I don’t really get Jessica. I mean, I understood her at the start of the show; she was the archetypal crush a kid like Morty always has in shows and movies, the unattainable hottie who barely knows his name and wears absurdly short skirts to class. Rick And Morty is a show that doesn’t really do character development for anyone outside of Rick, Morty, Summer, Beth, and Jerry—recurring ensemble members usually just pop in for a quick gag when the show needs to pretend that it exists in a persistent world where, say, Morty is still going to high school. But every time Jessica pops up, it’s this weird bit of stupidity that I can’t quite wrap my head around. She behaves like she belongs in one of those The Game-style “how to get laid” books for insecure lonely dudes who want to believe getting to know a woman is like romancing a character in Mass Effect. In tonight’s episode, she ignores Morty when he says hello, and then acts super into him the second he pretends like he doesn’t really care about her. It’s dumb, and for a long time I’ve been telling myself that stupidity is part of the gag, and I think it is, but that also doesn’t make it less dumb in the long run, y’know? Like the Bechdel Test gag from a couple of weeks ago. Lampshading this shit isn’t a long term solution.
“The Vat Of Acid Episode” is another high concept single storyline entry, with most of its running time taken up by an elaborate “prank” Rick pulls on Morty because Morty had the temerity to make fun of one of his schemes. It’s funny, and I enjoyed it for the most part. There’s going to be criticism in this review, but it’s going to be that super-annoying kind of criticism where I keep saying “but I really did like it!” Also, I’m going to give it, like, an A- or something, even though I have reservations, unless I somehow manage to talk myself out of that. There are two kinds of criticism that you do when you review a show—there’s reviewing something for how well it achieves its intended aims, and then there’s reviewing whether or not those aims were worth achieving. The second bit is where things get tricky. I’ll try to keep this short.
“Acid” is another entry in the Rick-pulls-the-football-away-from-Morty canon; the most recent one of these I can remember was “One Crew Over the Crewcoo’s Nest,” where Rick went to epic, planet-destroying lengths to kill Morty’s love of heist stories and stymie his career at Netflix. It’s not exactly the same—in that episode, Morty never realized he was being manipulated, and in this one, he very much does, albeit far too late to do anything about it—but the abusive nature of the relationship is one the show gets a lot of story material out of, in a way that seems like it can’t possibly be sustainable, but still basically works. I got so caught up in what seemed to be the main storyline that I didn’t see the vat of acid at the episode’s end until a half second or so before it arrived; in retrospect, it should’ve been obvious, but Rick And Morty has a knack for tricking me with this sort of thing. (Much like The Prestige.)
That said, it was obvious that something was up with the place-saving device Morty argues Rick into making for him. For one thing, the set-up was not conducive to a non-monkey’s paw scenario; the whole thing kicks off when Morty has the temerity to point out that Rick’s “we’ll jump into a fake vat of acid and pretend we’re dead” solution to a problem was, well, stupid. The two of them fight, Rick insists “There’s no such thing as a bad idea, Morty. It’s about execution.” Then Morty gets pissed about how Rick always refuses to go along with his ideas, mentions the place-saving device (the idea being to save your place like in a video game so you can do dumb shit, see what happens, and restore to the save point and undo the damage) that Rick had apparently nixed before; and when Rick still insists it’s a dumb idea, Morty accuses him of not being able to actually build it, which pisses Rick off so much that he does.
Speaking of execution, this is all very well done; I started with the bit about not understanding what Jessica was supposed to be because her behavior here, and the way Morty manages to turn opening a door for a woman into the most meaningful relationship of his life, because it’s my only real criticism of how this episode was put together. The thing with Jessica was a joke, sure, but, well, I already said why I thought it was bad. And while I think most everything that happens between Morty and the Love of His Life after that coffee shop date is well done, the idea that a woman would be so grateful to a guy for opening a door for her that she’d touch him on the shoulder is… well, it doesn’t scan. It’s not a huge deal, but the show prides itself on being so sharp and cutting about human behavior that it’s weird when it has the insight of a Saved By The Bell episode.
