“The Message” (season 1, episode 12; unaired)
Donna Bowman: So there are no alien races in the ’verse, huh? That’s the shocking and sad fact I’ll carry away from “The Message,” the last episode of Firefly to be filmed. I don’t know why that struck me so hard, and left me so disappointed. Maybe I was supposed to have picked up this bit of information from an earlier episode. But hearing the sideshow barker say it plain made me feel like the sky was a little bit smaller than I was hoping.
It’s another way that Firefly distances itself from Star Trek in the space western genre. Gene Roddenberry’s starfield was filled to bursting with “new life and new civilizations.” Joss Whedon looks out and sees only empty planets waiting to be colonized with variations on what’s left of Earth’s culture. If I were of a mind to make a historical observation, I might point out that many Europeans in the 15th through 17th centuries considered the New World equally empty and waiting for inhabitants, since the barbarians eking out a subsistence living on their soils counted as little more than a species of the local fauna.
But at least the barker’s spiel reveals that, like more romantically minded Europeans of those times, some of the ’verse’s humanfolk long to make contact with exotic creatures. Or maybe they just want a good Roswell-style conspiracy theory. All they find inside the tent, though, is an artfully arranged cow fetus. The surprises that come along for our crew aren’t thrilling battles with space monsters and awe-inspiring scientific discoveries. They’re the depressingly banal corruption and greed that have predictably followed humankind out onto the frontier.
Sure, it’s a surprise when Private Tracey (Jonathan M. Woodward, a.k.a. Buffy’s dead interlocutor Holden and Fred’s hero-worshipping underling Knox) jumps off the autopsy table after being delivered to them in a crate. No miraculous resurrection here, though, and no touching comrades-in-arms reunion with Tracey’s former fellow Browncoats Mal and Zoe. Just a guy who wanted to make a quick bundle of credits serving as a combination courier and incubator for black-market vat-grown human organs. Just another desperate soul taking corpse-simulating drugs and making fake dying requests to save his skin.
I gather that “The Message” isn’t a favorite out there in the fandom, and I can see some reasons why. The threat from Alliance Lieutenant Womack and his two beret-clad goons never gels beyond clumsy generic villainy. It’s pretty speedy and pretty convenient that Kaylee gets all chummy with Tracey just because Simon said something stupid (although “You’re literally the only girl in the world” is a very funny stupid thing to say). And the showdown inside Serenity’s cargo bay seems singularly dumb for a show that’s usually so smart about these things. (There wasn’t any way for Book to know that there were only three guys, right?)
Despite all that, “The Message” gives us a few things to hold onto. I like that Tracey’s message, intended to fool those saps Zoe and Mal into doing his bidding, turns out to be something his folks can hold onto. It’s an involuntary redemption, of a kind. The visual of snow-slabs falling onto Serenity’s windows as the Alliance ship drops bombs all around them counts as even more stunning for being relegated to the background. Mal’s gleeful entrance in the flashback, contradicting Zoe by yelling “I’m right here!” to the enemy and then exulting “That was bracing! They don’t like it when you shoot at them!” provides a much-needed moment of Fillion levity in a brooding, elegiac episode. And of course, no hour that introduces Jayne’s cunning hat can be all that bad. But I’m haunted—Noel, are you?—by the lifeless cosmos that Whedon and Tim Minear reveal in the opening, combined with the lifeless body that is delivered at the end. It seems that the creators are decisively shutting the door on some of the adventure and possibility that Firefly’s premise might, in other hands, have presaged.
Noel Murray: Well now we enter the realm of speculation (which is a major part of Firefly fandom, actually). What would Whedon and company have done with this universe had they been allowed to make more episodes? How many of these little tidbits—like the humans-only thing—were set in stone, and how many were setups for some future twist? I haven’t read the comics (which are considered canon), and I don’t want to say anything about what may or may not be in the remaining episodes and movie, but when it comes to the “alien” question, I’d only note that “alien” can have multiple meanings. Sure, from what we’ve seen, it’s been the human race exclusively that’s been terraforming and colonizing other, alien-free worlds. But the existence of River Tam would seem to indicate that humanity may be evolving, in such a way that, well, who knows? Perhaps there’ll come a day when an entire colony of humans will develop to the point where they are, effectively, aliens.
As for “The Message,” I’m nowhere near as down on it as some Firefly fans. For one, you gotta love Woodward, the Whedonverse’s reliably sympathetic creep. The key to his performances in Buffy, Angel, and Firefly is that even though he has nefarious motivations, he’s not entirely insincere. He legitimately cares for Fred on Angel for example, even though he uses her to terrible ends. And here, his Tracey seems genuinely pleased to hear that the steely Zoe has taken a husband (“That’s good… people makin’ a life for each other…”), and seems genuinely sorry when he takes Kaylee hostage to save his own sorry ass (not to mention the other body parts he’s carrying).
