“Sarge? I think I’m nekkid.”
I’ll be honest, this isn’t one of my favourite episodes of the show – I even prefer fan unfavourite “Heart Of Gold” to this one! There’s nothing actively offensive about it; the plotting is fine, if simple even by the show’s standards, and it’s less thematically offensive than said fan unfavourite. I think it’s because it abandons the show’s usual mission statement and chooses to focus almost entirely on a single character from outside our group, with our ragtag bunch of misfits shoved to the background and reacting to him. This is something one of my favourite shows, Cowboy Bebop, did on a regular basis, but that show had four regular characters to this show’s nine, and rich characterisation was something Bebop nodded at rather than embraced.
But, if you look at this as a character study of Tracey, it’s pretty great. He’s an old war buddy of Mal and Zoe’s, and what we’re really seeing is the tail end of his tragedy (again, a very Cowboy Bebop move). Tracey is the Shane Vendrell to Mal and Zoe’s Vic Mackey, smart enough to survive but too impulsive to stay out of trouble. When he describes his plan to smuggle organs or chats up Kaylee, you see the traits that have kept him alive, and when he ignores Kaylee (and through her, Mal)’s instruction to stay put, you can see the same impulses that got him in trouble in the first place.
“First rule of battle, little one, don’t ever let them know where you are.”
“Woo-hoo! I’m right here! I’m right here! You want some of this? Yeah, you do! Come on! Come on! Woo-hoo!”
“‘Course there are other schools of thought.”
It’s trying to fit this into the context of the broader show that I have trouble. Obviously, it works to characterise Mal and Zoe – not just in the flashes of the past we see them in (which are great – Mal is hilarious as a constant ball of energy, but I love that Zoe is so much gruffer and meaner) but in the way Tracey reacts to them in the present – his mind is genuinely blown to find Zoe is married (“Next you’ll tell me she smiles!”). The emotional peak of the episode is Tracey revealing he chose them to smuggle his body because they were known as sentimental saps that he could play, and this gets the typical rejection via Mal; a downright obvious point by Firefly standards.
That said, it does have a few profound moments. The really moving moment is when Tracey’s message first plays, and Wash immediately and without question or fanfare gets up to set the course – he in particular has learned too much to do anything else. When they still believe he’s dead, Mal and Zoe tell Inara a genuinely hilarious war story about Tracey stealing a General’s moustache, the mere act of which works to bring together the three as the adults of the ship. I’m also moved by Book and Jayne’s discussion on reacting to death, not just because characters having philosophical discussions really bakes my potatoes, but that these two particular characters could believably have a discussion on that topic; I wonder how Jayne’s ill-informed and naive take on religion comes off in comparison to Book’s I-was-written-by-an-atheist take. And nobody can forget Jayne’s cunning hat from his mother.
“Man walks down the street in that hat, people know he’s not afraid of anything.”
The worldbuilding in this episode, as well, is the most spectacular it’s been all show. The plot is kicked off when Serenity goes to a station to pick up the mail, and I love that entire station, from the specific fact that ships have to pick a drop station to have their mail picked up and delivered, to the Blade Runner aesthetic hanging over the whole thing, to the cheesy tourist attraction that Simon and Kaylee go to – of course some wannabe PT Barnum would try and pass off a cow fetus as an alien. Sadly, there’s also the occasional bum note – Kaylee tells Simon “Why don’t you tell the cow it has beautiful eyes?” in Chinese; this is the most awkward use of Mandarin in the show, and to be honest I always preferred it used for curses and occasional harder-to-translate words. Why would Kaylee say all that in Chinese?
Finally, there’s the corrupt Alliance guy who stalks Serenity in search of Tracey – speaking of Vic Mackey, he’s a very Mackeyvellian character, and Whedon is predictably much less sympathetic towards him than The Shield is towards Vic; he’s a violent bully who casually insults everyone he meets. Really, the further we’ve been getting into the series, the worse the Alliance representatives have gotten!
“What’d y’all order a dead guy for?”
- This episode is the source of my number one favourite Firefly outtake: as Tracey’s message plays, the camera shifts around in one circle, and Nathan Fillion runs around the other way to keep appearing in the shot (Alan Tudyk gives a golden double take as everyone holds back laughter), finishing with him in the coffin.
- Ownage-wise, Mal shooting Tracey (to Tracey’s great surprise) is alright, if a bit of a repeat of his greatest hit; the real ownage is Book’s threat to the corrupt Alliance rep, shifting from casual observation to threat midsentence (“I don’t imagine it would bother anyone if we laid your bodies to rest at the bottom of this canyon.”).
- This episode is the third to not be broadcast in the original run. It was also the last episode produced; Tracey’s funeral was treated by the cast as a funeral for the show, and composer Greg Edmonson wrote the funeral music as a goodbye to the series.