Kaylee is probably the only character on the main cast of Firefly, bar Book, who doesn’t really get any episode to focus particularly on her. She has sub-plots aplenty, usually involving Simon, but she has no episode in which it can be stated that she is the main character. This was probably not by design, and surely if Firefly’s first season had been given the legs to continue, an episode would have been centred around her.
“The Message” does not centre around Kaylee either, but looking at it again recently, I did feel that it was the episode in which she featured in the most meaningful way, maybe competing with the likes of “Shindig” or, later, “Objects In Space”. In “The Message” Kaylee finds herself pondering over a dead man she didn’t even know, as her relationship with Simon continues to stall and her view of the universe gets challenged.
Because Kaylee, as I have previously discussed, in the shining optimistic light on-board Serenity. She’s the constantly cheerful one, who, as Simon says early on in “The Message”, finds the silver lining in everything, even a mutated cow foetus. She finds the good in people, can’t bring herself to fire a gun at the bad guys, and is the one who painted the flowers in Serenity’s deck. As per Whedon’s own explanation/admission, part of the reason for her existing in the show is to have someone so impossible to dislike that it means more when she is frequently put into peril ala Willow in the early years of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. In “The Message”, poor Kaylee is put into a fair amount of peril and gets some harsh wake-up calls to the nature of the reality she inhabits, but she also manages to grow as a person during the process.
Early on, she and Simon, apparently on some kind of date, appear to be getting much closer, to the point when a first kiss seems more likely than not. But then, again, Simon puts his civilised foot in it and inadvertently insults Kaylee, establishing that there is still that divide between them yet to be bridged, and leaving Kaylee, as she was in “Shindig” and “Safe”, hurt and bewildered.
That apparent distance between her and Simon is crucial to the set-up, as she is about to transfer her affections to a new player. Her attachment to Tracey is just one of the most obvious examples of the crew’s general sentiment towards the apparently deceased individual, all of them touched by the sincerity of the titular recording, even the usually uncaring Jayne. The difference between Kaylee and Simon is further established, as she curses him out for suggesting an autopsy. Later, she lies alone in her engine room hammock, listening to Tracey’s final message over and over again. We can imagine that Kaylee might be thinking about her own life out in the black, the family she left back on some rock, and what kind of message she would send to them in the same circumstances, circumstances she really is not all that far away from. It’s one of the few times we see Kaylee really, properly, downbeat, but nothing really has to be said: we can infer enough to have a good understanding of what she is thinking. Simon approaches her in this time, but can’t bring himself to engage.
When Tracey suddenly comes back to life, we can easily see a more traditional attraction develop between the two. Kaylee is always a bit more idealistic than she should be for someone in her position, and starts falling for Tracey, and his shtick of being a rogue with a heart of gold, just trying to make life better for his “folks”, all too easily. She can’t resist what appears, on the surface, to be the possibility of a happy ending. The subsequent glimpses of them, hiding in Kaylee’s quarters, has a certain charge to it, given the surroundings and the flirtatious nature of their interaction, but Tracey slowly turns away from that, as his inner nature starts to come to the fore.
Kaylee then gets a harsh dose of the truth as a desperate and reckless Tracey, wounded and with no clear way out of his apparent peril, takes her at gunpoint and uses her as a shield. For Kaylee, who was falling for the romantic ideal of Tracey as she had built up in his head, it is a terrifying and horrible moment, but this is what life in the ‘verse is really like: rogues with a heart of gold are in really short supply, and people like Tracey, users of others and selfishly irresponsible with the safety and wellbeing of others, are plentiful.
Kaylee is saved by the group of people she has around her, who converge on Tracey and put a stop to his deranged plans of escape. She’s left stunned, but does not completely reject a now dying Tracey, seemingly accepting his last apology as she sits just a short distance away from his prone body.
Tracey got shown for the fraud that he was, but the message clearly still resonates within Kaylee. For all of his faults and stupid willingness to put others in harm’s way to save himself, Tracey wasn’t lying about his family and wasn’t lying about his last wish to be near them. His family don’t really need the truth about Tracey, they just need his remains and his memory, and Kaylee, the carrier of the message, willingly hands it over to them without a word. In a universe filled with darkness and inhumanity, be it the open brutal kind like that displayed by Womack or the more insidious kind displayed by Tracey, moments of quieter sentiment, like that displayed by Tracey’s recording and the effect that it had on Kaylee, should be treasured.
In the end, Kaylee wraps her hand in Simon’s, moving back towards him as a friend and potential romantic partner, though in this moment there is little of their usual interaction. Kaylee previously rejected Simon and distanced herself from him as she thought on Tracey and his message to his family. Now, faced with the end of his last journey, she seeks comfort with Simon, and a resumption of their previous relationship, something a bit more real and worthy of being pursued.
Kaylee learns some things in the course of “The Message” and her relationship with Simon, while still not advancing to its inevitable point, has evolved somewhat. Tracey was the cipher for all that, a complex individual whose effect on Kaylee was multi-faceted. She will remain the cheerful optimistic and idealistic heart of Serenity, but we can trust that the memory of this experience will leave its mark.