Monday, June 09, 2014

The One Reason I'm Glad Firefly Didn't Get a Second Season

My roommate had "Shindig" on yesterday (for those of you who don't remember Firefly episodes by title, it's the one where Mal and Kaylee go to the fancy party and Mal winds up getting into a swordfight over Inara). It's a pretty good episode, because any episode with Badger is a good episode and Mal gets in a great line towards the end ("Mercy is the mark of a great man...and I'm pretty good. Well, I'm alright.") But watching it reminded me of something that bothered me about Firefly, and something I suspect would only have bothered me more as the series went on if it had gone on.

Specifically, it was the interactions between Mal and Inara. This episode had it worse than others, because it was a very Mal/Inara-centric episode, but it was there any time the series focused on these two characters. Namely, Mal had absolutely no respect for Inara as a person, despite the fact that he really wanted to sleep with her, and he treated her terribly. Really terribly. All the time. And the series wanted me to think it was cute.

"Shindig" had a perfect example. After Mal decked Atherton Wing, Inara's escort for the evening, he was put into quarters until the duel. Inara met him there and told him, in no uncertain terms, that his "defense" of her "honor" was unasked for and unwanted...and then proceeded to try to teach him the basics of surviving a swordfight anyway, because she wasn't mad enough at him to want to see him dead over it.

Mal's response: "They teach you that in whore academy?"

Inara's response: "You have a strange sense of nobility, Captain. You'll lay a man out for implying I'm a whore, but you keep calling me one to my face."

Mal's response: "I might not show respect to your job, but he didn't respect you. That's the difference. Inara, he doesn't even see you."

Now the problem here is obvious: Mal's line of reasoning was obvious self-justifying BS. Inara has never been portrayed as stupid, nor has she been portrayed as limited in her options through circumstance. She is never portrayed as being coerced into the role of Companion, either. (Which may be worth discussing another time, but for the moment, let's put "Companions can always choose their partners and are well-respected and never suffer social stigma for their work" deep down in the same Well of Uncomfortable Truths as "For a universe that's supposed to be half-Chinese, Firefly sure doesn't have any Asians.") Everything about the character suggests that her current lifestyle is an informed, intelligent choice. For Mal to say, "I don't respect your job, but I respect you," is patently and self-evidently false, because it implies that he doesn't respect her decisions or her ability to make them, but that this shouldn't in any way be taken as an insult. Which, pull the other one, it's got bells on.

The scene still works, primarily because both of the actors play it smarter than the script. But when you look for it, this kind of thing pops up all the time in the series. In "Out of Gas", when we see the characters' first meeting, one of Inara's baseline conditions for renting the shuttle is that he not come in uninvited. Every time Mal burst in on her, it wasn't a wacky neighbor intrusion like Kramer on Seinfeld. It was a deliberate violation of her explicitly-stated boundaries. That's not "cute", that's creepy and stalkerish.

Mal was possessive, he was controlling--he might not have been sleeping with her, but he was damn well going to carp and moan and complain and passive-aggressively punish her every time she slept with anyone else. He didn't respect her boundaries, he didn't respect her choices, and frankly, given that actions speak louder than words, he didn't respect her. And Inara knew it.

And the series was clearly trying to portray this as "cute", and bringing these two together as a couple. And call me crazy if you will, but I don't think that the showrunners were going to bring the two of them together by having Mal realize that he was not only out of touch with his culture's views on sex work, but that he was also being a possessive jerk who needed to grow up and respect Inara's boundaries, right to make decisions about her body, and decision-making abilities. No, I think it was more likely that Inara was going, at some point, to realize that her sex work was Hurting The Man She Loved and give it up in favor of heteronormative monogamy and slut-shaming. (As a message sent by the series, that is. I don't think that was going to be her new career path.)

It would have been a disaster. It would have retroactively made Inara stupid and Mal cruel, tossing out two interesting characters solely for the sake of a lousy OTP between two people who were, as they were then-currently written, disastrously bad for each other. It was much better to have her leave the way she said she was going to, so that at least Mal could stew in his entitled manchild BS for an undetermined period of time. So in that respect, as much as I loved the series, I'm glad Firefly was cancelled.

(And I'm also not sad about losing Tim Minear's planned episode where Inara kills a bunch of Reavers by tricking them into gang-raping her poisoned vagina. But that's another day's rant.)


magidin said...

I have to say I agree; I never liked the "relationship" between Mal and Inara.

Tony Laplume said...

That's my opinion of the whole series (and Whedon in general), more clever in theory than it is in execution, full of holes.

Eric Qel-Droma said...

This would be a great question to pose at a convention. Ultimately, what if the show DID plan on calling Mal on his intrusions and BS? What if the show-runners knew they had someone as a lead who had both good and bad qualities?

I'm not saying they would have handled it well, but they could have.

Or the second season could have just ruined it...

Jim S said...

Wow, I thought I was the only one had problems with the sexual politics of Firefly. I also thought the scripts weren't anything great. In fact most of them could have been from Gunsmoke in 1965.

But I thought the whole duel thing was particularly silly. And now when I'm watching shows like Fargo, Justified, The Americans (Man FX is hitting them out of the park), Breaking Bad, Mad Men, True Detective, and the like, I can't help feeling that TV has surpassed Joss Whedon and Company. It's like they're setting world speed records for trains and the best TV writers are travelling in jets.

Agents of SHIELD is a classic example of how something that would have been great 15 years ago now just seems behind the times. Hell even The Vampire Diaries is blows away much of Buffy and Angel.

Unknown said...

The thing is...Inara pretty much does call him on it by declaring at the end of the series that she's leaving. And she backed it up, because by the time we get to Serenity, she's left.

Would we have gotten a second season of Firefly where Inara was away on her her own GoT Danerys style? Who can say? Might Mal have come to the conclusion that he was treating her badly and that's why she's not here any more? Could be.

And that's why it's folly to assume that Firefly S2 would have definitely been this or certainly be that. We don't know, and never will.

I for one would be willing to risk them continuing to handle Mal + Inara badly if it also meant we got all the rest of the cast doing their things which was usually pretty good.

Which means, yes, that I'm indulging in the same folly of assuming the show would still be good. But what else is commenting on someone's blog about a long gone TV show anyhow?

DeeB said...


You'd have a point if the scene at the Companion training center in Serenity had shown any change, but it didn't. And the rest of the crew is pretty clearly ticked at Mal for how he treated Inara, and he's not showing any sign of getting clue that they're right.

I for one am glad I didn't have to throw things at the TV.

Anonymous said...

"but I don't think that the showrunners were going to bring the two of them together by having Mal realize that he was not only out of touch with his culture's views on sex work,"

Mal was on the losing side of a civil war, is it any surprise he'd be at odds with the culture he lived in.

it was portrayed as a bad thing his side lost. And the culture he lost to was shown to be exploitative, while sex work is considered very exploitative so it's doubtful them approving something like that would be shown as a positive