Monday, May 2, 2011

Firefly: Heart of Gold Review

Firefly seems to make an economic assessment on the value of water along the lines of the econ 101 thought-experiment of the water-diamond paradox. (Said thought-experiment simply noting the primacy of scarcity over function in valuing a good on the free market.) In Firefly's future, it would appear that water is an expensive commodity, at least when bought for terraforming. The poorer the planet, the drier the climate and Heart of Gold is no exception. Unlike the wild-west styled dust-balls of Our Mrs. Reynolds and Safe, or the muddy mess of Jaynestown, Heart of Gold takes place almost entirely in a desert.

Though a recurring lament throughout these reviews, it must, once again, be asked why the show insists on dancing so frequently with the dust-balls. Surely a show set solely on a sound-stage's ship would be cheaper by far to film. It is aboard Serenity and other space-based locals that Firefly really sings and it's dominant themes of solitude and family are best served. Like an ill-fitting cowboy hat, it's occasional forays into John Wayne's territory just don't sit comfortably. Firefly clearly attempts to create a science fiction future lovingly crafted with good attention to detail. And, in theory, a dash of nomadic desert is a great foil to the mechanical loneliness of space. But, without the budget to fully put us in the desert, the solitude is hampered by the boom mics and reflectors, the sound engineers and the cameramen who seem just out of sight off camera.

This is not to say that the writing or the acting suffers from the setting. As Heart of Gold proves, some of the show's strongest emotional beats happen in brothels or saloons. But the unintentional camp of the surroundings is a vague distraction from the earnest plots put to film. It's almost as though Whedon and co.'s mastery of tone is overwhelmed by the open sky. The desert is too big for them and they lose some of their control in these episodes.

But not for lack of trying do they fail. Heart of Gold is peppered throughout with the character-driven moments that resonate far deeper than one would expect from this genre. The episode is at its best when taking itself seriously, though the occasional moment of levity is (mostly) appreciated. As with Shindig, Heart of Gold deals with the issues of femininity and prostitution in this universe. Unlike Shindig, Heart of Gold is far less nuanced in dealing with the various moral ambiguities that arise. The villain Rance Burgess (ably played by Frederic Lane) is a caricature of misogyny and evil, giving the plot an extremely shallow arc of 'kill the bad guy.'

Where the story skimps on moral depth though, it more than makes up for with emotional punch. Dealing, as it does, with Firefly's reality of prostitution, Heart of Gold puts Inara in the spotlight to great effect. Without giving away too much of the plot, Inara's relationship with Mal is put to the test, resulting in a truly heartbreaking moment. Morena Baccarin has shown signs of serious acting chops throughout the series but is, unfortunately, mostly relegated to sitting around looking delicate and pretty. For once, we get to see her unshackled and the subtly of her expression as she discovers Mal leaving another woman's room is breathtaking. In a moment we feel her pain, jealousy, humiliation, and strength all from a beautiful face that, for once, doesn't smile coquettishly. The scene between them is one of the few in the series where the viewer is left asking "Nathan Who?"

Ultimately, Heart of Gold is written in the service of advancing Firefly's only intriguing romance (nothing against Zoe and Wash or Kaylee and Simon but, while believable, their relationships aren't designed to involve the viewer as a participant) and is therefore forgiven for all the other thematic opportunities it leaves unexamined. There is another glimpse into the continuing dynamics of Wash and Zoe (I, too, want to meet their child) and a few cursory jokes at Jayne's expense. By and large though, the episode revolves around a gunfight.

Morena Baccarin
Which is something of a tragedy in retrospect. The penultimate episode of the series and the one exhibiting perhaps the most powerful character-driven emotional punch is held back by a simplistic story and distracting setting. Heart of Gold could never take the crown as Best Episode of Firefly (or B.E.F. as the award is henceforth acronymized) focusing, as it does, on only two characters. (Recognizing the ensemble strength of Firefly, B.E.F. will have to be awarded to an episode broader in scope than one romance.) But there is a lot going right in it that is let down by the show's weaker aspects.

Come to think of it, that sentence could be the final word in Firefly's eulogy: a lot going right with some insurmountable shortcomings.

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