“Shindig”, in its primary plot anyway, is an episode about outsiders stepping foot in a world previously unknown to them. Inara, while no outcast, is basically an outsider in the world of Serenity and its crew, her presence on the ship a bit of an enigma. That’s her dynamic in the first three episodes. In the fourth, it gets inverted, as Inara passes back into a world that she is more at home in, with Mal suddenly the outsider, forced to adapt to very different (and trying) circumstances.
And that world is one of nobility and, as Badger puts it, “quality gents”. “Shindig” never gets into the nitty gritty, and Firefly never got the chance to, but the universe, – or, at least, the planet of Persephone – is a place where nobility is flourishing again, in some kind of form. A strange confluence of 18th century British aristocracy, Middle-Eastern Ottomans and Confederate South society erupts before us, in terms of surroundings and attire, the ball itself, the announcements of the guests attending, the (incredibly) formal dancing and the haughty condescension of the higher class towards all and sundry. Plenty of stereotypes pop up: the bitchy debutante types and the older “Don’t care what anyone thinks of me” patriarchs among them. Mal, while not a complete stranger to this kind of world (I’ve always wondered how he knew that dance), is very much out of his depth.
Which leads to the central conflict of the episode, as Mal blunders into a duel to the death with our antagonist, the brash and arrogant Atherton Wing. And it was in watching this play out that I starting thinking about duelling, the historical reality of it and how it so often plays out on television and film.
Because film and TV love duelling (by which I mean a formal arranged combat between two characters, as opposed to just a fight). I don’t think there is a sci-fi or fantasy show that hasn’t portrayed some kind of formal duel or judicial combat at some point. Star Trek did it so much it was practically self parody by the time of Enterprise’s “United”. Stargate SG-1 did it in “Emacipation”, only its third episode, and then better in season nine’s “Babylon”. Game Of Thrones uses it as a crucial plot crux constantly, perhaps most notably in “The Mountain And The Viper”. Dresden Files, Arrow, Battlestar Galactica (OS), Highlander, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Outlaw Star are some that friends pointed out containing judicial combat only shortly after I asked on Facebook. And those are just the examples that spring immediately to mine and others’ minds, you can scroll through the myriad of other examples here if you have the inclination. In Firefly, Mal is forced to engage Wing in a swords at dawn duel, that calls back to romantic notions of the practice from 17th or 18th century Europe, especially France and England.
The reality of duelling is fairly different to most portrayals of it onscreen. The practise probably flourished most in Europe in the 17th and 18th century, and in America in the 19th century, but attempts had been made to quell the entire notion long before that. The Papacy railed against duelling as far back as the 1200’s, Elizabeth I made active efforts to stop it amongst her nobles, Louis XIII of France (despairing of thousands of pardons for “murders associated with duels”) did the same, and history is replete with military authority figures, from Wellington to Washington, urging people to, basically, cut it the hell out.
But duelling was something that many aristocrats resorted to in order to deal with personal disputes, before greater legal crackdowns, the inventions of libel laws and media campaigns essentially doomed the practise to the annals of history.
But how did duelling actually work? There was numerous “rules”, sometimes referred to as the “Code Duello”, which differed from place to place and time to time. A popular set of guidelines was actually invented in Ireland, in 1777. Taking “Shindig” as a framework, we can have a look at how duelling usually proceeded, and how Firefly, following a long line of TV shows, gets many things wrong in the pursuit of more effective drama. Of course, Firefly is set 500 years in the future, when things could rightly be expected to have changed a lot, but it is still basing itself on a very specific point in real timelines.
Firstly, there doesn’t have to be a duel at all, for several reasons. Mal punches Atherton after the Perspehone noble insults Inara, or so Mal see’s it. Apparently, Persephone society sees this as a formal challenge to a duel, which doesn’t fit the historical record. Such an outward show of aggression would be seen as quite shocking and vulgar to societies where duelling existed, more a matter for law and order than private resolution. Duelling usually happened over insults that were verbal in nature and where there was a difference of opinion, as opposed to an assault.
Furthermore, Mal should easily be able to refuse the duel. Doing so would have him labelled a coward by Persephone society, and wrong in his dispute with Wing, but he could walk away without risking his life. The idea of Mal being forced into the fight is a futuristic invention and, as the apparent challenger, he should also be able to simply declare himself “satisfied” and get the whole thing called off.
