What’s great about a show like Futurama, which isn’t beholden to any particular science-fiction ethos, is that it can encompass pretty much any contradictions it would like without anyone particularly caring about them. Setting up these contradictions actually serves to spur the show on to creativity, asking its writers to explain various phenomena that don’t seem to make sense together. “Free Will Hunting” takes one of these issues to task: that the show has allowed Bender to be as much of a random, surprising character as anyone else on the show, yet he’s also a robot who has to follow all of his programming. How can these work in tandem?
Futurama’s wonderful answer to this question is that while this theoretical “free will” thing exists, it makes no difference whatsoever. Robots throughout the universe, or at least Bender and some of the crackpots he meets on the what is presumably Chapek 9—although in this case it’s called the “Robot Home World” (it’s the same planet that the crew visited in “Fear of a Bot Planet” way back in season 1)—are flummoxed by this supposed lack. They don’t have free will, but they are free to choose to quit their plants and join a monastery, or to choose whether to do hard manual labor for a farmer or to wander on in search of enlightenment. The episode is, smartly, filled with countless choices for Bender and other robots, and his frequently random decisions are there to illustrate the ridiculousness of the question at its base. When Amy talks about the obvious analogous relationship between Bender’s free will and human free will, she’s told to shut up not because it’s a bad point, but because… it is the point, so why bring it up like that?
Even though “Free Will Hunting” doesn’t dwell on the idea, the concept of a quantum free will, making it impossible to tell whether the device is on or not, is brilliant. Especially since, in either case, it seems to be a hoax. It gives robots free will by essentially telling them they have it, and beyond that, sentient robots are as complex as humans and, if they don’t have “free will” per se, they have something so close to it as to make no difference. That the show really just eludes this point is part of what makes its approach to the subject so intelligent. It’s a goofy exploration of a complex philosophical point, but that doesn’t make it feel simplistic.
Not only was the thematic content strong, but every other part of the episode worked well. Bender-centric stories tend to be fun because of how unpredictable they can be, and this was no exception. He keeps things moving, and while at times the show’s tendency to make him talk to himself irritates me, when he’s so alone on his stories it’s really the only way to make them work. While other episodes of Futurama’s Comedy Central run have felt like the character pairings came first, the story second, here it was all in service to the story and its themes, and as a result the “Free Will Hunting” just flew by.
This was one of those episodes of Futurama where even if the laughs aren’t huge, the intelligence of the writing keeps you interested all the way through. Especially since the show’s emotional touch has been off a bit lately, these more high-concept episodes are the best things that Futurama does, and this time out was no exception. Not many shows can make an episode about the question of free will feel neither didactic nor patronizing, but “Free Will Hunting” did just that.
•What exactly does it mean to “humiliate a pheasant?” Actually, I’d probably rather not know the answer to that question.
•“Possession of something analogous of drugs” – A well-known TV crime.
•Yay for the return of the council of robot elders, including the stupid elder. I’m glad they went back there again.
•Yay, Fry and Leela are together casually. It’s kind of strange the way there hasn’t really been an episode devoted to what they’re like together, but this’ll do for now.
•Deathsecution: better or worse than death? Or execution?
•Yet another question: why does Professor Farnsworth have a toy Bender?