INARA: I’m glad you were with her. Her last night. I am.
MAL: Yeah, well, I ain’t. Hell, I wish I’d never met her. Then I wouldn’t’ve failed her.
CHRIS: The Old Man was right. Only the farmers won. We lost. We’ll always lose.
There are few films in the history of cinema that can claim to have had as big an impact as Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, and the 1960 western adaptation of it, The Magnificent Seven. Seven Samurai was one of the first films to show a group of disparate and varied characters coming together to achieve a common goal, as well as a host of other minor narrative techniques that have become commonplace since then. The Magnificent Seven might actually be more famous in the popular consciousness than Seven Samurai, for a lot of reasons, and showcases much of the same, and I hope I may be forgiven for focusing more on John Sturges’ film than Kurosawa’s. Since its release, it has been the inspiration for a large amount of stories that take elements wholesale from it, in pieces that range from rip-off to flattery.
And of course, science-fiction is no exception. Show me any long running science-fiction franchise, series or film anthology, and odds are you will find some kind of reference to The Magnificent Seven in it. For Firefly, that moment is “Heart Of Gold”. For a sci-fi western, it was absolutely inevitable that an episode like this would be created, and I daresay we would have seen the basic structure again a few times if the series had been allowed to continue.
The main similarities are obvious. You have a group of vulnerable people, beset by evil men, incapable of defending themselves alone. They seek help from independent contractors, who are a group of people with many different skills and personalities. They include a reluctant hero character. The defenders improve fortifications, make relationships with the defended and discover some important things about themselves in the process. There is a love story in there somewhere. They have an initial confrontation with the bad guy, getting the measure of him.
Then the fight comes. The defended are nervous but rise to the challenge, proving that they are capable of defending themselves. People die left and right, one of the defended betrays them, but in the end the defenders, those Magnificent Seven/Nine, come out on top. But loss has been incurred, and a mournful air pervades as the story draws to a conclusion, and the fighters are left wondering whether it was all worth it, and who truly won.
Replace Chris with Mal, Calvera with Burgess, the prostitutes with the Mexican farmers, and you have yourself a working basis for a nice “inspired by” episode. And “Heart Of Gold” is a really good one, that showcases some of the best that Firefly has to offer.
Every crew-member of Serenity has a role to play in this episode, some kind of stand-out moment, even if they don’t get to affect the action of the main plot in a significant way. Mal is the leader, and has that fraught interaction with Nandi, that Inara gets sucked up into, the captain and the companion forced to come to terms with the uncomfortable reality of their feelings for each other. Zoe, in the face of another woman giving birth, starts to move towards the idea of motherhood herself, coming up with one of the series’ best lines in the process: “I’m not so afraid of losing something that I won’t ever try to have it”. Wash shares in that interaction, and later gets thrown into an unexpected gunfight. Kaylee keeps pining after Simon, and gets drawn into the same gunfight as Wash, the two of them utilising their intelligence to take care of the intruders, but not so much that they solve the problem entirely. Book becomes a spiritual comfort to the women of the brothel, and aids in the fighting in a non-combative way. Simon helps Petaline through her labour, despite the fact that he has never done it before. River is on hand to “help” him with some vague comments and funny lines. And Jayne, well, Jayne is there to be crude, lewd and funny. They are the Magnificent Nine of “Heart Of Gold”.
Not every episode of Firefly actually gets to include something for every character, and if you count the activities, interactions and characterisations of Nandi and Burgess as well, “Heart Of Gold” is practically groaning under the weight of everything that it has to accomplish in its 44 minute running time. But accomplish it, it does, with no one left out, and no one left under-utilised or under-appreciated. Once again, the central theme of Firefly, that of a loving productive community of people coming together to achieve goals they otherwise would not be able to achieve, in the face of lonelier selfish individuals, is on full display, noted especially by Inara in her closing speech (before she inverts it with her decision to leave).
And the real kicker, of course, is the episodes ending, which ties directly in with the conclusion of The Magnificent Seven. The fight is won, but people have died. Chris and Vin stare back at the farmers, already going back to their lives, and realise that they have not won all that much in their victory, with the people they were defending the true victors. Mal, mourning Nandi, wishes that he had never even met her, realising too that he is no victor from the conflict with Burgess, and that if anyone “won” it is the men and women of the Heart of Gold, which will survive as part of a community that may now have a chance to thrive. The way Burgess says “She was just a whore” could just as easily be Calvera saying “A man like you…why?”
Mal has lost Nandi, and because of the experience that they have all had with her, he may be about to lose Inara too. Like, The Magnificent Seven, and its progenitor, “Heart Of Gold” thus ends on a rather bittersweet note, perhaps the perfect way to glide the audience into what became the series’ final episode.