More than that though, the gap in social status between Wing and Mal would actually make the duel very unlikely. In the 18th century version of this tale, Wing would be expected to refuse Mal’s “challenge”, as Mal is a nobody and he is a blueblood – if anything, Wing should be expected to order Mal clapped in irons for his intransigence. To actually go ahead and duel Mal formally, a lower caste with no sword training while Wing is, by reputation, a very proficient duellist, would actually be considered shameful behaviour on Wing’s part, an embarrassing spectacle, like Barcelona taking on a Sunday pub team and expecting plaudits when they win 50-0.
That they duel with swords is also notable. Swords were largely phased out by the perceived golden age of duelling, probably because of their difficulty to master and the attached barbarity of their use in such a context. Pistols were cleaner, made things a bit more equal and, surprisingly, generally ended up killing less people. That Persephone society has regressed this far is just dramatic convenience: a sword fight looks better than pistols at dawn, though I have seen such duels portrayed effectively on screen (Sharpe, Barry Lyndon).
Mal gets a “second” in the form of his actual target during the ball, Warwick Harrow. The role of a second is often smudged in media. They are usually portrayed simply as a close acquaintance who is present at the duel and who steps in if their man fails, or is unable, to fight. In reality, for much of duelling history, seconds had a more complex role, in choosing the ground for the duel, making sure all the rules were followed, etc. However, their most important role was actually in trying to stop the duel from happening at all: seconds were often picked so that they could negotiate with each other to see if there was any way that their “firsts” could resolve their dispute without resort to bloodshed. “Shindig” seems to forgo this entirely.
This role of the second was tied in to the time passage between insult, acceptance of a challenge and the actual duel. Most duelling codes called on a period of time to elapse between these things, nominally so that all the proper arrangements could be made, but really so that any unfortunate rushes of blood to the head could be diffused and duels called off when the intended participants came to their senses, as many did. In Firefly, there isn’t a hint of any of this being considered: Mal is essentially imprisoned so that he doesn’t get the opportunity to rethink it, and Wing has no interest in calling it off.
One of the few things that “Shindig” recreates properly is the time and place. Duels were often held in the early hours, in an isolated spot that was misty or foggy in the morning, better for privacy and to deflect the possibility of authorities interfering or distracting crowds gathering. But from there, we’re back into the land of invention. It is automatically assumed that the duel is to the death, but many such combats, even in the time of swords, were marked as being to first blood as opposed to a killing stroke.
The fight proceeds from there, the two men wheeling and sparring. There are actually some fascinating details of duelling in these moments that escape modern attention, like the practice, in pistol duelling, of “deloping”: essentially an attempt by one or both duellists to get out of potentially dying while retaining their honour, by intentionally missing their shot. Both men miss, both declare they are satisfied and that honour has been served, and both men walk away. Deloping became so common that annoyed duelling purists wrote up rules actually banning the practise.
The end of the duel in “Shindig” also seems a dramatic invention. That Mal could win by audience interference and get away with it – at least, insofar that his reputation would not be slandered by Perspehone society, who should see such an action as a disgraceful cheat – doesn’t really sit right, but I’m sure the audience doesn’t care, what with Atherton being such a flaming asshole and all. Maybe Atherton’s bloodthirsty insistence on the duel and his (as should be perceived) embarrassing combat with an inferior duellist deflects the end of the duel away, as Wing’s own actions should be seen in a similarly negative light: by the end of the episode, it’s clear that Persephone society doesn’t actually like Wing all that much anyway.
The final point to make is that Mal’s sparing of Wing is seen as the wrong thing to do, as it heaps unpalatable amounts of disgrace on Wing. Again, this isn’t quite in keeping with actual duelling, which would have seen Mal’s mercy as entirely his own prerogative: the disgrace Wing would suffer would be from losing, less than being allowed to live. Mal choosing to kill Wing at that moment could well have been seen as an unnecessary act and, given their different places on the social ladder, a scandalous and illegal affair (I’m sure Mal’s playful poking at Wing’s stomach would also not go over so well).
So, Mal walks away, Inara rejects Atherton, and the two are left to reflect on that “mighty fine shindig”. But their relationship remains complex: Mal defends Inara’s honour, then casually goes back to referring to her as a “whore” at every opportunity. Inara is willing to give up her own freedom to save Mal, but then goes no further. Much like duelling, the course of love never did run smooth, and can be as complex and riven with pitfalls as quality society and matters of honour.