Inara attends a formal society dance, only to find Malcolm there as well, attempting to set up a smuggling job. Mal comes to blows with Inara's conceited date and finds himself facing a duel with a renowned swordsman, and only one night to learn how to fence.
The crew lands on Persephone and in her shuttle quarters, Inara scans potential clients and chooses local aristocrat Atherton Wing, a regular customer. Meanwhile, the crew enjoys the sights of the marketplace. Kaylee admires a ruffled dress in a store window, and Mal foolishly criticizes her practicality by comparing her to an upright sheep. As a crushed Kaylee, an irritated Zoe, and Wash leave, Mal and Jayne are accosted by Badger, the Persephone fence who caused them difficulty on an earlier visit. This time, Badger needs Mal's help to move an illegal cargo for high-society local Warrick Harrow, who will not talk to the likes of Badger. He provides Mal with tickets to the very ball that Inara will be attending. Mal winds up having to go to a still-upset Kaylee for assistance.
At the ball, Inara delights in circulating among the glittering crowd, many of them old friends. Atherton asks her to be his personal Companion, but she diplomatically defers a decision. Atherton pushes his case by insulting Serenity as a "flying piece of gou-si" and Inara chides his language. Suddenly, the arrival of "Miss Kaywinnit Lee Frye and escort" is announced. Inara sees her friend Kaylee, in the coveted ruffled dress, arrive on Mal's arm.
Kaylee is enchanted by the glamorous setting. She wants to find Inara, but Mal is focused on finding his own potential client Harrow. Back on Serenity, Simon, Book, and Jayne play a card game, using ship chores as currency. River, experiencing another of her manic outbursts, frantically shreds the Blue Sun labels of their canned food supplies. Meanwhile, Wash and Zoe have their own private party in bed. Zoe finds herself sleepy after sex, so Wash mockingly regales her with poetry about her predicted death at the hands of "power-hungry maniac" Jayne.
At the ball, Kaylee's friendly attempt to mix with the debutantes crashes when they insult her naïveté and taste in clothing. She is rescued by an older gentleman who deftly puts down the rude women, then draws to a group of several mechanically-minded men, where she enjoys a stimulating conversation about the virtues and flaws of various machines. Meanwhile, Mal finds Sir Warrick, who is cool to any proposal that Badger is behind, despite Mal's professionalism. Just then, Atherton Wing, with Inara in tow, interrupts their conversation. After deliberately annoying Wing, Mal escorts Inara onto the dance floor. Mal expresses concern about Atherton's insincerity, to which Inara responds with the possibility of her staying on Persephone with him. When Atherton cuts in and insists on his right to take Inara away because "money changed hands", Mal punches him in the face. But he is astonished to find out that his action was an implicit challenge in this social circle, and that he is now committed to a duel by sword. The trouble is, Mal is no swordsman, and his opponent is an expert. Even as he faces this disaster, he uses Sir Warrick's amused respect to try to swing the cargo job. Sir Warrick does agree to be his second.
On Serenity, Badger arrives uninvited to explain to the remaining crew that Mal will be participating in a duel. As the crew openly discusses how to rescue him, Badger disabuses them of this idea — he is here with his men to sit on them until the duel is finished.
Mal passes away the hours in a locked room by ineptly practicing with a sword. Inara manages to sneak into his room to talk. She is confused by Mal's decision to punch Atherton because he insulted her, when Mal often does this himself. Mal replies that he merely insults her profession, whereas Wing insulted her, and has no true respect for her. When she tries to convince him to escape with her assistance, he refuses. He counters by asking her to help him practice, but her efforts seem to meet with little success.
In the meantime, the crew of Serenity sits in the cargo hold, attempting to plot an escape from the watchful eyes of Badger and his cronies. Jayne comes up with the idea that they need a diversion; immediately thereafter, River Tam appears and, in an apparent display of her as-yet unknown talents, converses with Badger in his own accent. River departs, leaving a confounded but amused Badger. Jayne realizes that River's distraction of Badger is exactly what the crew could've used.
In the misty dawn, a confident Atherton Wing faces an absurdly cocky Mal, while Sir Warrick, Inara, and a crowd of spectators watch. Atherton toys with Mal, and after wounding Mal in the arm, Atherton invites an unsuspecting Mal to attack him, but tricks him with a backhanded thrust, stabbing Mal deeply in the stomach. Mal uneasily but energetically pushes back, only to have his sword broken. Standing over the kneeling captain, Atherton turns at a plea from Inara, who offers to stay with him if he will only spare Mal's life. Mal uses his distraction to disarm the swordsman, deliver a punch to the face, and throw his own broken sword blade at him, stabbing him in the shoulder.
Mal stands over the wounded Wing, wielding Wing's own sword, and Sir Warrick demands that he deliver the final blow, lest Atherton be humiliated. Mal, however, shows mercy — after getting in two more pokes. As Inara helps Mal off the field, Atherton calls out viciously to Inara and threatens to ruin her. Inara responds by informing him that he is now persona non grata in the Companion registry, implicitly ruining him. Entertained by Mal's trouncing of the conceited Wing, and impressed by his tenacity, Sir Warrick agrees to send his cargo with Mal. "Mighty fine shindig!" says Mal to Inara.
The as-yet-unbegun escape plan plotted by the Serenity crew is aborted by the return of Inara and Mal, who chases a pleased Badger off his ship. Inara and Mal share a moment on the cargo bay landing, watching over their cargo from Harrow — a bay full of cattle.
"Shindig" revisits Persephone, which was first seen in pilot episode "Serenity". Mal alludes to Badger's earlier rude treatment when the latter had refused to fence the cargo Serenity had retrieved.
This episode explores the strong but unadmitted affection that Mal and Inara share for each other, which will reach a painful crisis in "Heart of Gold".
River's shredding of the labels hints at her continued revulsion of the Blue Sun Corporation.
The writer of this episode, Jane Espenson, revealed how she enjoyed writing this episode, as it gave her a chance to invent a card game, as well as write dialog in "Jane Austen style". The sword fight took place near a Disney-owned production facility and so the shots had to be framed to exclude the "Country Bear Jamboree" barn located in the background