[This post includes spoilers for Season Three of “Rick and Morty”.]
Here’s a brief list of things that have happened on “Rick and Morty” so far this season.
- Beth and Jerry get divorced.
- Rick eats human flesh.
- Morty takes on the phantom limb of a man whose entire family was burned to death, which leads to him murdering (conservatively) hundreds of people in incredibly gruesome and violent ways.
- Rick and Morty drown a man together while hashing things out about the divorce of Morty’s parents.
- While embodying a pickle, Rick murders a cockroach and dozens of rats in ways that would make John Wick flinch.
- Before killing dozens of men (again, as a pickle), Rick says of their children, “I’m not gonna take their dreams. I’m gonna take their parents.”
I feel uncomfortable just typing all those things out. If you’ve never seen “Rick and Morty,” it probably sounds like the most disturbing thing on TV. And, well, you’re right. But – and this is a tough pivot – it’s also the funniest show on TV right now. You may not believe me, but there’s basically a solid laugh every 15-20 seconds on any given “Rick and Morty” episode. It’s hard to discern what makes this toxic balance of darkness and comedy work, but it’s undeniably all there. Maybe Dan Harmon’s recent divorce combined with his off-kilter comedic voice was a big part of it. Maybe it’s the appeal of an animated sci-fi show with infinite worlds to travel to, populated by seemingly infinite funny characters. I really don’t know. All I know is that “Rick and Morty” is one of the first shows to truly master the mix of sad and com. It’s like “BoJack Horseman” if “BoJack Horseman” was on cocaine and also had ADD.
“Rick and Morty” is absurd, but it’s also grounded in something frighteningly real. An episode about Rick turning into a pickle to get out of going to therapy with his family shifts from funny to depressing with ease. It winds up in a place of poignancy and nihilism that’s hard to describe. It’s a story that makes your heart hurt for whoever wrote it because it feels so real. But it’s also so funny! Because all we can do to get by is laugh, right?
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. A crazy, ranting Rick monologue from the first episode of the season that vacillates wildly between one end of the spectrum and the other. (Warning: it’s also very meta.)
Morty: Geez, are my parents seriously gonna get divorced? Alright, Rick, I’m gonna go to my –
Rick: Not so fast, Morty. You heard your mom. We’ve got adventures to go on, Morty, just you and me. And sometimes your sister and sometimes your mom. But never your dad! You wanna know why, Morty? Because he crossed me!
Morty: Okay, take it easy, Rick. That’s dark.
Rick: Oh, it gets darker, Morty. Welcome to the darkest year of our adventures. First thing that’s different, no more Dad, Morty. He threatened to turn me in to the government, so I made him and the government go away.
Morty: Oh, [expletive].
Rick: I’ve replaced them both as the de facto patriarch of your family and your universe. Your mom wouldn’t have accepted me if I came home without you and your sister. So now you know the real reason I rescued you. I just took over the family, Morty! If you tell your mom or sister I said any of this, I’ll deny it, and they’ll take my side because I’m a hero, Morty. Now you’re gonna have to go and do whatever I say, Morty. Forever. And I’ll go out and I’ll find some more of that Mulan Szechuan Teriyaki dipping sauce, Morty.
Morty: (interjecting) What are you talking about?
Rick: Because that’s what this is all about, Morty. That’s my one-armed man. I’m not driven by avenging my dead family, Morty. That was fake. I’m driven by finding that McNugget sauce. I want that Mulan McNugget sauce, Morty. That’s my series arc, Morty.
Morty: (interjecting) What the hell?
Rick: If it takes nine seasons. I want my McNuggets…dipping sauce, Szechuan sauce, Morty. That’s what’s gonna take us all the way to the end, Morty. Season – Nine more seasons, Morty. Nine more seasons until I get that dipping Szechuan sauce.
Morty: (interjecting) What is that?
Rick: For 97 more years, Morty. I want that McNugget sauce, Morty.
One second he’s talking about taking over the family, the next he’s talking about McNugget sauce. One second they’re talking about divorce, the next Rick is making meta jokes about season storylines and series arcs. One second they’re talking about leaving out Jerry, the next they’re talking about leaving out Jerry. It’s darkness, light, darkness, light, darkness, light everywhere. And it’s all from the very distinct viewpoint of a man who has to constantly be in control to keep moving forward. He always has to be the smartest guy in the room. Morty describes him more aptly earlier in the episode, saying Rick is not a hero or a villain, but some kind of a “super-f*****-up god.”
The strange thing is that there’s potential for a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel. Everyone on “Rick and Morty” seems scared and alone and hopeless – a lot of the second episode took place in a “Mad Max”-like reality where survival for its own sake is all that matters. But then there was the end of the third episode, “Pickle Rick.” A moment when Rick’s nihilism was met with … something else. Here’s the scene from the family therapy session. (Keep in mind: Rick is a pickle in this scene.)
Therapist: Why didn’t you want to come here?
Rick: Because I don’t respect therapy. Because I’m a scientist. Because I invent, transform, create and destroy for a living, and when I don’t like something about the world, I change it. And I don’t think going to a rented office in a strip mall to listen to some agent of averageness explain which words mean which feelings has ever helped anyone do anything. I think it’s helped a lot of people get comfortable and stop panicking, which is a state of mind we value in the animals we eat, but not something I want for myself. I’m not a cow. I’m a pickle. When I feel like it. So … you asked.
Therapist: Rick, the only connection between your unquestionable intelligence and the sickness destroying your family is that everyone in your family, you included, use intelligence to justify sickness. You seem to alternate between viewing your own mind as an unstoppable force and as an inescapable curse, and I think it’s because the only truly unapproachable concept for you is that it’s your mind within your control. You chose to come here. You chose to talk, to belittle my vocation, just as you chose to become a pickle. You are the master of your universe, and yet you are dripping with rat blood and feces, your enormous mind literally vegetating by your own hand. I have no doubt that you would be bored senseless by therapy. The same way I’m bored when I brush my teeth and wipe my ass. Because the thing about repairing, maintaining and cleaning is, it’s not an adventure. There’s no way to do it so wrong you might die. It’s just work. And the bottom line is some people are okay going to work, and some people, well, some people would rather die. Each of us gets to choose.
This exchange seems to set up the central conflict for the season, and for the series. Are Rick’s adventures just attempts to die in order to not have to contemplate the universe anymore? Does he have it in him to “choose work”? Can he build a life that has meaning?
I’m not sure what the answers to those questions are, and I’m not sure we’re going to like what we find. It’s going to be dark. We’re on a journey to the center of Rick’s soul, and there’s no telling what – if anything – we’re going to find.
Weirdly, the only thing I know for sure is that it’s going to be a really funny trip.