Do television series even do clip shows anymore? Reality series probably still churn one out every now and again, but it’s a rarity otherwise; no one turns on the latest episode of The Walking Dead expecting to see Rick and the rest regurgitating five minute chunks of previously aired misery. But the “clip show made up of clips that never actually existed before this episode” format, while not exactly a cliché, is at least something that’s been done. Clerks: The Animated Series did it. Community did it. And now Rick And Morty has done it—sort of. While a half hour of Rick and the rest (wait, what?) cueing up glimpses of horrifying hilarity that we’ll never see in context wouldn’t be completely out of place for the series, it also wouldn’t be quite enough on its own. Rick And Morty doesn’t need to constantly top itself, but it would be a legitimate letdown if the writers ever brought in an old concept without presenting it in a different light.
And so we get “Total Rickall,” a clip show in which the clips themselves are the enemy. Or at least representative of the enemy. The failing of past clip shows (even the self-aware ones) is that the plots are nearly always terrible, for the simple fact that it’s really fucking hard to build a good story when you have to keep coming up with reasons to cut away to a completely different story. (“Shades Of Grey,” the awful Star Trek: The Next Generation clip show, gave Riker a brain infection that had him reliving his past to try and cover for the clunkiness. It didn’t work.) Here, though, Morty and his family are beset by alien parasites who insert themselves into people’s lives by giving them false memories, ala Dawn from Buffy: The Vampire Slayer; which means that every time someone says, “Remember when…,” another alien gets a chance to essentially come into being. Instead of groaning at each new flashback, or even appreciating them as ironic commentary on the phoniness of flashbacks, those memories create rising tension. They’re funny, but they’re also dangerous—which, thankfully, makes them funnier.
It’s a brilliant conceit, and the speed with which things get out of hand is breathtaking to watch. That’s not unusual for the show; one of its hallmarks is an absolute faith in the intelligence of its audience, and a willingness to follow established premises to their logical conclusion without holding back for fear of losing or alienating viewers. So the episode begins with things already somewhat out of hand—the first parasite has taken the form of “Uncle Steve,” and in the first scene, he’s already insinuated himself into the family’s life. Rick, unsurprisingly, realizes what’s going on, and shoots Uncle Steve in the head; the alien reverts to its hideous worm form when it dies, which gives Rick’s explanation of the situation considerable credence. (It also sets up the episode’s final twist, when Beth makes a horrible, horrible mistake.)
Things escalate from there, with each new alien manifesting in increasingly ludicrous ways. I’ve tried to list some of those forms below, but I’m sure I missed a few; and hell, most of the ones we see don’t even get names. Which is another hallmark of the series—the writers (and animators) jam so much invention into each twenty-minute block that listing it all would take, well, a lot more patience than I have at 12:30 am on a Monday morning. Really, though, fun as lists are, keeping track would be to miss the point. The voluminous creativity only works because it serves a narrative function. Jerry, Summer, Beth, Morty, Rick, and Mr. Poopybutthole need to feel overwhelmed, so lost in a sea of friendly faces that they forget the danger they’re in.
What really brings everything together, though, is Morty’s discovery that the parasites can only create good memories. The first half of the episode is dominated by flashbacks to happy times that never happened. Summer flying with Tinkles, the magical ballerina lamb; Cousin Nicky rescuing the family from a trapped elevator (thing I just realized—it’s an unhappy memory until Nicky shows up, which is a clue that Mr. Poopybutthole, improbably enough, is real); Rick and Frankenstein in ’Nam; Jerry and Sleepy Gary hooking up in the south seas, or wherever they were. The second half is when shit gets real, and each member of the family has to conjure up the bad times to make sure who’s real and who isn’t.
It gets a bit dark (the scene of a drunken Beth accidentally hitting Summer in the face with a wine bottle is legitimately unsettling), but that makes sense. A more reserved show might have tried to soften those bad memories, or at least give us a “Well, a family is made up of the good and the bad!” lesson at the end. This episode doesn’t really try. There’s no moral here about anything, just the observation that perfect contentment and happiness is not something we can ever expect in our lives, and the only time we can really be sure that someone is lying to us is when they keep telling us exactly what we want to hear. This isn’t about reassuring anyone—it’s simply presenting facts without commentary, and letting us make up our own minds.
Actually, not quite. Saying “all families have bad memories” would be a bit sad, but Rick And Morty goes a step further in suggesting that maybe it’s just this family that’s fucked up. Through the whole half hour, the audience has been primed for the Mr. Poopybutthole shoe to drop. He’s absurd, he has a ridiculous name, and he’s been inserted into the show in an extremely suspicious way. (Right down to appearing in the title sequence.) But when Beth shoots him, he bleeds real blood. Recovering in the hospital after the end credits, he tells Beth (through his physical therapist) that he’s sorry none of them had any bad memories of him.
So I guess it’s possible to have all good memories of a real person. Kind of makes you wonder what the hell we’ve been doing with our lives—right, Mr. Computer Screen Which I Keep Staring At Because I Hope You Have Answers Guy?
- “Steve wasn’t real?” “He was a real piece of shit.”
- Much thanks to Alasdair for covering for me last week.
- “I was on the wrong side of the pitchfork on that one.” -Frankenstein. (He’s really Frankenstein’s monster.)
- Another reason this episode is so strong is because there’s no unrelated subplot to distract from the main story. The closest we get is Jerry convincing himself he’s an alien parasite, but that’s both completely fitting and immediately relevant. (Jerry also has a love affair with a man, but I think that’s less about his sexuality, and more about his desperate need to be loved.)
- Okay, there was also Photography-raptor, Pencilvester (Rick is very emotionally attached to Pencilvester), Reverse Giraffe, Hammerai, Amish Cyborg, and Mrs. Refrigerator. And a ton of others.
- Having the main characters start to question each other’s reality was inevitable, but it’s great how the episode doesn’t linger on the idea. It happens, there’s some lampshaded yelling (Beth pointing out Rick’s “incredibly vague backstory”), and then Morty figures out what’s going on.
- “Why don’t you make me, implausibly naive adolescent boy with an old Jewish comedy writer’s name?” -Rick, mocking Morty’s name
- “Summer, I love you.” “Yup.” And she shoots. Do not mess with Summer.
- “Sorry, Jerry. We’re real.” “I’m a parasite!” “Yeah. But you’re real.”