The main players in “The Message” are undoubtedly Mal, Zoe and Kaylee, alongside Tracey of course. The episode revolves largely around them and their experiences, with Kaylee’s B-Story merging easily into the larger A-Story by the conclusion.
But “The Message” really does a good job with the mid and under card players as well, in simple but very effective ways. It’s repeatedly been a core strength of Firefly, that it finds good things for the also-rans of an episode to do, to evolve relationships and establish character, and “The Message” really is no exception to that.
Let’s take a look first at the mid-card of the episode, which I would say consists of Book, Jayne and Simon, those three characters whose activities in the episode are ancillary to the main plot or sub-plot, but which still have an important impact. In the case of Book, he shows signs of his secret past yet again, deducing the real reason that Womack was so hell-bent on getting Tracey back, and then being the one to actually talk him down at the finale. Book is shown, once again, to be a more confident and conniving character than he initially appears, though he remains primarily reactive to events around him.
Jayne has less to do, but does have those two great elements in “The Message”. The first, of course, is that iconic hat, so lovingly knitted by his mother to help him on his “travels”, that forms the basis for the episodes best recurring joke (though I can’t help but note that Womack’s last insult to Jayne sort of sucks something very important out of the tension of the climax). But more than that, Jayne has that really great conversation with Book, as the preacher stands watch over the body. Jayne, displaying a level of sentiment hitherto unseen by the audience, essentially outlines the central philosophy of his life:
“It’s good. The Lord should oughta look after the dead…Most people is pretty quiet about now. Me, I see a stiff — one I didn’t have to kill myself — I just get the urge to, you know, do stuff. Work out or run around, maybe get some trim if there’s a willin’ woman about…My kind of life don’t last long, Preacher. So I expect I’m invested in making good sport of it whilst I can.”
For an episode in which Jayne makes little tangible impact on the plot, it’s sort of nice that he was allowed the opportunity to expand so brilliantly on what drives him, showing that he isn’t quite as hollow in terms of emotions as he might otherwise appear.
And there is Simon, who so stupidly puts his foot in his mouth with Kaylee at the beginning, just as it appeared that even he couldn’t mess it up. Simon spends the rest of “The Message” deliberately keeping his distance from her, both in a “proper” sense – turning away from the engine room when he hears her listening to the recording – and in a more non-literal sense, as he contrasts his cold, clinical medical manner – offering to carry out an autopsy – with Kaylee’s more traditional views on how the dead should be treated. This is a more serious break between the two than that which occurred in “Safe”, though it is resolved in a similar, wordless, manner at the conclusion. But when they hold hands in the final scene, it really does mean a lot more than Simon holding a chair out for Kaylee.
Then there is the undercard of the episode, namely Wash, Inara and River. Wash does get to be the pilot extraordinaire as the crew try to escape the clutches of Womack, but I wouldn’t say that was a vitally important moment for the Wash character: it’s already been well-established that he is a brilliant pilot, in “Serenity” most of all. Wash’s purpose in the narrative of “The Message” still has some weight though, as his marriage to Zoe gets brought up again as something that makes her a different person to the Zoe who fought in the war, the person who so easily killed men with a knife and then warned her fellow soldiers that, if they did not up their game, she would just sit and watch them die. Zoe, through Wash, has found a measure of peace, something that has eluded Tracey and that leaves him shocked. Perhaps no surprise then that the initial guns drawn confrontation on the bridge see’s Tracey pointing a handgun straight at Wash, like he wants to wipe out the person who has changed Zoe so much from the killer she once was. Zoe, as she did in “War Stories”, does not hesitate when her husband is threatened, and feels perfectly justified in putting a bullet in Tracey. This is a moment for Zoe, but it is also a moment for Wash.
Inara, after the bigger role she played in “Trash” and the central focus she will have in “Heart Of Gold”, is left a little hanging in “The Message”. She has that one brief, but decent, scene with Mal early on as she tries to help offload the Lassiter, later expresses no qualms with the diversion to Tracey’s family, later still laughs along to the memories shared of the dead man and is then last seen in her shuttle, the whole place shaking from the force of Womack’s bombs. She’s fairly passive in this episode, but there is still something there worth looking at: her closeness to Mal, which will be important in the final two episodes, and the compassion she shows when Tracey’s last message plays.
Last, as she usually is in character recaps like this, is River. She gets comedy in the early scenes as she struggles with “problematic” ice cream and her reaction to Simon’s idiocy, a diversion away from the sudden appearance of a corpse. Later, the creepy aspects of her character come to the fore, as she happily lies on Tracey’s coffin, declaring herself “very comfortable”, an odd moment whose relevance or symbolism is difficult to ascertain: some take it as a sign that River knows that Tracey is actually alive, but I think there is a certain amount of wishful thinking in that. The moment comes after Jayne’s previous recitation of his reaction to death, and so is perhaps meant as more black comedy, the polar opposite in terms of treating the dead. Lastly, as Womack bombards the surrounding area, Simon finds River reciting thousands, in an effort to determine whether the apparent storm is coming or going. It’s a very odd point in the story, perhaps meant to reassert the idea that, for all of River’s intelligence, she is still mentally damaged and has the thought process of someone who is not fully aware of their surroundings or the situation they are in. Or, to put it all more simply: River’s crazy, and the episode just reminds us of this fact. As River will have only brief moments in “Heart Of Gold”, this might be more set-up for her larger part in “Objects In Space”.
So, “The Message” is a well formed character driven story, wherever crew member gets something, even if they are the undercard. Firefly is rapidly running out of time, but it can still wow.