instruction manuals for spaceship engines don’t tell you the real story; that kind of inside knowledge, allowing one to cut through the bullshit and craft an intimate relationship with your environment, is justly lauded. How about Wash’s piloting, though, which (so far at least) hasn’t been presented as genius-level regulations-be-damned Right Stuff, but as occasionally skilled, usually serviceable, and occasionally sloppy? How about that Mal wasn’t about to make it out of the duel alive until Inara distracted his opponent—and that only after Atherton bent the rules himself by showing off with the behind-the-back stealth stab?
When spontaneity and presentism tend to sweep away superfluities and forge stronger connections, as with Wash and Zoe, that approach to life clearly has merit. As much as we love the rogues who run headlong into trouble without an exit strategy, and as much as they make for great stories, I appreciate a reminder every now and then that the Chaos Muppets aren’t an unequivocal force for good in the world, any more than the Order Muppets are unequivocal forces for evil. “You’ll do that once too often! It’s only flesh and blood!” says one of T.E. Lawrence’s map room colleagues upon seeing him roll the match flame into his fingers. And David Lean’s movie confirms it; Lawrence can move mountains with charm, charisma, and an utter disregard for How Things Are Done, but he can’t build a government on that foundation, and he can’t make his body motorcycle-crash-proof. Not only living life without a net, but also accepting that approach’s limitations and consequences (“Michael George Hartley, you’re a philosopher,” Lawrence replies to his critic in that scene)—that’s the mark of a mature hero.
- Another Firefly opens with a bar fight, as Mal determines it to be just and moral to steal money from some slave traders.
- Gosh, how darling is Kaylee at the big soiree? She suggests to Mal that they question the buffet table, she enthuses to the catty girls that “there’s some kind of hot cheese” available, and she’s awestruck by the fancy folks dancing, describing them as “like little pieces of wrapping paper blowing around.”
- Espenson obviously had a ball with the dialogue at the, uh, ball. Kaylee’s gentlemanly defender deftly disarms one of the bitches, saying, “It must have taken a dozen slaves a dozen days to get you into that getup. ’Course your daddy tells me it takes the space of a schoolboy’s wink to get you out of it again.” And I loved Harrow’s explanation for why he chooses to be Mal’s second at the duel: “You mussed up Atherton’s face, and that has endeared you to me somewhat.”
- From the “Here’s where society is at in the early 2500s” department: People still shoot pool, but the balls are virtual. (And as the sign says, “Management Not Responsible For Ball Failure.”)
- From the “You don’t pay Jayne Cobb to talk pretty” department: “What we need’s diversion. I say Zoe gets nekkid.”
- Actually Mal beats Jayne this week in the not talkin’ pretty business, if only for the moment when he responds to Inara’s sword-fighting lessons by asking, “They teach you that in whore academy?” Inara gets some measure of revenge though, as they sit together at the end of their adventure, overlooking a hold full of mooing cattle, and she praises him for his “very fresh” wine and says that if nothing else, “You also lined up some exciting new crime.”
- Next week: “Safe” (and then a two-week break)