One of the challenges of reviewing Rick And Morty—and boy, it’s just so damn hard sometimes y’know?—is to not raise the bar of expectation so high that no work of fiction could ever actually cross it. After waiting over a year for season 2, anything short of perfection ran the risk of being mildly disappointing. Last week’s “A Rickle In Time” wasn’t the best half hour the series has produced, but it did employ an impressively creative use of split screen and a smart, inventive time-fractured storyline. It fit neatly into the “boy, will they ever stop surprising us?” slot, and that was good. This week’s “Mortynight Run” has a daycare for all the potential Jerrys in the multiverse, which is nifty, but the main plot, in which Morty goes to great lengths to save the life on an alien being who may not actually be worth saving, didn’t astonish me. My mind was not blown, not even with two different musical mind-melds.

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But here’s the thing: shows can’t live on invention alone. After a certain point, once the viewer adjusts their expectations, and once the creative team hones its craft and settles into the kind of stories it really wants to tell, the novelty wears off. That doesn’t mean that surprise is no longer possible, only that there needs to be more than cleverness if a series is going to last over time. Rick And Morty already showed itself capable of this last season, as it developed its characters and its storytelling without ever really making a big deal of it. But I had to remind myself after being initially disappointed by Morty’s storyline in “Mortynight Run” that just because something isn’t flashy doesn’t mean it’s not good.

All of which will probably sound strange to most people who watched the episode, given the consistent level of creativity throughout. You’ll get no argument from me that the Jerry daycare was inspired, and Rick’s beloved Blips And Chitz had a virtual reality game that simulated an entire life! Plus there was a gaseous alien entity with the ability to change molecular structures at a whim, a cheerful assassin voiced by Andy Daly, an entire planet populated by versions of Roboto from He-Man, and, yes, two musical numbers. All of this is terrific stuff, but none it was quite as surprising as that split screen effect from last week. Everything was firmly in this show’s wheelhouse, and that wheelhouse, though large, has its limits.

Plus, from the moment Morty started begging Rick to stop Krombopulos Michael from completing his mission (with a gun he bought from Rick, hence Morty’s dilemma), it was obvious enough that Morty was on his way to learning a valuable lesson about how sometimes it’s better to mind your own damn business. He rescues a gaseous entity (who likes the word “Fart” so much he takes it on as a name) from Michael’s assault, inadvertently killing Michael in the process, and then there’s some running and chasing and what-not before Morty finally discovers, just before sending Fart back to his home dimension, that the creature is planning on returning to our dimension with more of his kind and killing everyone. So Morty kills him instead. Scene.

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I’m being glibber than usual, but I’m trying to describe my initial reaction, because I think that reaction, while understandable, does the episode a disservice. Familiar storylines are nothing new to television (or novels, or movies, or Thanksgiving), and the fact that I spent much of the half hour expecting some shocking twist says more about me and my assumptions than the episode itself. This is character development for Morty, a sad, fucked up, hilarious kind of character development which plays well off what we know about the character, and our own ideas about justice. It’s solid, even necessary storytelling for the series, because it challenges the obvious notion of Rick as a coldhearted bastard and Morty as a sweet, good-natured kid. Rick is still something of a monster, but he knows more about what’s going on that just about anyone, and Morty needs to understand that there are some things he probably shouldn’t mess with—that sometimes the obvious moral choice isn’t the right moral choice. (Also, that maybe Rick’s assholery was come by honestly. I suspect one of the big conflicts of the show is whether or not Morty is going to grow up to be a new version of Rick.)

Admittedly, this is an arc the show has done in the past, but it’s a good one, and I expect we’ll be seeing it again the future. What makes it work is how it’s put together, and here, once I got over the lack of flashiness, I was better able to appreciate all the subtle touches throughout. Andy Daly’s guest turn as KM was a treat, albeit far too brief (which was intentional), and Jemaine Clement’s deadpan take on Fart helped to make the character just likable enough for his eventual disintegration to matter. (Or at least make it so it’s possible to understand why it matters to Morty.) But what really struck me on retrospect is how fundamentally brutal all of this is. There’s no cushion of “but he means well” between Morty’s actions and their consequences. A whole bunch of people die, and while his decision to kill Fart in the end saves organic life, it also would’ve happened a lot quicker (and safer) if he’d never gotten involved in the first place. There’s no real mitigation for the bleakness of it—he tried to save a life without knowing what was going on, and others paid the price.

In a way, it fits in with Jerry’s story, if only by contrast. Once you get past the terrific notion of a Rick-created (although not this Rick) Jerryborree where Ricks and Mortys can store stowaway Jerrys while they go on adventures, the main theme of the piece is Jerry’s utter consistency. Not a single Jerry behaves differently than any other Jerry, and when our Jerry gets fed up and tries to leave on his own (learning that none of the Jerrys are being held against their will), he realizes the limits of his abilities, and that, no matter how much he might wish otherwise, he’s not designed for change. Morty, on the other hand, just might be. He spends the entire episode clinging to principle, but when he’s finally confronted with the limitations of those principles, he takes the necessary steps. He doesn’t even tell Rick about it. Morty’s growing up, maybe. Hopefully his maturity won’t have too high a body count.

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Stray observations

  • I wonder if the virtual reality game Rick and Morty play (“Roy, A Life Well Lived”) is a riff on Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “The Inner Light.” By now, the concept of a living a life in a few moments has become enough of a science fiction staple to be almost a cliche, but the episode’s straight-faced handling of the situation, and the way it doesn’t pretend as though any of this is supposed to surprise anyone but Morty, makes it work. Also, the punchline, with Rick “going off the grid” with Roy, is both a perfect summation of his character, and a great way to undermine the nominal seriousness of Morty’s experience by reminding us it’s a just a game. (Morty lasted 55 years, which is apparently not bad.)
  • Some good Easter Eggs this week. My favorite was the Meseeks storyline playing in the background of the arcade; it was also neat to see Gazorpazorpfield And Friends on the TV at Revolio Clockwork Jr.’s garage. And hey, more Ballfondlers!
  • Once again, Rick shows that he has a softer side. Sure, that softer side involves killing some bug aliens and ripping out a gear-man’s testicles (and sticking them in his mouth) to protect his grandson, but it’s something.
  • “The factory tint setting is always too high!” -Jerry
  • “Anything with less than eight limbs is considered disabled here.” -Rick
  • There’s a parallel universe in which Jerry dies and Beth remarries a man named Paul Fleischman. He seems nice.
  • It’s impressive that a show which constantly reminds us of the existence of parallel universes (the end even has two Jerrys getting swapped and it isn’t that big a deal) can still make death sting. All the deaths that Morty’s decision creates, up to and including him shooting Fart, have a legitimate impact. Not a “I’m going to start crying now” impact, but they matter, because if they didn’t, Morty’s arc wouldn’t.

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