Philosopher David Hume disclaimed the idea that man was “the rational animal.” He argued that a human being’s capacity for reasoning was as much a slave to the caprices of passion and the weakness of will as in the simple creatures his contemporaries looked down upon. He once wrote, “Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”
I sincerely doubt that Philip J. Fry was inspired by David Hume, but in “The Why Of Fry”, he expresses a remarkably similar sentiment. In a pivotal scene, Fry learns that his journey to the future was no random mishap, but rather that the Nibblonians chose to cryogenically freeze him and send him a thousand years into the future, without his knowledge or consent, in the hopes that he would one day fulfill a prophecy to save the universe. Fry is outraged, and Nibbler pleads with him, “You were the only one who could help us. What is one life weighed against the entire universe?” Fry responds, clearly devastated, “But it was my life.”
“The Why of Fry” is about the relativity of importance, the way that a person, or an idea, or indeed the whole of existence can be magnified or shrunk in the funhouse mirrors of our minds. Fry is inessential to the Planet Express crew, but to the Nibblonians “the fate of all that exists and ever will exist” rests with him. Chaz has an inflated sense of importance as the Mayor’s aide, but when shown in a different light, he’s quickly revealed to be a puffed up nothing. Leela often feels lonely or isolated or uncared for, but unbeknownst to her, the fact that someone does care about her saves the entire universe from destruction.
It’s one of Futurama’s finest episodes. “The Why of Fry” has everything that makes the series great: subtle but meaningful character development, creative animation and design, interesting thematic exploration, a significant addition to the show’s mythos, a good bit of heart, and lest it otherwise go unmentioned, a great deal of truly stellar comedy! It’s also a perfect example of one of the things Futurama does best — packing all of that substance and creativity into a mind-bending sci-fi premise.
The would-be chump learning that he is, in fact, the chosen one is an old trope in science fiction, and indeed, all fiction. It’s an element right out of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, and it can be found in everything from Superman, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings, to The Matrix, Harry Potter, and even Kung Fu Panda. But few such works dwell on the reasons that the protagonist is important like “The Why of Fry” does, or explore how our notions of who or what matters are shaped and warped by our different perspectives.
There’s something genuinely pitiable in Fry when he half-heartedly implores Leela, “I’m just as important as [Chaz]. It’s just that, the kind of importance I have…it doesn’t matter if I don’t do it.” Few of us grow up to become world leaders or the other sorts of movers and shakers who can have a real impact on the world. Fry’s feelings of insignificance, though well-earned, are also relatable.
But as he reveals to Nibbler under that desk, his life is important to him. It’s clear that, deep down, he wants to believe that there’s something about him–a well of courage or bit of sweetness or even just some unfulfilled potential–that makes him useful, valuable, and above all else, worthwhile.
And while “The Why of Fry” reveals Fry’s objective importance to the fate of the universe, it also shows what makes him significant to the most important woman in his life by contrasting him with Chaz. Leela may be initially impressed with the limited sway Chaz can command, but she eventually sees that there’s not much of a person behind the persona. Fry may not wield much power in New New York, but despite his occasional insensitivity, there’s an underlying goodness to him, displayed and developed over the course of the series, that separates him from the Chazzes of the world. Fry is willing to give up his entire former life to be with Leela; Chaz isn’t even willing to honor her request to share their private party with a handful of orphans.
Pop culture over the last decade or so has, perhaps, overly fetishized the story of the manchild growing up. I enjoy the occasional Apatow film or Frat Pack movie as much as anyone, but that trope, seemingly coded into the DNA of these works, has become so prevalent that it’s easy to feel exhausted by it. One of the advantages, however, of a television show like Futurama is that it can tell the same kind of story at a much more deliberate pace. And it’s also much easier to preserve the essential characteristics of a character who gradually changes over a long period of time than it is to have to depict a complete 180-degree turn in two hours.
Case-in-point, after six years of adventures, Sterling Archer is still a boozing, reckless, often childish individual, but Archer has nevertheless shown its protagonist slowly but surely learning to care about others and finding certain goals in his life that prompt him to step outside his own perspective and endeavor to overcome his natural selfishness. Archer rarely beats the audience over the head with these changes, but they’re there, even when a five-minute stretch of Archer’s misadventures from Season 6 may not feel dramatically different from a bout of his mischief in the show’s first season. That’s a feature, not a bug.
The same is true for Fry on Futurama. He’s always going to be an idiot; he’s always going to be impulsive and easily amused and more than a little lazy. But he also grows to care about the people who populate his little corner of the world, Leela especially, and the life he’s made for himself in the year 3000, to the point that he’s willing to give up the old life to which he’s tried to retreat so often, in order to save the one with Leela in it.
It’s not a choice Fry would have made, or indeed had the capacity to make, in the show’s first season. That type of gradual change feels more realistic. Rather than the slovenly schlub who someone manages to turn his entire life around in a short time, Fry makes incremental progress toward being a better person over the course of many years.
A number of people, even fans of the show, dislike the Fry-Leela dynamic. I understand that perspective, even if I don’t agree with it. At the show’s outset, Leela was a focused, capable, and intelligent woman, though she had her own penchant for foolishness at times. And Fry was a dumb, insensitive, lazy putz, with brief flashes of something deeper under the surface. They initially seemed quite incompatible. In addition, there are also certain scenes of Fry hectoring Leela that verge into uncomfortable territory, and the show hits the reset button on the pair’s relationship so often that it can give even the casual viewer whiplash.
