Futurama: “Meanwhile”
A

Futurama: “Meanwhile”

How do you say goodbye? Not to a person. Saying goodbye to a person is easy, especially if one of you is moving. But how do you say goodbye to a show? Sometimes it hurts, like when a series is canceled before it has a chance to live up to its potential; sometimes it’s embarrassing, like when a show has lost any shred of what made it worthwhile and just keeps limping on until the inevitable, disappointing conclusion. Futurama falls somewhere in between, I think. Fox canceled the show in its initial run when it was at (or near) the height of its powers, and the resulting bad taste lingered long enough to help lead to a resurrection. The resurrection was, by and large, pretty good. The show was never as consistent in its final incarnation as it was in its best seasons, but there were enough great (and good) episodes that it was easy not to mind so much. It had runs where it became inessential, where it felt like the only real reason to keep watching was inertia (or, if you’re me, a paycheck); but then it would pull something out like “The Late Philip J. Fry,” and it would be easy to remember what started this whole love affair in the first place.

But how do you say goodbye to that? How do you let go to something that’s okay, pretty decent, occasionally amazing, often frustrating? There’s some relief, I think; now we don’t have to worry that the show will ever become truly terrible, or that some crucial member of the voice cast might leave and we’d be left with a stranger trying to sound like a friend. The creative team knew this finale would be the finale, so that gave them a chance to do something special, which is also a relief. Even if “Meanwhile” was a flop, it would at least give us some sense of closure. Plus, despite wild unevenness of this last season, there was every reason to keep expectations high. The last finale, “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings” is one of the best episodes in the entire series’ run, and the writers of the show have always shown a knack for getting to the honest hurt buried under all the craziness. An ending means a lot of things, but perhaps most importantly, at least from a story-perspective, it means stakes. Whatever happened in these 20 minutes was the last time it was going to happen, and that gives it meaning.

At first, it looked like “Meanwhile” was going to need all the meaning it could get. The first five minutes are passable but rushed, and the hook of Fry deciding he needed to ask Leela to marry him isn’t all that exciting. That’s always the danger with finales. Noel Murray talked about it at length in his Fringe reviews, but an ideal conclusion needs to balance what we want to see, and what best fits the story. An uncluttered, uncomplicated happy ending might sound wonderful, but it’s hardly ever satisfying. Because the value of great stories lies in the tension between desire and need, between the yearning for the ideal, and the unshakable conviction that ideals don’t really exist, at least not the way we want them to. A great story should hurt a little when it leaves us. There should be some hope, but that hope should remain somewhere just an inch beyond our fingers, because that’s the truth. Even if you had all the perfect moments in the world, you’d still be reaching.

This finale settles somewhere between the “too happy” and the “oh dear God when will it end,” which makes it just about perfect. It has just about everything you could want from Futurama: There’s a nifty time-travel plot, Fry and Leela get married, Bender is a jackass, Zoidberg loses $10, there’s a nifty time-travel plot, and Fry dies. Like, six times. If you’re a big fan of the show’s supporting cast, you might walk away mildly disappointed; while plenty of familiar faces pop up onscreen, few of them have much to do, and even the main ensemble (apart from Fry and Leela) are relegated to props for the episode’s last act. But I can’t imagine anyone being that disappointed. The jokes are as hit or miss as always, but the best ones land hard (Farnsworth taunting Zoidberg is always worth a laugh), and the sweetness is so pitch perfect that all of a sudden, it’s hard to imagine that the show is really gone. Even with the relief, even with knowing it was a flawed work at best, even with the sneaking suspicion that too much of the last few years was just running on fumes—man, it’s hard to let this one go.

But that’s the final gift, really. The highlight of “Meanwhile” is a lovely montage of Fry and Leela, now happily married, winding their way through an Earth that’s been frozen in time. It’s goofy, and a little silly, and it makes you think of all those moments you shared with someone special; of how awfully cruel time can be, to drag us forward when we’re not ready to leave, when all we want to do is hold hands and watch the sun fall into the evening sky. Fry and Leela get older, but the world doesn’t. They’re trapped in a single second, but they’re together, so there are worse places to be. And it’s like watching a favorite movie, or listening to a song, or reading a book, or watching a TV show, whether you’re alone or with someone who loves you—it’s having something you can return to so that even as you change and you decay and your teeth fall out and you start forgetting your phone number, the story remains. That’s what holds the world together: just stories.

And if that wasn’t enough, Farnsworth (who we thought was dead) shows up, does some science stuff, and saves the day. He fixes the time button, but in order to get the universe moving again, he has to do a reset—not just on what we’ve seen in the episode, but everything, right from the start, without any knowledge of what just happened. Which means, if you think about it, there’s no real reason that all of this won’t happen again. Maybe what we’re looking at in “Meanwhile” is the most genial apocalypse imaginable, and the end of the world coming as not a bang, or a whimper, just a loop. It’s hard to miss the metaphor. (And Comedy Central helpfully underlines it by rerunning the pilot just after the finale ends.) The end is the beginning and so on and so forth. Which is clever, just as you’d expect it to be, and a good way to close the door without completely shutting it. But for me, the important bit is when Fry asks Leela if she wants to got through everything all over again, and she says yes. Maybe that’s how you say goodbye: by saying hello again.

Stray observations:

  • That “10 second window” on the time button seemed a bit fluid, didn’t it? Although maybe they were being clever and just counting screentime. (Not that it matters much. The bit with Fry falling over and over and having to constantly reset himself was worth it.)
  • “Man, we sure used to try harder back then.”—Leela, getting her meta on.
  • “Want a corn dog?” “Sure!” “Then your mom should’ve bought you one!”—Bender, being mean. The best part is that he then eats both corn dogs, just to make sure to drive the point home.
  • An “I’ll have what she’s having” joke. Okay.
  • “This is all so sudden, after 13 years.”—Leela, being meta again.
  • “He sure has a lot of blood for a skinny guy.”—Leela
  • “If it keeps bugging us, we’ll either kill it or adopt it.”—Leela
  • And that’s that. Thanks for reading, everyone.
  • P.S. AVENGE US.

More TV Club