Recap: Firefly E 12 The Message

"What'd y'all order a dead guy for?"

When you can't run anymore, you crawl and when you can't do that, well...yeah, you know the rest.
-Tracey

The crew of the Serenity has stopped at a space station's bazaar to try and pawn off the Lassiter they just stole, with no success due to its rarity and Mal's refusal to let Inara get involved by contacting her own potential buyers. In the meantime, Kaylee and Simon are checking out a hawker that claims to have solid proof of alien life (but is really just a cow fetus in a jar). The two seem to be hitting it off on their date, but Simon mentions how she's the only girl who's not married, professional, or related to her and she storms off thinking that he views her as the bottom of the barrel.

Mal heads to the post office and meets Amnon Duul, the postmaster and an old friend of his, to get the mail Duul was holding for them. Jayne has a letter from his mother that he reads out loud, revealing that he has been sending money to his family to care for his brother's illness, and finds that she enclosed a gaudy bright orange knit cap that he wears with pride. On the other hand, Mal and Zoe have a large crate mysteriously addressed to them. Upon opening it, they find to their shock that it contains the corpse of their old war buddy, Private Tracey.

A flashback ensues to the Battle of Du-Khang from the Unification War. Tracey is a green private who's narrowly saved by Zoe when he tries to sit and eat in the Buddhist temple the Browncoats are holding, opening himself to an ambush. As Mal arrives under heavy fire, they discuss how their lieutenant has completely broken under the strain and is no longer able to issue orders. When Tracey says that he doesn't want to die defending Du-Khang, Mal tells him "Everybody dies, Tracey. 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." The Alliance forces breach the temple and Tracy is severely wounded, forcing Mal to carry him to safety.

Cutting back to the present day, Mal and Zoe openly wonder why they would have had Tracey's body mailed to them (as there's no return address to trace). Duul wants the body gone, as mailing human cargo is illegal, so they haul the coffin and crate aboard Serenity.

While searching Tracey, they find a recorder clutched in his hands and play it. Tracey's recording reveals that he had fallen in with "untrustworthy folk" and was expecting to be murdered, and so he trusted his old war buddies to take his body to St. Albans for burial on the family plot. The crew unhesitatingly agrees to follow Tracey's last wishes, and Wash sets a course for St. Albans. Back in the post office, an Alliance officer named Womack arrives and threatens Duul into revealing who claimed the body.

Back aboard Serenity, Simon finds that Kaylee has repeatedly been listening to Tracey's recording in her bunk and he begins to feel unwanted. Jayne and Book discuss how Jayne reacts to death. They find that River has crawled on top of the coffin and finds it "comfortable" to be there. Mal and Zoe are drinking with Inara and recounting stories of Tracey's sense of humor, and it becomes clear that they're both saddened by his death. The ship suddenly rocks from a nearby explosion, and they rush up to the bridge. Womack has fired a warning shot at them and demands that the "stolen" crate be handed over to the Alliance ship. Wash keeps Womack occupied while the crew searches the crate for any sign of valuables, but find nothing. With no other options, they decide to perform an autopsy on Tracey. The corpse suddenly comes alive as Simon makes the first cut and attacks him in a panic, before Mal subdues him.

The crew dress and treat Tracey, who had only been drugged to fake death. He reveals that as his latest bad decision, he's allowed himself to become a living incubator for smuggled human organs; Womack was paying him to have all of his internal organs temporarily replaced with lab-grown ones, which he would then have removed and replaced with his originals at a clinic in Ariel. Tracey attempted to double-cross Womack for a buyer willing to pay three times as much, but the corrupt Alliance officer found out and had the new buyer murdered. Tracey paid someone to drug him to fake his death, hoping that he could get Zoe and Mal to ferry him back home where he could hide. Unfortunately, he failed to anticipate Womack trying to recover the organs.

Womack fires on Serenity again and begins demanding Tracey's body again. Mal convinces him to conduct the meeting on the planet below, hoping to outmaneuver the Alliance ship in the canyons. Tracey sits with Kaylee in her bunk as the chase begins, and the two start to display an interest in one another. Back up on the bridge, Book notes that Womack hasn't contacted a nearby Alliance station despite ostensibly acting on official business. Wash temporarily loses Womack in the canyons, but his ship begins dropping magnetic charges that threaten to cave in their hiding spot. As Tracy sneaks his way back up to the bridge, Book convinces Mal to contact Womack and surrender.

As Mal prepares to radio Womack, Tracey scoops up a gun and tries to threaten them into running again instead of selling him out. Tracey fires at Wash when he tries to get on the radio, and Zoe shoots him in the chest. Tracey runs while they check on Wash, grabbing Kaylee to run with him into the hanger bay. As Tracey tries to run for a shuttle, Kaylee refuses to escape with him and he takes her as a human shield in a panic. When Tracey refuses to stand down, Jayne distracts him long enough for Mal to shoot and mortally wound him.

Womack and his men board Serenity, only to find Tracey bleeding to death with his valuable organs damaged and the rest of the crew training guns on them. Book reveals that they know that Womack is operating outside of his jurisdiction on personal business and never contacted the nearby Alliance station, and that it would be no problem to kill the officers and hide their bodies in the canyon. With no way to escape with the organs and/or his life, Womack gives up and leaves.

Back on the catwalk, Tracey realizes that Mal had always planned to scare off Womack and was never going to give him up. He apologizes to Kaylee for taking her hostage and makes Mal promise to deliver his body to his family before dying. The episode ends with the whole crew joining Tracey's extended family for his burial as they play his recording one more time.

Tropes used in this episode include:

  • Funny Background Event: The infirmary's heart monitor is in a number of Tracey's closeup shots. When Tracey first lays eyes on Kaylee, the display on the monitor starts beeping faster.
  • Hat Etiquette: Jayne removing his hat out of respect at the funeral.
  • Iconic Item/Nice Hat: The first appearance of Jayne's iconic hat. Also see the main page for Nice Hat.
  • Jerkass: The corrupt cop's already a piece of work, but on the way out he takes careful note to insult Jayne's hat, and spit on Serenity.
  • Leeroy Jenkins: Mal in the flashback.
  • Reality Subtext: The cast learnt during the funeral scene the series had been canned. It shows.
  • Ridiculously Difficult Route: Invoked by Mal by having Wash fly Serenity through a very narrow, twisty and uneven canyon (which even Ace Pilot Wash visibly finds difficult) in order to escape the (larger) ship that is chasing them. However, the police aboard that ship defy the trope by simply flying their ship above the canyon and shooting at them from there.
  • Shout-Out: The pig fetus in a jar may be a reference to the Angel episode "Orpheus" in which Willow appeared to re-ensoul Angel.
    Willow: There's lots of jars in the world. Can't shatter 'em all. Oh, I mean you could, but, good things come in jars - peanut butter, jelly, those two-headed fetal pigs at the Natural History Museum.
  • Spot The Thread: Book realizes the cop crooked because he hasn't called for backup from the Alliance military base that's on that same planet, implying he doesn't want them to know he's there any more than Serenity's crew does.
  • Stealth Insult: When Jayne tries on the knit hat he got in the mail from his mother, Wash comments, "Man walks down the street in that hat, you know he's not afraid of anything." Jayne replies, "Damn straight."
  • Surgeons Can Do Autopsies If They Want: Simon, obviously.
  • With Catlike Tread: A flashback shows Zoe warn Tracey never to let the the enemy know where you are, the camera pans to Mal doing the complete opposite of what she said.