Firefly 1.13 – Heart of Gold

It’s fair to say that this episode wasn’t going to be a complete winner with our favorite ten year-old critic. He enjoyed the gunplay stuff enormously, but there’s a whole lot of grown-up stuff in this one as well, and not just the smoochy bits. We talked about whether to explain to him beforehand what a brothel is, but decided in the end that he’s intelligent enough, since we explained what Inara’s job as a companion entails some weeks ago, to figure this out.

The brothel in question is run by an old friend of Inara’s played by Melinda Clarke, who is so much believable and engaging here than she had been a few years previously in a pair of silly Xena episodes. The kid draped himself under a blanket when Mal and Clarke’s character started their smooching, and he certainly didn’t understand what happened the morning after…

See, if you’re older than ten, then this almost cruel scene of Inara, heartbroken because she can’t tamp down her feelings for Mal anymore and that changes everything, does not make any sense whatever. But for me, it’s one of the saddest little moments of any television series. Morena Baccarin is a very good actress and we like her in everything we’ve seen, but this scene, and the episode’s coda, are both remarkable. Inara is so hurt. If you don’t leave this episode a little hurt, too, well, you must be ten.

So we had a discussion about what all the tears and sadness meant, and how Mal and Inara simply can’t be in a relationship together. Mal is too controlling, too possessive, too insecure and full of jealousy, to have an open relationship. Inara loves her work too much to leave it, and she loves her family too much to let a relationship with Mal be the thing to destroy it, so she leaves. I think this is how Firefly built such a loyal fandom; it’s because something so real, and so painful, hadn’t been done anywhere near this well in an American sci-fi show before then. It’s truly great writing and great acting, and hurts just as much now as when I first saw it sixteen years ago.

Xena: Warrior Princess 2.14 – A Necessary Evil

After the previous episode, I thought it was odd that they made two Lucy-lite episodes so close together, with Xena wearing Callisto’s body in one and possessing Autolycus’s body in the other. Since I don’t know anything about the production of Xena beyond “it was made in New Zealand,” I did a little reading. During a break in production after finishing ten episodes, Lucy Lawless was in Los Angeles to do some promotion for the series, and was injured in a stunt for NBC’s The Tonight Show. That rings a distant bell. I’m sure I must have heard of that at the time.

So that’s why they did some episodes with the lead actress either barely present or sidelined and not doing all the high jumps, and full credit to the producers for doing it so well. It must have required an inhuman amount of shuffling and rewriting to make the next seven or eight episodes with the lead actress barely able to move. Their way around it this time is bringing Hudson Leick back as Callisto. Since we saw her in episode eight, she showed up in episode 3.12 of Hercules, somehow became immortal, and ended up locked in an underground prison. And since Velasca, who we met last time, has munched on enough of the cheat-death macguffin to become a “god,” with all the attendant powers of lightning bolts and weather manipulation, Xena reasons the only way to stop her is to sic Callisto on her.

I thought this was a much more entertaining hour than the last one, and piggybacking on what I said last time about Bruce Campbell bringing the only entertainment value to an episode that really shouldn’t have anything to do with men, this installment has exactly two speaking parts for men: two guards at Artemis’s temple get one line apiece before Velasca kills them. It’s certainly not just the fights and the special effects, although they had our son more wowed than any previous episode of the show, it’s watching Callisto just needle Gabrielle and be effortlessly mean. I winced when Callisto pointed out that Gabrielle just isn’t very good at Truth or Dare. Melinda Clarke doesn’t fare nearly as well as Velasca, who could have had a much more interesting objective. Damaging Artemis’s temple was a nice start. It’s a shame they didn’t do more along that line, but what they did was still really entertaining.

Xena: Warrior Princess 2.13 – The Quest

You can view most television through a variety of lenses. Me, I seem to most like fresh takes on adventure teevee tropes, light humor, and great actors. I think the presentation is often more important than the plot, which is a good thing in the case of “The Quest,” because this silly hour has a lot of holes and a lot of problems. This one introduces a new villain named Velasca, an Amazon who’s all ham and cleavage, and when Gabrielle takes a detour through Amazon country en route to returning Xena’s body to her home, she… wait, it’s really dumb. Let me start over.

The Amazons intercept Gabrielle because they want to give Xena a ceremonial funeral-by-fire. Gabrielle declines, because Xena wished to be buried next to her brother. Gabrielle’s not in her right mind anyway; she keeps asking why Xena “left” her, when we saw last time that about 1500 pounds of lumber pancaked Xena into a tree and she didn’t seem to have a lot of choice in the matter. The Amazons, including old pal Ephiny (Danielle Cormack), explain that Velasca (Melinda Clarke) has stepped into a power vacuum that Gabrielle, who was made a princess about a year ago, can settle. So she decides to become their queen and let ’em torch Xena’s corpse without worrying about it too much, and then she changes her mind. Velasca starts screaming about how Gabrielle has betrayed the Amazons, and about 90% of them agree and go nuts about it. Lady, she changed funeral plans, she didn’t sell your secrets to the Romans.

So yes, the whole thing is baked in stupid, and yet it’s still hugely entertaining because Bruce Campbell’s wonderful character Autolycus, the King of Thieves, is back in town. Xena’s spirit has taken over his body in order to get her own corpse to some death-cheating stuff, but she doesn’t want Gabrielle to know what she’s up to for some reason that’s never explained either… even Michael Hurst, who played the sidekick character on Hercules, shows up to give Gabrielle about the legal limit of condolence hugs before it gets creepy.

Perhaps it’s wrongheaded of me to look at this predominantly female-driven hour and say that’s only worth watching when Bruce Campbell is onscreen, but I’m afraid it’s true. Even the hour’s centerpiece moment, when astral-plane Xena and astral-plane Gabrielle share a great big yes-they-did-ladies, they-really-did kiss, is anchored by it happening between real-world Autolycus and real-world Gabrielle. I don’t think that’s right; this episode should have been tight and sensible and watchable even before Bruce Campbell got anywhere near the story, and the producers should have had the guts, once Xena was restored by the cheat-death Macguffin, to let the ladies lock lips without letting any man’s body get between them.