Futurama — The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings:
The Contrast Between Emotional Complexity and Clarity
**Warning: this paper was written assuming the reader has watched the episode, so there are a lot of spoilers!
The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings, the first of multiple series finales of Futurama, moves away from its traditional sci-fi-packed content to resolve Fry and Leela’s on-again-off-again love story. The episode begins similarly to most Fry and Leela relationship episodes — Fry is trying to show his commitment and win over Leela’s heart. Normally, in other episodes of the series, Fry struggles to express and communicate how he feels to Leela; he fails to follow through on his commitments and always says the wrong things. In The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings, the retelling of Fry and Leela’s love story changes when Fry is given the ability and proper methods to finally convey his feelings to Leela. Fry, after lucking out from a deal with the Robot Devil, regains the talent to play the holophonor — an instrument that makes visual art as well as music which Fry previously played to win Leela’s heart in Parasites Lost. After becoming a world-renowned musician, Fry chooses to express his feelings to Leela by writing an opera about her. Throughout the episode, there is this reoccurring pattern of expression that relies less on verbal communication and more on meaning; this can be seen through character dialogue, the overall plot, and Fry and Leela’s relationship. The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings uses new, yet familiar devices and elements in musical, visual, and contextual forms in an attempt to express abstract ideas and feelings that cannot simply be spoken throughout the episode.
The witty remarks and quips characters make are not just for laughs; the dialogue can be directly compared to the complex idea of emotions and how they relate to Fry. After embarrassing himself at his recital, Fry is distressed that he plays the holophonor so poorly. Bender suggests a deal with the Robot Devil to improve his skill, although in not so few words. Instead, Bender says “Sure, I can help you, but we might have to metaphorically make a deal with the devil, and by ‘devil’, I mean Robot Devil, and by ‘metaphorically’, I mean get your coat.” Bender uses this roundabout method to suggest his idea to Fry rather than being direct to introduce this idea of complexity. Complexity in emotion gives a notion of character depth and creates a more relatable, human-like persona for these animated characters. This can also be seen when the Robot Devil begins his plot for his hands back. After successfully tricking Bender, the Robot Devil says “ah, my ridiculously circuitous plan is one-quarter complete.” Again, there is the notion of being indirect and overcomplicating in the content. The Robot Devil’s complexity implies he is also not perfect despite being the devil, which is later demonstrated when he makes a deal with Fry. Despite blatantly stating their plans, both Bender and the Robot Devil have trouble reaching a clean conclusion. Fry is often the same way through the series; he shows lavish displays of affection toward Leela, but can never get it right. His struggle with his displays of emotion correlates with how he feels about Leela. Because it is so hard for him to express his love, there is an understanding that he is passionate. In this episode, before going to Robot Hell, Fry tells Bender “it’s hopeless. I can hear all this great music in my head, but my stupid hands can’t keep up”. Later, when Fry gets the Robot Devil’s hands, the viewer learns that what he said was true — that Fry does play great music and carries beautiful and complex emotion, but he could not find a way to communicate it, especially to Leela.
As the story moves along, the writers introduce an opera and an unplanned musical sequence as a vessel for the main characters to more easily express themselves through song rather than dialogue. The opera becomes an event that exemplifies Fry’s dedication and adoration for Leela. Prior to the event, Fry is seen working hard into the night on the opera and wants it to be “perfect.” He tells Leela, “I want you to hear exactly what I hear when I think about you,” reiterating that this opera is meant as an expression of his love for Leela. The viewer later sees that the opera is a retelling of Leela’s childhood, as well as her role as captain in Planet Express. After intermission, the opera is no longer about Leela, but about Fry’s admiration for her. The plot of the opera is about caught up with the current timeline when Fry depicts the moment when he makes the deal with the Robot Devil “to win Leela’s heart”. At this point, it is clear that the opera has changed from an homage to Leela into a love story between her and Fry. Through the opera, Fry is able to use music, art, and plot to communicate what Leela means to him. He is no longer stumbling through his music as he did at his recital and executes the opera flawlessly.
However, the opera comes to an abrupt end when the Robot Devil interrupts. He passes judgment on Fry’s opera, criticizing “Your lyrics lack subtlety! You can’t just have your characters announce how they feel. That makes me feel angry!”. The clear joke here is that the Robot Devil is announcing how he feels after criticizing Fry for doing that, but it is also making a remark on the opera form — where characters often sing how they feel when that would never happen in real life — and on Fry who could never announce how he felt until this opera. The plot then continues into an impromptu musical number with Fry, the Robot Devil, and Leela, in which Fry finds out Leela has been deafened by Bender and in order to hear Fry’s opera she unknowingly signed away her hand in marriage to the Robot Devil. During this scene, Fry is singing through his thought process in either saving Leela or keeping the Robot Devil’s hands. The fact that this musical sequence is not staged, like the opera is, further exemplifies that the reactions being sung are of genuine emotion. The impulsive nature of this sequence becomes key to expressing true emotion. Even the characters in the audience are aware that the musical sequence is not part of the opera. At one point, Zoidberg sings “I can’t believe everybody’s just ad-libbing” and Hedonism-Bot yells “less reality, more fantasy” which serves as a reminder that these moments of raw emotion don’t happen in reality and thus they can only happen in moments like this.
