Firefly Fridays – Episode 12: “The Message”

Once again, I don’t have to go through the history of how this aired, because it didn’t. What I can say is that this episode is the only one filmed after Firefly was cancelled, because they axed the show the day after filming began.

SUMMARY

The episode starts in a carnival side show in a space station bazaar, where Simon takes Kaylee to see the “irrefutable proof of alien life,” which Simon immediately points out is just an upside-down cow fetus. Kaylee tries to flirt a little, but Simon naturally shoves his foot deep down his throat to the point of kneeing himself in the uvula. I hope this isn’t a new lesson for anyone, but don’t ever describe your date as “the only option.” It doesn’t end well here or in real life. Kaylee leaves in what is described as a “huff,” and Wash and Zoë show up to mock both Simon and the “alien.”

FireflyEp12CowFetus
Intelligent life? If you’re so smart, why are you in a jar?

Mal and Inara walk through the bazaar, with Mal revealing that he’s been unable to fence the Lassiter since stealing it in the last episode. The gun is just too famous to sell, since no one can display it and everyone knows it’s stolen. Inara offers to help find a buyer, but Mal insists that she stay out of crime. Mal goes to pick up the ship’s mail and is joined by Book, River, and Jayne. Mal receives a package addressed to him and Zoë, while Jayne receives a package from his mom. Jayne’s package is a sweet letter and the greatest hat not worn by Indiana Jones. Zoë and Mal open the package they received to find a corpse inside.

FireflyEp12TraceyCorpse.png

Flashback to 7 years previously, during the war, where Zoë saves a youth named Tracey (Jonathan M. Woodward) from being killed while he eats. She lectures him on stealth, only for Mal to comically defy her teachings by running into the base screaming and firing wildly. Mal, in his typical style, jokes about wanting Tracey’s beans as he reveals that the Alliance is about to roll through with “every damn thing.” The lieutenant in charge is now suffering from trauma and delusional, so Mal gives the command to retreat and regroup. Tracey declares that it isn’t worth dying for the rock they’re on, but Mal says:

“Everybody dies, Tracey. Someone’s carrying a bullet for you right now, doesn’t even know it. The trick is, die of old age before it finds you.”

A missile hits their hiding place, wounding Mal and Tracey. Mal pulls Tracey up to escape, when it cuts back to the present. Mal and Zoë are told by the mail clerk to take the body out of the bazaar. Back on Serenity, Simon offers to do an autopsy, but Mal declines. Zoë finds a tape recorder with Tracey’s last testament. Tracey apparently crossed the wrong people and expected to be killed. His last request is that Mal and Zoë, the two people who carried him through the war, will take him back to his parents to be buried. The crew agrees to help them take him back.

FireflyEp12TraceyWar.png

Back on the station, an Alliance officer named Lieutenant Womack (Richard Burgi) interrogates and threatens the mail clerk, Amnon (Al Pugliese), about the body that was in the mail earlier. Amnon denies knowing about any body, but does say that a package big enough to house one was picked up by Mal earlier. Womack thanks him, then tells his men to light him on fire. After dousing him with lighter fluid, Womack spares him on the condition that he doesn’t warn Mal.

FireflyEp12Womack
In my next show, I’m gonna be married to Teri Hatcher.

On the ship, Jayne and Book have a conversation on mortality, with Book being solemn, but Jayne stating that death usually leads him to be active and alive. They talk about how everyone handles death differently, only to find River laying on top of the coffin. They try to move her, but she insists she’s “comfortable.”

In the Dining Room, Mal and Zoë are telling stories about Tracey, particularly one about him snipping off a senior officer’s mustache and then wearing it, when an explosion rocks the ship. Womack has caught up to Serenity. Mal’s worried that he wants the Lassiter, but Womack quickly says it’s about the crate. Mal stalls for time so they can figure out what the Alliance is looking for. A search of the crate turns up nothing, so Mal orders an autopsy. When Simon gets him on the table, he notices that Tracey has been cut open before. When he tries to cut him, Tracey wakes up, screaming.

