“Whoo! My John Thomas is about to pop off and fly around the room, there’s so much tasty in here.”
“Would be you get your most poetical about your pecker.”
I’ve been dancing around the topic of Whedon’s performative feminism for this entire project, which I suppose is kind of silly; people had been discussing and criticising his feminism for two decades before his ex-wife’s article went public. But part of the reason I didn’t was because, up until now, it wasn’t really relevant. Now granted I don’t generally filter stories through my personal moral compass – something has to genuinely repulse me for me to reject it on ideological grounds, and that usually means something very different to me than it does to everyone else – but even accounting for that, the stories were strong or weak on their own merits independent of what they had to say about men, women, and the relationship between the two. Here, though, Whedon’s loud declaration of Feminist Things That Are Right And Wrong gets in the way of the story and of a potentially fascinating but of worldbuilding.
The plot is, as is typical, simple: Inara gets a message from an old friend, Nandy, an ex-Companion who went out to a border planet and started a bordello (border-ello? No). A local businessman has gotten one of her girls pregnant, and is going to come down to the bordello and violently take his baby back, and Mal agrees to bring in the crew and help her. For a change, the Companion shit manages to be one of the more interesting parts of the episode – Inara and Nandy’s relationship, all alone, manages to convey an entire Companion community in ways other than the usual exposition dump Inara delivers. There are levels to sex work in the Firefly ‘Verse, with the Guild on top, the Heart Of Gold down the bottom, and Inara wandering around the middle, with expectations that cover the entirety of the industry but find nuances within different classes.
Any friend of Inara’s is a strictly business-like relationship of mine.
This sets up the other most interesting idea in the episode: that Nandy is a version of Mal Reynolds in a very different occupation but very similar choices. To his great surprise, Mal and Nandy click immediately – I think he fully realises it when she refuses to cut and run – and when she lays out her backstory, it’s clear why: like him, she’s an independent who chafes under restrictions and control, and like him she built a community around her based around a job that she’s good at. I think if this episode were based much more around the running of the bordello, I’d love it to bits – aside from being fascinating in and of itself, you’d be able to draw more subtle comparisons between Nandy and Mal.
But unfortunately, this is mostly setup to a fucking love triangle. We love Firefly because it’s unpredictable, breathing new life into the space opera genre; having the single most common and boring cliche in American television play out in a fairly rote way goes against everything I love about the show. Mal and Nandy fuck, and after an initial fakeout in which the puritanical morality American TV often displays seems to be subverted, we go to Inara crying. We’ve seen this a million times; I have no interest in ever seeing it again.
“It sounds like something this crew can handle. I can’t guarantee they’ll handle it particularly well, but…”
“If they’ve got guns and brains at all…”
“They’ve got guns.”
Sadly, this plot is matched by the villain of the piece, and this is where the performative aspect of Whedon’s feminism comes in. We saw one cardboard misogynist whose entire purpose was to get owned before, and this stretches him out and balloons him beyond tolerance. Ranse is a slimy, predictable, boring character; he reveals nothing interesting about himself, his world, our world, or our characters; he exists entirely to say ‘abusing women is wrong’, and you’ll notice that sentence doesn’t take an hour to say. When he’s owned at the end, the ownage is neutered by the sheer smugness of the narrative around it.
That’s not to say the episode is completely without genuine merit, though, as the character work of our filthy antiheroes continues unabated as they interact with the bordello. Jayne manages to suck up all the ‘unpredictable-yet-logical’ tone of the episode – the fact that he genuinely seems to make friends with the prostitute and tries to teach her about gunfighting is endearing, and this watch I noticed that he puts on his best shirt to go visit the bordello. Keeping in mind ZoeZ’s observations of Ron Glass’ performance, I noticed Book seemed to be repulsed and panicked when the prostitutes first approach him, which falls away when he discovers the spiritual need they have. And as always it’s nice to see Simon and Inara bonding, this time over the pregnant woman.
“This is my first mate, Zoe. I’ll introduce you to the rest later. They’re good folk.”
“Can I start getting sexed already?”
“Well that one’s kinda horrific.”
The episode ends with Mal and Inara talking over the events of the episode. For all that I complain about the love triangle horseshit, it does play into this scene in an amazing way, as Inara has taken Nandy’s perspective and realised how it applies to Mal, and makes the unexpected-but-logical decision to separate entirely. Had the show actually gone on, I’m sure this would have made it better in retrospect.
- Further points are deducted from the episode for including Amazing Grace.
- The siege setpiece is a typical demonstration of the show’s weakness with action, though it has one awesome exception: Wash and Kaylee trap two goons in a corridor, only to realise they’ve now trapped their pilot in the engine room.
- The further we go in, the less formal Simon’s clothing gets. It’s always Alliance blue or grey, but he’s moving away from the suits and vests.
- River gets pushed right to the back of this episode, but her few lines are absolutely killer. “Mine too.”