“Godfellas” (season 3, episode XX; originally aired 3/17/2002)

In which Bender gets lost

What makes “Godfellas” a good episode is that Bender gets the powers of a (limited, and not exactly supernatural, but still he’s really big and his worshippers really aren’t) god; what makes it a great episode is that Bender tries to do right by his people, and fails miserably. The idea of Bender ruling a small civilization suggests all sorts of hilarious and horrifying possibilities, but while that’s a strong concept in its own right, the direction the script takes the idea is what makes this one of the show’s strongest half hours. Bender has just enough decency to try to do the right thing. The problem is, the “right thing” isn’t easy to come by, even for an almost-god.

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There’s a theological discussion at the heart of this episode, an attempt to struggle with some of the deepest, most profound questions in existence, which makes it all the more fitting that the whole thing starts with a pirate attack. A space pirate attack; the Planet Express crew is returning from a delivery (or on their way to one, this is never made clear and man I have lost a lot of sleep over it) when a group of ships open fire. As Leela explains, “You know, pirates! But in space!”, and it’s an example of the show slapping futuristic tech over cliche that actually works quite well. The alien pirate captain with three wooden legs and three parrots is a funny sight gag, and the clever-stupid feeling of the joke lands more on the “clever” side.

Plus, it doesn’t last very long. The attack really only happens to give Bender an excuse to crawl into a torpedo tube, wanting to find someplace quiet so he can keep napping. And that only really happens so Fry can fire off the “torpedo” and send Bender hurtling into space, where he makes quick work of the pirates (managing to grab a bag of swag on his way through) and then hurtles off into the void. Leela and Fry follow after him, but since he was fired while the ship was moving at its maximum speed, they’ll never be able to catch up. See, kids, physics problems can have practical value! Depressing, depressing practical value.

This is already a very cool concept. Futurama doesn’t often use space as an actual setting; there are ships and stations and planets, but the actual airless, freezing nothing that dominates the universe is more of an afterthought, a problem to work around and not a location to spend time in. Which makes sense, and even to make this story work, the show has to cheat a bit and let sound travel through a vacuum. But there’s something immediately intriguing about seeing a character removed from every familiar context. There are no obvious clues as to what happens next—we only know what can’t happen, and reducing options makes the choices that much more interesting.

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The surprises start slowly. At first, Bender tries to solve the immediate problem, looking to slow down his momentum by throwing pieces of swag away. This leads to him finding a candelabra and pulling out a toy piano, then destroying the piano when he can’t play perfectly. None of this is particularly story-relevant, and yet it’s possible to imagine an entire episode made up of such constantly changing inventions. That has the potential for surreal absurdity that it’s not quite in keeping with the show’s usual tone (unless we’re talking one of the anthology episodes); I mention it here because it shows how strong Bender’s storyline is, even when we’re just building up to the good bits.

That “good bit,” then, is Bender getting hit with a small asteroid, and developing a colony of intelligent life on his stomach (and, eventually, a different colony of life on his ass). That life starts praying to him, and Bender strikes up a relationship with Malachi, the little fella who serves as his contact for the rest of the life’s existence. Things start off well enough, with Bender demanding Malachi’s people build him a beer manufacturing plant, but then it turns out that building the plant maims most of the locals, and there’s also the pollution to consider and the organized crime that’s tearing the country apart.

This is familiar enough: Bender’s casual selfishness has a greater impact than he realizes, and everyone learns a valuable moral lesson. Except, when he tries to intervene and start granting people’s wishes, he just makes things worse. He’s too big to effectively help anyone, because any action he takes has larger consequences than he can predict. This is played for laughs, and you could argue that Bender could have handled it better—like, say, not throwing a giant coin down on the locals—but really, the lesson is pretty basic. Doing bad is easy. Doing good isn’t.

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And here, right here, is the choice that shows how smart this show is. Bender could’ve just kept on doing good, working harder and causing more destruction and being frustrating in that way that only characters in fiction who keep doing the wrong thing are. Instead, he sees what’s happening, and arrives at the conclusion that the audience has most likely already arrived at: if anything he does makes things worse, than he shouldn’t do anything at all.

