Firefly, Season 1, Episode 13, “Heart of Gold”
Written by Brett Matthews
Directed by Thomas J Wright
Aired August 19th, 2003 on FOX
Welcome to Sound on Sight’s summer look back at Firefly, the beloved yet short-lived series that aired on FOX during the 2002-2003 TV season. Every Thursday, we will revisit an episode at a time of the show’s one and only season, in the order that they were meant to be seen. The correct sequence is accurately reflected on most, if not all, streaming services that currently have the show, but for those watching via other methods, the accurate order can be found here. Now, without further ado, time to spend some time with the most entertaining group of grifters in The ‘Verse.
The interesting thing about “Heart of Gold” is that it tells the audience a lot of information that they already know, then takes each thread to its natural extreme. It is a strategy that is at once a little lazy and very necessary, depending on how much one cares about a particular character or B-plot. As a minor example, it has already been well documented how funny Wash is or how amazing a fighter and protector Zoë can be, and at multiple points in this episode they both blatantly show off these skills. At one point Wash even goes as far as saying “I’m the funny one” in a conversation with Kaylee. Jayne is practically a caricature of himself between his time spent enjoying both the residents of the brothel and with sniper rifles. As this is the third, and last, episode to air on FOX six months after the show ended, part of this may be a way to reorient the audience with these characters after some time away as even the episodes aired in the summer had a month between each installment. Yet the character beats with Mal, Inara, and even Kaylee all have a tinge of character development that isn’t growth as much as it is the expected extension of their previous actions. Nobody changes all that much here, they just realize things they’ve been denying all along or finally take their established traits as far as they can go within this configuration of the show. That doesn’t mean “Heart of Gold” isn’t entertaining or doesn’t have its highlights, just that it isn’t as groundbreaking on a character level as it could be.
The romantic feelings between Inara and Mal have been percolating since the first episode of the series, where their relationship was founded almost completely off of sexual tension and doublespeak. The show has developed their friendship since that time, but it is still primarily a partnership of sarcasm, double entendres, and barely veiled sexual frustration. At some point, this setup was going to come to a head but instead of ending in a blaze of glory as might be expected it ends with Inara taking the high road and bowing out of the partnership completely by announcing her intent to leave the ship. It makes sense as a final act for this two-hander, since Inara has looked down her nose with amusement at the men in her life whether it be Mal, Simon, or even Jayne. It’s a slightly condescending habit, but she’s not wrong in thinking that her instincts and plans are usually better than the males’ around her.
She is an intelligent and talented woman who dares not be underestimated and will always look strong in the face of difficulty. Mal breaking her heart is just another difficulty and she handles it the usual way, by looking like the stronger person and maintaining her statuesque demeanor as much as possible. Their ending conversation is the most calm Inara has been in front of Mal in quite some time — not angry, not speaking in a clipped tone, not frustrated — because she is finally at peace with the fact that he isn’t capable of not hurting her, and he’s not aware enough to realize right away when he has. Morena Baccarin’s performance of Inara sobbing in the corner of her bedroom is the most open she has been on screen and in that moment it is so easy to see what it is like to be in her shoes. Her training as a companion has helped compartmentalize so much of her personal life from her business life and that same training lets her walk away when the time is right rather than subjecting herself to another emotional breakdown at the hands of Mal Reynolds. Baccarin’s ending speech about family and what ties them together is similarly powerful, and caps off a banner episode for her.
Mal, meanwhile, always has to be the hero. It’s his thing, his main character trait, and the whole reason the show works as it does. Every episode has at least a few moments of Mal swooping in to save the day, or at the very least trying to with a brilliant plan. His quest to save Nandi and her girls is a different beast though, seeing as the crew gets absolutely nothing out of it but the pride of assisting the residents of a faraway whore house and defeating a sinister townsperson who is threatening them. It’s Mal’s chivalry at its worst and best; always willing to ride in on a white horse and save the day but not always thinking about all of the ways the situation could end. The crew is being paid in nothing but “store credit” and praise and Mal himself admits they should just run before they start fighting, but he has to stay and fight to the very last because it is the only way he knows how to act when people are in trouble. It also doesn’t hurt that it is Inara’s friend asking the favor, even though Mal could not possibly know that granting Inara’s request would lead to their friendship shattering.
