All in all, The Message is a pretty unremarkable episode with some solid moments and fantastic music. But there were a few little things that bothered me. And by "bothered," I mean "made me question Joss Whedon and the show and all that I hold dear."
Pretty impressive for a few background characters and barely-heard lines, huh?
The return of exotic Asian influences!
Over the past few episodes, you could be forgiven for forgetting that Firefly is set in a world influenced both by the US and China. We've spent our time either in generic white-people-populated futuristic settlements or Western-style deserts and plains, and apart from crewmembers bursting out random "Chinese," there's been little to remind us of that whole other side to this universe. Thank god for the opening scene of this episode, where the crew visits a space station/market/bazaar, full of all the stereotypical background Asian people you could wish for! We're talking long thin moustaches and men playing non-Western pipes and women with fans and side-show cons (although obviously anyone with a speaking role is white).
Have we had a single speaking role in the show so far played by an actor of Chinese heritage? Or any East Asian heritage? Or any Asian heritage? There are only two episode left. Not much time to give this whole "Chinese culture" thing more value than random exoticism and the chance to sneak swearing past the censors.
It's not misogynistic if it gets past the censors!
One word in this episode stuck out to me. When the evil-police-dude threatens the guy at the post office, he calls him a "quim." A rather random archaic word choice... that allows the show to get calling someone a "c--t" past the censors. There's really no need for that to happen -- we get the message that this person is unpleasant when he nearly sets the man on fire. But isn't it fun to slide misogynistic words in where most people won't notice them?
But here's what really pisses me off. This episode was written by Joss Whedon. Just as Joss Whedon wrote The Avengers, including a rather infamous line where Loki calls Black Widow "a mewling quim." A line that Whedon called his "greatest achievement" in the movie. Wow. For someone who claims to be a hardcore feminist writer, Whedon certainly enjoys hiding archaic misogynistic slurs in his work. Having it happen once is one thing. Unpleasant, but possibly a sign of a writer too wrapped up in his own cleverness to see the implications of what he's doing. Hiding the word repeatedly in different works is quite another.
Let's all threaten Kaylee!
I initially wasn't sure what I thought about the fact that Tracey uses Kaylee as a human shield. She does play quite a damsel in distress role here, when a guy she had a passing crush on grabs her while holding a gun, holds her between him and Mal, and tries to force her to fly a shuttle for him to allow him to escape. On the one hand, it's one scene where someone gets the better of Kaylee, and she's shown to be highly capable and independent and an all-round wonderful character in other episodes, and even in other scenes in this episode.
On the other hand, this is not a one-off state of affairs. Kaylee has been described as the "heart of the ship," but Whedon also notes in the audio commentary that one of her narrative roles is the damsel. He tells us that threatening Kaylee is a formula for drama in the show, one he also used Willow for in early seasons of Buffy. I'm not sure that Kaylee's safety being used as a "formula for drama" sits right with me. She gets shot in the first episode, and her survival is used as a bargaining chip -- and, to be fair, it is a dramatic moment that gets the viewer truly invested in events in the show. But it's also a moment that's not about her. It's about Mal's care for her, about Simon's desperation to protect his sister... but not about Kaylee. Here, she is kidnapped and her life potentially put at risk, but the drama is all about Tracey's desperation and Mal and Zoe's scheming and disappointment. In two episodes time, Jubal Early will casually threaten Kaylee with rape... and again, Kaylee will be victimized to pull at our heartstrings and add tension to the story. The pattern is disconcerting to say the least. Take the girliest, sweetest character on the crew. Shoot her, threaten her, tie her up, make her the damsel in distress. The perfect recipe for drama.