We're in the home stretch now on our summer run through Joss Whedon's outer space Western "Firefly." (My hope is that my schedule allows me to do a post on the "Serenity" movie when we're done, but we'll have to see where things stand in a few weeks.) A review of "The Message" coming up just as soon as someone steals my mustache...
"When you can't run, you crawl. And when you can't crawl... when you can't do that..." -Tracey
"You find someone to carry you." -Zoe
After the complicated con games of "Trash," Whedon and Tim Minear teamed up to write "The Message," which starts out seeming just as complicated with its not-quite-dead corpses and crooked Alliance cops, but ultimately turns out to be a fairly simple story of comrades-in-arms struggling to build lives for themselves after the war ends.
Mal and Zoe have done okay for themselves. Zoe has a husband, and Mal has created this surrogate family in the Serenity crew, but what helps keep them going forward is that bond that so troubled Wash back in "War Stories." Mal and Zoe have other people, but more importantly, they have each other. They're always with someone who fought with the browncoats, who know about the exploding apples and the lieutenant's arms and all these other things that you can't entirely explain to people who weren't there. And that helps keep them sane.
Tracey doesn't seem to have had that. He drifted through post-war life, bouncing from job to job until he got the crazy idea of becoming part of an artificially-grown organ smuggling ring - and then the crazier idea of double-crossing his partners to make the score bigger. So he winds up seemingly dead aboard Serenity, and then roping Mal and Zoe and the rest into his trouble with Lt. Womack. And because he hasn't been with Mal and Zoe for years, nor with the crew they've surrounded themselves with, he's out of sync with the way they operate and makes the fatal mistake of assuming Mal is going to turn him in, when what we've seen of Malcolm Reynolds over these dozen episodes is that he would rather die than hand over a friend in trouble to the Alliance.
"The Message" was the last episode of the series to be produced, and the sense of melancholy that Whedon, Minear and company must have had making it fits nicely with the funereal tone of the story. Early in the episode, Mal and Zoe think they're taking an old friend home for a burial, and though he turns out to still be alive, that condition is sadly temporary, and the journey concludes as they originally planned it to. It's not an elaborate story, but it's a very effective one, and Gina Torres and Nathan Fillion show you just how much pain these two still carry from the war, and how much it hurts to have to put down a fellow veteran - even if, as Mal so eloquently puts it, "You murdered yourself. I just carried the bullet a while."
Some other thoughts:
- Richard Burgi makes an effectively eeeevil villain as Lt. Womack, and I like how the chase scene between his ship and Serenity takes on the feel of a submarine thriller, with Serenity trying to hide from the depth charges Womack keeps tossing. Westerns were the obvious storytelling model for the series, but at various points it took on the trappings of a caper movie, or various kinds of war films. Joss is versatile, apparently.
- I complained in some of the early reviews about my dislike of the Mal/Inara relationship, but it's thus far gotten less play than I had remembered. (That will, of course, change with next week's Inara-centric episode.) On the other hand, I had forgotten just how repetitive the Simon/Kaylee relationship got. Simon and Kaylee flirt nervously, all is going well, and then Simon says something that inadvertently hurts Kaylee's feelings, lather, rinse, repeat. Here it's used to set up Kaylee's attraction to Tracey - and then to turn her into his hostage when he misunderstands what Mal is up to - but had the series gone on much longer, I would hope that Whedon would have started doing something different with the two of them.
- One of Joss' rules that separated "Firefly" from most other space series that had come before is that there were no aliens. Everyone was a human, descended from the people who emigrated from the Earth that was. Which then allowed for the joke about the carnival barker on the space station showing off an alleged alien fetus that, as Simon helpfully explained, was really just a cow fetus.
- Jayne's acceptance of the crew, and vice versa, that began with the lessons he learned in "Jaynestown," continues apace here with the crew being (mostly) kind about the ugly knit earflap hat his mom sends him (which Lt. Womack later insults to save face after Mal and Book outwit him), then with Jayne bonding with Shepherd Book about his mortality.
- Because the show filmed in and around Los Angeles, and because it fit the Western motif, all of the outer planets and moons we've seen so far have been arid, dusty places, so it's almost shocking to see snow falling on the moon where Tracey's family lives.
Coming up next: The last of the unaired episodes, "Heart of Gold," in which Inara recruits Mal and company to help out an old friend.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com