I’ve been critical of the second half of Rick And Morty’s fourth season, because I’m a small-minded, spiteful man who wouldn’t know a good joke if it crawled up his pants leg and bit him on the—wait, hold on, got my note cards shuffled wrong.
Ahem. I’ve been critical of the second half of Rick And Morty’s fourth season because, well, that’s my job, but taken as a whole, the four episodes we’ve seen so far are a substantial improvement over the season’s first half. Snake planet episode aside, the first half of season four struggled to find the show’s voice in a sustainable way, leaning too much into unpromising ideas, or else retreading emotional ground without finding anything new or particularly funny to say about it. But since Rick And Morty returned at the start of May, the series seems to be back where it needs to be in terms of ambition; not everything landed for me, and there’s still a certain amount of diminishing returns that’s probably inevitable in something that leans so much into high concept, but it at least feels sustainable again, and not on the verge of burning out before season five.
“Childrick of Mort” is as good a proof as any, because it’s not a great half hour of television. It’s not an instant classic, and I don’t think it’s trying to be; it feels like a median entry, the basic level of quality an audience should be expecting when they turn in, and if that sounds like damning with faint praise, well, maybe it is. The first five minutes or so are a bit rough. Jerry is determined to take everyone camping, because that’s about as Jerry as activities get, and Rick gets a call from a planet he’s been fucking. It turns out the planet is pregnant, and “she” thinks the kids are Rick’s. Rick tries to dodge the call, Beth (not knowing about the whole “planet” thing) goes off on her own abandonment trauma and demands he do his fatherly duty, and thus we have a plot.
The idea of Rick fucking a planet is one of those jokes that you’re only supposed to think about enough to make the story work. It’s a funny reveal before the opening credits, and then Gaia starts giving birth to an endless font of weird, clay-y looking creatures, aaaaand we just sort of elide how any of this is possible. Which is fine, really, 9/10s of the show’s technology is just magic with the serial numbers filed off. It does harken back a little to “Auto Erotic Assimilation,” which introduced Rick’s ex-girlfriend Unity, a hivemind that controlled an entire population ala the Borg—that episode actually spent some time underlining the appeal of the fantasy and how it might actually work, and while it wasn’t exactly a complex and nuanced take on romance, it at least felt more complicated than the sight gag we get here.
But, like I said, it’s fine, because “Childrick of Mort” isn’t about Rick’s relationship with Gaia. Gaia isn’t a character, really. The episode is more concerned with Rick and Beth bonding over being really smart and kind of shitty (even as Beth works very hard not to be); Jerry’s patheticness making him a leader (while still being extremely pathetic); and Summer and Morty hating camping and trying to prove some kind of point about video games and getting high. Honestly, I’m not sure there’s much thematic point to any of this, apart from the reminder that Rick is a fairly shitty human being and families are kind of fucked up. Also, don’t huff brake fluid, although if you do, apparently there’s a chance you’ll kill God. Well, a god. Reggie was just a Zeus, it’s not that big of a deal.
It’s all pretty shallow stuff that goes for the most obvious jokes throughout, but it moves at a good pace, there’s energy and spark to most of it, and “obvious” doesn’t always mean less funny. Beth guilting Rick into helping her build a massive system to guide his “children” into a space-faring civilization was fun to watch, and Jerry ruling over the “Unproductives” with the power of making s’mores and starting campfires and was both inevitable and entertaining. (The secret to most Jerry stories seems to be having him stumble into power in a way that just underlines how much of a nothing of a person he is.) And I always get a kick out of Summer and Morty teaming up, if only because it reminds me what it’s like to hang out with your sibling and complain about your parents.
The biggest problem is that all of these ideas would work well enough as the starting point of an episode, but none of them ever really get past that. There are hints at what might have been more complex ideas, like the fact that Rick and Beth’s massive training system is less about advancing and guiding a culture than it is about dictating their roles and telling them what to think; Jerry’s group turning on the more science-based group hints at a darkness that never really arrives; and… well, okay, “Mort and Summer try to fly a space ship because video games” is as weak as the episode gets and I’m not sure it could’ve been that much improved by more time. But this is mostly just about delivering a bunch of quick gags, taking a few shots at Jerry and the family’s deep dysfunction, and then moving on.
After the reveal that Rick fucked a planet, the only major twist in the half hour is the discovery that Gaia also had a relationship with a Zeus named Reggie, a godlike being who shows up in a cloud, tries to get Rick and the rest of leave, and then gets killed when Morty and Summer crash the ship into his head. Like the rest of the half hour, Reggie is a clever starting point that never really gets beyond that, and the surprisingly long fist fight between him and Rick in space is weirdly bereft of invention for the show. I get that the point is supposed to be the surprise when Reggie a ship in the skull, but the punching/kicking/punching goes on for enough time to be tedious, but not enough for it to come around to being funny again.
Apart from that misstep, and the way that thinking about this episode too much makes it less and less fun (Why would Morty, who’s lived countless lives at this point and been in presumably hundreds of spaceships, keep talking about how he was going to fly the crashed ship because of what he learned playing video games? Why didn’t Gaia have a personality? And why would fucking a planet give birth to an endless stream of doughy buffoons?), “Childrick” was decent enough. If the show can turn out an enjoyable half hour even when it isn’t firing on all cylinders, that’s cause for optimism about the seasons to come.
- Speaking of, season four finale next week. These half and half seasons go by super quick.
- Summer verbally tearing Jerry to shreds actually made me feel sorry for him. I’m glad the episode pulled back from total bleakness and just devolved into a silly romp.
- The “Rick fucked a planet” gag wasn’t really funny until the post-credits scene, which is mostly an ad for a planets-only dating site. I just needed that extra turn of absurdity: “Young, dumb, and orbiting the sun.”