Firefly, Season 1, Episode 12, “The Message”
Directed by Tim Minear
Written by Tim Minear
Aired July 15th, 2003 on FOX
Welcome to Sound on Sight’s summer look back at Firefly, the beloved yet short-lived series that aired on FOX during the 2002-2003 TV season. Every Thursday, we will revisit an episode at a time of the show’s one and only season, in the order that they were meant to be seen. The correct sequence is accurately reflected on most, if not all, streaming services that currently have the show, but for those watching via other methods, the accurate order can be found here. Now, without further ado, time to spend some time with the most entertaining group of grifters in The ‘Verse.
How much does it take for a friendship forged in the savagery of war to fritter away into nothing? Or even worse, until it gets to a point of betrayal and double crossing that somebody gets shot for the safety of everyone else? What boundaries have to be crossed before self destruction and selfishness override a fraternal sense of commitment to war buddies who saw death and destruction together on a daily basis? And even further, at what point is loyalty nothing more than a nice idea that people hold on to in order to maintain ties to fond memories? “The Message” tries to answer all of this and more when an old war compatriot of Zoë and Mal’s shows up in the mail with a request from beyond the grave to ferry him home to his family and loved ones for burial. At times, it falls short of being able to fully explore how the toils of battle mentally affect those that survive the trenches and make it home, but the episode also smartly avoids PTSD as a main story driver and instead focuses on hopes, dreams, failure, and disappointment. Private Tracy is a man with regrets and a trail of bad decisions, but also enough sympathetic qualities to make the emotional moments of the story work despite his actions.
While the episode itself is entertaining enough, the second half of its run time is where it really kicks into gear, as far as important emotional growth and unsurprisingly excellent performances from Nathan Fillion and Gina Torres go. Initially, the episode is yet another gradually unfolding adventure story where Serenity and/or her crew falls under attack in some manner after getting targeted by The Alliance. The humorous beats work well to fill the void that a repetitive-seeming storyline leaves gaping open, and are some of the most memorable moments of the entire series. Sometimes it is hard to remember that Jayne’s iconic tricolor knit hat doesn’t even appear until the second-to-last episode (and one that didn’t even air on FOX in the initial run) or that Simon and Kaylee are still at this point circling around each other like romantically-stunted sharks. So much from “The Message” ends up being more quoted or remembered by the show’s fans that sometimes the heartbreaking ending is shuffled aside amidst the endless Etsy listings of red, yellow, and orange homemade winter hats.
One of the best tacks taken here is to more or less shunt the previous episode’s plot aside quickly and move on. Not that the show doesn’t do this often, but it’s important here because “Trash” had not yet aired at this point (the episodes were switched) so therefore the audience has no idea what the crew is trying to fence or that Saffron had returned the prior week. The show couldn’t have know the airing order would be mangled even for the summer episodes, so this is more of a happy accident, but a nice coincidence nonetheless. It also gives the crew an excuse to be picking up their packages in the necessary time frame, while still acknowledging that their smuggling has not necessarily taken a back seat. The titular message from Private Tracy, filled with a resigned sadness about his impending fate and final wish, takes on a different tone each time it is shared with the audience, whether via voiceover or as a diagetic recording. The initial reveal that Tracy has left a mission for Zoë and Mal is filled with suspense and just a bit of apprehension, but mostly a commitment from the entire crew to getting him home any way possible, even if they didn’t know him. There is honor in doing something for their fellow soldier as a final favor from beyond the grave, even if he had fallen on rough times. Of course, the crew of Serenity also fits the description of fugitives who are generally good people; they just haven’t met an unfortunate end as of yet, so therefore can hold their heads just a little higher.
The second, with Kaylee listening in her bunk, is almost inconsequential as an actual message but lays out Kaylee’s mood very well. When Simon comes upon the melancholy mechanic contemplating his words deeply, he makes the best decision about their relationship ever and wisely backs off. It’s a different Kaylee than the audience is used to for the most part, one who for once can’t find the optimism in a war veteran falling into criminal behavior and a regrettable yet foreseeable death. Beyond that second instance of the message, it turns back into a sad occasion and a tragic reminder of two paths that life can take. The message itself containing only half of the Browncoats’ war slogan initially, then being completed in Tracy’s dying moments, is an easy storytelling trick but an effective one. The resonance is far greater than if it was simply a repetition of a motto the viewer was already familiar with, and further evidence at how bonded this trio of soldiers were during their time fighting the resistance.
That he finally dies (for real this time) at the hands of Zoë and the crew is a tragic case of life coming full circle in the worst way. As a younger man, he was saved by Mal and Zoë a half a dozen times, but here he has made his bed and must lay in it despite old loyalties. Fillion’s reaction to Tracy accusing Mal of murdering him by calling the feds is wrenching for a split second before his visage reverts back to the hardened Mal the audience is used to. Zoë is her usual motherly self in times of crisis by guiding him to the other side with a light touch and a soft voice, but still visibly shaken by the outcome of this seemingly innocent mission to an icy planet. It’s just enough to realize how much Tracy’s death they feel is either their fault (for not leading well enough) or yet one more side effect of a war that is long over but is still causing suffering on a daily basis. The final look from Mal at the funeral is some of the best acting Fillion does in the entire run, and he sums up all the grief and regret and second guessing in one resigned facial expression. Private Tracy went from a goofball soldier who would steal a colonel’s mustache to a man spiraling through life just trying to stay afloat by having his organs exchanged for invaluable new ones. To someone who never thought he would make it off the battlefield, his dreams exceeded what was reasonably attainable, and made the eventual failure far more painful. The worst part of all is that if his mental instability and general immaturity hadn’t pushed him to threaten the crew and hold Kaylee hostage, he would still be alive. It’s as good a reminder as any that although the audience is intimately aware of how good this crew is at sleight of hand plans, a new arrival has no way of knowing what is real and what is a put on to beat the bad guys. Sometimes, the Serenity crew actually just looks like the bad guys.
The rest of the episode serves mostly as a way to touch upon areas of the show that haven’t gotten enough attention in recent weeks. Simon and Kaylee finally get to go out on a real “date” to the carnival, even if Simon eventually ruins it by accidentally insulting her. Work on your jokes, doc. It can even be said that Simon directly leads to Kaylee’s hostage situation by unknowingly insulting her, as otherwise she might not have been so smitten with Private Tracy and be spending so much time with him. Shepherd’s background as a criminal or law enforcement officer is further explored in his easy dressing down of Lieutenant Womack (Richard Burgi, an intimidating guest star as usual) and his team. No priest would know jurisdiction markings and the protocol to call backup, or not as intimately as Book does, and he finally gets to stand up to a foe one on one and show his worth beyond spiritual guidance. A nice moment, but just another reminder that the show never gets the chance to properly delve into his history and possibly shady past. Only two more episodes until the end of the show’s run, so time is running out to explore and spend time with this crew.
- “Yup! It’s a cow fetus.” The entire sequence of Simon alternately impressing and insulting Kaylee is cringeworthy yet hilarious. Poor Simon.
- Jayne reading the message from his mom is super adorable and further establishes him as a 14-year old in a man’s body who has anger issues and great gun skills.
- “At least they taught a course in dropping your gun and eating beans so you can get yourself shot” “Yeah I got a badge in that”
- “Spry for a dead guy.”
- “Zoë got married? Next thing you’ll be telling me she smiles, has emotions.”
- Wash showing off his flying skills in and out of canyons and ravines involves some pretty cool special affects by the show’s standards, even if they are more than outdated more than a decade later.
- “When you can’t run, you crawl. When you can’t do that, you find someone to carry you.”