First, some personal context:
for me, right now, Rick and Morty is my favorite television show of all time. I’ve discussed this with my best friend and we agree: it’s the very best parts of Doctor Who and The Simpsons and Futurama combined, but topped off with some of the strongest animation and world design on TV. It has the energy of the best improv, the laughability of the best comedy writing, and the soul of the best character moments on any of these shows. (Doctor Who and Futurama have both brought me to tears – once, each – but Rick and Morty somehow manages to feel realer, and less overtly manipulative, than both of these.)
TV sci-fi has rarely been better, and TV comedy has almost never been remotely as good as Rick and Morty. The titular Rick Sanchez is an aging, wasted mad scientist, flying through dimensions at breakneck speed and seemingly unflappable as a consequence of having seen too much for too long; equal parts The Doctor, Bender, and Doc Brown. Morty, his grandson, is an ineffectual whiner who actually grows something of a backbone during his adventures with his grandpa. There’s a mom and a dad who fight and aren’t honestly worth talking much about, unless their subplot is excellent, which it occasionally is (see: “Meeseek and Destroy”, and “Rixty Minutes” – although honestly these are just the two best episodes of the show, so yeah, see them anyway.) and Summer, Morty’s sister, who has evolved from a walking Female Stereotype into a legitimate character and sub-companion for Rick.
This is the kind of show where details, whether visual or spoken, don’t emerge until the third viewing; where write-off gags from three episodes before suddenly pay off; where references to other shows can be snuck in, more than a year before the show in question airs. (This is real; look it up.) This is a show where the main characters ruin their home world, step sideways into a dimension exactly like their own except their counterparts have just died, bury the bodies and take over their lives, and then have it come up as a significant point of character development two episodes later.
Yes, burying your own body in the backyard is considered “character development”. And not in the simple, basic traumatized-for-life way, either.
(To quote Morty:
“Nobody exists on purpose.
Nobody belongs anywhere.
Everybody’s gonna die.
Come watch TV?”)
It’s an ideal blend of monster-of-the-week storytelling with the right amount of continuity. There aren’t overarching, season-long plots, but everything that happens really, truly happens, and if something relates to it later, it’s gonna come up. There are some inconsistencies, though: in one episode, Gazorpazorp is home to a highly gender-segregated society of hypermasculine brutes and idealized, overcultured women, and in the next episode it’s used for a one-off gag (the inimitable, perfect “Gazorpazorpfield”, which is exactly what it sounds and looks like) that implies that Gazorpazorpian society is a lot more like ours, but with more arms.
You know what, though? Portal gun. Everything’s fair game.
Anyway, at the end of the first season, Rick throws a literally interdimensional humdinger of a party, and then freezes time so they can clean up the house afterward. Things get a little out of hand, and they spend an unspecified amount of time outside of time getting into shenanigans. Bonding with the grandkids, you know? So, when they restart the flow of time, all three of them are prone to interacting dangerously with the world around them; Rick tells them not to touch their parents or they’ll literally destroy the timeline.
Everything goes pretty fine until Morty and Summer get in a shoving match, except they don’t actually get in a shoving match, but they did, and oh god they broke time.
They literally broke time, guys.
The frame splits in two, a top and a bottom half, each representing a different possible flow of time. There are some obvious differences – characters on different sides of the screen, saying different things, slight desynchronizations – as well as some subtle ones, like the secure, confident, “decisive” Rick always speaking in a single clear voice from both frames, while Morty and Summer have a slight echo effect due to their imprecise indecisiveness. This is a great example of the eye for detail that sets this show apart from others like it; unfortunately, it’s not in the service of a whole lot.
Rick sums up the entire episode pretty succinctly within the first five minutes, actually:
“The three of us are lost in a timeless oblivion! Your parents[…]’re probably living it up in some pointless grounded story about their sh–ty marriage.”
