In what I consider to be not just the best episode of this show but one of the best half-hours of television ever made, Bender is god and meets God. It’s already on my list of the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time.
While on a delivery, the Planet Express crew are attacked by Space Pirates (they’re like pirates, but in space). Bender (John DiMaggio) is trying to take a nap in a torpedo tube and ends up getting shot at the pirates’ ship. Since the Planet Express ship was already going at max speed when they fired him, they cannot ever catch up with him, leaving Bender to drift through the cosmos, alone, until an asteroid lands on him. The asteroid is populated by tiny people called “Shrimpkins,” who quickly start worshipping Bender as the “Great Metal Lord.”
Bender attempts to be a god to the Shrimpkins, choosing one, Malachi (Maurice LaMarche), as his prophet. Bender orders them to make him alcohol, which quickly starts to ruin the Shrimpkin’s society, causing massive deaths, maimings, and crime rates. Bender sheds a tear for the plight of the people (which he caused), which causes a flood that threatens Malachi, Jr. (Lauren Tom). Bender saves Malachi, Jr., earning him praise and prayers from the rest of the people. He attempts to answer the prayers. The ones that pray for wealth are given a quarter, which kills them. The ones that pray for sun are burned by Bender reflecting light and then blown into space by Bender when he tries to extinguish it. Bender begins to realize that his actions tend to harm the Shrimpkins more than they help.
On Earth, Fry (Billy West) and Leela (Katey Sagal) go to meet the Monks of either Dschubba (a star) or maybe Teshuvah (Hebrew for “Answer”), the possessors of the most powerful radio telescope in the universe, to try and search for Bender. When Fry actually asks them for permission to use it, they refuse, but when they are revealed to be pacifists, Leela locks them in a laundry room. Fry tries to survey the entire universe, but Leela points out that even if he spent his entire life there, he wouldn’t even be able to check even one billionth of the observable universe, because duh.
Malachi warns Bender that the colony of Shrimpkins on his ass have turned into non-believers because he doesn’t talk to them (which is weird, because A) he can turn his head 180 degrees and talk to them and B) they could easily move). Bender refuses to intervene in the conflict, citing the fact that he keeps making things worse. The two sides start a sudden nuclear conflict that obliterates everyone except Bender. As Bender goes through space, he spots a galaxy signalling him in binary. He signals back and the Galaxy (West) talks to him, leading Bender to suspect that the Entity is actually God or at least a computer that collided with God. Bender and the Entity talk about the nature of being God, with the Entity giving him the advice: “If you do too much, people get dependent on you. And if you do nothing, they lose hope. You have to use a light touch like a safecracker or a pickpocket.” The Entity reveals that it can’t send Bender back at this time.
On Earth, Fry is about to give up searching, when he randomly spins the dial and broadcasts a message saying “I wish I had Bender back,” which happens to be beamed directly to the Entity, who sends Bender back to Earth, resulting in him landing directly in front of Fry and Leela. As they start to leave, they realize that they left the monks locked inside. Tempted to just let them pray for help, Bender says that God told him that they can’t trust God to do anything, so he leads them back to release the monks. The image pans out to God laughing that “’When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.”
Look, this is a masterpiece. The writer, Ken Keeler, wrote 14 episodes of Futurama, most of them excellent, but this is his magnum opus. This entire episode has provoked hours of thought from me and when a work manages to inspire an amount of introspection that is dozens of times longer than it takes to consume, then it has officially gone above and beyond just entertaining.
There are so many different ways to look at the events of this episode. Honestly, you might have more questions than you got answers from the viewing. Bender certainly seems to have received almost no definitive answers from talking with the Entity, which is, appropriately, exactly what the Entity was trying to convey:
If you’re doing things right, you aren’t going to give people the answers, you’re only going to remind them that the answers exist, and then let them find things on their own.
Basically, in this episode, the purpose of a god is to have a source of hope when things seem hopeless, not to give you the power to part seas or command bears to kill children (II Kings 2: 23-24). Without hope, people turn to despair, and when people despair, they don’t give a thought towards preserving or improving the world. This has long been a position adopted by a number of schools of philosophy and philosophers (including, famously, Voltaire). Here, we find out that this idea has so much merit that even God decided it was the best way to do things.
The episode also shows us the fault in the alternative: Granting everyone’s wishes would make them complacent if done perfectly, and would likely come with a ton of unexpected side-effects if done poorly. Bender tries to be a helpful god to the Shrimpkins, but giving them what they want only brings about their destruction, albeit in a more gradual manner than when he fails to heed them at all.
The episode also indirectly addresses one of the greatest questions in theology: Why do we praise God for saving us from himself? Bender is praised and worshipped for the “miracle” of saving Malachi, Jr. from a flood that he actually caused. Similarly, people who are saved from fires or even have their bible saved from a fire that takes their home and kills their pets often praise God for that small salvation, seemingly missing that God could have just stopped the fire in the first place… or not started it. In this episode, the answer is not “god is a dick,” but more “everything is part of a plan too grand to be comprehended.” Is that a satisfying answer to why kids get cancer and die or why earthquakes devastate entire countries? No, but it’s enough to keep you from despair.
Ironically, despite the fact that the episode often interacts with the Entity as if he is the Judeo-Christian God, the message of “when you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all” is closer to the teachings of Taoism, which states that when a master governs well, the people will believe they did everything themselves. At the end of the episode, we don’t know exactly whose wishes are being answered. Does the Entity send Bender back because Bender wants to go? Or because Fry prayed for it? Or because the monks are praying to get out? Is it all of them or none of them? We don’t know, and that’s the point of this literal Deus Ex Machina… involving both God and a machine.
Faith is believing that things are being done for a reason, even if it’s one that we’re never able to fathom. It’s believing that there is something watching over the universe. This episode tries to not only justify faith, but also to justify why faith is supposed to be difficult. If you knew God existed for sure, you can’t have faith. If the universe seems completely without meaning, then you can’t have hope (although, other episodes on this list have posited philosophical answers to that). For a 22-minute cartoon about a robot, this episode manages to touch upon and convey an incredibly complex set of concepts, and, true to the nature of such things, leaves it to the viewer to find their own answers.
The craziest part? “Roswell that Ends Well” was sent for consideration at the Emmy Awards rather than this episode. It won, so I’m glad that the Emmys recognized the fact that Futurama deserved it. I imagine they just thought it would be controversial to submit an episode where God tells someone “You were doing well until everyone died.”
Oddly, I don’t think there are that many great jokes in this episode, because the episode itself is so much more than just the usual series of gags. That said, my favorite joke is when Bender finds a candelabra within the swag he stole from the Space Pirates and the ensuing scene:
… [w]hat good is a candelabra without– Wait! I know!
Ah, the pity. Fated to drift forever through the void as gravity’s plaything. Oh, cruel fate, to be thusly boned. Ask not for whom the bone bones. It bones for thee. The only thing that keeps me sane is the thought that I have all eternity in which to perfect my art.
Naturally, he immediately breaks the piano when he misses a note twice. This whole scene is just so wonderfully odd, while also encompassing what a being who is facing an eternity of solitude might feel. It basically gets us through all of Bender’s initial existential crises that arise from dealing with his situation, allowing the episode to move on from there.
Well, that’s it for this week.
See you next week, meatbags.
PREVIOUS – Episode 51: Roswell That Ends Well
NEXT – Episode 53: Future Stock
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