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Firefly: Heart of Gold Ep. 13 December 12, 2007

Posted by Chris in Firefly.
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Don’t Argue: Horse Beats Hover Craft Every Time!

Uggghhhh….this one kinda hurts.  I cringe as I watch…I cringe as I write.  This is probably my least-favorite of the Firefly episodes.  The obvious reference in its title is to the archetypal “hooker with a heart of gold”.  The plot revolves around a house of prostitution that’s not companion guild-certified.  Their lack of status is their undoing, as the local rich guy thinks he’s the father of a pregnant prostitute in the house and means to claim his child while proving to the world that they’re whores and he’s in a position of power over them.  The prostitute is of a mind to tell him to buzz off, and her madam — Nandi, a friend of Inara — calls in Serenity to help fight the jerk-off off.

So, despite the cringe-factor in this episode (more on this later), there are some interesting themes running though it (hey, it’s Firefly afterall).  One is the further development of Inara’s character and her relationship to her work.  As discussed in this blog’s post on Shindig, I think a recurring theme in Firefly is how we carry ourselves in the work-world.  In this episode, Inara’s hypocrisy towards her profession is presented for our examination.  Her initial discussion with Mal about the plight of her friend shows that she considers Nandi and her house to be lowly “whores” and not noble companions.  As she says this, it’s clear that she’s not totally comfortable labeling her friend in this way, but she doesn’t talk about her doubts; doesn’t discuss her misgivings about a society that elevates prostitutes who are part of a union and persecutes those who are independent of society’s direct control.  Here we see Whedon et al.’s progressive vision of feminism expressed.  The episode’s plot serves as a palate for exploring how women’s sexuality is controlled and comodified.  These women have taken control of their own sexuality and seek to use it for their own gain, but in doing so, they become vulnerable to the whims of psychopaths like Burgess — society punishes them for controlling their bodies even as it encourages them to sell themselves to survive.

Mal’s vision for himself and his work is open for discussion too, as he initially thinks that Nandi’s call for help to Serenity is directed to him, calling him to fulfill his secret (even to himself?) ambitions to be a hero and protector of the innocent rather than just a petty thief.  The fact that Nandi is really asking Inara for help highlights Inara’s ambivalence towards Nandi’s whoring ways — while she seems to agree with society’s assessment of Nandi’s status, she feels compelled to protect Nandi, even at risk of suffering the wrath of the Companion’s guild if they should find out.  It’s not clear if Mal perceives the full weight of her ambivalence towards Nandi’s situation, but he seems to relish the opportunity to play hero.

If it wasn’t clear from previous episodes, Jayne shows his true, self-interested colors by refusing to help fight Burgess until he finds out he’ll be protecting prostitutes, at which time he quickly realizes he can get some free trim and signs on. 

At the end of this episode, a tectonic shift in the series arc takes place when Inara tells Mal she’ll be leaving him and Serenity.  This is an interesting development on many levels, not the least of which is that she tells Mal just as he seems ready to reveal his love for her.  Ouch!  But more importantly, her decision reflects on her internal conflicts about how to rectify her feelings for Mal and the crew and the nature of her work.  Put simply, as a prostitute you can never grow attached to the people you work with.  If you do, work stops being work and starts to become family — at which point, you no longer have the income and identity that work provides.  So while Mal and the rest of the crew have reveled in their successes at making Serenity a home and their crew-mates family, Inara has felt her work identity threatened by her love for the ship, it’s crew and for Mal in particular.

Things that “bug” about this episode include:  The fact that Mal is able to catch Burgess in the climactic chase scene on horseback while Burgess is in a hovercraft….uhhh, wouldn’t a hovercraft be able to go a little faster than a horse?  The fact that Burgess has a laser pistol that conveniently runs out of battery power just as he’s about to shoot Mal.  After if fails to fire, the camera shows us the pistol’s read-out saying “Check Battery”…uhhh, cheesy as fu*#!  As mentioned earlier, the whole “hooker with a heart of gold”, thing is straight-up Cheese-Whiz.  Finally, Burgess’s character is so one-dimensional it hurts.  If they had given him a little more complexity — a little less playing the “heavy” — it would have given some added depth to the story. 

Hmmm…is that it?  Is that all the criticisms/cringe-making things I can come up with?  Doesn’t seem like much once I’ve written it.  Well, maybe this episode isn’t so bad after all… 



1. Kym - December 12, 2007

I like your ideas about work. Very well expressed!

I disagree with your technology analysis though. My feeling was that they were trying to show technology as it really is. In sci fi everything works, which annoys me because, for me, half the time I’m fighting technology trying to make it do what it’s supposed to. The computer won’t access the internet, the toaster burns stuff or shoots it into the air, etc. I liked the tech stuff messing up. (Although a little explanation would have been nice about the hovercar ie Burgess saying something like “someday this will go 60 miles an hour but this new prototype is much slower.” [only said with a little flair;>])

I also have to defend Jayne here. Yes he selfish but in a little boy way. He’s not so much mean as unable to see others as real people with real needs. As soon as he starts interacting with the women as real people notice how considerate he gets. He even ends up brushing one of the women’s hair. I do agree the writers’ intended Jayne to be an ass, I just think Baldwin with his insistence on touch and his facial expressions added a dimension of sweetness to his character that made the whole show nicer. (I hate one dimensional characters like Burgess or Niska (though Niska played by a decent actor almost managed to have some depth>)

In short, I agree this episode is probably the worst but it had some great moments. ( I love the Zoe with Wash talking about children, Petaline is great and the burial scene while somewhat cheesy gets me.)

2. Chris - December 12, 2007

Right…when viewed from the perspective that tech stuff messes up, I can see how it might be OK, but you’re also right that they need to at least give us a hint that the reason a horse can outrun a hovercraft is because it is….poorly designed, an early prototype, driven by an idiot…something! Just leaving it hanging there unexplained makes no sense, and as you and I have discussed earlier, I want my science fiction to be technically plausible…if it isn’t, then it’s just a poorly-written plot device.

I realize I gave Jayne short-shrift here and I think you’re right on the money that he’s selfish in a little boy way. He obviously has more depth to him than his selfish persona lets on. I think the writers may have been using his character as a way of showing how even people who are almost entirely selfish still have a need for and feel compelled to take part in a community. Jayne obviously does care about what others think of him — he is not a psychopath like Safron.

3. Kym - December 12, 2007

Good point about Jayne being compelled to take part in community. He does that over and over again. In War Stories where he does eventually go in to save Mal from Niska and in the end of Ariel where he asks Mal not to tell the others why Mal was going to space him–he wanted the community to think well of him.

What did you think of Petaline? I love the almost petulant child who changes (note I don’t say ‘evolves’ I’m not sure its a step towards maturity;>) to become one tough character.

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