(The B-plot is, indeed, Beth and Jerry in a pointless, grounded story about their sh–ty marriage. I mean, specifically, about Beth needing to cling to something to feel useful and important in lieu of getting any of that from Jerry, I guess? They hit a deer with their car and she goes into a fugue state or something trying to save its life. There aren’t any good jokes, nobody learns any lessons, and it pays off with Beth’s dumb singlemindedness being rewarded and enabled by her spineless husband. I mean, if you ask me, anyway.)
Rick has a simple solution to fix the timeline, but he overconfidently trusts that absolutely nothing will go wrong in either of them. It does, of course; one of the Mortys gives him some sassback, and it throws off his timing, and that convinces him that the other Rick has decided to kill him to unify the timelines, and builds a gun that can shoot himself – the other himself – and starts firing wildly.
(Rick, on a good day, is probably Chaotic Neutral.)
Rick’s crazed shooting spree splits time four ways, and the Mortys have to bean him with a fire extinguisher to keep him from killing himself.
Then there’s this whole thing with a fourth-dimensional testicle-monster-person who repairs the timeline for them with some handy collars that unify all of the possible Ricks, Mortys, and Summers. But then the testicle monster tries to take them to Time Prison, so Rick re-breaks time – because he’s Rick friggin’ Sanchez, that’s why – so Rick and all of the other Ricks can beat the crap out of Gonad Monster in one of the more imaginative bits.
A big part of my love for this show is how the payoff isn’t always a gag, or a bit, or a one-liner. A lot of the time, Rick and Morty is perfectly content to revel in its own wonderfulness. Yes, it’s kinda funny to see a bunch of Ricks beating up one dude separately but simultaneously? Honestly, though, it’s impressive and literally awesome and genuinely kind of illuminating as to how this sort of thing might actually work in the real world. And that’s an amazing thing for a prime-time cartoon that should be about farts and weiners to do, I think!
So now, Rick has broken time into thirty-two different iterations. This can’t hold, and everything starts to collapse and go to Hell, and the only solution is to repair the collars to get back to normal.
And then Rick can’t decide which screwdriver to use, and now we have sixty-four possible timelines.
Now: we’re approaching the end of the episode, and a moment full of so much brilliance and heart that it almost saves the whole endeavour. Rick, Morty, and Summer have only to put on their collars in all sixty-four timelines. Summer’s goes off no problem, disappearing her back to Real Time, but one of the many Mortys finds himself unable to clasp the collar around his neck and activate it. The floor crumbles beneath him and he tumbles through the void, surrounded by Schrödinger’s Cats. Rick quickly dives after him, the initial assumption being that Morty is both of their salvation. When he catches Morty, though, the broken collar is gone, and all seems lost.
Rick hesitates for a split-second, and puts his collar on Morty, completing the circuit and saving him.
Rick, now alone in a timeless void, says:
“I’m okay with this. Be good, Morty. Be better than me.”
And then he sees the other collar.
He rejects his acquiescence (“I’M NOT OKAY WITH THIS! I AM NOT OKAY WITH THIS!”) fights his way down to it, snatches it, and goes to work, praying to God in desperate need of salvation. It’s then, in this moment of deliverance – because of course he fixes the collar, he’s Rick friggin’ Sanchez – that Rick’s character arc and/or deliberate lack of character development achieves a kind of greatness, as he crows victoriously:
“YES! F–K YOU, GOD! NOT TODAY, BITCH!”
It’s brilliant, detailed, superbly-written television; but Rick and Morty’s specialty is setting itself up for convoluted, genuine laugh-and-feel-out-loud moments like this, and it’s still just barely enough to drag this episode up to two stars. It’s the only moment in the episode; the only aesop, the only bit of truth, the only thing that makes you care, and it does a frankly excellent job. It’s just that the other twenty-one-and-a-half minutes are so flat, you know? Every frame with Beth and Jerry in it makes me feel like I’m wasting my life.
So like, by all means watch it, and hurray, more Rick and Morty! Mediocre Rick and Morty is still better than anything else on television. The good news: it can only get better from here.