Sitcoms need an outsider figure—the wild card who can introduce new plots or add tension to the resolution of old ones. On Rick And Morty, Jerry is the outsider, which is honestly pretty pathetic, right? Like, Rick is the classic wild card, the wacky relative who shows up and throws everyone’s life into chaos; but the longer the show goes on, the more obvious it gets that Rick is, going by the universe as a whole, the normal. Oh sure, he’s a super genius, but his brand of insanity follows the grain of reality, whereas Jerry’s sad-sack dullness makes him the odd man out.
At first, that idea worked better in concept than in practice. The idea of a pathetic, emasculated loser as the family patriarch was a one note gag at best, and one that threatened to turn into an unfunny punchline. But the show solved this by steering into the skid; for Jerry, being pathetic isn’t just a cliche or a stereotype, but rather the cornerstone of his entire existence. He’s not just a loser, he’s a loser to the nth degree, a man who’s turned cowardice and knee-jerk apology into a survival technique. If Rick is willpower taken to its ultimate, Jerry is the inverse. Rick is easier to watch even if he is an asshole because it’s easier to watch competent characters. But there’s value in Jerry too, and the more the season goes on, the more it becomes evident that this value is core to the third season’s thematic arc.
I say “arc,” but who the hell knows. Maybe it’s a straight line, maybe I’m just making this up as I go. One thing I do know: “The Whirly Dirly Conspiracy” is the most upbeat episode of the season so far, provided you can overlook the death of a child and a horrible mutation or two. This has been a dark summer for Morty and the others so far, to an extent that’s generated some skepticism in the fanbase (or so I’ve heard), but that darkness has been driven at heart by Rick’s decision to end his daughter’s marriage. There’s actual trauma at the core of everything, and in “Whirly,” there’s at least a suggestion that things might not end in absolute misery. People actually learn a little. Even Jerry.
Speaking of: after getting an (off-screen) guilt trip from Morty, Rick takes Jerry out with the idea of giving him some sort of a win. It’s a sweet gesture, although obviously not one Rick takes especially seriously. I mean, he takes it seriously for Rick, which means bringing Jerry to a space resort with an immortality field, aka the safest place in the universe for the universe’s weakest putz. Things get complicated when one of Rick’s myriad enemies (Risotto Groupon, voiced by Clancy Brown) asks Jerry for help. Jerry’s reluctant, but when Rick starts slagging on his relationship with Beth, Jerry decides to set the bastard up. He then immediately changes his mind, because that’s what Jerrys do.
And so on. It’s—well, “predictable” sounds bad, but there aren’t a lot of huge surprises in this, at least in terms of major plot elements. Jerry and Rick squabble, neither of them die, Jerry manages to save Rick, and in the end, Jerry has just a little more respect for himself than he did before. What makes it enjoyable is the details, like the weird head trip through the wormhole where all consciousness exists as one, and the fact that the writers finally found a way to make Rick vulnerable without having to turn him into a pickle again. Spaceship security spots his augmentations and zaps him meds that make him stupid. (“I want cookies and a 90 minute cut of Avatar!”) In order for the storyline to work, there needs to be at least some sense of Jerry actually accomplishing something, but it also needs to be plausible that Rick would actually be vulnerable enough that Jerry would be necessary. That happens twice, and it more or less passes the smell test both times—it doesn’t hurt that Rick doesn’t seem to give quite as much of a shit whether he lives or dies as he used to.
While all this is going on, Morty, Beth, and Summer have their own adventure when Summer’s broken heart and body image issues give her the bad idea of using one of Rick’s machines to try and make her boobs bigger. This goes bad almost immediately, but because Beth is, as Morty points out, just as stubborn and fucked up as her dad, she wastes time (and makes things worse) by trying to solve the problem on her own. Ultimately both she and Morty manage to figure things out and save the day with a modicum of, well, not dignity exactly but at least sincerity and a low body count, which is the most you can hope for in these things.
Again, while I’ve heard comments that this season is pretty dark, Morty has learned some lessons by now; and even better, he’s actually able to handle himself fairly well and stand up to his parents to boot. It’s not enough of a change to completely upend the series’ central dynamic, but it does make Rick’s crazy bullshit slightly easier to tolerate. His grandson isn’t just a hostage of fortune, and he’s a lot smarter than the kid who went to such great efforts last season to save a sentient, murdering space fart.
Really, if the writers can even find a way to let Jerry evolve, then this can’t be that dark, can it? There’s a look Rick gives him near the end of the half hour that borders on, if not respect, than at least something like fondness. A Jerry who is a loser who never does anything but feel sorry for himself and whine isn’t someone worth much time at all, but a Jerry who’s self-aware enough to want to improve, even if that improvement isn’t going to happen overnight? That’s at least a character who can anchor the a-plot of a half hour comedy sci-fi series, I’d say. The show is never going to be a drama, thank god, but to keep the whole thing from descending into a vapid, cruel barrage of mean-spirited, high-concept violence, the protagonists need to be more than punchlines. Jerry is always going to be an outsider, but he’s a necessary one, and “The Whiry Dirly Conspiracy” made a pretty good case for keeping him around.
- Rick makes Jerry some clothes. I was honestly expecting that to pay off as a gag at some point, but I don’t think it ever did. I could’ve missed something, though.
- Beth is making hoof collages. That’s… great.
- Jerry imagined what it would be like to have a vagina once.
- Having Beth find seemingly obvious solutions to Summer’s problems on Rick’s machine, only for those “solutions” to make things worse, is a great gag; the pay-off, which has Beth freeing a trio of tiny tech support aliens trapped in the machine, is suitably bizarre.
- “I won’t do it again!” “No one ever does.”
- “She was Rick’s daughter, Jerry. She had options.” As always, it’s impossible to take anything Rick says completely at face value, but that sounds like a pretty reasonable explanation for why Rick has never liked Jerry. (Beyond Jerry’s, y’know, Jerry-ness.)
- “Mind your own goddamn business, Gene!” -Morty
- “Mama’s coming and she cares about your titties!” -Beth
- “Cosmic apotheosis wears off faster than salvia.” -Rick
- I can only imagine that having your skin inside out would be incredibly painful, although both Beth and Summer seem to get through it ok.