“Someone’s carrying a bullet for you right now, don’t even know it. The trick is, die of old age before it finds you.”
Joss Whedon and Tim Minear
The Message is the twelfth episode of Firefly, which means we’re getting very close to the end now (sad face). The crew of Serenity pick up their mail at a space station (as you do, I guess), and receive an enormous crate addressed to Mal and Zoe. The crate, it turns out, contains the body of Tracey, a young man who once served with Mal and Zoe during the war. The crate also contains a recorded message from the dead man asking the pair to return his body to his home planet.
The plot thickens as an Alliance officer begins pursuing Serenity for illegally sending dead people through the post, and as Tracey wakes up from being dead, having taken drugs to make him seem dead in order to escape a dodgy deal involving smuggled internal organs.
Like many of the show’s episodes, The Message is a study of community. Much like the problematic Trash, it contrasts the camaraderie of Serenity with the loneliness of those outside, complicating the dynamic by placing Tracey in the position of having lost a community – not only his home community to which he tries, futilely, to return, but also the community he finds in wartime, alongside the heroic Mal and Zoe who always look out for their comrades.
The episode hinges upon Tracey’s forgetting of that last point. As the Serenity‘s crew flee from the pursuing Alliance craft, their escape looking ever more unlikely, Tracey overhears Shepherd Book and Mal discussing a plan to stop and allow the Alliance to board. Seeing in this a betrayal, Tracey threatens various members of the crew, and is shot for his efforts by Zoe. What he hasn’t realised is that the plan to allow the Alliance onboard is a ruse: Book confronts the officer with an accusation of illegal trading on the side, and, reluctantly, the officer leaves the ship. The tragedy is, of course, that in trying to protect himself at the cost of others Tracey has in fact doomed himself.
The episode, then, is in part about the fracturing of communities. He is unable to return meaningfully either to his home community or to the community aboard Serenity because he has ceased to think like a member of a community; like a true capitalist, he puts his own good above everyone else’s (see also the self-seeking Alliance officer). His fatal misunderstanding of the situation aboard Serenity stems exactly from this: an individualist, his worldview no longer coincides with that of Serenity‘s crew.
What troubled me, I suppose, about this episode is that this rather schematic approach to the idea of community, clearly supposed to lionise the mutually supporting crew of Serenity, skirts around something of a moral vacuum. Mal and Zoe’s actions, offended as they are that Tracey might think them betrayers, comes across as rather high-handed; that they fail to explain the situation to Tracey (with Mal instead choosing to get angry and dismissive) is not treated as a failing at all. The issue here is that Whedon has built us a world in which betrayal is not unexpected or uncommon, and Tracey’s reaction is, even among the crew of Serenity (remember Ariel?), not unreasonable. So what should feel tragic and terrible in fact seems only manipulative, the show falling back on lazy cliches of heroism (as it very rarely does) to simplify what is in fact a morally grey situation.
The Message was, then, one of my least favourite Firefly episodes: I felt more annoyed by it than anything else. However – the show is more than the sum of its parts, thank goodness, and so I look forward to the next of Serenity‘s adventures.