Firefly Month: Why Heart of Gold is the Worst Episode of Firefly

Monique’s intro: There are some episodes from the Whedonverse that I don’t think I want to watch again for a long time like “Seeing Red” from Buffy or “Belonging” from Dollhouse or any episode from Angel Season 4. “Heart of Gold” is my least favorite episode of Firefly. I hate it. So much so that I don’t want to watch it again, even for the purposes of analyzing it for this blog.

Not convinced? Here’s a scene from the episode that shows the usually composed Inara crying her eyes out.

Firefly_1x13_HoG_455

I don’t just hate this episode because it blows holes in my Mal/Inara ship. But thankfully, Joseph Susanka is here to review this episode so that I don’t have to!

Simon: Captain, why did you come back for us?
Mal: You’re on my crew.
Simon: Yeah, but you don’t even like me. Why’d you come back?
Mal: You’re on my crew. Why are we still talking about this?

As a long-time (and unapologetic) fan of Joss Whedon’s “Firefly,” I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the end of “Ariel.” In fact, it’s pretty near my favorite moment in any TV show I’ve ever seen. Why so? Because it is the most perfect distillation of why I love Malcolm Reynolds so much (and why the show works): This ragtag group of folks he works with aren’t just his crew. They’re his family. And when Jayne reveals that he feels the same way about them (despite his momentary — or should that be congenital — weakness for money), that shared affection and loyalty enables Mal to bring him back on board. Quite literally.

In other words, the end of “Ariel” underscores the one ethical constant in the Whedon Verse: Mal’s stubborn – almost impossibly stubborn – loyalty to the members of his crew. With his dogged fidelity as our anchor point, we can endure any amount of downright unsettlin’ behavior without losing our central confidence in the show and its semi-anti-hero; without it, we are but leaves on the wind.

All of which doubtless helps to explain why “Heart of Gold” is my least favorite episode in the entire show; an episode, in fact, that I might actually dislike. Because it’s an episode that drastically undercuts the very Mal I’ve grown to know and respect. The Mal who’s a great leader and a good man and (above all else) a loyal and faithful friend.

It contains some of the series’ most obvious Western tropes – defending a small and dilapidated fortress against almost impossible odds; gunfights and scenery-chewing, over the top villains on horseback; the hooker(s) with the titular heart(s) of gold – and Whedon is clearly playing with the genre in a number of interesting ways. So there’s much here that I could enjoy in a different context. But when Mal decides to spend the night with Inara’s former companion, Nandi, it feels like a real betrayal. A betrayal of the weird and complicated relationship he has Inara, surely; but even more devastatingly, a betrayal of his own character.

Unlike the hilarious (and ultimately, unconsummated) dalliance with Saffron in “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” where Mal seems genuinely conflicted and not entirely willing, his decision to embrace Nandi is a far more intentional one, which makes it all the more out of character. And I’m not the only one who thinks that; Inara herself, despite her best attempts to present a bold and progressive face when she learns of the previous night’s “festivities,” is devastated when she learns of Mal’s actions.

In fairness to Mr. Whedon, having one’s show cut off in the bloom of its youth can wreak a good bit of havoc with future story lines. It is entirely possible that this conflict between Mal and Inara would have served some larger purpose – a larger story arc that would once again confirm Mal’s loyalty to Inara and to his own principles of Faithfulness At Any Cost. But without that larger context, I feel that it does a real disservice to my favorite part of the show. It’s not that I object to Mal being revealed as a less-than- perfect man – the show gives ample evidence of his failings – it’s that I object to losing the one thing I’ve been able to hold onto all along; the one thing I could rely on. Having the rug pulled out from under one’s feet at the opening is fine, and often a very effective bit of storytelling. But to have it pulled out now, so close to the end? That, I do not care for. Not at all.

I’d just stop at “The Message,” if it’s all the same to you.
“When you can’t run, you crawl, and when you can’t crawl – when you can’t do that…You find someone to carry you.”

Author addendum: Thankfully there is one amazing episode that follows after that. In my honest opinion, skip this episode after watching “The Message” and follow me to “Objects in Space.”

Attribution: All screenshots are copyright to 20th Century Fox and Mutant Enemy and are used for editorial purposes only. P.S. Joss Whedon, you’re a bastard.

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