Episode Review of Firefly: "The Message"

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Episode Information

Title: "The Message"
Writer: Tim Minear, Joss Whedon
Director: Tim Minear
Rating (out of 4 stars): ***
Reviewed on: April 20, 2008

Synopsis from TV.com


A comrade from Mal's past comes to him for help, in an unexpected manner.

Serenity has stopped by a trading post on one of the frontier worlds; apparently they visit here regularly, as the crew members have rented mail drops. Jayne gets a package from his mother - her letter is charmingly normal, if indicative of a rather low intelligence level; she mailed him a hat she knitted, with ear flaps and a pom-pom on top, which Jayne proudly wears.

Mal and Zoe receive a much less cheerful package: the corpse of their war comrade, Tracey. Through a flashback to the civil war, we see that Tracey was a very green soldier when Mal and Zoe took him under their wing and made sure he didn't get himself dead. We also see their very different approaches to war: Zoe is dead serious, stealthy, and cunning, while Mal tends to let out all his fury in a torrent of bullets.

They take the body back to Serenity and with a little searching, find a recording device. Tracey has a left a message saying that he knows some of his less-than-scrupulous companions are likely to kill him soon, and so he asks that Mal and Zoe make sure his body gets back home to his parents. The crew hears this recording and without discussion unanimously agree to divert course to follow through on this last request.

The plot thickens when an Alliance agent (and his minions) that we saw looking for the body on the world with the mail drops catches up with Serenity and opens fire. The agent, Womack, demands his property, which he claims Mal stole. Mal stalls him, figuring that he won't destroy Serenity with his cargo. Obviously, the property Womack wants is Tracey's body, but why? Mal and Zoe search the casket and Tracey's clothes for possible hidden items; finding nothing, Mal suspects objects may be hidden in the body itself, and asks Simon to perform an autopsy. Just as Simon begins cutting, Tracey wakes up. Talk about a surprise!

Tracey had taken drugs to simulate death and thereby elude the people searching for him. (The drug-death was nicely precedented in "Ariel".) Tracey tells them that he is transporting "manufactured" organs: his original internal organs were replaced by manufactured ones, which Tracey is delivering. When Tracey gets to the buyer, his new organs will be removed and his original ones will be restored. I don't quite understand why his original organs are able to be maintained outside his body, but the manufactured ones cannot be, but that's a minor point. However, Tracey found a new buyer that was willing to pay more, so he made a new deal; Womack found out, got rid of the new buyer, and is now after Tracey.

Tracey comes across as a sincere, if somewhat misguided, young man. He falls easily back into his army relationship with Mal and Zoe. He immediately takes a shine to Kaylee, who returns his interest. But we know that the situation must become even more difficult.

Womack is not taking no for an answer anymore, so he chases Serenity to a nearby world. Wash does some expert maneuvering in deep canyons to evade Womack's ship. But, Womack decides to remain above the canyons and bomb from above - somehow Wash didn't think about this possibility. This struck a sour note to me, because a space pilot should be easily considering flight in three-dimensions and shouldn't make that kind of mistake. At any rate, Wash hides Serenity in a cave, but Womack is search for them by bombing around their location. It's only a matter of time until he flushes them out of hiding.

Meanwhile, Book has noticed some irregularities in Womack's behavior as an Alliance agent: for example, he did not check in or call for help with the local Alliance base. He suggests to Mal that they surrender to Womack and let him on board - for some reason he doesn't explain his idea further. Tracey overhears this and believes they are going to turn him over to Womack, so he grabs a gun. Mal orders him multiple times to surrender, but when he refuses, Zoe shoots him in the chest. This is not a fatal shot, and he is able to flee the bridge and take Kaylee hostage.

He has nowhere to run to, though, and is quickly surrounded by Mal, Zoe, and Jayne. Mal tries to talk him into surrendering, but is eventually forced to shoot him. This is a killing shot, but not instantly. I enjoyed the teamwork between Mal, Zoe, and even Jayne here - without a word, Mal instructed Jayne to just distract Tracey so Mal could take the shot. It goes without saying that Mal would do nearly anything to save Kaylee, as a part of his crew - if only Tracey had realized he could have had that kind of protection, too.

Womack is allowed on board, but even though he and his minions arrive with guns drawn, they are out-positioned by Mal's armed crew. Book confronts Womack with his unusual behavior and speculates that Womack is not operating legitimately. He threatens to notify the local Alliance base about Womack, and then tells him to get lost, which Womack does.

The dying Tracey realizes that Mal never planned to give him up and regrets his rash actions. Yes, he should not have jumped to conclusions. However, I was annoyed by Mal's refusal to try to explain his plan to Tracey, or even just give a reassurance that "I'll never turn you in". Instead, Mal just ordered Tracey to surrender repeatedly. I feel like the situation could have been resolved without Tracey's death if Mal had used a different approach. I realize that in the military, commands don't have to be explained, but even Mal knows they aren't in the military any more. The crew return Tracey's body to his parents.

This episode gave us a look at Mal's (and Zoe's) experiences in the war through the eyes of an outsider. Tracey seems to respect and to be grateful to Mal even years after the war, initially at least. Later on, we see that he knows Mal well enough to know just how to hurt him, by ridiculing Mal's sense of honor and decency toward his fellow soldiers. At this point, Tracey was lashing out, so I feel like these are traits of Mal's that Tracey had actually admired but had never been able to emulate.

This episode also give us some more development of Simon and Kaylee's relationship. Simon manages to put his foot in his mouth yet again. Even for someone inexperienced in dating, it's hard to believe that he could come up with such stupid things to say. Even River knows he screwed up, which is saying a lot! Kaylee gives him his just desserts by flirting with Tracey, although by the end of the episode, we see them implicitly making up.

We also got to see more of Book's knowledge of and experience with the Alliance. I'm not quite sure why Womack agreed to leave - after all, he seemed to have a ship that could destroy Serenity, so why didn't he? He could've done so before they managed to contact the local Alliance. Perhaps seeing that Tracey (and therefore the valuable organs) was about to die made him decide it wasn't worth it.

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