In "The Message," Mal and company receive a dead friend in the mail, and 'Firefly' fields one of its best episodes.
Credit: Science/Fox

According to Firefly lore, “The Message” was the last episode shot but not the last episode aired during the sci-fi western’s original run on Fox in 2002. In fact, “The Message” never aired at all. Sad. This was one of the great ones, full of metaphorical resonance about Firefly itself. The story had the smugglers of Serenity transporting a corpse to its final resting place. During the execution of the task, the dead man sprung back to life. There was joy, and then there was betrayal, and Mal and company wound up playing pallbearers, anyway, right after fulfilling the unexpected role of executioners. If the cast and crew shot the episode knowing the series had been canceled, then at least they had a story they could pour themselves into and get some small bit of catharsis in return.

Mal and Zoe knew the deceased well. Private Tracey was a fellow Browncoat; they had fought with him during the war. The young man was a terrible solider, and Mal and Zoe had to work hard to keep him from getting killed, and to keep themselves from getting killed by his sloppiness. How did Tracey’s body come into their possession? Through the mail, of course. During a stop at a space station that was part open-market bazaar and part street fair (complete with sideshows like a canry huckster promising a peek at alleged alien life) (actually a upside down mutant cow fetus), Serenity’s crew picked up a load of post that included a care package for Jayne (Mom had knitted him a fuzzy, flappy cap — hilarious) and a crate containing Tracey. In a recorded message, the boyish-looking vet explained that he had fallen in “with untrustworthy folk” and made “a bunch of bad calls” since the end of the war. He wanted Mal and Zoe to lay him to rest on his home world. They accepted the charge, and their shipmates gave their support easily.

Dead Tracey’s presence inspired a variety of poignant responses. In one scene alone, “The Message” found a way to generalize and summarize the various ways in which people deal with sobering confrontations with morality. Book read aloud from his Bible and prayed. Jayne pumped iron and babbled. River, unflinching, laid atop the casket, as if trying to commune with the lifeless shell within. “I’m very comfortable,” she declared.

JAYNE: I see a stiff – one I didn’t have to kill myself –I just get, you know, the urge to do stuff. Work out, run around, get some trim of there’s a willin’ woman about. Not that I get flush from corpses or anything. I ain’t crazy.

BOOK: Makes sense. Looking to feel alive, I venture.

JAYNE: For psychology, that ain’t half dumb, preacher. I expect I’m invested in making good sport of it whilst I can.

Then an Alliance cop – a corrupt one, as it would turn out – started firing on the ship and demanded that Mal release the body to him. Everyone was mighty curious to know why, and Mal – suspicious that Tracey’s body was being used to mule stolen goods — ordered Simon to perform an autopsy. Just as the doctor began cutting, Tracey woke up. He’s aliiiiiive!

NEXT: A Prince reference. Don’t worry: It’s not “Darling Nikki.”

Tracey was never dead to begin with, just pretending, courtesy of fancy drugs. Long story short: Tracey was smuggling genetically engineered organs within his body, but had decided to cheat the original buyer after receiving a higher offer. The original buyer didn’t take kindly to getting robbed and had the new buyer killed and hired the crooked Alliance cop, named Womack, to retrieve the goods. Tracey was trying to shake Womack by faking his demise and using Mal to get him out of dodge. No dice.

Tracey had put Mal in hot water, but the captain wasn’t going to turn on his Browncoat buddy. Besides, Book – drawing upon the knowledge of his mysterious Alliance agent past – tipped Mal to the fact that the cop wasn’t acting… well, by the book. Mal had a plan: He would bring Womack aboard and scare him away by busting him on his rogue behavior. All Tracey heard was the part about Womack coming aboard and freaked. The hustling huckster thought he could manipulate his former war buddies into helping him by working their sentimental regard for him and the shared bond of the dead Browncoat dream. “Saps” he called them. Unfortunately for Tracey, Mal and Zoe were even bigger saps for their Serenity family. After Tracey tried to exert his will by shooting at Wash, Zoe shot Tracey. Wounded, Tracey grabbed Kaylee and threatened to kill her. Mal put another bullet in him. Down he went, his life bleeding out. I loved Mal’s ice cold existentialism and moral clarity:

MAL: You murdered yourself, son. I just carried the bullet for a while.

When Book successfully shooed away Womack, foolish Tracey realized he had only succeeded in subverting a plan designed to save his life. With his dying breaths, Tracey confessed he wasn’t too skilled at living life, even more so after the trauma of the war. He felt stupid and sorry, and now that he truly was a dead man, he really did need help getting to where he needed to be. Even though Tracey had screwed them and endangered their lives and the lives of those they loved, Mal and Zoe had nothing but deep empathy for their flawed, f’d up friend. Earlier in the episode, we got a flashback to the war, in which we saw Mal and Zoe cover up for a lieutenant that had gone batty from horror. “Lieutenant gets his mind back in order, he shouldn’t have this on his record,” Mal said then. “Weren’t his fault he couldn’t take it.” Mal and Zoe had that same kind of grace of Tracey. Their foxhole mantra: “When you can’t run anymore, you crawl. And when you can’t do that, you find someone to carry you.”

Mal, Zoe, and the whole Serenity crew served as witnesses as the boy’s family sadly put him in the ground on a snowy day as serene as Christmas. The final scene – slow and melancholy, beautifully photograph and tenderly scored – played like a memorial for the whole enterprise that was Firefly. I was reminded – of all things – of the lyrics to one of my favorite Prince songs, “Sometimes It Snows In April.” It begins: Tracy died soon after a long fought civil war. It ends: All good things,” they say, “never last”/And love, it isn’t love, until it’s past. If you call yourself Browncoat – or even just a Firefly fan – maybe you can relate.


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