I am referring, of course, to the “Firefly” episode “Heart of Gold”, the episode that takes the TV trope “hooker with a heart of gold” to its logical extreme. If you want to know how far back the Hugo rot goes, just remember that THIS, the worst episode of the entire series, got a Hugo nomination*, but neither of its two best episodes, “Out of Gas” and “Objects in Space”, managed to snag the honor. Ugh.
The whole episode is just so, so uncomfortable. The takeaway message is that if you believe in family and traditional values you are a murderous psychopath bent on the total subjugation of women as your slaves. Oh yeah, and for it to really count you need to be a man. Women can only be blamed insofar as they ally themselves with the menfolk.
At least in “Safe”, an episode I seem to like more than most people (the one that ends with Simon sermonizing about “bigotry” and “hatred”?), the show took a little bit more care to evoke a sort of Salem-style village. The people weren’t “normal”. In “Heart of Gold” there’s nothing unusual about the planet accept that the men are all awful.
Oh, and let’s not forget the aforementioned hookers. These hookers are the exact opposite of the men of the planet. They’re not “just” hookers. They ask Shepard Book to pray for them. They look out for each other, and the head whore, Nandi, protects them. Really, they’re all just good, decent folks making a living with sex. Just like how all actual hookers do Bible readings on Sundays and form little mini-families within their harems! The hookers are really just as good or better than the rest of us. If you’re a man, definitely better.
One might note that the whole problem arises specifically because they’re hookers. Ironically, were the baby born while the mother was part of a stable monogamous family the whole problem would actually have never existed in the first place. Maybe the family is a good thing after all? Possibly?
Whedon did a mostly excellent job in “Firefly” of assuming the truth of libertarianism without pushing it (“Our Mrs. Reynolds” stands out well in that regard, actually, and as a kind of spiritual predecessor). “Heart of Gold”, along with the not-quite-as-bad-but-still-bothersome “Safe”, actively pushes its liberal message. Yes, liberal, not libertarian: There is a clear difference.
To make the message of “Heart of Gold” libertarian as opposed to liberal, the evil patriarchal men couldn’t be the villains. The villains would have to be the evil government trying to shut down a whorehouse even though that’s the only place where many of these girls can find work, and they’ll be sending them to the streets. And when the whorehouse refuses to back down they send in troops, and Mal and team rush in to defend it in the name of free enterprise. It would also help the episode generally if the whores were portrayed as less pure-hearted and good and more pathetic and in at least some cases outright manipulative.
THAT is a message of freedom vs. government takeover. Mal’s position wouldn’t necessarily be one I share in this case, but it’s at least a libertarian position. “Heart of Gold”‘s conceit is just too ridiculous for me to take seriously. The idea that babies are sometimes better off being raised by whores in a whorehouse is downright risible, as is the idea that believing in the importance of the traditional family turns you into a maniac. What the mother SHOULD have done at the end is either tried to get out of the whorehouse somewhere and into respectable work or else tried to get the baby adopted by somebody else.
I can easily imagine a scene where Mal takes mother and child onto Serenity and does like they offered to do with Saffron in “Our Mrs. Reynolds”, and drops them onto a rich planet to set them up with work. But instead it is implied that Petaline becomes the new queen of the whores after Nandi’s death, thus actively running a business that has literally threatened all of their lives and gotten one of them flat-out killed.
“Heart of Gold” isn’t exactly bad, per se. As usual the episode has superb dialogue with some characteristically memorable one-liners (“They’re whores.” “I’m in.”), and some of the later jokes land well. It’s by far the show’s weakest episode though, and an excellent example of how betraying the viewpoint of your story to preach a specific message does no good for either your story or your message. I’m still scratching my head trying to figure out how “Out of Gas” or “Objects in Space” never got nominated. THOSE are absolute masterpieces.
(As for “Safe”, “Safe” is a perfectly fine episode until Whedon has the villagers literally try to burn River as a witch while Simon yells at them for their “bigotry” and “hatred”, as if we’re watching the climax of “The Crucible”. The episode could have been easily salvaged if, instead of burning River even if it meant losing Simon, the villagers simply told Simon that if he tried anything funny they would kill River. So Simon concocts an escape attempt, the villagers catch them, and a standoff ensues with somebody in the crowd getting a gun pointed at River while Simon is armed. Surrounded, it seems as if they will have no choice but to give up, when….BAM! Big Damn Heroes. No awkwardly shoehorned messages needed.)