This seems like a good, valuable lesson—a “prime directive,” if you will. Bender stays out of it, regardless of how much Malachi begs for his help. Except, well, he’s already made an impact simply by existing, and even if he didn’t, Malachi’s people would’ve had to dream him up. The civilization on Bender’s ass doesn’t believe in Bender, so there’s a holy war, and the civilization that does believe in Bender are prepared, and, short story shorter, everybody dies.

Which isn’t exactly a heartbreaker; the final moments are played largely for irony’s sake. But it’s also not completely a joke. Bender is legitimately upset over what happened, and his upset isn’t intended to be funny. When he finds God in space (or God who crashed with a space probe, another Star Trek nod), he wants to know where he want wrong. Space God’s answer is that the key to supreme power is to always maintain the possibility of doubt. “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.” Basically (as I’m reading it): the best job you can do is one where you can do some good, but still not allow anyone to rely on your intervention the next time around.

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While Bender is out playing (and failing) at being God, Fry is back home, acting out the sort of scenario (in the broadest possible sense) that inspired people to believe in gods in the first place. Fry’s situation is nearly hopeless. His best friend is out in the vast emptiness of space, and there’s no practical way to track him, no matter how grief stricken he is over the loss. This is a tricky plotline to use. Pulling focus away from an isolated character (Bender, in this case) is a risky move, because it robs the story of some of its intensity, and the stuff going on at home is nearly never as interesting as the stuff going on in isolation. Yet here it works. Fry’s efforts are compelling in and of their own because his quest is seemingly impossible, and also because they enforce the desire of intelligent life to believe in something beyond ourselves that can help us in our darkest moments. Bender is the God, Fry is the mortal, and neither has it easy.

Sure, it’s obvious that Bender will eventually find his way back to Earth. And it becomes especially obvious once he bumps into Space God. But the questions this episode hinges on are less about Bender’s immediate safety, and more about the nature of godhood in the universe—if it’s possible for some kind of Supreme Being to exist and exert a positive impact without wrecking things up considerably. The end solution, which was Fry finally getting a radio signal out, which gives Space God a direction to send Bender home, is a deus ex machina in the purest sense possible, and yet it feels earned because it fits in, more or less, with what we’ve seen before.

As Leela says, “This is by a wide margin the least likely thing that has ever happened.” “Least likely,” but not, y’know, impossible. There’s that plausible deniability in action. Bender is even briefly inspired to do some good of his own, and while that won’t last long, the ultimate message is that we can’t rely on the universe to answer our prayers. All we can do is everything we can, and hope that maybe, if Anyone is out there, they might hear us and give a little push.

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Stray observations:

  • Opening caption: “Please Turn Off All Cell Phones And Tricorders”
  • Space God is an intriguing concept, albeit one that works best when under-used.
  • In trying to help Fry move on from Bender, the Planet Express crew brings him a new robot called Helper. Helper is cheerful, looks a bit like Bender, and he’s kind of a dick. Good job, folks.
  • Fry ultimately turns to the Monks of Deshuba for help. The monks spend their time searching the universe for God’s presence, in a nod to the classic Arthur C. Clarke story “The Nine Billion Names Of God.” (It’s been so long since I read the story I can’t really explain the connection exactly, but it had one hell of an ending.)
  • Fry: “You can’t give up hope just because it’s hopeless!”
  • “Look, Daddy, I’m hugging God! Maybe if I hug him real hard, he’ll save us from-” -Malachi’s son. (Note: God doesn’t not save them.)

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“Future Stock” (season 3, episode XX; originally aired 3/31/2002)

In which you’re not seeing the big picture

“Godfellas,” while hilarious, poses some complicated questions about the nature and limitation of divine intervention. “Future Stock” is mostly just an excuse for jokes about how much businessmen in the ‘80s were assholes. (Ah yes. “In the ‘80s.”) And it’s a damn fun episode, with a terrific central villain, a smart use of Mom and her trio of idiot sons, and a modestly clever plot. This one relies on some knowledge of stock trading to really grasp its rich complexities, but fortunately (since I am an idiot when it comes to money)(Ah yes. “when it comes to money.”), the script explains everything just as much as it needs to be explained for the plot to make sense.

