Firefly Friday: Ep 4 The Shindig

If we are looking for parallels between the show’s setting and the US Civil War era, this episode has lots of them but at the same time present them in a way that makes an easy comparison difficult. There are references to slavery as a practice on the planet Persephone where the story is set and the social event, which is the focus of the story, is meant to evoke the antebellum South. However, this is all after the war, and Persephone is apparently a planet in good standing with The Alliance.

So, there are no neat analogues here. Whedon pulls bits from the general idea of mid-to-late nineteenth-century America and uses them as it suits him.

Mal is presented as a dick throughout. His unresolved feelings towards Inara are presented as aggression towards her profession. His hostility to sex work is amplified by the in-universe respectability of her work as a Companion — respectability that puts her social standing on Persephone as higher than his.

He’s also mean to Kaylee, which I think confirms that the script here is intentionally making Mal be unlikable and petty. He’s clearly on an arc but given the episodes were shown out of order, this arc would have been a very odd one when originally broadcast.

The ever-reliable Mark Sheppard returns as the Cockney criminal Badger. His existence (and a not quite Dick Van Dyke impression by River Tam) implies the existence of a little Cockney moon somewhere in this otherwise Western-themed solar system. His plot involvement is a bit forced but he’s always a welcome presence.

The titular shindig is a social event on Persephone to which Inara has been invited in her professional capacity to boost the status of a posh-git Atherton Wing. Meanwhile, Badger pressures Mal to attend the same event to set up a deal with another big-wig attendee who needs some goods shipped all-quiet-like. Mal ruins everybody’s day by getting into a fight with Atherton who is trying to pressure Inara to stay permanently on Persephone. The fight has to be resolved as a duel the following morning but while Atherton is an accomplished swordsman, Mal is not. And so on…

It’s a pretty thin story that throws around ideas about honour and status, but without much of a clear idea about what it wants to say about them. The low key story (compared to the brutal murders of the previous episode) and the farce-like premise of Mal and Kaylee infiltrating a ball, really needed more obvious humour. As is, the show goes for a sit-com/farce episode but doesn’t let the dialogue play out that way. It’s weird to accuse a Jos Whedon show of having insufficient amounts of quippy dialogue and yet here we are.

I think I’ve watched enough episodes to start a bit of a ranking. Episode numbers are based on the Wikipedia/current order not the original broadcast order (I think IMDB has the original order here https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0303461/episodes?ref_=tt_eps_sm )

Ranking

  1. Episode 3: Bushwacked. More space, less cowboy. Good stuff.
  2. Episode 2: The Train Job. A second go as an introduction to the show.
  3. Episode 1: Serenity. The original pilot has some rough edges.
  4. Episode 4: The Shindig. Diverting but needed more jokes or more depth or both.
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11 responses to “Firefly Friday: Ep 4 The Shindig”

  1. I remember finding this one a bit heavily Western for my taste (it’s a genre I generally dislike).
    On the plus side, Jewel Staite is so winning as Kaylee anything with more of her makes me happy.

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    • It’s a good advert for getting a good cast together as a way of covering for weaker episodes. Also, the whole crew get little moments even thought the focus is on Mal and Inara.

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  2. I remember getting into a not-quite argument about Firefly with my former pastor, who concluded that a boycott of the series was necessary because it ‘glorified’ sex workers and sex work, which she saw as inherently evil and degrading. She trotted out this episode as an example. Since I haven’t, to my knowledge, met any sex workers it was hard for me to argue one way or another about the inherent evil of the job, but her point did seem to me to be taking a *very* fictional universe way too seriously.

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    • I’m of two minds about this. I personally think your pastor is wrong about sex work being inherently evil and degrading (and my belief is partly based on knowing people who have done that work); others may feel differently and I don’t want to encourage a big debate about that here. But either way, “you’re taking a very fictional universe way too seriously” is not a rebuttal I would use.

