Firefly Rewatch

Firefly Re-watch: “The Message”

You all have really carried me through this thing. It’s funny, looking back, I don’t think any of us went into the re-watch expecting to be affected by spoilers, but it was the southern accents that I just couldn’t survive. But, well, you know the old saying. When you can’t watch, re-watch, and when you can’t do that, well . . . you know the rest.

Episode Summary:

On a rather television-screen-heavy space station, a man pitches like a carnie that he has a dead alien for the public to see. Inside, Simon and Kaylee look at it, and Simon identifies it as a cow fetus. They have a kind of flirty moment where Simon realizes Kaylee’s core truth, namely that she finds the bright-side of everything, and she in turn is somewhat forward, commenting how they are alone in the room for another five minutes. She asks him to compliment her more, and he awkwardly proceeds. And, being Simon, he bungles it and points out that she is the only romantic possibility for him period. This, of course, is a major turn-off, and she storms out. Zoe and Wash come in, and Simon confesses to Zoe.

SIMON: Uh, this may come as a shock but I’m actually not very good at . . . at talking to girls.
ZOE: Why, is there someone you are good at talking to?

Meanwhile, Mal is talking to Inara and complaining about how he can’t fence the Lassiter. Inara says he’s out of his league and offers to help with her connections, but he is rock-solid against it. They make their way to the mail depot, where the clerk gives them the latest packages, one for Jayne and a rather large crate addressed to Mal and Zoe. Jayne’s has a letter from his mother wishing him well and contains an abhorred hand-made hat that Jayne loves and wears for the rest of the episode. The other is a body.

Seven years earlier at the Battle of Du-Khang, we see a now still-alive dead-man worrying over his own head and then rushing to find a spot to ease up and eat a can of beans. As he opens the beans, an Alliance soldier sneaks up on him. Fortunately, Zoe kills the Alliance soldier, and the youth gets off with a stern lecture about minding his surroundings and being stealthy. Of course, as if to completely ruin Zoe’s point, Mal comes in from the other side, loud and gun a’flaring. Mal wonders at the youth, Tracey, for being still alive, and regrets not getting to scav his beans. Mal then let’s Zoe know they are more or less humped as the Alliance is coming and parts of the Independent forces have already laid down arms.

They then discuss the lieutenant, who has gone into shell-shock, and Tracey complains that they shouldn’t bother defending: the rock isn’t worth their lives. Mal tells him everybody dies.

MAL: 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.

Mal makes the decision to fall back to another unit, and as they get ready to move, the Alliance makes its push. Tracey is injured in the exchange and tells Mal to leave him, but Mal picks him up and says “You remember the old saying.”

Back in present day, the postmaster freaks at the dead body, which is illegal to mail, and tells Mal to just take it and go. Mal agrees to take it, although he has no clue why his dead war-buddy has been mailed to him and there is no return address. Jayne questions why they are taking it and Mal shuts him up, and when Book moves to help carry it, Mal and Zoe wave him off. Simon tries to query Kaylee about what is going on as he missed it, and she gives him the silent treatment. As River walks past at the rear of the procession, she says, “You are such a boob.”

Back on the ship, the crew stands around the corpse and wonders what to do. Jayne and Wash worry that he might be carrying disease, although Mal and Zoe vehemently claim that he isn’t. Simon offers to perform an autopsy, which Kaylee is shocked at and Mal declines, at least for the present. Zoe finds a voice recorder on the body and plays it. Tracey relays a tragic story about bad decisions and worse folk and how he expects to die. He says that he had himself sent to them cause they are the only two he trusts to carry him to his home planet for burial. He then relays most of the “old saying”: When you can’t run anymore, you crawl, and when you can’t do that . . . .

The crew is deeply moved, and Wash goes without prompting to set the course to St. Albans. Mal apologizes to Inara for messing with her schedule, but she quickly tells him that it’s alright. The ship departs, and the moment it does a rather sleek looking vessel moors up where it was.

