In a dive bar, Inara looks on as Mal and Jayne play a friendly game of holo-pool with a pair of men from another ship, which quickly becomes less friendly when Mal learns they are slavers and retaliates by picking their pockets—setting off a brawl. Cue theme.
Serenity arrives at Persephone. Inara chooses from among a number of offers for her Companion services, eventually settling on repeat customer Atherton Wing, who wants her to escort him to a formal ball. While she prepares, Mal and the others go out shopping, but are accosted by the smuggler Badger (who worked with the crew previously, during the pilot). Badger knows of a client, a rich man named Warrick Harrow, who has cargo that needs to be moved offworld but refuses to associate with Badger. Badger's plan is to have Mal drop in on a dance Harrow will be attending—the same one Inara and Atherton are at.
Mal, along with Kaylee, arrive at the ball, and Mal is able to reach Sir Warrick Harrow, though he is unable to work out a deal. Inara wanders over and they exchange some small talk, until Atherton comes to pull her away, claiming that since "money changed hands," Inara is his for the night. Mal immediately decks him over the perceived insult; unfortunately for him, under the rules of society on Persephone, this means he must face Atherton, a master duelist, in a sword fight.
Mal is put up for the night in a hotel suite, where he familiarizes himself with the sword he will use against Atherton. Inara sneaks in to help him, but the two end up arguing, as usual. Meanwhile, on Serenity, Badger and his thugs arrive to ensure the crew doesn't interfere with the coming fight, figuring that such interference would ruin the deal with Harrow. The crew devises a plan to escape, provided they can distract Badger. River promptly arrives and Breaking Lectures Badger in his own accent (giving a hint of her psychic abilities), but the crew is also distracted and misses the opportunity.
In the morning, Mal and Atherton, accompanied by Inara and Harrow, face off at the dueling grounds. They fight, appearing to be evenly matched, until Atherton reveals he is merely toying with Mal, and easily injures and then disarms the captain. Inara pleads with Atherton to spare Mal, saying she will stay with Atherton if he does. Mal uses the distraction to disarm Atherton and punches him, then recovers Atherton's sword. Mal spares Atherton and leaves with Inara and Harrow. Atherton claims he will use his influence to ruin Inara's reputation, but Inara counters by placing a Black Mark on him in the client registry, which has the effect of putting him on the Companion blacklist; meanwhile Harrow, impressed by Mal's commitment, offers him the cargo job. Mal and Inara arrive back at Serenity and Badger promptly leaves, with the crew claiming they were "just about to spring into action."
The episode closes with Mal and Inara discussing the day's events in the cargo hold, zooming out to reveal Harrow's cargo of... cattle.
Tropes in this episode:
- Alpha Bitch: The Rich Bitch who insults Kaylee.Kaylee: Don't you just love this party? Everything's so fancy, and they have some kind of hot cheese over there!Banning: It's not as good as last year.Kaylee: Oh really? What did they have last year?Banning: Standards.
- Berserk Button: The plot kicks off when Mal punches Atherton over an insult to Inara.
- Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Atherton (albeit male).
- Black-Tie Infiltration: Mal and Kaylee infiltrate a ball on Persephone, with Kaylee—correction, Miss Kaywinnit Lee Frye—playing the role of a debutante so that Mal can get in touch with an aristocratic contact for a smuggling job.Kaylee: These girls have the most beautiful dresses. [gestures at her dress] And so do I! How about that?Mal: Yeah, well, just be careful. We cheated Badger out of good money to buy that frippery, and you're supposed to make me look respectable.
- Breaking Lecture: River delivers an unsettling one to Badger, in his own Cockney accent, no less.
- Combat Pragmatist: Mal's victory over Atherton involves a thrown sword blade and a punch to the gut, in an honor duel.
- Cool Old Guy: The old man who steps in to help Kaylee with the Alpha Bitch, also Sir Warrick Harrow.
- Curb-Stomp Battle: Though it's clean and dignified, Atherton completely crushing Mal's non-existent dueling skill has to count.
- Cruel Mercy: By Persephone's code of dueling, being beaten but surviving is considered a loss of honor through cowardice. Mal didn't seem likely to kill Atherton anyway, but it certainly increases the satisfaction.
- Dances and Balls: Mal infiltrates a ball to look for a smuggling contact, and happens to bump into Inara, since it's the only event worth attending on the whole planet.
