“Shindig” is quite possibly my favorite episode of Firefly. I’ve mentioned before that Joss Whedon like to combine imagery in strange ways to create his space cowboy universe, in this episode he indulges his flair for juxtaposition to the fullest extent of the law.
We open with a scene in a fairly normal dive bar, where Mal and Jayne are playing hologram pool while Inara watches. Sadly, since it is Mal and Jayne in a bar, they have to leave in a hurry after starting a brawl with slave traders (because Mal picked their pockets).
So, the intrepid crew heads toward Persephone for a short furlough. Before they hit town we get to see a little of Inara’s screening process, which I actually find interesting. How does a wandering space Companion set up appointments? Apparently via video messaging. As she makes arrangements with a charming young man, Mal comes in and there is witty banter all around with a little awkwardness thrown in to keep things honest.
Cut to the surface where the the crew is doing a little window shopping. This is where we first see The Dress. If you were to ask a guy about this episode, he would probably say “Isn’t that the one with the duel?” but if you ask a woman, any woman, she will say “Oooh, that’s the one with The Dress.” It deserves the caps. It is a truly awful dress, but there is something about it that appeals to the little girl in all of us – part Disney princess, part southern belle and all pink ruffles.
It reminds me of those weird crocheted Barbie things that you might hide toilet paper under, but I’d wear it for an hour. Kaylee loves it. I identify with Kaylee a lot. I’m not much like her in a lot of ways; she has a wholesome innocence thing going on that I haven’t been able to claim since middle school and, while I’m a pretty positive person, no one would ever call me bubbly. However, I was a tomboy who worked pretty hard in a male dominated world as a carpenter and my femininity tends to come out in weird fits and spurts. Like Kaylee, I am a little envious of women who get to be pretty every day. Not enough to actually wake up early to do my hair and makeup every day, but it is fun to daydream about it occasionally.
Anyway, Kaylee is comparing the pink dress to some of the pretty things Inara has. Mal is still smarting from his last sparring round with her so he snaps and asks Kaylee just what exactly she would do with something like that, comparing her in fancy clothes to a sheep walking around on its hind legs. Jayne laughs, of course, but Kaylee is crestfallen. Zoe makes her opinion of the Captain’s unnecessary jack-assery perfectly clear as she and Wash usher Kaylee away. Mal is kicking himself when Badger (the slightly lovable rogue) shows up to invite him to tea.
I enjoy Mark Sheppard every time he shows up. He is a fantastic character actor. For some reason, out of all the shows he has done, his role on Leverage is the one I associate him with most. I had to look up his actual name because I only ever call him “Sterling.” This disappoints me a little, because “Badger” is such an awesome name.
As luck would have it, Badger has a possible job for Serenity and the contact for that job will be at the same ball that Inara will be attending with her client. Just in case we forgot this important fact, we cut to Inara and Atherton making their entrance to said ball. Inara seems happy and comfortable, smiling and greeting old acquaintances, but we get to see the first crack in Atherton’s charming facade. He tells her that “Half the men in this room wish you were on their arm tonight… All of them wish they were in your bed.” Instead of noticing that she found his comment tactless, he goes on to say that so few women in her profession still blush. He transitions back into Mr. Charming so smoothly that Inara shakes off her irritation with a smile. They are still dancing when the major domo announces “Miss Kaywinnet Lee Frye and escort.” Kaylee enters, resplendent in her new dress, with Mal on her arm and they proceed to party like its 1899. (Actually, it’s more like 1809, but I couldn’t resist.) The ball is another area where the juxtaposition runs wild. The clothing runs from antebellum to Asian, and under the hovering chandelier people dance Quadrilles and Waltzes. The attitudes are also a mixed bag, but we’ll get to that later.
We pop back to the ship for a bit to check in with everyone else. Jayne, Simon and Book are chore gambling with a poker-esque card game, River is being weird, but in a fairly harmless way, and Zoe and Wash are enjoying the hell out of some private time. I don’t mean to gloss over parts like this, but I can’t help it. They are the scenes where we get to learn more about who everyone is when there isn’t some sort of crisis going on. I like them quite a bit, but they don’t translate very well in re-cap form. Without seeing the nuances that the actors put into their characters it just reads as “Book said he wouldn’t mind doing fewer dishes, River stared taking labels off cans and Jayne cheated when Simon went over to stop her.” You just have to watch it to get it.
Back to the party! Kaylee and Mal mingle while looking for the gentleman they are supposed to contact. Entranced by a bowl of strawberries, Kaylee decides to start looking by the buffet. While there she introduces herself to a group of young women who are classically bitchy to her. Just when you begin to suspect that they will be universally shunned and Mal will have to cheer her up later, a distinguished gentleman comes up to greet the head bitch. “Why Banning Miller, what a vision you are in your fine dress. It must have taken a dozen slaves a dozen days to get you into that getup. ‘Course your daddy tells me it takes the space of a schoolboy’s wink to get you out of it again,” and he escorts Kaylee away as the mean girl flounces off in a huff.
OK, time to pick up the pace a bit, else we’ll be here all day. Mal finds Sir Warwick Harrow, his potential client played by the oh so versatile Larry Drake, who seems unimpressed with his charms until Inara and Atherton stop by to say hello. Mal talks Inara into a dance, but the minute they seem to be enjoying themselves Atherton breaks in to claim his ‘property.’ Mal takes exception to Ath saying that since he paid for her, she belongs to him for the weekend, and inadvertently challenges to him to a duel by punching him in the face. Harrow even volunteers to be his second. Mal is escorted to guest lodgings, so he can’t run away.
Back at Serenity, Badger shows up with Kaylee and a lot of men with guns to ensure that the crew won’t try to break out the captain thereby damaging Badger’s reputation for bringing Mal in. While the crew tries to plan an escape River wanders in, scaring the crap out of everyone. Instead of giving herself away, she cows Badger by turning into a bored cockney who calls him a sad little king of a sad little hill.
Inara tries to help Mal escape, but he refuses. While he is willing to run away from other fights, he won’t back down when it is her honor at stake. And then he calls her a whore again. At her exasperated outburst he explains that while he might not respect her profession, Atherton doesn’t respect her and that makes all the difference in the world.
The morning of the duel, Harrow and Inara watch as Mal is hopelessly outclasses. Just as Atherton moves in for the kill, Inara calls out that she will stay with him, if only he will let Mal live. Mal takes advantage of the distraction to punch him in the face again and wins the fight his way. Atherton shows his true colors as a spoiled little shit and Inara swiftly puts him in his place. Harrow agrees to let Serenity transport his cargo, Badger leaves quietly, and we end the show with Kaylee admiring her dress and Mal and Inara bonding while looking at the herd of live cattle that now fills the hold. Cows on a space ship – what better way to end this episode than with one last chance for me to say juxtaposition?