A group of three federal marshals walk into the station and go straight to the post office. There they interrogate the postman about the body. The postman quickly caves and rats out Mal. Before the feds leave, they very convincingly scare the postman into not giving Mal any warning that they are coming.

On Serenity, Kaylee sits in the engine room just listening to the recording from Tracey. Simon walks up and sees her from behind, apparently hoping to make up with her over his faux pas on the station, but he chickens out on seeing her as she is and leaves her be. Down in the hold, Jayne works out while Book stands over the coffin in thought. They have a discussion about how people handle death, focusing on Jayne’s reaction of wanting to feel alive by doing things. The conversation is interrupted as River walks in and lays on top of the coffin, distracting Jayne with her creepiness.

Later, Inara listens in the galley as Mal and Zoe recount tales of Tracey. Story time is mostly done, but gets interrupted as an explosion shakes the vessel. They run to the bridge, and the feds open a channel and say Mal is in possession of stolen goods. Mal at first thinks it’s the Lassiter but plays it cool, and is confused as the officer asks after “the crate.” Mal fast talks him into giving him some time, and they rush down to figure out what’s going on. Zoe wonders if they are after Tracey, but Mal thinks there might be something else hidden in the box.

They rip the crate and coffin apart and search the corpse, but find nothing, all the while as Kaylee complains. Upon finding nothing, Mal concludes they want the body itself, so he asks Simon to go ahead and do the autopsy, which of course puts Kaylee’s back up. In the infirmary, Simon gets his apron on and examines the body. He notices that Tracey has been opened before, cementing the idea that something is being smuggled in the body, and Simon proceeds to start the Y-incision, but after a scant inch of cutting, Tracey sits up screaming.

Tracey jumps off the table and attacks Simon, and Mal pulls him off and calms him down. He then inquires as to why Tracey has gone to such elaborate measures of being corpsified and mailed. Tracy says that all he wants to do is get home, except that some people are rather upset with him for taking their property. Mal presses for what he stole and from whom, but Simon interrupts, thinking Tracey is having a heart attack. Tracey tells Simon that the machines are lying, he’s fine, but that he stole all of his “moving parts.” Mal presses again just as Kaylee walks up with a sappy smile on, and Tracey takes a moment to admire her and tells Mal he’ll explain.

In the lounge, Kaylee gives Tracey a glass of water and Mal tries to get it straight. It would seem that Tracey is a transportation host for engineered organs—which can’t be transported outside the body—only he didn’t want to give them up and put his originals back in because he found a higher bidder somewhere else that’d pay him to steal them. The motivation was noble enough, at least, in that he wanted to use the money to move his parents off St. Albans and to a better planet.

Anyway, the better offer went south and the original owners of the organs killed the new buyer. Tracey high-tailed it and staged his own death to try and throw them off the scent. An explosion conveniently lets him know he has failed. On the bridge, Mal finds out they are five minutes from atmo, so he tells Kaylee to get Tracey off the bridge and to strap in. Womack, the lead Fed, then calls over and very clearly states that he is after the body. All the while, Tracey is looking worried, and Zoe snaps at him to get off the bridge.

They descend into atmo after Mal points Wash towards a crazy canyon area, implying they should try and lose the feds in there. In Kaylee’s cabin, they have a bit a conversation where Tracey inquires if Kaylee is with Wash and is then shocked to find out Zoe is together, although he recovers with a suave sentimental comment that earns him a Kaylee-smile.

Serenity and the Feds have a nice little chase through the terrain, with Womack grousing about Mal stalling, and Mal stalling some more. Book looks all concerned at the co-pilot seat, where he notes that there is a nearby fed station, but that the feds chasing them haven’t made a single attempt at contacting them. Back in Kaylee’s cabin, the kids keep flirting.

Wash flies them into a crazy canyon and cave, and the feds fall back in the chase. Instead, they hover up above and start blowing mountain tops apart above Serenity. In response, Wash finds a nice overhang of rock to sit them down to hide.

