Sunday, December 09, 2007

Firefly Episode 12: "The Message"

As a somewhat jaded consumer of fiction, it takes a lot to make me feel like I might tear up. That "The Message" pulls that off is especially remarkable given the fact that its central character is someone we have never seen before and who is not the sort of character who would normally garner our sympathy. However, skillful storytelling on the part of the writers and stellar performances by all regulars and guest stars make this an outstanding episode which justifiably earned Firefly the second of its three Hugo nominations and may represent its finest hour.

"The Message," in a nutshell, is the story of the death of Tracey Smith, a former private who fought with Mal and Zoe in the Unification War. A flashback to a battle during that war tells us a lot about who he was and is, a young man, idealistic and good-hearted enough to get involved for a cause he believed in, but without what you might call the "street smarts" to take care of himself. Mal and Zoe aren't so much his war buddies in the sense they were with Monty from "Trash" as they are surrogate older siblings stuck looking after someone who can't quite take care of himself.

By now we know enough of the Firefly universe to figure what happened next. Like Mal and Zoe themselves, he became something of a drifter, looking for odd jobs to make money. This much and its inevitable result is confirmed at the point where we enter the story, when Mal and Zoe receive his apparently dead body and a voice message in which he admits to unspecified bad calls and falling in with the wrong folk while asking his old friends to make sure his body gets to his family on St. Albans. The scene where the crew listens to this message is very moving, so that when Jayne takes off his hat in respect, it seems to flow from the mood rather than be a device to insist on it.

A big part of the storytelling magic that ensures we will like Tracey comes from the fact we vicariously remember and mourn him before we actually see him in the episode's own time frame. Our entry point into the real story of his last days or weeks comes when a rogue cop played by Richard Burgi comes after Serenity demanding they hand over the body. They quickly discover that Tracey is very much alive, but trying to escape from people he double-crossed after they fixed him up as an enhanced organ smuggler.

The whole plot of this episode really flows organically (no pun intended) from who Tracey is and the broader life situation in which he found himself. As a character, his main faults are an inability to handle himself and a tendency to behave with extreme selfishness when he panics, which happens frequently. This is balanced, however, with the simple humanity of his desire to return home to his family and maybe help his parents afford a better life. Placing this in the same episode in which we learn that Jayne sends money to his mother highlights the fact that these are simply the conditions under which people in the outer worlds have to survive. Although some claim Firefly's premise was unsound, in the modern world with all its technology, you inevitably encounter pockets like this in the developing world, in the interstices of law and order where people just try to get by. In particular, I suspect the "stateless Arabs," Bedouin who resisted settlement programs and found themselves on without a formal place in the post-Ottoman order, would really identify with the characters in this series.

In the end, when he thinks the crew is about to give him up, Tracey again panics, shoots Wash, threatens to shoot others, and kidnaps Kaylee without realizing that's what he's doing, thoughtlessly and cluelessly going back on his own professed desire not to see her in a bad spot. In the DVD commentary, Alan Tudyk, thought the crew could have just explained the plan to him, but I don't see that as a major issue. Book tried to say something, but Tracey had been drinking and wasn't in a trusting or listening mood. As with the rest of the episode, the fundamental dynamic wasn't going to change because it was based entirely on Tracey himself. As Mal points out: "Far as I can see, nobody's made you do anything. You brought this onto yourself. Got in over your head with these stone cold gut-runners, then you panicked, and then you brung the whole mess down on all of us."

Tracey's fate is telescoped in the early battle flashback. Mal says, "Someone's carrying a bullet for you right now, doesn't even know it." How do you escape when the person is yourself? A few lines later, however, Mal also wants to make sure the shell-shocked lieutenant will be in the clear, for as he says, "Weren't his fault he couldn't take it." That encapsulates exactly how we feel toward Tracey. They lead a tough life, and Tracey has clearly turned to despair. In the end, we feel for him, and mourn with the others at his funeral, despite everything, because while his fate did stem from his own weaknesses, they were weaknesses made fatal only by the life he and the others were forced to live.

"The Message," in short, is a character-driven story firmly grounded in the show's premise. I can't end this review without wedging in praise for Jonathan Woodward, whose portrayal as Tracey was critical to the episode's success, as well as Greg Edmonson's strong score, which really set a nice tone for the piece. Without reservation I give this 10/10.
Mal: "Everybody dies, Tracey. Someone's carryin' a bullet for you right now, doesn't even know it. The trick is, die of old age before it finds you."



Blogger ArcoJedi said...

Hey Brian. You are correct that this is one of the best of the Firefly episodes. From my wife's sister --resident expert on all things Firefly-- this was actually the LAST episode filmed, despite it being 12th of 14 episodes shown. It was also filmed AFTER the cast and crew learned there would be no second season, hence the mood of the episode. I will also admit that my first watching elicited a tear. Your summary and review are spot on.

9:35 PM  

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