Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

It's Rick And Morty, on a train

This image does not appear in this episode. But it could have.
This image does not appear in this episode. But it could have.
Image: Adult Swim (Adult Swim)
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About a third of the way into “Never Ricking Morty,” Rick and Morty kill a man collecting ticket stubs. The dude is jacked, but he deals with sudden explosive decompression about as well as anyone, in that he gets sucked out a hole into space. The instant his head leaves the train, the episode cuts to the same man in front of a VR game at Blips And Chitz. He disconnects from the machine and goes to sit with his family, not entirely sure what’s going on; the woman at the table, who calls him “Dad,” is frustrated when he acts confused, suggesting we’re seeing just a moment in a longer, infinitely more depressing low-key family drama. Then the man starts bleeding at the waist. He screams as the two halves of his body separate, and we cut back to the train to see that the ticket-taker has been bisected, his top half floating in space, his lower half bleeding over the carpet.

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Maybe five, six minutes later, after a bunch of other crazy shit happens, we see the ticket taker’s head floating in the void, eyes bulging, and the episode goes back to the Blips And Chitz world, where the top half of his torso is spinning around spraying blood inside the building. A goony alien couple is watching a news report about the incident on TV, and the male of the couple explains that he’s part of a religion that believes their entire universe was created inside the mind of the man who’s spraying blood. The male says he doesn’t have sex so that they can make sure reality holds together; the female says that’s hot; they start to make out, just as the ticket taker’s brain finally fries, and “reality” is destroyed.

So yeah, it’s going to be one of those kinds of episodes. The kind that takes what could’ve been the premise for a full episode, or a novel, or hell, a whole TV series, and uses it as a one-off gag.

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It’s the kind of format that almost always works on Rick And Morty; like the most perfect version of a late-night bull session between sci-fi and fantasy geeks who really know their shit and want to make fun of all of it. For most of its running time, “Ricking” gets by entirely on invention, finding increasingly unexpected ways to exploit, mock, and expand on the premise: a literal story device train, where narrative tools become inherent parts of the narrative itself. What starts as something like an anthology episode quickly becomes a daring sci-fi adventure and then Jesus Christ himself shows up. Whether or not something is “canon” or “non-canon” is absolutely a matter of life and death; and for some reason, multiple dudes are super cut and Rick and Morty say “cum gutters” a lot. (I guess it’s a riff on the chiseled abs or something? I’m not googling it to find out, anyway.)

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It’s very funny, and it all goes by so fast it’s hard to begrudge much of any of it. Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown, and Chris Meloni all do voices (Giamatti plays Story Lord, the evil super-cut mastermind; I think that was Meloni playing Jesus), and everyone seems to be having fun. Like a lot of the show’s strongest episodes, there’s a density and speed to the gags and story twists that feels almost overwhelming at first, but once you get into the rhythm of the thing, it’s thrilling to see how long the show’s writers can keep the energy up. You keep waiting for them to get stuck or for the pacing to drag, or for the episode to settle into a more conventional structure, and it never really does.

The ending is a letdown. I think the idea is that the whole episode is the Story Engine Morty bought, and Rick’s pro-capitalist rant (which even found time for a nod to the realities of Covid-19) is what settles it back into being a regular TV episode, given that TV episodes are made to sell commercials. I’m sure there are other explanations, but just because something can be explained doesn’t necessarily make it good. One of the big dangers of Rick And Morty is always the fact that relentless self-awareness can very easily lead to a script getting its head lodged firmly inside its own ass. “Ricking” attempts to make this flaw into a virtue, but it’s not a perfect dismount, even as funny as the “Rick turns to his faith in Jesus to kill Story Lord’s plot” twist is.

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The last couple of minutes are an anti-climax, and even though it’s clearly supposed to be deflating, that didn’t make it more exciting to watch. Part of the tension of a script like this is wondering how in the hell they’re going to tie everything together in the end. If the whole joke is that the meta aspects of the plot are literally the actual plot in and of itself—where do you go with that? How do you provide an unexpected and meaningful conclusion when the whole design of the thing is to constantly push you out of it, to perpetually remind you of its artificiality even as that artificiality is the only thing that’s actually real?

I’ll be honest: the reason this review opens with a two-paragraph summary of a (very good) joke isn’t because I thought I had anything new or insightful to say about it. I just thought it was a solid gag that was indicative of the tone and style of the episode as a whole, and I thought if I spent two paragraphs talking about it, I might figure out how to write the rest of this. Clearly, that faith in my ability to bullshit only partially paid off. I’m not going to just list out all the jokes, because that’s not what a review does; you’d be better served just rewatching the episode if you wanted that. (I plan to, at some point, I had fun with it.)

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The problem is, apart from acknowledging the cleverness of the conceit, there’s not a lot here to really discuss. I suppose you could get mileage out of the Bechdel Test joke, where Rick has Morty tell a story about his mother and Summer in order to circumvent the train’s systems; the idea is, Morty’s goofy nonsense about periods and scorpions and Ruth Bader Ginsburg is so out of place on the series (which is generally more male-focused) that it lets them accomplish… something. I dunno, exactly. It’s cute, and a little self-mocking and a bit cheeky, but I’m not convinced it’s much more than that.

That’s my only real criticism of the episode. It’s very, very clever, but that cleverness never gets out of its own way to be more than what it initially appears. There’s no point to this in the end beyond the thought experiment, and while the show never needs to be deep to be good, it’s best episodes at least connect to something more than “stories, huh?” That doesn’t make this bad or unfun, but it’s a trick that gets hollow the longer it goes on. Regardless, this was inventive and unusual, and it’s good to have the show back for the second half of its season.

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Stray observations

  • Oh hey, it’s One-Eyed Morty! Remember when we thought that was going to be a thing? (By now, I really should’ve accepted that this is never going to be a show that’s all that interested in epic battles between good and evil, but every so often it still tricks me into thinking something is going to matter when it obviously won’t.)
  • “I really don’t like the attitude around here. It’s a very ‘lower me into acid’ attitude.”
  • “Ladies and gentlemen, the Jackie Chan of Human Shielding.”
  • “He gets to spend eternity in every writer’s Hell: The Bible.”
  • So Story Lord escapes the Bible by explaining to Jesus how the Christian god is just a mash-up of two older religions. That’s cool. He’s a good villain. Very fit. Can’t wait till he comes back.
  • “You did the most important thing. You bought something.” -Rick
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