The opening of “Auto Erotic Assimilation” lays plain what makes Rick And Morty such a uniquely brilliant part of the television landscape. As Rick explains, nine out of 10 times a distress signal from a derelict ship means there’s lots of awesome loot to scavenge from a bunch of dead aliens, while one of out 10 times it’s a deadly trap. That kind of self-aware statement sure plays like it’s going to be dramatic irony, a rather obvious way of signposting that Rick and his grandkids are headed for precisely the sort of peril he’s just described. Instead, after ever so briefly feinting in that direction, the episode comes up with a path that pretty much no other show would ever think to pursue, with the super-intelligent parasite and gestalt entity proving to be Rick’s old flame, Unity. (In fairness to one of Rick And Morty’s most obvious influences—not to mention another show Zack has reviewed, with me occasionally pitching in—Futurama did do something sort of along these lines in “The Beast With A Billion Backs,” but what we get here is way more perverse. In a good way.)

Unity’s romance with Rick is one of those things I’m not sure anyone would ever predict, yet feels just ludicrously obvious once it’s actually presented. As Unity observes, she—not that that’s really its exclusive pronoun, given it’s just as much male as it is female, or possibly fundamentally genderless, but “she” feels like the best reflection of how the episode presents the character—is attracted to Rick in part because he, alone among individual lifeforms, is capable of seeing the big picture. Rick’s consistent distance from and apathy toward the people he deals with means it makes total sense that he would need to be with an entire planetary organism to maintain any sort of prolonged interest. And while an awful lot of that has to do with the opportunity to live out his most gargantuan sexual fantasies—prominently involving a stadium full of redheads and every man who even vaguely looks like his father cheering him on—the profoundly bleak ending suggests that Rick really does have a deeper emotional connection to Unity, albeit one that he would refuse to consider long enough to ever be able to properly articulate. Whatever the case, Rick’s low boredom threshold is on full display here, and it as much as anything drives his interactions with Unity. It’s hard to imagine any single woman—hell, any single person, more broadly speaking—holding Rick’s attention for long, and even an entire planet that can make his every last dream real gets dull after a while.

The toxicity of Rick and Unity’s relationship is on full display in the second half of the episode, although the seeds of it are planted as Unity claims she has grown from her wild hell-raising days, only to again embrace the living symbol of all she has left behind. Whatever else Rick might be, he is always completely, utterly himself, and that total security in his own identity necessarily means that others—be it his grandkids, Beth and Jerry, or a planet-wide gestalt entity—feel compelled to rearrange themselves to meet his simply stated conditions. The quick reading here is that Unity and Rick bring out the worst in each other, but both Unity’s departure notes and Rick’s dispirited suicide attempt suggest that isn’t quite complete. Unity and Rick allow each other to express their fullest selves, to provide them with the only circumstance in the universe in which they can drop the last of their minimal pretenses and be exactly who they are, who they truly want to be. It just so happens that who they most want to be are debauched, self-destructive wrecks who are dangers to themselves and possibly everyone else in the cosmos. As Unity observes, “If I wanted to be sober, I wouldn’t have gotten drunk!” She’s not doing anything she doesn’t want to, which means she can’t exist in an environment where she will have access to that which she most desires—namely, Rick, and all he represents.

While Unity and Rick must part because being together brings out exactly who they both are, Beth and Jerry’s subplot presents a grimmer reality still, as Beth and Jerry subplots are wont to do. Here we find a couple together solely by a circumstance—Beth’s pregnancy—that they both still long resent, and they don’t even care enough about each other to make their endless fights about the other person. As the baby-eating, space AIDS-riddled monster points out, the two are so consumed by their own insecurities that their fights are far more an expression of their own self-loathing than anything else. Their problem is the inverse of Rick and Unity’s; whereas those two struggle to avoid being overwhelmed by how totally, terrifyingly real they are together, Jerry and Beth’s problems are refracted through multiple layers of bullshit, obfuscation, and projection, with both taking such sadistic glee in diagnosing the other person’s deep-seated faults because they are so incapable of facing up to their own.

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Of course, it’s not as though this episode thinks being alone is any better. Those freed of Unity’s control fast prove themselves to be sex offenders at best—yes, at best, somehow—and murderous race warriors at worst. (Okay, the sex offender thing could still be worse. Things are bad, is the point.) The lesson Summer learns here is one the show made with Morty last week, and a handful of times before that: It’s not that Summer is wrong to rail against Unity’s forcible control of the population, but that doesn’t mean the alternative she proposes is necessarily going to be right, and she sure as hell doesn’t have the wherewithal to deal with the quickly spiraling consequences of inadvertently getting what she wants; she’s not equipped to take responsibility for the sudden return of everyone’s free will, especially once it becomes clear this is one planetary citizenry that was probably better off stripped of its autonomy.

Taken all together, this is one of Rick And Morty’s most thematically coherent outings, a half-hour expertly devoted to teasing out all the possible ways people’s interactions can turn toxic and destructive. This is a question to which there really is no right answer—after all, we see the completely confident and self-possessed create something just as terrible as the monumentally insecure. Connections can be forged by the most incredible passion or the most crushing circumstance, but those are beside the point when the real question turns on whether the two people—or the person and the planet-spanning super-organism—can fit together in a way that lets those involved look beyond themselves. Beth and Jerry hate themselves far too much for that to be a possibility, while Rick is far too committed to his own hedonistic delight to consider what that could even conceivably mean with an entity like Unity. This is a painful truth to confront, and it’s telling that this episode offers no catharsis at its conclusion, no little moment of understanding between Rick and Morty that might suggest there are easy answers to any of these questions. Whether they are even worth searching for is something the episode leaves it to the audience to ponder.

Stray observations:

  • Thanks for letting me step in for this (screener-less, hence the late publish time) review. Zack should be back next week.
  • “Are my grandkids alive? Hey, my drink is empty!” I do always appreciate Rick’s brief moments of genuine concern. It’s just that he has equally genuine concern for the emptiness of his drink.
  • “Ah, Summer. First race war, huh?”

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