Also, I like that “The Message” has kind of an old-school episodic genre series premise: The old friend that we’ve never seen before shows up unexpectedly, and reveals that he’s changed. It’s the kind of thing you’d see in one of those TV westerns that Firefly is partly trying to be. (Battlestar Galactica would do it too later on, albeit in a far more serialized context.)
And it’s interesting to me what “The Message” has to say about personal responsibility, especially in relation to Mal. Tracey targets Zoe and Mal because he thinks of them as soft-hearted—and maybe even soft-headed—with all their talk of glory and honor, which they’ve been touting since the war. But when Tracey grabs Kaylee, Mal doesn’t hesitate to shoot his old buddy as soon as he has an opening. Tracey tries to claim that Mal forced him into a desperate situation, but Mal counters, “No one’s ‘made’ you do anything,” and as Tracey dies and calls Mal a murderer, Mal says, “You murdered yourself. I just carried the bullet a while.”
Here’s the thing, though: If Mal had filled Tracey in on his master plan to elude Womack, maybe Tracey would’ve survived. On the other hand, Tracey did show his true colors, which cost him his life. Who’s to blame here: The jerkwad, or the guy who created a situation for the jerkwad to reveal himself?
DB: That’s an interesting point, Noel, and one that hadn’t occurred to me. The flashback ends with Mal saving Tracey’s sorry bean-eating ass by hauling him out of the free-fire zone. It certainly seems like Tracey expects the same consideration in his current predicament, even though it’s more thoroughly of his own making. He’s not just a sad-sack; he’s a defiant sad-sack, who would rather expend his energy manipulating other people than learning how to take care of himself. When Zoe insults his basic training—“At least they covered dropping your weapon so you can eat beans and get yourself shot”—Tracey fires back: “Yeah, I got a badge in that.” Keeping a guy like that alive despite himself might be part of the job description when you’re soldiers together, but I sure don’t expect Mal to adopt a bumbling shyster like Tracey into his crew, complete with the right to be filled in on all the strategy, just for old times’ sake.
I appreciate, too, your mention of the venerable television strategy of having an old pal of a main character show up to drive an episode’s worth of plot. It’s a trope that often rubs me the wrong way (“Hey, guys, my favorite uncle that I’ve never mentioned before and will never mention again is in town!”), but because Firefly as a whole has that fertile backstory of a recent war, it plays much more smoothly than usual. And I agree as well that it would be wrong to dismiss “The Message” without giving Jonathan Woodward (and the way Whedon repeatedly makes use of him) his due. The nuances of his character’s approach to his self-inflicted difficulties and to the other people that he drags into his muck contrast sharply with the mustache-twirling evil of Lieutenant Womack. Whedon and Minear write a worthy enemy-within for this episode; I wish that they’d given us an equally worthy enemy-without.
Now please forgive me if I spend the last paragraph on the Jayne Cobb Hat, for if I do not, my fellow knitters will demand that I resign my commission and surrender my circular needles. What a brilliant throw-away detail that cunning hat is. Ugly as sin, ill-fitting, with colors inspired by candy corn and a ridiculous pom-pom, it’s a hat only the son of the woman who made it could love. Yet Jayne seems unaware of its aesthetic problems, and wears it with a kind of casual, offhand pride throughout the episode. (“Man walks down the street in that hat, folks know he ain’t afraid of anything,” Wash comments admiringly.) At least 27 (by a count of the different patterns available on Ravelry) knitters and crocheters have painstakingly reverse-engineered the hat’s construction, often in the process marveling at how poorly Jayne’s mother knits; Smariek’s series of blog posts about her version gives you a good idea. I can’t think of a better symbol for all of us knitters who inflict upon our loved ones handmade gifts, and for those who love us enough to wear them in public.
- It’s a cliché to say that an actor is so good that you’d watch him read the phone book, but a whole Firefly episode that’s nothing but Jayne Cobb reading letters from home would be one of the best Firefly episodes ever. (“Your trav-els… travels.”)
- Womack calls the postmaster an “ugly lookin’ little quim.” Whedon appears to be a fan of that word.
- The device that plays Tracey’s message looks a little like an iPod shuffle, two years before that device was introduced. Think the folks at Apple were Firefly fans?
- Inara allows her schedule to be thrown off to allow Mal to fly Tracey back to St. Albans. Inara’s clients are some patient johns.
- From the “Here’s where society is at in the early 2500s” department: The people eat a sweet treat known as an “ice planet,” which resembles a scoop of ice cream hanging from a chain. (“My food is problematic,” River complains.)
- From the “You don’t pay Jayne Cobb to talk pretty” department: Jayne tells Book that when he sees a dead body that he didn’t kill himself, “I just get the urge to… y’know… do stuff.”