FireflyEp12Screaming
This is how Dead Space: Browncoat Edition starts.

Tracey attacks Simon but is quickly subdued. Tracey explains that he took a drug to simulate death in order to get away from the people he robbed. Mal asks what he stole, but Simon interrupts to tell Mal that Simon is having a medical emergency. Tracey explains that he isn’t, he’s just carrying some extra organs around. That’s what he stole. The story is that Tracey was supposed to carry an entire body-full of experimental organs to Ariel, where they would be removed and his original organs would be put in. However, he received a better offer, so he decided to take it, only to find out that his former clients killed his new buyer and are now pursuing him. He faked his death, believing that would throw them off the trail. In the meantime, he and Kaylee exchange some glances indicating that they would like to engage in some “organ donation.” That’s the worst metaphor for sex ever, but I refuse to change it.

FireflyEp7BadJoke

Womack fires another warning shot, reminding Mal that he’s nearby. Mal claims that the shot disabled the docking, so he tells Womack that they’ll have to meet on the planet below, St. Albans, where Tracey’s family lives. Kaylee hides Tracey in her bunk, where they clearly show further attraction. The two ships enter atmosphere, but Mal tells Wash not to land. Book notes that Womack didn’t contact the local Alliance authorities when he entered atmosphere, and Wash pilots the ship into some tight canyons, making it difficult for the Alliance ship to follow. In response, Womack’s ship just goes higher, something that Wash somehow didn’t consider.

Womack begins firing at Serenity, but Wash manages to keep her safe. Wash hides the ship in a tunnel, but the Alliance drops explosives to triangulate their position. They appear to be sunk when Book says he knows another way, but it’ll require letting the Alliance board. Mal eventually agrees, trusting Book. Tracey overhears this, however, and pulls a gun on the crew, telling them that they have to run. When Mal tells Wash to radio anyway, Tracy fires at the radio and the ricochet wings Wash, but Zoë uses the opportunity to shoot Tracey in the chest. Wounded, but still very much alive, Tracey takes Kaylee hostage.

FireflyEp12KayleeHostage.png

Mal confronts Tracey, pointing out that Tracey brought all of this on himself. Tracey accuses Mal of being hypocritical, but Mal says that he’s never killed someone who was trying to help him. Tracey mocks Mal and Zoë for their code of honor. The bombing stops, signaling that Wash has told Womack they’re surrendering. Jayne sneaks up behind Tracey and distracts him, resulting in Kaylee getting free and Mal shooting Tracey in the chest again. This time, he’s not going to make it. Mal tells Tracey that Tracey killed himself, Mal just carried the bullet.

Womack boards and finds a dying Tracey. Womack threatens the crew with arrest, but Book appears and tells Womack that he’s aware that Womack isn’t in his jurisdiction. In fact, Womack is quite a distance from his jurisdiction just to avoid any risk of being found out for his illegal activities. So, Book reasons, there’s no reason the Alliance will notice if the crew kills them all. Womack, realizing he’s cornered, backs down and leaves, insulting Jayne’s hat on the way because he’s an asshole.

FireflyEp12Book

Tracey realizes that Mal had planned to save him all along, meaning he’s literally dying from his own stupidity. Tracey asks Mal and Zoë to take him home like he’d originally asked them, so his parents can bury him, before passing away. The crew brings his body to his family, where Kaylee hands them Tracey’s last testament, ending with the line:

“When you can’t run anymore, you crawl, and when you can’t do that, well, yeah, you know the rest…”

Mal remembers how the phrase goes… when you can’t crawl, you find someone to carry you.

FireflyEp12Funeral.png

END SUMMARY

Well, this was the last episode filmed, and the last scene filmed was turning over the body of Tracey to his parents. In some ways, that’s pretty fitting, since it’s a somber moment signifying the wasted potential of someone killed through greed and stupidity. The only difference is that Tracey was killed by his own stupidity, whereas Firefly was killed by someone else’s… and also the tendency for the American viewing audience to not want to watch network stuff on Friday night.