Tracey feels they aren’t moving anymore and gets worried. The lights then start to flutter as the feds drop mines on them. The crew sits and worries as the charges get closer and closer. Book then perks up and suggests there is another way. At the same time, Tracey leaves Kaylee’s room, professing that he just wants to see what is happening. He walks in on Book convincing Mal to give up. He then grabs a nearby gun that is conveniently sitting at the back of the bridge and announces his presence as Mal caves. Mal presses for Wash to radio up and surrender, and Tracey finally shoots a round at the radio and Wash when he goes to do so. When he does, Zoe fast-draws and shoots Tracey in the chest. Most likely due to his super-organs, Tracey doesn’t fall with a shotgun slug in his chest, and he stumbles away, still holding the gun, then takes Kaylee hostage.

They rush down to the shuttles, although Tracey is starting to show the affects of his injury. Mal catches up, and they have a stand-off with Kaylee in the middle. Mal calls Tracey out for being a selfish prick who likely has gotten people killed before trying to help him. Tracey in turn calls Mal and Zoe out, saying he picked the two of them because they are saps. Mal points out it is quiet, meaning the feds have been called, and Tracey accuses Mal of murdering him. Jayne cocks his rifle from the side in a distraction, and Mal takes the shot when Tracey turns to look. Mal then as some tearful words.

MAL: No son, you murdered yourself. I just carried the bullet a while.

The feds board with guns drawn, and the crew have them covered on several sides. Tracey calls out to Womack, saying he broke the goods, and the fed tries to imply the ship is in deep trouble with the Alliance. Book then walks out and calls Womack out as doing this job under the radar, bounty-hunter style. Womack leaves, trying to scrape some dignity, and has one last thing to say to Jayne.

WOMACK: That hat makes you look like an idiot.

Tracey realizes the plan was not to sell him off after all, but alas it is too late as he is well past the point of no-return on this death. He admits to being an idiot, then apologizes to Kaylee for what he did. He then asks Mal to carry out the actual message to take his body home. Mal replies by saying Tracey knows the old saying.

TRACEY: When you can’t run, you crawl, and when you can’t crawl, when you can’t do that . . . .
ZOE: You find someone to carry you.

Tracey takes his last breath, and the crew carry his body back to his folks. Kaylee gives them the recorder then snuggles up next to Simon for comfort, holding his hand.


Well, y’all know how I love being up front and all that. Up until I watched this episode for this here re-watch, “The Message” was by far my least favorite Firefly episode. I think, wait, I know that it comes from Tracey’s accent. By whatever powers are above, his drawl drives me up the wall. Always has, always will. There is just something smarmy about it that I cannot stand. Thank previously mentioned powers that I live in Carolina, where the southern accent is cute, and not wherever that accent comes from.

Anyway, so after watching this episode critically and with eleven episodes critically under my belt, I squint my eyes and say “I see what you did there.” Just some things to note: this was the last episode shot and produced. It did not air in the original sequence and was filmed knowing that it would not air.

That being said, this episode is about dying and carrying on. Just the oft started and only once ended “old saying” hammers that across. But then you add in the discussions about how people react to death, well, yeah. Book is quiet and contemplative, Simon kind of clams up and is Mr. Doctor, Kaylee is super sentimental, Jayne just has to re-affirm his own life, River is comfortable (although I dispute that she isn’t reacting to death, more on that in a bit). And Mal and Zoe do the most traditional of funeral traditions, they tell stories.

Now, I need to cross reference here, and I am very remiss in that I do not recall exactly where to link to, but over in the Wheel of Time re-read, Leigh once discussed funeral traditions, commenting on how they are in practice if not spirit foremost about getting over the grief, not honoring the dead. So I’m going to steal that steam for myself (but with some citation at least!) and say, yeah. I don’t have very clear memories of the funerals for my three family members in the ground—the most recent happened when I was in high school—but I do recall the eulogies people told. They were funny stories followed by a sniffle and a tear. Mal and Zoe exemplify this with the story about how Tracey “stole” his colonel’s mustache. I don’t know what it is about actually remembering the good times that helps you overcome the grief, but it does.

