“Heart Of Gold” is an episode of contrasts.
The central one is about the treatment of women by male characters who have a degree of authority, as Mal and Rance Burgess square off over the fate of the Heart of Gold brothel. But the episode is full of more simple contrasts, in script terms, visual terms and emotional terms, to the extent that it seems, to me, as if it must have been a deliberate choice by director Thomas J. Wright and writer Brett Matthews. There are many sudden tone changes, many swerves in terms of situations, characterisations or dialogue.
Early on, Nandi ponders about who will be able to come and help the employees of her establishment, before we suddenly cut to Malcolm Reynolds, in a Hollywood pose with his gun out. But then the illusion is shattered by Inara’s arrival and Mal’s jump-scare “Wahhh”. The contrast is between the traditional view of the hero, with his cool look and cooler gun, and the more human person that Mal really is. The contrasts continue: when Serenity gets a distress call, the usual in-charge Mal can only gaze awkwardly as Inara goes to answer. People are going to be taken out of their comfort zone in “Heart Of Gold”, that’s for sure.
This kind of comedy angle to the contrasts abounds throughout the rest of the episode, with a set-up of seriousness leading to a sudden about-turn, a punchline, meant to bring a smile to the viewers face without detracting seriously from the ongoing drama. Whedon shows and films are full of this of course, but I do feel that “Heart Of Gold” has a particularly high level of it. Some examples:
JAYNE: Hmm. Don’t much see the benefit in getting involved in strangers’ troubles without a upfront price negotiated… Don’t know these folks. Don’t much care to.
MAL: They’re whores.
JAYNE: I’m in.
MAL: This is my first mate, Zoe. I’ll introduce you to the rest later. They’re good folk.
JAYNE: Can I start getting sexed already?
BOOK: I only bury the dead, child. No one here is going to die.
JAYNE: There’s people gonna die.
The common thread through all of those examples being Jayne, he fulfilling the role of clown into his episode, for the most part (and there are other examples).
But there are a lot more to be considered. Among the most poignant is the lovemaking between Mal and Inara, which is contrasted sharply with the following scene, where Burgess forces his mole on the inside of the brothel to perform oral sex on him in front of his whooping men: one a beautiful and emotional moment, the other an act of cruel self-gratification, that tells us a great deal about the respective characters of the two men.
The contrasts go on. When Mal goes to see Burgess, another swerve occurs, as Burgess’ crowing over his laser weapon turns out to be a humiliation for his wife, the person that Mal was actually complimenting. Wash and Kaylee, two of the least likely people to get involved in any kind of violence, find themselves in a shoot-out in Serenity’s cargo bay, and then later get trapped in the wrong sections of the ship. Mal chases Burgess down, but shows a mercy that must be unexpected to Burgess but makes total sense to the rest of us, before this is contrasted with the surprisingly ruthlessness of Petaline, who shoots Burgess down with barely a second thought.
And there is also the funeral at the conclusion. You can contrast this to the episode that immediately came before “Heart Of Gold” that also ended on a funeral note, thought with a contrasting difference in tone, cinematography and music. “The Message” ended on a dark, but not morbid, air, very much in the style of an ode or wailing remembrance. “Heart Of Gold”, in Nandi’s funeral, goes for something brighter, more colourful, though, in its own way, just as sad.
And since we are in the world of sci-fi, it cannot escape notice that the song sung over Nandi’s last resting place is “Amazing Grace”, which immediately makes one think of the end of The Wrath Of Khan, and the funeral of Spock. Of course, “Amazing Grace” is a common enough piece of music to play at funerals, but I deem it unlikely that this was done without any thought for the older film at all. Both feature the final goodbyes to characters who sacrificed themselves for others, though they are contrastingly different in most other respects.
And lastly there is the closing conversation between Mal and Inara, with “Heart Of Gold” being the core episode for their relationship in Firefly. The experiences they’ve shared with Nandi makes Mal feel “truthsome”, but he never gets to say the words that he wants to say. Because Inara cuts him off, with what must seem at first to be a build-up to her own declaration of love for Mal:
I learned something from Nandi. Not just from what happened, but from her. The family she made, the strength of her love for them. That’s what kept them together. When you live with that kind of strength, you get tied to it, you can’t break away. And you never want to.
You would easily think that we are about to see a real romantic connection between the two. After all, not only is this standard fare for that kind of outcome, but it calls back in to the series’ constant themes of unified people trumping those who go it on their own. But that’s not what Inara was building to:
There’s something… There’s something I should have done a long while ago. And I’m sorry — for both of us that it took me this long…I’m leaving.
It’s the episode’s final swerve and its final contrast. Inara blows up any thoughts of romance between her and Mal and leaves the captain ashen faced in his own cargo hold. In an episode full of similar swerves and contrasts, it’s the most gut-wrenching for the audience.