In Heart of Gold, the crew of Serenity helped one of Inara's ex-companion friends fight off a misogynistic jerk determined to steal a pregnant girl's child. And everyone seemed to think this was the perfect setting for some relationship angst.
Heart of Gold offered us one surprising, innovative new addition to the show: a Chinese character. Who speaks. Who speaks more than once, in fact, in whole sentences, and appears in multiple scenes. She's not one of the main characters of the episode, and I'm not sure if she was given a name, but hey. She was present, and she spoke. Awesome, right?
Are you serious, Firefly? We are now on episode 13. This is world where the US and China are supposed to have become equal superpowers, where the culture is supposedly heavily influenced by China, where people speak Chinese as a matter of course. In fact, judging from the way signs are written in England and Chinese, we might assume that English and Chinese are both primary languages here, and that many people would speak Chinese only. And yet our first noticeable Chinese character appears in the 13th episode, as a prostitute? And not even as one of the more important prostitutes in the episode?
Worse, this character appears in a very lower-class environment, where everybody says "ain't" and the women have no power at all. The position these women play in this society is made clear from the very first scene, when Rance Burgess sticks a probe into Petaline's stomach. Yay for visual rape analogies? As we've seen through Inara, prostitutes can have a very significant role in society, but not here. Not these women. They're abused, hated and on their own. And that, of course, is where we see our first speaking character of Asian heritage.
Heart of Gold also added more complications to the presentation of Inara. On the one hand, this could be said to be "her" episode, and so a chance to see more depth from her. On the other hand, this is mostly about Mal swooping in to save the day, and almost all that we learn about Inara is in relation to him. We learn that she "doesn't like complications," and perhaps that she will do anything to avoid being vulnerable. But despite her being presented as a confident, in-control woman, she is utterly unable to express or deal with her own feelings. Perhaps her attitude would have made more sense if the show had the chance to uncover more of her background and her character as time went on, but right now, it just seems like the show was giving lip-service to her power and self-assurance in order to justify her soft-lens and sensual sponge baths role on the show, but didn't want to entirely follow through, because it would ruin key plot issues like all that unresolved sexual tension.
Of course, this could all have been developed eventually. We've seen plenty of hints that companions do not have real power, especially when they step outside of the Alliance's rules. We see more here, when we get a look into an "independent" companion's life, and how, although Inara clearly still likes and respects her friend, even she is willing to refer to her with a slur because her work is no longer government controlled or condoned. We even get a peek into how Inara's own control and total, unflappable dignity is something of an act -- Mal breaks through it, and she immediately runs away, before her mask can break any further. With a subtle touch and enough narrative focus, all this could have become an interesting plot thread, and a way to develop Inara into a really relevant and compelling character. Instead, this is all we get. Inara being called to save the day, but Mal doing most of the work. Inara saying she has influence and control, but actually having very little. Inara being "confident" and "powerful" when the plot needs her to be, but being unable to express her own feelings when they really count, and keeping the audience at emotional arm's length as a result.
Although, considering what the writers had in store for Inara (only read if you have a strong stomach, trigger warning for rape), perhaps all these assumptions are a bit fanciful. It's highly possible (even probable-sounding) that the show would never have given Inara full agency or treated her with respect. But the show has so many good female characters, and so much potential, that I can't help but pretend it would.