It sure as heck beats Kaylee’s reaction of listening to the voice recording over and over again, and she didn’t even know the guy! I guess this was the start of the pasty-scrawny-vampire-love thing. I mean, when he wakes up and she gets all smiley over him, he has blood on him, he’s pale as a sheet, his hair is all blown back in that Twilight way. Yeah. I hope I ruined that infirmary scene for you, ‘cause I’m going to see that every time I watch it from now on. Ugh. Also, I did find it cute where Tracey was on the table naked with the heart monitor on, and when Kaylee walked in, the heart beeps started going faster.

Okay, on to River. Poor, spooky, crazy River. What was up with her and the body? I refuse to think that her crazy mind acknowledged him as dead. He said he dreamed, so there was some neural activity going on there for her psychic powers to pick up, so was it just the sweet dreams she found comfortable? Perhaps the relatively minor and most likely honest thoughts going on, as opposed to her normal company all full of doubt and secrets? That he turned out to be a screw-up and a coward doesn’t bode well to her being attracted to his personality.

Anyway, getting off the morbid main theme, there is a major character change here that wasn’t kept for the movie, and that was Crazy Wash. Alan Tudyk is not a calm person. Listening to his commentary with Jewel Staite proves that. So, the whole “Wash is a leaf on the wind” in adversity didn’t sit well with him. He wanted Wash to be a maniac in stress. Amazing when at the helm, but still a maniac. And with this episode kind of being the last and a “who cares” kind of ordeal in places, he begged director Tim Minear to let him do it his way, and Tim caved. Apparently, when they were shooting the chase scene and Wash was going ballistic, Joss Whedon was on set at the monitors with Tim. Joss asked what happened to “Calm Wash” and Tim said “Completely forgotten.”

So, now that I’m done with the back story and meta-talk, I am going to agree with Joss. I liked Calm Wash because of the contrast. Wash is not a calm person. He is loopy and nutty and improv-awesome. And that he completely shucks that in stress just seemed a nice touch. Him keeping that craziness and magnifying it in the stress actually flattened the character for me. I’m sure it was fun for the actor, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as the viewer.

Another thing that this episode is full of is nuggets about Jayne. He has a sister that is sick, and he sends credits back home to help out. He loves his mother and is proud as a pickled peach to get his hat from her. He has a strong ability for introspection, as shown in his discussion with Book over reactions to death, and he has a strong respect for the dead (so long as he wasn’t the one who made them that way.) Holy crap, so much Jayne expansion, and all of it buried under the usual Jayne face. Kind of like back in “Shindig” where he offered up “pretentious” for Badger, there is more under that Neanderthal exterior than one might think. I guess Jayne is just living the hedonist dream, though, and doing whatever he pleases. Doesn’t mean he doesn’t think about it.

Originally Aired: 28 July, 2003
Original Position: Episode 14
Richard’s Favorite Line:

JAYNE: What’d y’all order a dead guy for?

Fun Goof: Two. The first comes from the commentary. The cow fetus that Simon says is upside down actually isn’t. Look close and you will notice the way the hooves are floating indicates the head is at the top. The second is the size of the federal jet-ship-thing. Wash implies that it is too big to come down and take a peak at them on the planet, but the first two times we see it, it is about the same size or a little smaller than Serenity, and the last time we see it, parked next to Serenity, it looks markedly smaller.

And we are in the home stretch. Two more episodes to go. Wow. Join me next week for a Dirty Harry episode, er, I mean, “Heart of Gold.” Oh, and a final thing. The “sad music” in this episode is heart wrenching. I remember hearing in one commentary somewhere from Joss that this song was written after they had gotten the axe from Fox, and that it was more than just saying goodbye to this guest character. It was them saying goodbye to the show. Take a listen, if you will: The Funeral—Firefly: The Original Television Soundtrack.

Richard Fife is a blogger, writer, and only deals in the stolen unicorn kidney market. You can read more of his ramblings and some of his short stories at


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