      I mean… her perception that the makers of Firefly were sending a deliberate message of “sex work is not inherently wrong; if a society acknowledged that, and treated it like you see here, that could be fine, and Mal’s negative attitude about it is because Mal has issues”—and that they would like the audience to at least consider that, even if it’s not the central idea of the show—is accurate. Similarly, Star Trek TOS had an implicit but deliberate message of “a racially integrated crew like this is totally fine”. If someone was against Star Trek because they felt very strongly that integration was always bad, they would be wrong because they’re racist, not because Star Trek is fiction and has no bearing on real cultural attitudes.

      I certainly have some beliefs and values that, while they’re very different from your pastor’s, I think are important and worth speaking out about if someone’s directly opposing them in whatever context. If for instance a SF show had a major story-relevant assumption of “scientists have figured out how to ‘fix’ all gay or trans people to be straight or cis, and that’s working out well for everyone except a few angry cranks”, and it was pretty clear that the creators wanted the audience to think of that as a desirable goal rather than just the prevailing attitude in that fictional world, I would feel that that was worth a serious response. Not just because I would think they’re incorrect, but because I would think it had direct bearing on real-life situations where there have already been clear harmful consequences of that position, and they would be encouraging people not to take those consequences seriously.

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      • And, in that hypothetical example, I don’t know if my response would be to immediately call for a boycott of the show; it might be more like “I’m not sure the creators have thought this through, let’s talk about it”. But I would at least want that discussion to be seen and taken seriously.

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  3. I agree that it’s not one of the stronger episodes, but there were a couple of nice things I feel are worth mentioning:

    – The scene where Inara asks Mal why he bothered defending her honor, when he himself treats her like shit, certainly makes it clear that Mal is a dick but I think it also makes a bigger point that isn’t specific to Mal. That’s a very common way for people to be, and it’s worth emphasizing that “I defended this person in this one situation” or “Some of my best friends are ____” is in no way an acceptable substitute for considering how one’s attitudes and prejudices affect others, and that “I don’t really mean you when I say stuff that is clearly about you” is always a self-serving lie. It may be a bit heavy-handed but they got it across efficiently in dialogue. And, contrary to some people who think giving character flaws to an otherwise sympathetic character is always a way of soft-pedaling those flaws, I think if done right it can actually help the viewer think a little more seriously about whether they themselves might have some unacknowledged issues; if it was just Jayne being this way, well, of course Jayne’s an idiot and I’m not like that.

    – I like that they didn’t try to deny that Mal, despite being a tough guy, doesn’t know jack about fencing so he obviously no chance at all. A common approach would be either for Mal to find some clever loophole to change the rules, or for him to prevail in the fight anyway by being extra quick or extra tough or some other quality Atherton doesn’t have. Instead, Mal survives because Inara distracted the other guy.

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    • Yes, I saw that afterwards. It’s interesting that a woman wrote it (and not Whedon himself) as I think it helps confirm that Mal is intended to look like a complete jerk in this. I mean, I think that’s obvious just from the dialogue but that’s an added point.

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    • Espenson of course went on to be pretty important in the new Battlestar Galactica starting in 2006. Before that, this Firefly episode was only her second foray into outer-space stuff; the first was a Star Trek DSN episode in 1996.

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  4. Just aside, while there are some bits that are Civil War-ish re the western elements side of things, the main bit about the rebellion is that it was supposed to be sort of like the American Revolutionary War. Mal and others were trying to break away from the giant corporation governments that run everything to have independent settlements, but they didn’t have enough people and resources to be successful and unlike the cash and war-strapped British government of the 1700’s, the corporations did not give up and go away. And since Mal was then not particularly popular with those corporate governing bodies, he turned to smuggling.

    So it’s more the sort of set-up that you have in the series The Expanse, with Mal’s side being like the folks out in the asteroids. This was a very popular science fiction set-up in the 1980’s, when Whedon was growing up — the idea that the future/space would be taken over by the large corporations (possibly Japanese/Chinese ones which were on the rise on Earth) that would rule directly and usually oppressively as governments. It led to the cyberpunk movement, etc. Whedon essentially crossed that aesthetic with the western wagon train ethos that Roddenberry used to create and pitch Star Trek. That set-up is more fully explored in the sequel movie for the series, Serenity.

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