His heroism leads him to go into town to do a threat assessment on Rance Burgess, to take a stand inside the whorehouse with a cadre of gunmen riding in on them, to do a somersault out a window then steal a horse like a true cowboy, and to go to bed with Nandi in a classic “hero comforts lonely frontier woman” way. He can’t help himself, it’s practically second nature for Mal to do something heroic that turns out to be heroically stupid. It’s just that this time, because of how precariously their relationship was balanced on the line between friends and lovers already, it gets him into a situation with Inara that he can’t get out of. Even at the end, when Mal fumbles for what to say and seems to finally make up his mind that he will tell Inara how he feels, is a classic case of a hero complex overriding the right thing. A smarter man would’ve read the situation and seen that Inara was probably beyond the point where could be “won back” with a flowery profession of love and devotion, instead Mal seems on the cusp of spilling his guts to the one woman in the world who absolutely does not want to hear it. Most of the time, Mal’s chivalry makes him the most kind and understanding man in the universe, and sometimes it makes him look like a dolt. It was only a matter of time before the latter of the two outcomes caused something irreparable.
Mal and Inara may form the beating heart of the episode, but the rest of the ensemble is still more than entertaining. Melinda Clarke is spot on casting as a former companion and current madam of a brothel on the far edges of the universe. She is everything Inara is not as far as being a professional escort goes, but they also make perfect sense as a pair of friends who took different paths in life. Kaylee’s dourness over her looks is nothing new, yet is welcome if only so the show maintains a steady C-plot throughout the show between her insecurities and touchiness with Simon. Wash and Zoë vacillate between the happy and frustrating sides of their marriage, resulting in a blow up between them about whether having a kid is a good idea with their lifestyle. This tiff is the first time the audience has seen cracks in their union since Wash was kidnapped and instead of revolving around their feelings for one another it is nice that it takes a different tack and focuses on where their marriage should go in the future rather than just the current state of things.
Everybody in the crew gets to display some form of heroism or another during the siege of the brothel, whether it is ushering a child into the world or unloading a plethora of bullets at an incoming group of marauders. The actual issue of town enforcer Rance Burgess wanting possession of his and a prostitute’s child is almost inconsequential except as a backdrop for which everything else happens. Nandi’s death doesn’t hit as hard as the show wants it too, especially since Clarke as a guest star practically puts a target on Nandi’s back from the beginning, but it is a great way to get Inara contemplating where she wants to see herself in the future and if staying on Serenity is the right choice. Petaline killing Rance in the end is not an expected form of justice based on what the crew usually decides, but just another reminder for Mal and the crew that they can’t predict everything and they can’t give everyone a fair trial, even those who might not deserve to be saved. Outside of the central dance between Inara and Mal, this is more or less a one-off adventure episode which explains why FOX chose it as one of three to push to the summer months. Not one that gets revisited very often, but a fun ride nonetheless.
- “This wouldn’t be distress in someone’s pants would it?” Mal is, as always, a frat boy at heart.
- Few Firefly sight gags are as good as “Check Battery” popping up on Rance’s laser pistol. The chase sequence between Mal and Burgess is as close to a 60’s spy program as this show gets and that is icing on the cake.
- The episode gives a lot more background on the difference between a companion and a common sex worker in this universe, and is some much appreciated world building in that area.
- “They got brains and guns enough?” “Well…they’ve got guns.”
- “I ain’t so afraid of losing something I’m not going to try to have it.” This quote alone is cause to mourn the Zoë spinoff no one will ever get.
- “I wish I never met her, then I wouldn’t have failed her.” This thought, and the way Mal says it, has the tinge of a war-weary lieutenant who just lost another soldier on his watch.