- Determinator: Mal. Sword, stomach.
- Duel to the Death: Mal duels Atherton Wing as a result of Mal decking the aristocrat for essentially calling Inara a whore. Mal wins, and lets Atherton live — albeit perhaps a bit scratched up."Mercy is the mark of a great man." *Stabbity!* "I guess I'm just a good man." *Stabbity times two!* "Well, I'm all right."
- Earned Stripes: Mal crashes a high society ball on Persephone to make contact with a local nobleman for a smuggling job, and is rather testily informed that the red sash that Sir Warrick Harrow wears marks his status as a lord.
- Fee Fi Faux Pas: All over the place at the shindig. Kaylee chats to nobles who expect to have new people formally introduced (and not with a handshake) and is shunned until an older gentleman brings her to a group of young men to hold court on engineering, Mal doesn't know that colored sashes signify noble rank, and then he accidentally starts an honor duel.
- Flynning: Atherton does this when he decides to toy with Mal rather than just kill him. Mal does less of it, actually attempting several lunges for Atherton's center of mass (albeit very telegraphed lunges - justified, since Mal has had less than a day's worth of training with a sword).
- Fumbling the Gauntlet: Punching someone at a social function in the Core turns out to be a challenge to a duel.
- Geeky Turn-On: Kaylee, at the ball, eventually finds herself discussing spaceship mechanics to an audience of rapt young men.
- Gentleman Snarker:
- There's a distinguished old man at the eponymous shindig who comes to Kaylee's aid when she is being mocked by an Alpha Bitch for the store-bought dress that she wore:
- Also, Sir Warrick Harrow:Sir Warrick Harrow: Now, you're going to have to rely on your natural charm to get women. God help you.
- Good Old Fisticuffs: Inara distracts Atherton by offering to take him up on his offer to stay with him. Mal takes advantage and lands a haymaker on him, turning the tide of the duel.
- Honor Before Reason: Although Mal didn't know he was signing up for a swordfight in the process, walloping a guest at a party where you're trying to make a business contact still wasn't the strictly pragmatic move.
- Impossible Mission Collapse: The crew spends hours coming up with a complicated plan to overpower Badger's men and save Mal... only for Mal to return to the ship just before they put the plan into action.
- Impractically Fancy Outfit: Mal tries to use this to convince Kaylee that the fancy dress she wants would be completely useless to her. His comments just piss everyone off, but the plot does contrive to get her the dress later.
- Kick Them While They Are Down: Mal toys with Atherton after he's defeated, prodding him a couple of times for good measure.
- Princess for a Day: Kaylee, complete with big poofy dress.
- Only a Flesh Wound: Although in fairness it actually was a flesh wound, it still had to have hurt.
- Modeling Poses: The crew are in the shopping district in a town. Kayle admires the frilly dresses in the windows, which are worn by live mannequins who move between different poses every few seconds.
- Pimped-Out Dress: Most of the dresses at the party are loaded with frills and ruffles.
- She Cleans Up Nicely: Kaylee looks adorable in a pink frilly dress with (for once) a clean face and hair.
- Simple, yet Opulent: Kaylee's dress is so frilly, that it stands out next to the relatively restrained dresses of the other ladies attending (or outright restrained with Inara's dress).
- Slut-Shaming: Murphy gallantly comes to Kaylee's defense when the latter is being snarked at by some rich women... by insulting the ring-leader for her "easiness":Murphy: Why, Banning Miller! What a vision you are in your fine dress. It must have taken a dozen slaves a dozen days to get you into that getup. 'Course, your daddy tells me it takes the space of a schoolboy's wink to get you out of it again.
- Sword over Head: Mal is urged to kill Atherton after winning the duel to spare his honour. He decides to let him live but remain humiliated.
- Upper-Class Twit: Atherton.
- We Need a Distraction: Discussed by the crew when Badger has them at gunpoint. Then River turns up and captivates him by completely dissecting his persona in a Cockney accent while everybody stares, and...Jayne: [after River leaves] That there was exactly the kind of distraction we coulda used.
- "Yes"/"No" Answer Interpretation: Atherton offers Inara an opportunity to stay with him as his personal Companion.Inara: You're a generous man.
Atherton: That is not a "yes".
Inara: It's not a "no", either.