“The Message”, from its inception, was never meant to serve as a finale to Firefly, it being a transformed version of a different script, “Dead Or Alive”, that I will talk a little bit on in time. But, for obvious reasons, many fans and even members of the production team and cast have come to treat it as the de facto finale of Firefly, to the extent that there was a brief period of time when Netflix even placed it last in the order of episodes.
There are things about “The Message” that work through the lens of a finale, and there are things that do not work. While the film continuation of the series has obviously now become the real “finale” to the story being told in Firefly, it is worth examining the reaction to “The Message” and asking why it gained the place that it did, as many peoples preferred final look at the adventures of Serenity.
There is a certain completeness in “The Message” when viewed as a finale, insofar as it ties into the opening episode in an effective way, especially that opening scene. I don’t just mean that both episodes contain flashbacks to a battle scene from the Unification War and are connected in that way (though they are) but in what those flashback scenes represent. Firefly is primarily about veterans of this terrible war trying to make a life for themselves out on the boundaries of human civilisation, those who survived the conflagration left forever changed by it. Mal and Zoe are two people who went through that hell and came out functioning on the either side, and Firefly is partly the story of how they came back into the world.
Then along comes “The Message”, and a direct encounter with one of the people they went through that war with, someone that seems to be the same kind of person as Mal and Zoe, but who they eventually find to be diametrically opposed to them in many fundamental ways. There are big and little moments that allude to this, from the “old saying” quoted during the “Battle of Du-Khang” and again during the final moments, to Tracey’s derogatory sneering at “Bible-thumper” Book, whose presence on the ship and Mal’s trust in him, seems very far from the person Tracey might be more familiar with, whose faith was killed at Serenity Valley.
Mal and Zoe had to find their way after the war, and found Serenity, it’s crew, friends, a husband and a family. Tracey blundered around and fell in with the wrong people, eventually becoming a lone individual looking out only for himself and willing to use previous friends to his own advantage. The mirror image is obvious and deliberate, and maximised by the final violent encounter between those involved: Tracey, scared and alone, with Mal, Zoe, Jayne and Book all closing in around him, working together to bring him down.
Of course, the real reason so many view “The Message” as a finale is that final wordless scene, as Serenity reaches Tracey’s family and delivers both his body and his last message. The whole scene is strikingly mournful for a show like Firefly, usually so full of colour: everyone wears black, the snow, settled and falling, adds a cold melancholy air, Kaylee and Simon clasp hands and that part of the soundtrack – Greg Edmonson’s immense goodbye to the show, with that simple piano and violin melody, directly inspired by the fact that Firefly was in its final moments in production terms – plays throughout, evoking feelings of morning, sadness and last goodbyes. This scene was one of the last that the crew shot, the show already in a terminal state, and that real sadness can be felt. If viewed as a finale, this last scene of “The Message”, with that music, is less of a lament for Tracey, and more of a lament for Firefly.
But, I don’t really buy into it personally, for a number of reasons. I don’t think that “The Message” works very well as a finale, especially as a Joss Whedon show. For one, it’s too downbeat. While finales often tend to be sad, they do, in my experience, err more on the side of bittersweet, and “The Message” really has precious little of that. The end of the episode see’s the crew contemplating Tracey’s death and what it means, and there is very little joy to be found in it all.
As a finale, it’s also too open-ended. No existing sub-plots get tapered off completely with “The Message”: Mal and Inara’s relationship, Simon and Kaylee, River and Simon, the hunt for River, the sale of the Lassiter even. Numerous characters, like Wash, Inara and River, get very little to do (though not nothing, soon enough). It’s clear that “The Message” was not designed to end Firefly, and I can’t really see past that. What is the actual finale of the TV series, “Objects In Space”, will have much the same problem, but even that will have more of a finale feel to it than “The Message”, because of the role of River and the threat of the central antagonist, not matched by the rather bland Womack in this outing.
There just isn’t enough of a traditional Whedon finale feel to “The Message” for me, I’d compare it more directly to episodes like “The Body” for Buffy The Vampire Slayer or “Epiphany” in Angel. Whedon finales have higher stakes, and revolve around the culmination of sub-plots built up over the course of a season, and include an antagonist who has generally featured prominently up to that point, the “big bad”. Firefly never got the chance to have a “big bad”, just a few recurring villains, and the lack of one of these – instead, we get Womack, who is largely irrelevant to the higher point of the episode – stops “The Message” from being a suitable finale for me.
Of course, fans went on to get Serenity, a film that is, per the words of the director, an attempt to adapt the end of a five season plan of Serenity into a two-hour experience. Serenity has finale feels aplenty, and plays the part admirably. “The Message” should not be considered a finale by the fanbase for that reason alone, but simply as an episode that slots nicely into the shows late run.