Leela’s deafness, caused by Bender, is another device which represents a road block in communication and expression, halting all progress that Fry has made. Just as Fry has finally found a way to show his love to Leela, she becomes the one that falls short. Usually Fry is the one that finds a way to mess up their relationship by forgetting about dates or failing to show his commitment. This time, the tables have reversed and Leela is struggling to express herself to Fry. She cannot hear Fry’s opera and when he looks at her, she asks Amy what she’s supposed to be feeling. In addition, Leela neglects to tell Fry that she’s deaf, saying that “it’d break his heart.” Leela is not one that would normally worry about breaking Fry’s heart — she’s rejected him for dates numerous times. However, seeing that Fry has poured his heart and soul into this opera for Leela, she feels she has to show her appreciation, even if it was not genuine. Leela’s deafness and her attitude about it depicts the one-sidedness of her and Fry’s relationship. She’s not used to being the one that tries to impress the other and when she has to, she doesn’t know how.
The visual aspect of the holophonor adds context to the music which helps create stronger emotions for the viewer as they endure the ups and downs of Fry’s holophonor performances. Music, by itself, has a lot of emotional elements. However, hearing about what inspired the song-writer or composer gives more depth to the music for the listener. The visuals for the holophonor have the same effect. When Fry plays “The Grumpy Snail” at his recital, he makes several mistakes which distorts the snail in the visual — it starts growing fangs, drooling at the mouth, and growling. As one of the kids in the audience point out, “it’s too grumpy!” The song by itself is a string of out-of-tune notes, but the visual illustrates just how terrifyingly bad Fry really is. When Fry gains his musical ability, his visuals become more graceful and complex. He is even able to provide scenery for an opera which includes a backdrop as well as dressing people through the holophonor. The visuals at the peak of his musical ability were able to create a story for the viewer to participate in. When Fry loses his musical ability, the music and art turn back into a scraggly and discordant experience. Before he gets booed on stage, Fry plays an awkward melody which is also demonstrated through the visuals. In the art, the lines are crooked, the costumes don’t fit on the actors at all, and the actors are even walking awkwardly. The performance, and the booing from the audience, embodies the embarrassment and awkwardness Fry was enduring. The visual art from the holophonor becomes fully representative of what Fry is feeling and thinking during his performance which allows the viewer to empathize with him during his mistakes and his achievements. The holophonor becomes a medium of expression where normal communication falls short.
The visuals of the Robot Devil’s hands on Fry become a reminder that Fry is not entirely himself and implies that Fry is missing a part of himself. Leela even remarks that “they’re cold” when she touches them, suggesting that Fry is cold and lacking in emotion. While there is no doubt that Fry is more talented, he is also not the same as he was prior to the hand operation. Fry commissions the eloquent opera for Leela, but it lacks the heartfelt expression that he needed her to feel. In the grand scheme of things, the opera becomes a roundabout and particularly encoded way for Fry to express how he feels to Leela. After Fry gets his hands back, Zoidberg encourages him to keep playing by saying “the beauty is in your heart, not your hands.” When he plays again, the viewer finds out Zoidberg is right. Fry’s hands created the musical and visual beauty, but his heart created the beauty in the story.
In the last scene where Fry plays the holophonor only for Leela, Fry is finally able to communicate how he feels to Leela and Leela is finally able to listen. As Fry is about to leave, Leela stops him, saying “Please don’t stop playing. I want to see how it ends.” Fry sits back down and plays a simple and squeaky melody with a poorly-drawn visual of Fry and Leela holding hands, kissing, and then walking off into the distance. Fry’s last performance is reminiscent of a child’s family drawing — it’s awful, but mom or dad knows it was drawn out of unconditional love and reciprocates the same love back anyway. Fry originally wrote a grandiose opera, hoping it would impress Leela, but in the end Fry wins over her heart not through talent, but through his love for Leela. Fry’s final performance on his holophonor, although poor, has extreme emotional depth as he performed out of his heartfelt feelings for Leela. Despite knowing Fry has lost his talent, Leela still listens and learns to appreciate Fry without his skill. In the end, Fry ultimately expresses his feelings for Leela without overcomplicating it and she is ready to accept them unconditionally.
Fry’s deal with the Robot Devil becomes an overarching theme for the episode; it symbolizes how when Fry tries to be something he’s not, he cannot express his true feelings. The deal with the devil is a common trope loosely based on stories about Faust. Generally, the protagonist makes a deal with the devil for personal gain in exchange for almost anything. Usually this can be their soul or something innocent that might come back with horrible consequences. In The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings, Fry’s deal with the Robot Devil works out in his favor. He is finally able to impress Leela with his new musical talent. However, with the Robot Devil’s hands, Fry’s talent and performances are less genuine because it isn’t something he achieved completely on his own. Thus, the deal proves futile because when Fry is whole again, what really gains Leela’s heart is Fry’s true feelings, not his talent.
In conclusion, The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings breaks down all verbal communication and emotion between the characters and focuses on their intentions. The character dialogue throughout the episode, opera/musical sequence, and Leela’s deafness alludes to the complexity of emotion and what the different channels to express them are. The visuals from the holophonor, as well as the switching of hands, allows the writers to emphasize emotion, or lack there of. In the end, the writers cast away all the complexity behind emotion; Fry gets his hands and his true-self back and has one last final performance — there is no audience, no opera, and no reporters, just Leela. The scene becomes what Fry and Leela have been trying to achieve all along — a simple love story between Fry and Leela holding hands and walking off into the distance.