One of the challenges facing writers of modern genre fare is deciding how aware their protagonists should be of cliche. On one side of the spectrum, you’ve got something like Scream, whose characters are constantly referring to horror tropes and the “rules” of slasher movies; on the opposite side, you’ve got The Walking Dead, where no one even uses the word “zombie,” let alone brings up the works of George Romero. Rick And Morty has made it a point of meta-commentary since the start—it’s hardwired into the show’s DNA. Rick is the smartest, craziest sonofabitch in just about any room (or planet) he walks into. Having him a recognize a “Purge” scenario when he sees it isn’t just a way of lampshading the episode’s use of another movie’s premise; it sets up a premise while simultaneously reminding us that this universe holds just about everything, up to and including planets which base their cultural foundations on Ethan Hawke thrillers.
The challenge then becomes finding a way to bring Rick and Morty down to the purge planet’s level. Rick’s too smart to get trapped, at least not by the obvious, and to have his ship randomly run out of power or suffer some other minor calamity would be too much of a cheat. (Plus, we already ran that plot earlier this season.) Enter Morty. Morty, apart from being a well defined character (and potential audience surrogate, although that seems to be shifting by now) is basically Rick’s Kryptonite. Rick is extremely capable, ruthless, and cunning, but he also tends to drag around his grandson, who is roughly none of those things. In addition to making Rick seem a little more human, Morty is frequently Rick’s weak point, pulling him into trouble he would, had he been on his own, naturally avoided. It’s a neat narrative trick: Morty’s narrow, if familiar, ideas of morality and decency offer a chance for plenty of lessons about how inadequate those ideas are to the reality Rick faces every day. They also mean that, on a pretty regular basis, Morty is going to make Rick do something dumb, and we get to have a storyline.
That’s what happens here. Morty sees a pretty girl (well, pretty for a girl who looks a humanoid cat or something, so I guess it depends on your preferences) being menaced by a group of locals, and blackmails Rick into helping him save her. Things go downhill from there, and if this episode has a flaw, it’s how familiar this whole routine is getting. The script gets points for Morty arguing with Rick about how easy it would be for them to get trapped in the Festival (which is what the locals call their purge), but the fact that Morty’s one attempt at a strong decision puts both him and Rick in danger is starting to feel as trite as the sci-fi trope Rick routinely mocks.
That’s saved by both the fun of watching Rick and Morty make their way through Festival times, and by just how dark the episode is willing to go with Morty. It’s satisfyingly dark, too, the sort of dark which feels like a pay-off (even if it’s not an intentional one) to some of Morty’s behavior earlier in the season. It’s not hard to guess what will happen once he sits down to listen to the kindly (if judgemental and ultimately passive agressive) lightkeeper’s screenplay, but part of the pleasure of the sequence is watching how it unfolds, and the slow burn that leads to Morty finally snapping and taking a life. He doesn’t murder to save anyone. He kills because, well, he’s a teenager, and he’s been dealing with a lot of shit, and sometimes these things happen.
Rick and Morty have a classic odd couple relationship: Rick is the laidback cool guy who doesn’t ever seem to really be at a loss even when he fucks up; and Morty is the tightly wound twerp, so anxious and terrified about breaking the rules that every ambiguous situation is immediately translated into a black or white crisis. Which, inevitably, leads to a breakdown when he’s finally pushed too far. But even when he finally gives in, the relief is temporary. Rick’s been down a few purges before, he knows where to draw the line, but Morty, once he’s unleashed his id, is helpless to stop it. He doesn’t get to fight the really serious bad guys (in this case, the rich assholes who run the Festival to keep themselves in power), or have a dance break after the carnage is over. He just goes too far and then keeps going further, until Rick takes him down.
It’s bleak stuff, and it’s stuff the episode doesn’t put much effort into mitigating. The scene at the end, with Rick lying about Morty eating some special candy bar that filled him with “Purgenol” to make him feel better, is arguably about reestablishing the status quo as much as anything else. Yet I wonder if there isn’t some small sort of balance here. We’ve had a few glimpses this season (and last) of Rick trying to protect his grandson, and even, in the premiere, of hoping Morty might grow up to be a better man than he is. Which suggests that Rick, smart as he is, knows that deep down he’s even more fucked than his grandson. Morty may be confused and sheltered and naive, and he may be capable of a really impressive amount of horrific murder, but at least there’s a part of him that’s still believes there’s something out there worth fighting over.
- In this week’s subplot, we see that Jerry still hasn’t quite hit rock bottom yet. It’s a slight storyline, but it’s bleakness makes it worthwhile, and the post-credits pay-off for “Taddy Mason” was just brilliant.
- I agree with Rick and Morty at the beginning of this episode: it was nice seeing the two of them on their own again, having adventures.
- Arthrisha (I know I misspelled that), the cute cat girl who has a boyfriend, is another in a long line of relatively normal characters who could, if this episode had been shown from a different perspective, have served as a bland but credible heroine.
- “It’s the hardest working liver in the galaxy, Morty. Now it has a hole in it!” -Rick
- The code for Rick’s red box in the garage is 7719836421125. I always feel like part of my job as a reviewer is to keep track of this stuff, and now I have. Feels pretty hollow, honestly.
- “By the way, life on other planets exists. Don’t let it distract you.” -Rick