Futurama, Season Four, Episode Twelve, “The Sting”

Written by: Patric M Verrone
Directed by: Brain Sheesley
DN’s Ranking: Bad / Nonessential / ESSENTIAL

I described “Roswell That Ends Well” as Futurama doing what it normally tries to do at the highest level of skill and inspiration, and I mentioned that there were others that were equally as good but trying something different. “The Sting” is one of those others! What impresses me most is that its ambition reaches much further than I always thought. It’s a perfect example of storytellers being weird for the sake of being weird – something that almost always comes off as aggravating, but which the Futurama crew are fully equipped to dive into. It isn’t just that they’re good at coming up with weird shit – the whole sequence of Fry appearing to come back to life works as a fakeout because it works under the exact same kind of jokey science that the rest of the series does – but that they’re excellent at pacing it out. On a macro scale, the dream sequences get weirder as the episode goes on and the shifts between apparent reality and dream become more jarring; on a micro scale, the crew are so good at starting scenes in a conventional way and carefully wrong-footing you before diving fully into the weirdness, with my favourite example being the scene where Leela shows the crew Fry’s jacket. After we see it’s actually Leela’s jacket, we get a very rare and off-putting dutch angle, which is followed by Amy speaking with the Professor’s voice. It’s great if you’re into craft for its own sake, and what’s great is that it feels like a sincere and joyful exploration of what you can do with a cartoon.

What’s even more great is that this technique is an expression of an emotional arc. Some stories are good because they have something really interesting to say, and some stories are good because they capture and reflect back an emotion we feel, and “The Sting” is the latter. One of the reasons I love this episode is because it swaps out the relaxed geeky cynicism for intense Gothic Edgar Allan Poe madness (or more accurately, layers it on top). Leela, as we see in the opening act, defines herself by her ability to solve problems; putting her in an unfixable situation where she feels completely powerless is as hard on her as putting Bender in the position of God. She’s trapped in a cycle of grief and guilt and need. Having lived with mental illness my whole life – and, indeed, seeing it in my father as he succumbs to dementia – I know how it feels to be trapped in a mind that is fighting against you. One thing I was particularly struck by was how Leela descended into trying to escape reality because she simply couldn’t bear it anymore, something that’s almost always either played unsympathetically or which people actively, loudly insist they can’t sympathise with. Here, it’s an understandable reaction, and I was brought to tears by her finally giving up and trying to sleep forever because there seemed to be no other option, and by how her terror and confusion is, in a rare moment of seriousness, not played for laughs at all (I’m particularly moved by “I don’t know what you mean!”).

This episode is also great because it’s a fantastic Fry/Leela episode, and an extraordinarily rare one that prioritises her perspective. This is one of those great twist-based stories where the story becomes even better when you know the solution – I particularly like how what seem like random weird-for-weird’s-sake visual choices in the dreams turn out to be underlining when the real Fry is speaking. But our empathy is primarily with Leela and her feelings, and that paradoxically ends up conveying his positive qualities much better than many of the episodes from his perspective. However much Fry wants to be the guy who fixes things, this episode shows what intense emotional support in the right context can actually achieve. This isn’t something that can really be solved with anything other than a miracle and a willingness to endure until a miracle emerges (or, as Fry put it, not giving up hope just because it’s hopeless). Leela draws on him as both a source of comfort and as a light to guide the way forward. It’s a reversal of Homer’s conclusion of “Secrets Of A Successful Marriage” on The Simpsons – what Fry has to offer is unconditional love. All he wants is her presence, and what he offers is his own, and today that was enough.

Title Card: A by-product of the TV industry
Cartoon Billboard: “The Queen Was In The Parlour”, 1932

This episode contains both one of the greatest examples of cheerful self-deprecation (“We live to suck another day!”) and one of the greatest examples of endearing arrogance (“Burn on that old crew! The only things they did better than us were suck and die!”). I really cannot stress enough how much I love that second quote, particularly coming from Leela. This episode is also absolutely covered in great deliberately awkward Futurama dialogue (“Help! I can’t swim in jelly as far as I know!”). This episode is also filled with deliberately goofy choices that, nonetheless, tend to be very moving; “Walkin’ On Sunshine” played on the bagpipes is one, and I notice people also tend to be moved by Bender’s statement at the funeral (“All those times I said, ‘kill all humans,’ I’d always whisper, ‘Except one.’ Fry was that one. And I never told him so!”). I love starting a scene with Bender randomly on fire. This has multiple examples of the Professor saying the dumbest jokes imaginable and it somehow working, with my favourite being “Yes. Easily.”

“I’m scared too. But I’m more scared of disappointing myself.”
“I’m not scared of that at all!”

The title and Bender’s golfing outfit are both lifted from the film The Sting. Leela riffs on a line from Mary Poppins. The space helmets are lifted from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Fry’s funeral (including Scruffy playing the bagpipes) is lifted from Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. The plot is very similar to the Star Trek episode “The Tholian Web” and the Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes “Frame Of Mind” and “Night Terrors”. Fry reforming from the couch is lifted from the Star Trek: Voyager episode “Demon”, and its visuals are reminiscent of the movie Hellraiser. Fry pours Leela Semitic Miss Cocoa, a reference to Swiss Miss Cocoa. Fry’s remark about trying to give Leela a familiar voice is a reference to the Twilight Zone episode “The Hitch-Hiker”. Hermes describing Jamaica as the Show-Me island is a reference to the motto of Missouri.

Leela pulling Fry’s jacket out of a dream is a reference to A Nightmare On Elm Street. The scene of Leela looking in Fry’s coffin is a reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Don’t Worry, Bee Happy” is a parody/cover of “Don’t Worry , Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin and Zoidberg’s section is a reference to the Elvis Presley Special. Multiple references are made to Honeycomb Cereal,  most notably a bit of dialogue. The ejection of the Queen bee is a reference to the climax of Aliens. Hermes drops a reference to Hoth from the movie Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back. The bee hitting a wall and exploding is a reference to Star Wars: Return Of The Jedi.  

Iconic Moments: “Oh, I made myself sad.” | “But I’m certainly thinking it loudly.”
Biggest Laugh: You have to hit pretty high to outdo the “Don’t Worry, Bee Happy” sequence, but they find a way.

Next Week: “Bend Her”. “She’s lost control of her emotions! Just like all women. Particularly you, Leela.”