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Once again, we see Fry bonding with someone from his own time period—more or less. This time, though, the emotional connection between Fry and the never named That Guy (well, he’s named “That Guy,” so I guess that technically counts) isn’t really emotional at all, or at least not along the same lines as him glomming on to his toxic ex-girlfriend. That Guy and Fry team up for a classic Asshole and Shlub partnership, the Alpha and Beta duo, the In The Company Of Men two-step. While That Guy is instantly recognizable as a selfish, heartless creep, Fry is drawn to him because Fry is drawn to any strong personality in need of a lackey. (See also: Bender and Fry.)

A word about That Guy: he’s the worst, and I mean that in a good way. Where the show has tried to humanize its antagonists in the past (Zapp Brannigan cries, Mom was once in love), That Guy is allowed no depth, no sweetness, no complexity. He is the perfect stereotype of the greedy bastard, a Gordon Gecko caricature, and the episode takes great glee in allowing him no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Which is fine. The character doesn’t need depth, he just needs to be funny, and his constant stream of bullshit and catchphrases is just about perfect. His horrible, horrible death from bone-itis (there’s no gore but it’s impressively grotesque) is hilarious, and it probably wouldn’t be nearly as hilarious if we cared about him. Besides, it’s period appropriate for a guy from the ‘80s to be a soulless sociopath. Just ask Patrick Bateman. (Actually don’t. I mean, just don’t go near that guy. He’s dangerous, and also fictional.)

Since That Guy is as thin as the computer screen he was, um, drawn on, it falls to the rest of the cast to take up the slack, drama-wise. Not that “Future Stock” has much drama, as I hope I’ve made clear in the preceding paragraphs. But Fry’s fundamental sweetness does manage to come through, in a way that is surprisingly uncloying. He falls for That Guy’s shtick right up until That Guy decides to sell the company to Mom; at which point Fry realizes his mistake and tries to set things right. The joke is, because the potential sale to Mom has raised Planet Express stock prices high enough to make all the stockholders millionaires, the friends whose jobs Fry is trying to save don’t even want the jobs anymore.

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It’s always nifty when the show can be cynical without being nihilistic, and that’s in fine display here. While Fry’s speeches about family and belonging are true enough (for him), and would serve as the climactic scene in, say, an ‘80s sitcom, for most of us, a job is just a job. We may like the people we work with, we may hate them, but generally, the attachments don’t run that deep—they’re people we see everyday because we have to. The discovery that Leela and the others would rather be millionaires than continue to work a dangerous, low-paying job is actually not cynical at all, it’s just obvious. But it feels surprisingly subversive in context, especially because there’s no effort made to soften the blow. The others don’t suddenly realize that Fry’s right (he is, but they’re right too). Fry’s unknowing ineptitude has already damaged the stock value, so it no longer matters if the company gets sold. So he gets what he wants, and everybody is kind of annoyed at him, and that’s it.

As anti-climax resolutions go, it’s gratifyingly smart, and the repeated puncturing of the story’s nominal stakes works to the humor’s advantage. Which is the opposite of what I usually say, I realize, but since the characters remain worked up about what’s going on, and trick us into getting worked up too, that puncturing is amusingly unexpected and serves to freshen up what could’ve otherwise been a much too predictable plot. There’s nothing wrong with repeating old tales (in this case, it’s the familiar “greedy capitalist threatens to destroy small company for his own ends” thing which, thankfully, only ever happens in fiction) when you do it well, and there’s especially nothing wrong with it when you can find a slightly new angle of approach. Here, Fry learns a valuable lesson about how greed is nothing next to family, only to find out his family is doesn’t exactly agree. Lessons are for poor people, really. (ps. Don’t get bone-itis.)

Stray observations:

  • Opening caption: Love It Or Shove It.
  • “This toads the wet sprocket!” -Leela
  • Robot Jews eat regular food. There is so much about that sentence that doesn’t make sense.
  • That Guy’s plan: once Fry puts him in charge of Planet Express, That Guy picks a fight with Mom’s Delivery, and then arranges for Mom to buy out the company so she won’t have to worry about the competition, thus making him a hefty profit. I think. Look, I’m a theater-literature person, I never have enough cash to make plans with it.
  • Zoidberg has a lot of company stock. “The shares were worthless and he kept asking for toilet paper!” -Hermes
  • Zoidberg trades his shares for a sandwich, which he holds on to for a while, and then eats. Classic Zoidberg.
  • “My only regret… is that I have… bone-itis!” -That Guy

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