Futurama, Season Four, Episode Sixteen, “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings”

Written by: Ken Keeler

Directed by: Brett Haaland

DN’s Ranking: Bad / Nonessential / ESSENTIAL

Amazing that this is the first of many great series finales this show ever did. This is a lot of people’s favourite episode, and one that tends to work at giving people closure for the show as a whole. It’s also a Fry/Leela relationship episode, and indeed one that trades heavily on Fry impressing her with a showy, three-point gesture of love – something that doesn’t always land, often coming off as treating Leela as a prize to be won rather than a person making choices. This being both a series finale – implying a level of thoughtfulness and gravity on the part of the creators – and a genuinely fun and beloved episode, I want to engage with that thought more. It’s easy to dismiss an idea as inherently stupid (“Fun, too.”) but it’s much harder to learn something new by acknowledging the truth behind a difficult idea. If Fry trying to win Leela’s heart with a romantic gesture is bad, why is this episode good?

I think the inciting incident provides a lot of answers for that – we see Fry putting a lot of work into learning a difficult skill. The fact that he’s not going great only serves to make him more sympathetic; it’s a popular notion that art-within-art is very hard to pull off and you’re better off making intentionally bad art than in trying to convince your audience that they’re looking at genius, but this has the much harder goal of conveying that Fry has a lot of heart but mediocre ability, even before his disastrous recital. The idea is that the Robot Devil has given Fry tools to express that heart as clearly and coherently as possible. 

What’s interesting to me is that it’s the heart that attracts Leela. This is another episode that does indeed show Fry and Leela from her perspective, and crucially is embedded in the feel of the episode even when she’s not present. It’s easy to believe that she’s moved by Fry’s creative spirit because we have been moved by Fry’s creative spirit, even before he got magic robot hands. Expecting someone to fall in love with you because you wrote a song is ridiculous right up until you fall in love with someone for writing a song.

When I pull back further, I can see how Leela’s attraction to Fry here resonates with my love for this show. Do I not love it for conveying a feeling of amusement seventy-five percent of the time and heart-rending despair the rest of it? Not for its utility, but for its soul? Much like Fry, technique only serves to express that soul; it’s great when it all comes together, but I love its day-to-day grind as well. I am sceptical of the notion that people must be useful to deserve being loved, partially out of a sense of disability politics and left wing ideology but also because it inherently feels wrong. When I see Leela ask Fry to finish his opera because she wants to hear how it ends – crude music and art and all – I am moved because I get it. Soul beats utility or conventional standards of beauty any day of the week. 

Title Card: See you on some other channel

Cartoon Billboard: Futurama, 1999

Dan Castellanetta returns as the Robot Devil and delivers an absolute masterpiece of a comic performance,  shifting from cunning to rage to winning without missing a beat (“You’re not nice!”). This has a runner of Scruffy acting as butler,  which is funny every single time. I love introducing Leela through her messily eating a giant bug leg, because it ties into the theme of Fry loving the full reality of her and trying to convey that through art and also being hilarious. This is a good episode for Bender inexplicably wearing things. 

“I choose to not understand these signs.”

I enjoy that Robot Devil used a lot of gestures while talking to a deafened Leela. This episode’s music is some of its most spectacular – especially in lyrics that mess with the structure of the words for Laffs. I always get a big laugh out of “YOU SHOULD HAVE READ THE WORDING IN THE FINE… PRIIIIIIINT,” but I also love Billy West’s read of “He probably won’t / want me dating her.” 

The Holophoner sequences contain references to Donkey Kong. The theatre where Fry debuts his opera combines references to the International House Of Pancakes and Metropolitan Opera House. The plot is largely a riff on Faust. Multiple characters play Für Elise by Beethoven.

Iconic Moments: “And by metaphorical I mean get your coat. ” | “It’s not ironic, it’s just…” | “Ah, part one of my ridiculously circuitous plan is complete!” | “Let us cavort like the Greeks of old! You know the ones I mean.” | “You can’t just have your characters above how they feel! That makes me feel angry!” | “The user of words for something other than their literal intention! Now that IS irony!” | “Your music’s bad and you should feel bad!”

Biggest Laugh: 

Next Week: Why yes, we are doing the movies, starting with Bender’s Big Score. I will be doing the whole movie as one post rather than splitting them up into four. “And I’ll bet it’s gonna get a whole lot more confusing!”