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Firefly, Ep. 1.04, “Shindig”

Firefly, Season 1, Episode 4, “Shindig”
Written by Joss Whedon and Jane Espenson
Directed by Vern Gillum
Aired November 1st, 2002 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.

Another episode that aired out of order during the original run (it aired sixth, when it is fourth in the natural order), “Shindig” is an episode that mostly serves to show how the crew behaves when their lives and the ship aren’t in immediate danger. With the central exception of Mal, most of the crew has a safe and fun time, whether they venture off-ship or entertain themselves on it. It is the first episode where they are not scavenging, or running, or being threatened by the Alliance, and as a result it is the episode with some of the most entertaining and lighthearted line deliveries. The guys playing cards and betting with chores is a hang out that is true to real life as well as this fictional universe, and Zoë and Wash’s time in bed together is true to what a married couple would do if they finally got time off from a stressful job. Even River, she of the tortured brain and fugitive status, has some fun imitating Badger’s accent and mocking his swagger. The danger that does exist, that of Mal’s duel, is from the beginning so obviously not going to end up with the captain dead that it works as a setup for some pretty effective heart to hearts between he and Inara. It is an episode of stripped down reactions and true colors shining through, and it avoids becoming too slight because of the tenderness that permeates throughout.

One of the most important moments in the episode is also one that has nothing to do with the plot points of the larger conflict or Mal’s time on Persephone, but it adds a layer to two members of the crew that are desperately needed at this stage of the game. Zoë and Wash’s time in bed together is their first true moment where they seem like a happily married couple who are truly in love with each other. They were a bantering, loving couple prior to this quick look into their sex life, but the viewer didn’t get to see their actual deep love for each other. It’s not to say that a scene of them laying in bed together is required to prove that they mean the world to each other as a pair, but in that moment they are more honest with each other than they have been in the previous three episodes. It’s a small splash of character detail that will pay off in spades in a few short episodes. Alan Tudyk and Gina Torres elevate what could be a simple sex scene (or as close to one as FOX would allow a decade ago) to the entire basis for this marriage. It’s a playful and heartfelt conversation that they’ve probably had a dozen times before, but the audience only needs to see it once for their marriage to finally click completely.

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The central event of the episode, the ball on Persephone, packs so much great material in such a short period of time it’s hard to pick where to start. Kaylee’s desire to look beautiful in the ruffly pink dress is so pure that it hurts to see Mal be mean to her about wearing something that makes her feel fancy. If Jayne thinks you’ve gone too far with a comment, you’ve gone too far. Mal would need a date to the ball regardless of who it was just to maintain his cover as a businessman, but him taking Kaylee and getting her the dress is a nice mea culpa for his idiocy in town. That Kaylee proves herself as worthy of being there after again being talked down to, this time by a group of privileged brats, is great. That she does it by holding court and talking about engines with a group of rich men makes it all the sweeter. She’s still naive about many things, but what her strengths are, when making new friends, is not one of them. If she can’t feel comfortable on the ship with her machines, she’ll feel comfortable off of it by talking up a storm about their inner workings. Mal’s intrusion into Inara’s night with Atherton Wing – a man who lives up to the pretension of his name –  is not quite so innocent. It does, however, expound upon the unfulfilled sexual tension between the captain and the Companion, which is worth the trouble of Mal being a complete jerk on almost all accounts throughout the ordeal.

Given Mal’s cockiness in most situations, it is refreshing to see him not even realize that he accepted a duel to the death simply because he wanted to punch someone in the face. He is in over his head and has to have Inara help bail him out multiple times, a new position for him to be in. After constantly playing the hero (albeit sometimes accidentally) the time has definitely come for Mal to be put in his place and not be in the right for once. Inara bailing him out with a midnight sword lesson and a distraction while on the field of battle undermines most of his ego over solving his own problems and those of others. It also gives Inara the chance to be defined by more than just her profession. It’s already been established that she cares about Mal; now the audience gets to see more of that care without it hiding under a layer of snark or sarcasm. He doesn’t exactly learn his lesson in the end, but considering he almost dies, it seems like enough of a price to pay, especially as he has to deal with Inara holding it over him for the rest of their friendship. In the end, Mal, Kaylee, and Inara all get a taste of a world that they think they might belong in and decide that it isn’t actually the place for them after all. They each keep momentos of their time there: Kaylee her dress, Inara her satisfaction at blacklisting Atherton, and Mal some permanent scars. Plus they end up with a herd of cattle in Serenity’s hold, which is a humorous cap to an episode filled with a nice balance of poignancy and amusement.

Other Notes:

  • The young boy hopeful to be Inara’s client is Michael McMillian, recognizable from later roles on What I Like About You and True Blood. 
  • “That’s the buffet table.” “But how can we be sure, unless we question it.”
  • “This dance I think I actually know.” Mal’s not a complete heathen, he just pretends very well.
  • “Sad little king of a sad little hill.” It’s hard to overstate how great Summer Glau is in this episode. Between River’s breakdown in the kitchen and her mockery of Badger, Glau shines on both ends of the spectrum despite having only a few scenes.
  • “You also lined up exciting new crime!” The cows are a great sight gag and give Mal one more metaphorical stab in the gut, seeing as he thought the cargo was a rather different kind of valuable property.

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