Fancy balls, sword fighting and an indirect exploration of how much power Companions really have. A mighty fine Shindig indeed.
The Possession of Inara
The main action of this episode was basically two guys fighting over Inara. One, Atherton, has paid for her company, and although she has met him before and likes him, his behavior gets more and more dismissive and possessive as the episode goes on. The other, of course, is Mal, who doesn't really think that he's fighting for control of Inara, but who throws punches to "defend her honor" while also insulting her and the choices she makes in his next breath.
In one sense, I have to side with Mal. Inara is free to choose any career that she likes, and her job as a companion brings her great respect, luxury and opportunity. She gets to travel and meet people and she seems to love the work that she does. But despite the fact that companions appear to be in positions of power, choosing their clients and demanding respect, things are not so easily in Inara's favor. Even the client that she has chosen and knows well treats her more like a show dog than a human being, holding her arm too tightly, calling her to follow him, not allowing her to leave his room.
When Inara throws Atherton's threats back in his face at the end of the episode and tells him that he's earned a black mark on the client registry, it feels like it's supposed to be a "hell yeah" moment, where Inara takes the power back. She does it with dignity and sophistication, and she makes clear that she had the power in this all along. But did she? Really? If she was in the position of power, why did she allow Atherton to hold her arm so tightly that it must have hurt, or order her about when she wanted to protect her friend? Why does she stand silently by when Atherton first insults her, and Mal punches him? Why does she have to agree to stay with him to save Mal's life, and only assert her power after Mal's life is already safe? All she can do in that moment is sacrifice her own freedom, hand away more of her power and independence, in order to save another. It's more sacrifice than fight, and I think it suggests that Mal, for all his disrespectful talk, is right about Inara's career. She has the veneer of respectability and influence, but it's a controlled kind of influence, an illusion of power that was handed to her, but that the Aliiance, and the men she works for, could just as easily take away. In this episode, as in most episodes, Serenity represents freedom, the freedom to be and to do whatever you please, while Inara's world of fancy parties and rich clients is, ultimately, suppression. A very pretty kind of suppression, but suppression none-the-less.
But Mal isn't necessarily in the right either. He says that he doesn't respect Inara's job, but he does respect her, yet his needling, his insults, his constant calling her a "whore"... none of it suggests respect to me. Their relationship is really intriguing and compelling, especially as Inara is always willing to call him on his nonsense, but it's also pretty messed up. They have a lot of issues to work through, even for a healthy friendship. Because Mal is possessive of her as well. He'll ask her to stay, rather than ordering it, but he too wants to control the way that Inara behaves. He tries to shame her and her work to cover up his feelings for her, and perhaps to remind himself of why he shouldn't like her, why she is dishonest and not deserving respect. Although I think he has accidentally stumbled on an accurate point about Inara's world and the respect she actually receives, he's certainly not respecting her either.
Kaylee and the Cupcake Dress
This episode was also the chance for Kaylee, pretty much Inara's opposite in terms of character, to also step into Inara's glitsy, sophisticated world. And for her fancy society debut, our genius mechanic picks out the pinkest, frilliest, fluffiest, ruffle-iest, most cupcake-like dress imaginable. She puts a big pink bow in her hair, and she grins her way through the party, because hey, a girl can be extremely talented with machines and be a girly girl. She's friendly and open to everybody, and downcast when people are cruel to her, and she can rock a conversation about engines while in her girliest, frilliest get-up, because those traits are not mutually exclusive.
I feel like Kaylee is a punch to the face to the idea that a good, strong female character is "not like other girls." Except that Kaylee would never punch anybody. Because she's not that kind of girl.
Oh my god just listen to River
That's basically becoming my refrain, watching the show. On the one hand, I think the fact that everyone just dismisses River as crazy and doesn't listen to her ramblings, even for a second, helps to disassociate her from the "mysterious waif" stereotype, where everyone is fascinated by and desperate to protect the weak, broken girl. And River does come off as pretty unbalanced, as she wanders into the kitchen and starts destroying cans for no apparent reason. On the other hand, the way everyone treats River makes me seriously annoyed on her behalf. Even Simon, who has dedicated his life to protecting her, doesn't actually listen to what she's trying to say. Everything is dismissed as "crazy," and so they don't notice that she's giving hints about what happened to her at the Academy, or that even her tearing the Blue Sun labels off cans has a logic to it, because she knows a lot more than they do about what they're facing.
And I think her encounter with Badger really proved that they need to trust her. They are so convinced that she's a defenseless, broken waif of a girl that they almost seem to forget that she's actually a genius who makes Simon look like an idiot child. She is capable of acting to protect herself. Her perspective on the world has become very distorted, but she is not a weak, helpless thing. And I look forward to seeing her prove it more in the future.