Firefly and Western Literature
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“Turns Out This Is My Kind of Party”

Still looking back at some of the earlier episodes in the series, episode #4, “Shindig,” follows the previous episode “Bushwhacked” in playing down the western elements of the series. The episode, however, is framed by two scenes that draw explicitly on western conventions, the saloon brawl that opens the episode (a scene that ends with the classic stunt of someone being tossed into the mirror behind the bar), and, in the episode’s final scene, we have a cattle drive (of sorts).

In between, we are in another genre entirely, with much of the central action taking place during a high society dance on the planet Persephone. As with “Bushwhacked,” we have here a more general meditation on civilization and savagery. Whereas “Bushwhacked” debated that relationship via an encounter with savagery on the edge of civilized space, “Shindig” places us in the center of civilization, or, at least, in a pocket of civilization on the otherwise more freewheeling planet.

Primarily, though, the conflict between savagery and civilization is played out in the relationship between “savage” (or at least uncouth) Firefly captain Malcolm Reynolds and civilized companion Inara. As Mal observes later in the episode, “I probably should have stayed out of your world.” However, this world belongs completely to neither Mal nor Inara (who, after all, despite her civilized occupation, chooses to run with the Firefly crew), and Mal is not so out of place that he can’t pass, at least momentarily, as a citizen of this social world–he certainly knows all the moves of the dance, as he proves on the dance floor with Inara.

If “Bushwhacked” moves from the western toward the horror film as the episode progresses, “Shindig” likewise makes a generic shift. When we first arrive on Persephone’s surface, the town streets are recognizable as a bustling multiethnic frontier town. Actually, these early scenes remind me of Blade Runner (without the rain), just another in Firefly‘s many allusions to other films and television shows.

However, the Jane Austen Novel (as genre in itself) seems the episode’s primary generic home, or, perhaps, the Jane Austen filmed adaptation might be more accurate, especially in terms of the staging of the dance. With the bickering of Inara and Mal, and Mal’s tendency toward critical paternalistic advice (“You think following the rules will buy you a nice life, even if the rules make you a slave”), the episode becomes a variant of Emma, with Inara as a much more experienced (and accomplished) Emma than Austen’s version, with Mal as Mr. Knightly, and Atherton Wing (Inara’s client for the weekend) as Frank Churchill. When Mal punches Atherton (“Turns out this is my kind of party”), well, I must admit I’ve often wanted to see Mr. Knightly do something similar.

Mal, however, is wrong, this is not his kind of party, and he misreads the generic and social rules. Like the western hero, he defends Inara’s honor because of Atherton’s insulting comment, but the result is not a brawl, a fist fight, or even a shoot-out. Rather, Mal finds himself in a duel . . . with swords.

At this point, the episode heads north, from Austen’s England to Walter Scott’s Scotland and to the climactic sword fight scene of Rob Roy (or, at least, to the 1995 film version of Rob Roy, with Mal taking on the Liam Neeson role as Scottish underdog against Atherton’s version of Tim Roth’s obnoxious-aristocrat-and-skilled-swordsman). Distracted by Inara’s plea that he spare Mal’s life, Atherton leaves himself open to a punch in the face (back to Mal’s kind of party) that turns the tide. Although initially bound by the rules of civilized society (“This duel is the result of the rules of your society, not mine”), Mal can only win the day by stepping outside the rules and using his fists rather than the sword as his primary weapon.

By setting the rules of the fight, Atherton also changes the episode’s generic conventions, and Mal’s well-timed punch returns us as well to the western genre, and his (and our) reward is, at long last, a herd of cattle, longhorns, if I’m remembering correctly, locked away in the hold of a spaceship crossing open space rather than herded by cowboys across the open plains, but given the network’s uneasiness with the show’s western elements, we’ll take our cattle drives however we can get them.

P.S. Please note that I’m following the episode order as the series appears on DVD. Individual air dates in some cases are quite different than the way the episodes have been put together in sequence for the DVD package.

Posted by Michael.

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