But what I like about the Fry-Leela pairing, and about their story over the course of the series, is that it’s about two people growing to love each other, instead of instantly coming together. Too often in fiction, love is portrayed as a lightning bolt that either strikes you instantly or misses you entirely. Some love is like that; sometimes two people feel something that is immediate and ineffable. But sometimes love flourishes between two individuals when they spend time together and get to know one another and their relationship is allowed to progress past the initial attraction or repulsion.
Amid all the madcap science-fiction fun in Futurama, there is a subtly blossoming relationship between Fry and Leela that is deepened by their shared experiences. Leela sees that despite his flaws, Fry can be brave, and noble, and most importantly caring. Fry sees that despite Leela’s outward strength and seriousness, she can be vulnerable, fun-loving, and kind. And as the series progresses, as the two of them grow and change, discovering and revealing different sides of who they are, they find themselves drawn to each other. That’s as beautiful a love story as any founded on rapturous affection felt at first sight.
This is, I’ll admit, an odd time to mention that I actually don’t love the decision to make Leela the only thing that convinces Fry to preserve the timeline the audience knows and loves. If a show as episodic and devoted to a waistband continuity as Futurama can be said to have a series-long arc, it’s Fry coming to realize that he belongs in the future more than he ever belonged in the past, for a multitude of reasons. Leela being his sole motivating factor seems to shortchange that idea, not to mention the rest of his found family at Planet Express. (Especially Bender, the best one of the three!)
But I do like how “The Why of Fry” turns Fry’s coming to the future into a choice. Rather than being whisked away without any say in the matter, Fry is set at a crossroads and allowed to choose which path to take. He can thwart Nibbler and reset the timeline so that he can resume his old life at the dawn of the “new” millennium, or he can make the conscious choice to accept his new life in the year 3000.
In essence, he’s made to decide whether the adventures that the fans of Futurama had seen for five seasons were worth keeping, in the face of the familiar yet uncertain possibilities of returning to the time he once knew. Put in those terms, Fry’s decision seems inevitable, but it’s still heartening to see him, knowing full well what that decision means, choosing to preserve the life he’s shared with Leela, Bender, and in a roundabout way, the audience.
That decision is heightened, rather than cheapened, by the fact that Fry will never even know that he made that choice, not because Nibbler wiped his memory after the Infosphere mission, but because by telling Nibbler not to use the Scooty Puff Jr., he ensured that the Fry we know and love will never end up in a position to intervene in Nibbler’s 1999 mission in the first place. (Bear with me here on the time travel stuff. This is a good point in the show to turn on your paradox-absorbing crumple zones.) Whatever the timeline gymnastics necessary to get there, Fry made a significant, deliberate choice that he’ll never know about, and there’s something terribly poignant about that thought.
Fry will never realize that when truly faced with the decision of whether to go the year 3000 or restore his old life, he chose to give up the past for the future. He’ll never know that he came to that time period not because of some random accident, but because, with the knowledge of the life he’d lived and the possibilities yet to come, he decided that it was what he really wanted. He’ll never remember these events or, to the point, understand their importance. But we will.
Odds and Ends
- If it makes Fry feel any better, “Anthology of Interest I” seems to suggest that if he hadn’t fallen into the freezer tube, it would have torn a hole in the fabric of the universe right then and there anyway.
- I’m a fan of Bob Odenkirk from his bits on Mr. Show and his portrayal of Saul Goodman, but he didn’t bring a lot to the role of Chaz. I did enjoy his delivery when Leela asks Chaz “Is there anything you can’t do?” and he responds, “I can’t fail the mayor. Not ever.” But overall, it was a fairly unmemorable performance from an otherwise memorable performer.
- When Fry inquires “So I really am important? How I feel when I’m drunk is correct?” and Ken the Nibblonian responds, “Yes. Except the Dave Matthews Band doesn’t rock,” I love the small detail of the other Nibblonian in the background shaking her head in quiet agreement. It’s the little things like this that make the show both great and hilarious.
- I really like the incredulity from one of the brainspawn when it discovers that Fry is immune to its psionic attack and it declares, “Impossible! We’re an ambitious young squad with everything to prove!” There’s a Top Gun-esque story there somewhere.
- I also enjoyed the seemingly unmotivated contempt that the other brainspawn harbored for the gigantic Infosphere Brain, whom they call a “fat idiot.”
- This episode seems as good a place as any to give a shout out to The Infosphere, a superb website that is a tremendous resource for all things Futurama.
- If you go back and watch “Space Pilot 3000”, you can clearly see Nibbler’s shadow in the scene where Fry falls into the freezer tube. There is a minor debate among the fans as to whether the show’s creators included this detail originally or added it in later. But the people behind the show claim it was there and planned all along, and a handful of folks who recorded the debut episode seem to corroborate the claim.
- Fry learning that his lack of a delta brain wave is due to him being his own grandfather, replete with footage of him inexplicably trying to eat a pineapple on a string, and his chipper response that he “did do the nasty in the past-y!” would be one of the show’s most hilarious moments all on its own. But the scene is bumped up a notch by Nibbler replying, with a gravely serious tone, “Verily. And that past-nastification is what shields you from the brains.”