Well, that was unexpected!

Rick And Morty is a show that encourages—no, demands—smart viewers. It’s a show that routinely breaks the fourth wall, that throws in jokes in a half second that take hours to parse; a show that more or less summarized the entirety of Beckett’s oeuvre with a single gag about a butter-passing robot; a show that has the smartest man in the universe say “I have to take a shit” multiple times because he can’t be bothered to think of another lie.

Which may be why we get this: a season premiere streaming on April Fool’s Day that no one knew about, that got no advance word, that I only found out about three hours before I missed the chance to catch the stream. The “prank” doesn’t resolve any of the third season’s potential stumbling blocks (the actual content of the episode goes a long way towards accomplishing that), but it caught pretty much everyone off guard in a way that hardly ever seems to happen anymore. Dropping a hugely anticipated episode with no warning, and just trusting the Internet would figure it out, is kind of amazing. And it just feels like a Rick And Morty sort of thing to do.

Of course, this wouldn’t be nearly as fun if the episode itself wasn’t fucking amazing, so I guess we can all breathe a sigh of relief that the show’s ability to surprise isn’t relegated to scheduling gimmicks. “The Rickshank Rickdemption” picks up a bit after where we left off at the end of season 2. Rick is in galactic prison; Earth has been colonized by the Federation (and of course Jerry is fitting right in); Beth believes her father did the one thing she begged him never to do again; and Morty and Summer are at loose ends, wanting to help but not knowing how.

They needn’t have bothered. By the end, we find out that this was all yet another one of Rick’s brilliant, terrifying gambits. We learn what really drives our favorite mad scientist, after a brief feint towards a plausible, if blatantly manipulative, backstory; and by the end credits, life is more or less back to normal. Oh sure, Beth and Jerry are getting a divorce, but Rick and Morty (and occasionally Summer) are going to go on having adventures, and that’s what’s really important here, right? That’s what we care about. That’s what brings in the eyeballs.

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Without knowing where the rest of the season will take us, it’s hard to know what to make of “The Rickshank Rickdemption”’s implications. Not only does Rick destroy the prison that tried to steal his secrets (Nathan Fillion cameo!), he finally rids himself of the exasperating Council of Ricks and lays waste to the Federation by changing a one to a zero. (The scene of an alien government collapsing that follows Rick demolishing galactic currency is a terrific, brutal farce played out in maybe two minutes.) This is Rick triumphant, Rick slaughtering anyone who stands in his way without breaking a sweat. He even manages to get rid of Jerry. It’s kind of amazing.

It’s also kind of horrifying? Here’s where the “I don’t know where this is going” bit comes in. The last scene of the episode (before the post credits teaser) has Rick “confessing” to Morty that all this—the death, the chaos, and the expulsion of Jerry from their lives—was part of his design to reposition himself as the alpha male of the family. Jerry was going to turn against Rick, and Rick can’t have that. Rick can’t have anyone in his life who might get in his way, even someone as spineless as The Man Who Kept Crawling. Because Rick wants his goddamn Szechuan chicken nugget dipping sauce (it was a McDonald’s tie-in with Mulan), and he’ll stop at nothing—nothing—to get it.

I spent a good portion of last season (and even an essay!) talking about how one of the things I most appreciated about the series was its stealth heart. This was never going to be a sappy show, or one that got too comfortable wearing its heart on its sleeve, but it did seem like we were supposed to care about these characters and not just see them as miserable suffering idiots dancing on the ends of Rick’s puppet strings. The season 2 finale was, in its hilarious, violent, snickering sort of way, curiously moving. There were moments in both seasons that felt like, well, this is dark shit, but it’s not nihilistic shit. That matters to me. (You want nihilistic, watch Family Guy. Or better yet, don’t.)

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But here we are, with this undeniably terrific, thrilling, beautifully paced and funny as hell entry (“No I don’t want to see your Pog collection!”) that seems almost like a rebuttal of every dumb feeling I ever wasted time having. All that stuff about Rick giving a damn? Yeah, not so much. He rescued Summer and Morty from the Council of Ricks because Beth never would’ve taken him back if he left them behind. And this is, as the episode makes it a point of reminding us, the dude who Cronenberged a whole world and abandoned it without a second glance. As Morty says, C-137 is the Rickest of all Ricks. He’s the smartest guy in the universe, and apparently all that smart doesn’t leave much room for a soul.

To be honest, while I am a soppy bastard, it doesn’t matter that much if Rick is a complete bastard. So long as the show can be this creative and inspired, and this true to its characters, it will find its own sort of heart—a bitter, blackened, miserable little organ, but one that gets the job done. I mention this turn less as a criticism of the episode (which, in case I haven’t made this clear, was great), and more as a question as to where we go from here. Pretend none of this happened? Bury it like those corpses in the backyard?

Because here’s what makes this really interesting: Rick may really be a monster (or a demon, or a fucked up god), but “The Rickshank Rickdemption” spends a fair bit of time reminding us what’s come before, in a way that suggests that maybe Morty isn’t quite as static and stupid as Rick wants him to be. He spends most of the episode trying to convince Summer that Rick isn’t someone you can trust, even showing her his original Earth and the feral Jerry, Beth, and Summer he left behind. Morty shoots Rick in the head; it’s with an empty gun, and it’s all part of Rick’s plan, and we’ve certainly seen that Morty is capable of violence before, but this seems like something we’re not going to be able to bury quite so easily.

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My point (as I struggle to make one after I get over the buzz that this actually happened right?) is that Rick may have won, and maybe he’s a bad guy after all. But Morty, at least, realizes it. Maybe this means we’ll see the “evil” Morty from back in season one again, or maybe it means that Morty’s arc in the show will be to finally find some way to turn the tables on his sociopathic grandfather. Maybe this is actually just a really smart, really effective way to mock critics who need to see arcs in everything. But it’s worth remembering that if our Rick is the Rickest of them all, then our Morty is the Morty-iest.

I don’t know what that means, but I want to find out, and it’s impressive as hell that the series is still capable of doing this high wire act three seasons in. Also, holy shit, did we just watch the premiere, because I’m still not quite over that.

Stray observations

  • I can’t imagine anyone who’s been paying attention legitimately thinking that Rick’s “memory” of his wife and daughter getting murdered (thus inspiring him to build a portal gun) was actually real, but the episode keeps the bluff going for a decent amount of time. And Rick does say that he’s killing the Council of Ricks for revenge, but that could just be because they sent some dudes to kill him.
  • It’s sort of a have-cake-eat-too situation, but I love how this premiere basically manages to get everything back to the way it was (minus Jerry), only the cracks in the transition are starting to show. Which actually works thematically too. It’s like when Rick and Morty ditched Cronenberg world. Yes, it’s a reset, but it’s also a memory that Morty can’t let go of. This is a pretty nifty bit of writer trickery, because it means we can immediately jump back into Rick and Morty adventures, while at the same time having all of this stuff bubbling under the surface in case it ends up being useful down the line.
  • Birdperson is back! He’s kind of a robot now, and his new name is Phoenix-person, which I guess is what we’re going with.
  • That improv joke was a thing of beauty.
  • You know what gets to me the most? Jerry was right.

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