Putting that aside, this is well-paced, and does a great job of playing Morty’s situation just seriously enough that when the punchline lands, it lands hard. The whole time Morty is building a relationship with his new girlfriend, you know that he’s eventually going to reset everything. Somehow, this isn’t going to work out, and the show knows you know, so it keeps offering up ways things could fall apart. They have relationship troubles, but then Morty makes it work. They’re in a plane crash, eating corpses and dying of frostbite, but help comes just in time. And then, just when everything is back to normal, Jerry sees the place-saving device and treats it like a TV remote, undoing everything.
It’s a good gag, and the extremely painful slapstick as Morty tries and completely fails to repeat his past success is also funny (this whole extended montage, which goes from Clapton’s “It’s In The Way That You Use It” to an emotional instrumental piece but has no actual dialogue, is well done). But the real punchline comes when Morty goes to tell Rick he’s learned his lesson, and Rick explains that, no, the actual lesson is that Rick doesn’t do time travel; everything Morty did and then “undid” actually happened; and it was all parallel universes where he killed another Morty every time.
Actually, that’s not even the real punchline; the real real punchline is when Morty takes on all his past “lives” at once, a massive force of people arrive to have their revenge on him, and Rick offers him a way out: a vat of “acid.” The pay-off is so lame it’s almost profound; after all Morty went through, in the end, it was just another way to remind him that Rick is always right, and you don’t fuck with Rick, because when you fuck with Rick, you’re fucking with the best.
This is a good entry in the Don’t Fuck With Rick canon, although I imagine just how good it is will vary from person to person. I got so caught up in the moment with what was happening that I didn’t put too much thought into where it was all ultimately going, but the problem with this kind of episode (and here we’re getting to that other kind of criticism) is that it’s inherently predictable. That can be a benefit in some circumstances—Road Runner cartoons are funny in part because we know each time that the coyote is going to get screwed, the joy is in seeing how. Or, hell, there are dozens of great Peanuts strips about Lucy pulling away that football at the last minute. You keep doing the bit enough times, the audience’s awareness of the structure is what keeps them laughing, the way some stand-ups can work a crowd just by delivering non-jokes in a certain rhythm.
It’s just, the nature of Rick And Morty is that it’s supposed to be subversive and surprising. One of the reasons the show became as popular as it did is because of how it takes a lot of old ideas (crazy science shit, jaunting through space having adventures, an acerbic genius dragging around a regular old human being) and points out the absurdity in them. It’s satire, but it’s satire that also generally delivers the very thing it’s lampooning, and it’s best, the show can be hilariously funny, deeply cutting and cynical, and also cathartic. Everything is bullshit, even to the farthest reaches of the universe, but it’s often wildly entertaining bullshit, and even when it isn’t, we have to get through this somehow. Come watch TV.
It’s bleak, but there’s relief in having someone tell a kind of truth, however brutal. The problem is, the more Rick And Morty tells the sort of story it tells in “Acid,” a story that requires Rick to be the smartest person in any room and Morty to only be clever enough to make things that much worse for himself, the older it gets; the more it starts to feel like the same stale cliches the show was so good at deconstructing. We aren’t quite to that point yet, but a certain exhaustion is setting in with this format. The closest this episode gets to a new perspective is that Rick’s vat of acid solution is lame. Given that he still ends up “winning,” that’s not a whole lot, but it’s something. Just have to wait and see if it’s ever going to be anything more than that.
- This review ended on a mild bummer, but (I told you I’d say this) I really did enjoy the episode. The convolutions with that fake vat of acid at the beginning were a thing of joy. (And, in their small way, proof that Rick is actually not as smart as he thinks he is. He’s just usually smarter than Morty.)
- “I don’t pay for your friendship, Heroin Keith!”
- You’d think Morty would be a little more insistent on making Rick explain things at this point. Out of all the lessons, you’d think “Don’t assume astonishing technology doesn’t have a downside” would be, like, underlined in his brain somewhere.
- Watching these live has meant seeing the animated Rick And Morty ads during the show, and man, I don’t begrudge them for wanting to make some money, and the ads are clever enough, but it’s super strange watching them during an actual episode.
- Don’t worry about continuity, the bulk of the episode takes place in a universe where Johnny Carson is still on the air, dipping fools into vats of acid on The Tonight Show.