The first thing about this episode is that it solidifies the “alien” question within series, establishing that humanity has not yet found life on other planets. The closest we have is the Reavers, which are just mutant humans. Granted, when you consider that we only inhabit like 5-6 solar systems at this point (per the Map of the ‘Verse) and there are 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone, it’s not like we’ve looked that far. However, I love the reveal that a mutant cow fetus, the same thing people used in sideshows for years to fake as monsters, is still being used on people 500 years in the future. I also love that Simon immediately gets pissed that he’s been scammed, whereas Wash plays along with it because he thinks it’s fun.

FireflyEp12MapOfTheVerse

This definitely is an upside/downside episode, for me. Let’s start with the upsides: Jayne’s hat is amazing, and I love it, and I would never wear it in a million years, but it brings out an entirely new side of Jayne in such a short period. Really, adding the details that he’s providing for his family who loves him adds a nice level to the character, especially since we tend to think of the tough guy types like him to be orphans or loners. Instead, it turns out Jayne’s kind of a mama’s boy and, well, it works for the character.

FireflyEp12JayneHat.png

The scenes of Mal and Zoë remembering Tracey, either in flashback or in the dining room, really flesh out some of the Unification War’s story, even though they’re short. It’s a lot of show-don’t-tell about how rough the war was and what kind of people were fighting it. It also makes it clear that not every Browncoat really was fighting on principle, some of them were just people who picked a side based on convenience or heritage, like happens in every war. It’s a level of simple reality added to a nebulous background event that makes it more tangible.

Showing how the crew reacts to death makes for a very good series of character moments, from Simon’s clinical detachment to Book’s quiet contemplation to Kaylee’s sentimentality to Mal and Zoë’s fond remembrances, it really kind of shows how they all deal with mortality. River, on the other hand, can hear his dreams of his family, and probably lays on the coffin to listen to the happy thoughts and feelings coming out of his head.

FireflyEp12RiverCoffin
Or she’s entering her Goth phase.

The ending is so well done that it still makes me cry a little. It doesn’t surprise me that Kaylee had a crush on Tracey just from hearing his message, because it’s a powerful message whose meaning changes a little every time we hear it, ranging from sounding like a foolish kid admitting that made bad choices to sounding like a manipulative scumbag. But it’s always the same recording, only the context changes, and that’s such a great device for an episode to use. The last playing, however, is a man regretting what he did to the people he should have treated better. Luckily, Mal and Zoë are the better people and, when Tracey couldn’t crawl, they carried him home. The score to this is possibly the best in the series.

Kaylee’s crush on Tracey also gives her a little bit of a chance to show that she isn’t blindly hung up on Simon. However, ultimately, Tracey betrays that trust. Simon wouldn’t. That’s why he eventually gets to sleep with her… in a few months (or years, in reality).

FireflyEp12SimonKayleeFuneral.png
This was a really sweet moment.

And that’s a good segue to the downsides, because the Simon/Kaylee thing is only 12 episodes old and it’s starting to get repetitive. One of them needs to learn something. Either Simon needs to work on thinking before he speaks and emotional expression, or Kaylee needs to accept that those aren’t his strong points and Simon cares for her deeply even if he doesn’t express it right. I know that it’s the show’s “will they/won’t they” set-up, but this isn’t a sitcom, you can resolve it through character development and we won’t care as long as it’s natural. Besides, you have a better one going between Mal and Inara, where they actually have reasons not to be together that are logically justified, not farcical.

