There’s nothing really shocking about anti-heroes anymore. As a response to goody two-shoes hero types, they’re delightful, but by now, the standard beats have become as familiar as the bland platitudes of nobility; the sudden shocking displays of selfishness, the brutal acts of violence, the apparent inability to change or even fully account for their decisions. These characters are narrative nitroglycerin, jumping storylines forward with their willingness to take shortcuts and their disinterest (apart from some perfunctory window-dressing) in the common good. But the surprise dulls after a while. You start to yearn for someone who acts like being a hero is maybe not such a bad thing after all.

Or, and this is more to the point of tonight’s episode, you yearn for a different approach. Rick is arguably an anti-hero (actually, you could get into a debate if he’s the real protagonist of the show, or if Morty is, or really if any one specific character fits that bill, but let’s put that to one side for now), and yet his behavior doesn’t fit the mold. He’s occasionally tormented, but his torment doesn’t come from the dim vestiges of a conscience, or from some vague understanding that his behavior violates social norms. Rick does not give a flying fuck. Rick has seen the dark heart of chaos, and embraced it as his own.

Even more important: the morality of the show doesn’t judge him for it. Tonight’s story had Rick and Morty shrinking down to investigate the micro-verse Rick created to power his ship battery. Over the course of the story, multiple people (or aliens, whatever) die, and each death is presented as both a horrific event and a great joke. You can’t separate the two ideas. Summer gets left behind in Rick’s ship, which goes to exhaustive lengths to protect her, at one point dicing a man into cubes after he yells at her from the parking lot. It’s a shocking, horrifying moment. It is also hilarious, just like it’s hilarious (and horrifying) when the ship paralyzes someone, or creates a melting clone of a police officer’s drowned son.

There are reasons why all this is funny, and why Rick and Morty’s journey deeper and deeper into the micoverse battery wormhole is funny, but what’s really striking is how the show manages to treat gruesome death as both a punchline and a legitimately impactful event, and how both sides work together to enhance the other. An example: Rick, upon investigating, discovers that a scientist of the creatures he developed to power his ship has created his own mini-verse to power his world; and when Rick, Morty, and the scientist (Zeep Zanflorp, voiced by Stephen Colbert) go to visit that mini-verse, they find another scientist, etc. Only this latest scientist isn’t so far along in the process, and when he realizes the truth of what’s going on, he kills himself.

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Which creates plot complications, and is bleakly funny in a way that doesn’t undercut the fundamental truth of what drove the creature to kill himself. What makes Rick such a fascinating anti-hero is that the more we see of the realities of this show, the less he seems like an “anti-hero” at all. Morty’s constant lectures about moral behavior (which play a lot better this week than last, as Rick uses what Morty says to try and get at Zeep; it also helps that Morty is willing to junk his high-minded notions when things get rough) aren’t a necessary balance to Ricks’ amoral behavior. They’re more a way to question the value of morality in an existence where life can literally end at any second. Rick’s “let’s just do what feels good” approach may not always be ethical (and may really only work for people with genius-level intellects), but it’s no more or less decent than trying to save lives when you have no real idea of where your choices will lead.

“The Ricks Must Be Crazy” is a step up from last week, once again taking a premise and then pushing it forward to its logical conclusion. Summer’s struggles inside the ship don’t have much to do with her character (it’s easy to imagine a version of the story with Morty waiting behind in her place without having to change much), but it’s good to have her involved in the action, and the escalation of the ship’s decision making process is well-handled. Although man, if it manages to accomplish that much without a functioning battery, there’s really no limit on what it can do. (Also appreciated: the snippy tone it takes with Summer as she continues to restrict its options.)

Stephen Colbert does fine voice work in his guest spot, and his arrogantly brilliant Zeep is a reminder that Rick’s genius isn’t what sets him apart—he’s just slightly faster, and slightly more of a bastard, than anyone else. The final twist (Zeep realizes he has to go along with Rick’s wishes or else risk the destruction of his entire planet) once again positions Rick as a monster, and yet with all we’ve seen, it’s hard to get too worked up about it. Everybody has something that’s holding them down. Might as well be a drunken mad scientist maintaining the pressure.

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Stray observations

  • Ball Fondlers The Movie, huh? So I guess there’s an alternate reality with a Rick And Morty in theaters right now. I wonder how much they’ll get away with on a PG-13 rating.
  • Would the best ice scream ever be worth giant telepathic spiders and eleven 9/11s?
  • “Ignore all random thoughts that feel… spider-y.” -Rick
  • It fascinates me how Rick keeps taking Morty along on these adventures. That alone seems to change the context of nearly everything else he does.
  • “Wait for the ramp, Morty. They love the slow ramp. It really gets their dicks hard.” -Rick (Later, he criticizes Zeep’s ramp for being too fast.)
  • “I dropped out of school. It’s not a place for smart people.” -Zeep
  • “Science, huh? Ain’t it a thing.” -Morty
  • “My function is to keep Summer safe, not to keep Summer, like, totally stoked about the general vibe and stuff. That’s you. That’s how you talk.” -the Ship (Was that the same voice as GLaDOS from Portal? It had the same vibe.)
  • “I masturbated to an extra curvy piece of driftwood the other day!” -Morty
  • Rick injected Morty with nanobots that will turn him into a car under certain circumstances. Apparently one of those circumstance is “being bored in math class.”

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