The best thing about an animated show that has no boundaries is that it can genuinely surprise you. That’s what happened to me several times last night, as “Murder on the Planet Express” radically changed tones midway through and became a surprisingly good horror story. What’s more, it wasn’t just a parody of horror—Alien in particular—but actual horror. While we know that Futurama will reset at the beginning of next week’s episode, there’s no telling how an episode will end, and that means there’s some real suspense.
But let’s back up a bit, because it takes “Murder” a while to get to that point. Unlike most episodes, though, its first act was necessary to set the pace for everything that came afterwards. In short, no one at the Planet Express offices trusts anyone else, even when it’s proven that they should, so Professor Farnsworth decides they need to do go on a trust-building seminar. While headed out to it, though, they pick up a hitchhiker who, after a friendly introduction, promptly eats Scruffy’s recently introduced assistant. After revealing himself to be a shapeshifter, he turns into his true, monstrous lizard form while the crew hides away in a panic room only to learn that they’ll need to head back out into the ship if they want to ever make it home.
After the first startling act break, the next big surprise came after the crew has seemingly been victorious. They’re ready to return home, and each team has learned trust in each other and all that. At this point, it turns out that the monster had shapeshifted into the Professor and proceeds to devour the rest of the crew, none of which can be trusted either not to be a shapeshifter now either. The later reveal that this was the trust-building exercise is clever, though not unexpected when it arrives, but what I truly appreciated was when Fry and Bender chose not to believe him. “Murder” ends with a little game of Prisoner’s Dilemma between Fry and Bender, and after everything they’ve gone through, trust is the last thing on their minds.
Such a plot-heavy episode probably won’t be for everyone, but what I appreciated was how well-developed each character’s story was within the rampaging monster storyline. Futurama has gotten lazier and lazier with its first acts and set-ups, but here everything worked out and fit together. It was the most like a mini-movie of anything the show’s done in a long time, and by for once unifying its story and theme, both “Murder”’s laughs and shocks were earned. There’s also something nice about the episode not ending with a double bluff, either—after all of that, the man who ran the seminar really is dead. He may not be someone we care about, but it’s still a nice “twist,” or perhaps lack of a twist.
More than that, “Murder” took Futurama’s emotional strength and twisted it, taking a show that can do both comedy and drama very well and instead offering us a heavy dose of actual fear in its characters. The question of how far the show was willing to go was always on my mind, and at this point it’s to the show’s credit that this is hard to guess. “Murder” wasn’t as immediately funny as many other episodes, but I suspect it will age well for the strength of its writing and the honest emotional core of its characters.