Thursday, April 21, 2011

Firefly: The Message Review

Generations of charm.
Firefly continues to oscillate between the satire and the saccharine, the mindless and the maudlin. It's starting to feel like the wheels are falling off the show a little bit, particularly with the extremely weepy conclusion to The Message. Which is something of a shame, given how tight the episode feels overall. Slightly deeper research however, reveals an explanation for The Message's jarringly heavy-handed conclusion; the news of the show's cancellation came during the production of The Message. Whedon and Minear used the final moments of the episode as a vehicle for their own farewell to the show. Cast in this light, the episode's conclusion is no less jarring but is, at least, forgivably so, putting The Message up there with the series' best.

The Message clearly bears the fingerprints of both Minear and Whedon who co-wrote the script. It dances effortlessly between a variety of tones without ever feeling jarring (conclusion notwithstanding). The episode opens on a crowded space station that appears to be as much a carnival as it is an entrepot. While Mal goes about collecting Serenity's mail, Simon and Kaylee are lured into a freak-show advertising an alien. (It turns out to be a mutated cow fetus.) Simon manages to put his foot in his mouth and anger Kaylee yet again. It is impressive how economically Whedon and Minear have built a believable relationship between these two characters despite their limited screen time. The chemistry between Jewel Staite and Sean Maher rings true and the only occasional glimpse we get into their evolving relationship actually works to reinforce it's depth.

Seal of authenticity.
Back at the post office, the crew receives two packages along with their mail. One is a package for Jayne bearing a wool cap from his mother. It's a funny moment but one that skirts a little too close to Jaynestown's forced jokes at Jayne's expense. (Though what do I know about humor? Said wool cap has since become an essential part of Jayne's character and cherished as a crown among the Firefly-faithful.) The other package turns out to be a corpse for Mal and Zoe. The titular message accompanying it identifies the body as an old friend from the war who seemingly knew his time was almost up and wanted his remains to be shipped to his family.

It is back aboard Serenity where we first listen to the message and the scene in the ship's hold is a great example of how Whedon and Minear so effectively sell their emotional beats. It is through an amazing attention to detail for internal logic that Firefly can switch atmospheric gears without it feeling forced. While discussing their package, Simon offers to perform an autopsy which provokes a snappy response from Kaylee who is clearly still bent out of shape. Most other shows (or movies for that matter) wouldn't bother to recognize the subplots to this level of detail. In reminding the viewer of their spat earlier in the episode, though it is unimportant to the overarching story, Firefly cements the believability of the relationship. It is in their respect for a living world which continues to evolve even when not being put to film, that puts Firefly head and shoulders above not just it's competition in the science fiction realm but above most pieces of fictional entertainment.

Genuinely believable.
The presence of their war buddy prompts a flashback to introduce Jonathan Woodward's Private Tracy while still alive. Woodward is another in a long line of scene-chewing guest actors on Firefly. His Private Tracy is something of a younger Mal: reckless, sarcastic, and utterly charming. Were his presence in The Message limited to one flashback, it would have been a tragedy. Thankfully his death was greatly exaggerated as we soon discover under the knife of Simon's eventually accepted autopsy offer. Without detailing too much of the plot, Tracy is on the run from some bad people, led by mid-00's TV journeyman Richard Burgi. While not given as much screen time as Woodward, Burgi's portrayal of a corrupt police officer named Womack is chilling on a level comparable to Michael Fairman's Adelei Niska. Though not as insidious as Niska, Womack's single-minded approach to his task is frightening and Burgi pulls off his character to perfection.

As Tracy's lies increasingly unravel, he comes into conflict with his old war buddies. Woodward fills out Tracy fully and we can't help but root for him, even against the crew we've come to love. You know you're looking a great actor when he can steal some of the scene from a Nathan Fillion deep in his element. The climax gives Mal another opportunity to heroically stand by his crew though I'm growing a little tired of his incessant perfection. The chink in his armor displayed in Trash when he lied to his crew suggested an interesting character flaw, but it's looking like this nuance will never get developed.

Jonathan Woodward.
The Message, as mentioned in the introduction to this review, ends on a saccharine note complete with weepy music and a montage of somber faces that goes on a little long. But all is forgiven not only for the strong episode which precedes it but also the sterling series whose demise prompted said montage. With only two episodes left, I don't think Firefly can do too much to screw up my estimation of it as a great science fiction show cut down too early. Though I can't imagine taking my affection to the passionate lengths of the hardcore base whose efforts basically willed the movie into being, I am certainly in the Firefly camp.

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