David X. Cohen, Futurama’s co-creator along with Matt Groening and its longtime showrunner, has said that he and Groening established a “no time-travel” rule for the series early on. Philip J. Fry is no doubt eternally grateful that the writers dispensed with that rule, seeing as how much of his relationship with Turanga Leela has depended on various sorts of temporal anomalies. (To say nothing of how his own existence relies on it, being his own grandfather and all.)
Like two of its clear antecedents, “Time Keeps on Slippin’” and “The Late Philip J. Fry,” “Meanwhile” used its rigidly controlled time-travel conceit to examine the Fry-Leela romance. The Professor’s time-rewinding device opened the door to two common questions that underlie time-control fantasies: What if you could relive a moment over and over again? And what if you could stop time altogether and make one moment last forever? One of those questions was answered with biting irony, the other with sweet symbolism. Only fitting for a show that’s always walked the line between cynicism about the world and affection for its characters’ humanity.
These are familiar themes that Futurama has played well in the past, so it was no surprise to see them re-emerge in its swan song. Structurally, too, the episode had a retroactive feel, with each act devoted to one of the series’ favorite tones. The opening sequences were laced with reference humor, including plenty of nods to the series’ longevity (the crew returning to the moon, site of their first delivery in episode two; Leela saying she and Fry have known each other for 13 years; Bender claiming Fry has told Leela he loves her “like 140 times,” corresponding to the series’ official episode count).
After an emotional pivot, the middle portion went heavy on black humor, as poor Fry violently splattered about a dozen times and the Professor was seemingly torn into temporal shreds. One more sharp turn later, the third act was given over almost entirely to a genuinely romantic montage. Fry and Leela’s extremely extended, globetrotting (or globe-strolling) honeymoon felt like a parting gift from the writers to their characters—all the more so because they were allowed to do one thing animated characters almost never get to do: Age. They lived out their lives. The humor notes here weren’t full-fledged jokes so much as they were grin-inducing moments, but everything worked because it was rendered with such sincere sweetness.
As an isolated episode, “Meanwhile” suffered from some of the mechanical plotting that’s characterized this final season. From the moment Farnsworth introduced his latest thematically convenient gizmo, you could see the story cranking dutifully toward its emotional climax. The rules of this iteration of time-travel were intriguing—the 10-second recharge limitation and the hazards of vacating the time bubble created interesting wrinkles that were used successfully—but it didn’t find much time to let loose many great or surprising jokes.
As a coda to a long-running series, though, the episode was much more successful. It brought its characters to satisfying resting places: Fry and Leela finding meaningful closure, Prof. Farnsworth cruising through a maze of quasi-science-y mumbo-jumbo, the rest of the Planet Express crew frozen in a moment of triumph after Bender led them to save the day, however briefly.
Then the episode dropped in a reset button ex machina, because nothing ever truly ends in fictional universes like this one. Sitcoms always return to the status quo ante; sci-fi always has new worlds to explore. And series that have been revived twice can’t afford to wrap things up too tidily. In more ways than one, “Meanwhile” ended a frequently cynical show on a disarmingly optimistic note.
– The (probably) final opening credits tag: “AVENGE US,” written in blood.
– For a show largely built on a foundation of science-fiction spoofs/homages, I believe the beer bottle in the Moonface Man’s eye was Futurama’s first reference to the earliest sci-fi movie in film history, Georges Méliès’ 1902 A Trip to the Moon.
UPDATE: Commenter torque_smacky points out that this too is a callback to a joke from Episode 2, which had slipped my mind. More cap-tipping to the early days!
– Genre Show Overlap, Part 1: The situation Fry and Leela wound up in was essentially an inverse of the scheme concocted by the lovelorn physics student in Angel’s Season 2 episode “Happy Anniversary,” even down to the expanding glowy hemisphere that engulfed the area. Without all the heartbreak and obsession, though.
– Genre Show Overlap, Part 2: Fry caught in a time loop, dying repeatedly before Leela’s eyes, called to mind the Season 3 Supernatural episode “Mystery Spot.” At least there, Dean Winchester got to enjoy a little variety in his many demises.
– What would a Futurama finale be without one last Harlem Globetrotters cameo?
What'd you think of the series finale? Are you satisfied with how things ended?
AIRED ON 9/4/2013
Season 10 : Episode 13