The villain in this episode is the worst, and not in the sense of “the most evil.” Womack is just barely a real threat at any point. Mal out-maneuvers him for half the episode without really having to do anything but provide lip-service, and he’s ultimately thwarted by Book just pointing out that he’s doing something illegal. Yes, the bad guy is thwarted by someone telling him they know he’s the bad guy. That’s just not a good resolution, I’m sorry. Also, his constant warning shots and waiting kind of stand in contrast to his first action of threatening to burn a man alive. I know he doesn’t want to blow up Tracey’s body, but you cannot portray someone as both ruthless and easily deterred.

FireflyEp12Womack2
Also, after all the evasion, you walk into the ship with only 2 guys and pistols?

Tracey is too stupid to live and even the fact that he dies from it doesn’t make me feel better. Even in the flashbacks, Tracey only survives because Mal and Zoë save him from his own stupidity, and he expects that again during a deal gone wrong that was always going to go wrong. Look, the idea of finding a better buyer is a time-honored tradition among smugglers, but that idea needs to go to the wayside when you need your buyer to PUT YOUR F*CKING ORGANS BACK IN. You take the offer you have, since they have your small intestine. Then, when his new buyer is dead, he decides to go on the run, but Simon implies that the organs cannot stay in him forever (he’s only an incubator), so, how’s he going to get the organs out and get new ones that work? Then, he chooses to hold the ship hostage rather than listen to the plan, only for the plan to work perfectly. I also don’t like that Mal shoots him, because Mal doesn’t really try to explain the plan well to Tracey, which might have defused the situation. Oh, and Tracey’s accent sucks.

FireflyEp12Tracey
I’m not a fan.

The theme of the episode, that you need someone to carry on after you die, is great. Really, it’s a great idea that’s portrayed simultaneously literally and metaphorically in the episode, but the fact that I just kind of feel like Tracey was a shitwiggen, which is a word I think I made up just now, lessens any desire I have to see his memory carried. He held Kaylee hostage, for goodness’ sake, he deserves to be dumped out an airlock and a kind lie to be told to his family so they might think he was less of a f*ckbucket. I think it really does speak to the quality of the writing of the message that it still makes me empathize with him during the last scene, even though I don’t think he deserves it.

Ultimately, this episode, for me, is in the bottom-tier. It’s just so hard to recover from a bad villain and an unsympathetic emotional focus of the episode. Again, it’s not bad compared to most of television, it’s just bad compared to the good episodes of this series.

Score: 2 Fireflies (or 1 Cow Fetus in Wash’s Eyes)

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See you next Friday, Browncoats.

PREVIOUS – 11: Trash

NEXT – 13: Heart of Gold

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

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4 thoughts on “Firefly Fridays – Episode 12: “The Message””

  1. I am with you- this is my least favorite episode of Firefly despite a few priceless things (“This food is problematic…”, the cunning hat, etc.) but that’s also like me saying my left pinkie toe is my least favorite toe. They are still my toes and I wouldn’t want to be without them. But you are spot on… and I’d argue that Tracey is the villain, not Womack, though Womack is an a-hole. It is Tracey and his ludicrously stupid plan (for all the reasons you cited above) that imperils the crew of the Serenity. It is just that the crew is actually working -with- the bad guy until they get wise to him. Plus, he pulls a gun on Kaylee after she sticks up for him. Of course he’s the bad guy and deserves to get shot!

    I disagree with your assessment of Womack, though. If there’s one thing he’s consistent about, it is that he is all bark, no bite. We never once see him actually carry out his bombastic threats, right from the part with the lighter fluid, all the way to the end when he sees A) Tracey is already dying, and B) Book’s not wrong. Plus I have always liked the way Book has this weird way of making people hear him sometimes, even if they act like they don’t, and yet they still change course.

    In the end, Womack is a big-talking coward, so his backing down in his final scene makes perfect sense. He’s probably the Alliance equivalent of a traffic cop or “meter maid” in his home jurisdiction with dreams of being Dirty Harry. I actually like that element of his character. He’s a good foil for a protagonist who often tries to be seen as a hardened criminal, but is really something of a softie in Captain Mal.

    Liked by 1 person

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