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Recap / Firefly E12 "The Message"

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"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."

Original air date: 12/9/2003 (DVD) (produced in 2002)

The crew of 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 (which 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 him, 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 at 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 incision and attacks him in a panic, before Mal subdues him.

The crew dresses and treats 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 on 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, even from a "corpse."

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:

  • 1-Dimensional Thinking: Wash flies through a dangerously narrow canyon to try to shake pursuers... before it's revealed that they just flew over it.
  • Always a Bigger Fish: Jayne comes back from shopping for supplies, stating that he got a discounting because of how intimidating he is while handing Mal the change (a handful of coins). Mal simply stares at him until Jayne hands over the rest of the money (which includes several bills).
  • Arc Words: Blue Sun, again.
  • Bait-and-Switch Comparison: When Zoe and Wash walk into the room with the "alien life-form" (and Simon).
    Wash: Oh my God, it's grotesque! Oh, and there's something in a jar.
  • Call-Back:
    • At the beginning of the episode, Mal is trying and failing to fence the Lasseter laser pistol the crew stole in "Trash". Also, when Womack's gunship appears on Serenity's tail, Mal's immediate assumption is that Saffron gave them up after the Feds arrested her on Bellerophon.
    • Tracey is Faking the Dead the same way Simon and River did back in "Ariel".
  • Coffin Contraband: The crew picks up the body of one of Mal's war buddies, only for the Feds to accuse them of moving contraband. They know this trope is in play, but can't tell what the contraband is because they're actually specially-synthesized organs intended for transplant; and the corpse isn't actually dead.
  • Combat Pragmatist: In the flashback, Zoe lets an enemy soldier find Tracey (using a comrade as a distraction) before sneaking up on her target and knifing him.
  • Compliment Backfire: Simon offends Kaylee and she storms off.
  • Creator Cameo: Joss Whedon makes an uncredited cameo in this episode, playing a family member at Tracey's funeral.
  • Didn't Think This Through:
    • Tracey took the new buyer's offer seemingly not considering Womack would be willing to kill to get those expensive organs back. Also, he didn't seem to have a plan for getting back his original organs, which would in theory still be in Womack's hands.
    • Wash tries to lose a pursuing ship by flying into a canyon:
      Wash: They're not behind us anymore!
      (Looks up and sees that the other ship simply flew over)
      Wash: I didn't think of that...
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Tracey. As soon as he sees Kaylee he seems to forget what he's talking about.
  • Dramatic Gun Cock: Jayne invokes this by racking a shotgun to get a hostage taker to turn towards him, allowing Mal a clean shot without having to Shoot the Hostage. It is notable that he is actually holding two guns at the time and only cocks the second.
  • Faking Engine Trouble: Mal uses a variation as an excuse for not letting Womack's ship dock.
    Mal: We'd love to let you boys dock, but that last pop you gave us knocked out our fore-couple, so we're gonna have to park it if you want the tour.
  • Faking the Dead: Tracy, as it turns out.
  • Flashback: To the Battle of Du-Khang during the Independence War, where Mal and Zoe fought with Tracy and had some pertinent discussions.
  • The Freakshow: A space station displays an "alien life form", which Simon identifies as a mutated cow fetus.
  • 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.
  • Give Me Back My Wallet: Mal grabs a kid attempting to pickpocket him.
  • Holding Hands: Kaylee and Simon at the end of the episode.
  • Iconic Item: The first appearance of Jayne's iconic hat.
  • Innocently Insensitive: Simon makes a weak joke about how Kaylee's basically "the only girl in the world" in his current social circle ("Every other girl I know is. either married, professional, or closely related to me"), leaving Kaylee offended at the idea that he might only be interested because she's his only choice. Simon later notes to Zoe that he's not good at talking to girls, but Zoe asks if there's anyone he is good at talking to.
  • Jar of the Bizarre: The episode opens in a spaceport with a hawker claiming to have proof of alien life in his exhibit. Gilligan Cut to Simon declaring the jar's contents a cow foetus. Kaylee isn't sure, but Simon points out how it's been mutated with extra limbs, then stored upside down.
  • 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.
    Mal: Woo-hoo! I'm right here! I'm right here! You want some of this? Yeah, you do! Come on! Come on! [...] They don't like it when you shoot at 'em. Figured that out myself.
  • Love Triangle: Subverted. It looks like one is forming between Kaylee, Simon and Tracy since Kaylee and Simon have a falling out, and she and Tracy obviously have an interest in each other. However, Simon never finds out about this, and it becomes a moot point when Tracy dies at the end.
  • The Neidermeyer: Though he isn't shown on-screen, Mal and Zoe recount an instance where one of their superior officers acted exactly like this. However, in this case, the man was drunk off his rocker, and passed out, at which point one of the troops cut off the man's mustache and glued it to his own face.
  • Not Quite Dead: Tracey's only taken a drug that fakes death, just as Simon and River did in "Ariel."
  • Organ Theft: Tracy had to pretend to be dead to transport—and incubate—some super-viscera. And despite the stated cost of the organs, the guys who go to recollect shoot to kill. And in a way, Tracy kind of does this to himself, because the way he's smuggling the organs is that he had all of his replaced. Then he decided to go for a better offer, forgetting that the other people STILL had his original organs.
  • Poor Communication Kills: The climax has the crew under siege and almost certainly about to die at the hands of an overzealous cop who wants Tracey. Shepherd Book hatches a plan: the first part is surrendering to the cop and telling him they're going to turn Tracey over to him. Tracey, upon hearing this, becomes understandably upset, but it's not until after he's flipped out for several seconds, threatened the crew with a gun, held Kaylee hostage, and finally been mortally wounded by Mal that they inform him that the rest of the plan was to threaten and blackmail the cop into leaving without actually giving him what he came for. Tracey, rather than angrily demanding why they didn't tell him that in the first place, feels bad for screwing up the plan before dying moments later, seemingly aware that by going off half-cocked he managed to screw up what was obviously a good plan.
  • 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 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.
  • Spot the Thread: Book realizes the cop is 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.
  • Treasure Chest Cavity: The crew suspects momentarily that Tracy's body may have been used to smuggle some sort of valuable cargo. It was, except he ain't dead, and the cargo are artificial vital organs which have replaced his own.
    Zoe: You really think there's something in there?
    Mal: Using corpses for smuggling is a time-honored repulsive custom.
    Jayne: Maybe it's gold.
    Zoe: And maybe he was a friend of ours and you need to show more respect.
    Jayne: I got respect. I'm just sayin' (points to body) Gold!
  • With Catlike Tread: A flashback shows Zoe warn Tracey never to let the the enemy know where you are, after cutting the throat of an Alliance soldier who had attempted to infiltrate the Independent camp. The camera then pans to Mal doing the complete opposite of what she said.
    Zoe: Of course, there are other schools of thought.