Firefly Episode 4: "Shindig"
One way in which Firefly differs from most science fiction shows of its type is that it's not afraid to show Mal, as captain, on something other than an even keel. On Persephone, he's clearly bothered by feelings of jealousy such that even mentioning Inara's name and hinting at her work causes him to become more distracted and surly than usual. It's probably a matter of taste, but I found it almost too much. If he his feelings lead to awkwardness that easily, how have they been functioning together for almost a year?
The two are clearly from very different worlds, though at the risk of disagreeing with the episode's writer, Jane Espenson, from the DVD commentary, I felt she fit into his a lot better than he did hers. Mal was able to fit in at the ball, but only as long as he focused on his objective - meeting Harrow, a client who won't deal with Badger, but whom Badger suspects Mal might be able to win over.
The three main guest stars, by the way, were all fine. Mark Sheppard is a great actor with an interesting recurring character whom I would have loved to see more often in future episodes. Larry Drake struck just the right note with Harrow, as a man within elite society who's well aware of its more unsavory characters. If anything was missing, it was in Edward Atterton's Atherton Wing. This is probably mainly a writing flaw, but while he did a come job as coming across as the smooth, arrogant rich kid, it was never quite clear why Inara genuinely liked him as she professed to do.
Matters come to a head when Mal punches Atherton for the latter's own jealous reaction and assumption that he owns Inara now that he's paid her. This leads to an obligatory sword duel over the matter of honor, and Atherton, naturally, is an expert swordsman. There's a great scene in Mal's room on Persephone where Inara comes to try and help Mal escape, and instead ends up teaching him swordfighting. Mal draws a distinction between not respecting her work and not respecting her, and coming as close to begging as Mal ever does in asking her not to accept Atherton's offer to stay with him as his personal Companion.
During the course of the show, we also see more of the everyday life of the crew, with what we might call Wash and Zoe's personal interactions and the card game over chores between Book, Simon, and Jayne. Simon is starting to fit in more, taking part in discussing plots to rescue Mal and being referred to by Jayne as "the doctor" rather than as some outside refugee. River also gets a bit more development in that wonderful scene where she reads Badger, who had come aboard to prevent the others from rescuing Mal, in his own dialect, concluding that he was a "sad little king of a sad little hill." Badger becomes an even more interesting character by responding with amusement.
In the end, Atherton is about to win the duel when Inara offers to stay with him if he'll spare Mal, a sacrifice which shows her own affection for him. Mal uses this to get the better of Atherton, but declines to "finish it" so that Atherton will be left with the reputation of a coward. Inara provides a finishing touch by telling him he will become persona non grata to other Companions. In the show's final scene, the two share a moment in the cargo hold, looking over Harrow's herd of cattle while making a common bond out of not wanting to leave Serenity.
Altogether this was a decent episode - I haven't even mentioned Kaylee's dress and its associated moments. As noted, I did wonder a bit about elements of the characterization, and the pacing of the ball scenes also seemed off, though maybe I just haven't seen enough balls on TV to judge appropriately. As a complete package, I'll give it 6/10.
Inara: "I am grateful, you know, for the ill-conceived and high-handed attempt to defend my honor although I didn't want you to."