Futurama, Season Four, Episode Two, “Leela’s Homeworld”

Written by: Kristen Gore
Directed by: Mark Ervin
DN’s Ranking: Bad / Nonessential / ESSENTIAL

Previously, in discussing the overall plot of the show, I have stupidly forgotten about Leela’s mysterious past and how she discovers it. If anything, it’s even simpler than Fry’s myth arc – it’s essentially “Leela doesn’t know where she comes from and then she does” – but I do find it much more emotionally resonant, and this is an emotionally rich half hour of Futurama. A consistent part of the show is how much Leela’s character stems not just from a raw intelligence but from a fear of being weak that comes from a lifetime of having to be strong. Part of the reason she’s so sympathetic even through the moments where she acts stupid or childish is because it feels like moments where she’s not exhausting herself keeping on her guard, which is very easy to relate to. The opening scenes here efficiently lay out how much of Leela’s life has been spent having to be Tough and what this has cost her emotionally.

Actually, this is a great episode for looking at the craft of the show. The plotting here isn’t just great plotting, but great comedic plotting; that first act very efficiently gets us through the necessary beats, but it also does so in the funniest, most half-assed way possible (or at least, it has the illusion of being half-assed). The glow-in-the-dark-nose-maker is a tremendous example of the show’s creativity; I’m particularly amused by the fact that you continue to hear it generating toxic waste throughout the rest of the scene for that one little nose. It’s followed up by the equally great turn of Bender deciding to go into the waste disposal business, which is what gets our heroes down in the sewers in the first place. Comedy is very rewarding for a fertile imagination; it’s not a matter of finding something that already works, it’s a matter of finding something nobody has thought of yet. Equal care is put into the dialogue, sacrificing logic and often grammar for funny statements nobody has ever made before (“It’s like some kind of weird Leela museum. And I’m the Leela!”). We often talk about specific phrases people have lifted from this series (hence, you know, iconic moments), but it’s also affected the way I construct a sentence when I want to amuse myself.

Anyway, this adds up to a compelling emotional arc with Leela at the centre. Oddly enough, I think the scene of her choosing to dive into the sewer at the top of the first act is, if not more powerful than the final montage, at least on its level. It’s rare that we get a scene that feels unironically significant and isn’t undermined by a joke, and this is a powerful one – even when you’ve seen this a million times, it’s still a ‘no going back’ moment that shows Leela committing to her curiosity – no, her need to know her history. The delirious confusion she has when she climbs out of the sewer unmutated is just as good – as if reality has started to break down for Leela. The show makes the wise choice to put the viewer ahead of Leela – apparently, done to make it easier to make jokes, which works as a reminder that this show prioritises being funny above all else – making her seem even more vulnerable, making the final payoff more powerful. When you get right down to it, I think Leela wanted parents because she wanted someone she could be vulnerable around – where she didn’t have to be the toughest and smartest person in the room and she didn’t have to worry about everything all the time. This is what makes the final montage hit so hard; this is a pure expression of parental love, in which a parent is watching over their child and keeping them safe and happy with no expectation of reward or acknowledgement. This is a rare case of someone actually getting what they wanted on this show, and it’s something so powerful and wonderful.

Title Card: It’s like “Hee Haw” with lasers
Cartoon Billboard: “In A Cartoon Studio”, 1931

Warden Vogel randomly saying “Because I have a photographic memory and I remember every night!” is so hilariously, needlessly ominous; Dave Herman gets another great line reading when he says “During your entire life, for example.” One thing that defines this show is that, while the dialogue is almost gleefully awkward and stiff, the line readings themselves are deeply human, which usually serves to make them even funnier. The gag where Bender is made to care about being dipped in sewerage through a threat of violence slays me. “I used to be a little blonde girl named Virginia,” is a great moment of comedic horror, or possibly horrific comedy. Speaking of plot, the payoff of Fry not decoding the note but finding out it was printed on recycled toilet paper is some great creative plotting. Leela’s bracelet has what’s known as Alien Code 3, which unlike the others has not been officially translated. 

“If those aren’t tears of happiness, please stop crying.”

The sewer mutant balloon is made out of the discarded parts of balloons of Underdog, Bart Simpson, Bullwinkle (of Rocky & fame), and Jon Arbuckle. The Professor’s remark about the machine’s time needed to decode the statement is a reference to the halting problem in computability theory. The Leela Museum is a reference to Being John Malkovich. Leela remarks “Great Cheech’s ghost!” which is a dual reference to Perry White of Superman comics and Cheech Marin. The computer on Vogel’s desk is a reference to the personal computers of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Bender works on the set of Free Willy 3. The glow-in-the-dark noses are a reference to Skin Deep. The gag of the guy who switched from heroin to methadone is a reference to Annie Hall

Iconic Moments: “I usually try to keep my sadness pent up inside, where it can quietly fester as a mental illness.” / “Yeah, I do that with my stupidness.” | “First of all, the sewer mutants will be mad. Second, everything else that’s horribly wrong with what you’re doing.” | “That’s impossible, because my time is worthless!”
Biggest Laugh: What gets me about this scene is how well it captures the energy of someone being a huge asshole for no reason.

Next Week: “Love And Rocket”. “This concept of ‘wuv’ confuses and infuriates us!”