So, way back all those months ago when we were so much younger than we are now (and man, I joke, but it really does feel like a happier time, doesn’t it; which can’t say many good things about where we’re headed next), I wondered about Rick’s monologue at the end of the season premiere. I felt like a bit of a jackass wondering about it, because part of the joy of reviewing this show is that you always feel like a bit of a jackass. The other part is staying up until one in the morning on Sunday night, but I digress.
The central tension of the series rests on our assumptions of what a character Rick will do, and what he actually does. At the beginning, that tension was easy enough to exploit. We all have certain basic ideas about what super geniuses do, and grandpa geniuses are expected to follow those ideas: lots of crazy adventures and aliens and inventions and whatever. Rick more or less delivers on this, but he also delivers a whole boatload of cynicism and self-destructive behavior, and that has always been both a source of humor for the show and a great way to churn out tension and narrative conflict. It’s useful to have a main character who’s a villain as often as he is a hero.
What had me “worried” about the monologue (and yeah, let’s throw some goofy quotes around the concern because I wasn’t exactly losing sleep over it) was trying to figure out just how long we can continue to be surprised by Rick’s assholery. Because once Rick turns into an outright villain, the game is pretty much over. A show with a super genius whose angst and brilliance make him act in unconventional and often horrifying ways is a show with potential. A show which stars a monster who is a monster is—well, there’s a reason Breaking Bad ended when it did, and it’s not just because AMC stopped paying the bills. You need that tension to keep going, or else it just gets dull.
In “Vindicators 3: The Return Of Worldender,” Rick is the villain. There’s, like, 30 seconds at the end when Supernova (Gillian Jacobs) is sort of villain-ish, but really, Rick is the bad guy here; he gets drunk and blacks out, and while he’s blacked out he constructs an elaborate series of Jigsaw-like traps to punish the superhero group that Morty is currently infatuated with. His traps kill two members of the group, and tensions between the survivors get (most of) the rest of the work done. So honestly, even as a villain he’s sort of half-assed. Which is, of course, the point.
Dig a little deeper, and the fundamental crux of the show isn’t actually about Rick. (I know I said that, I lied to you, it’s late and I am tired and you should never trust what you read on the internet.) It’s about whether it’s possible to believe in anything at all. Rick isn’t just a super-genius; he’s self-aware, to, like, Daffy Duck in “Duck Amok” levels, only without a sadistic animator powerful enough to make his life hell. The Rick of season three has defeated both the galactic federation and the Council Of Ricks. So far as we know, there’s literally no one else left beyond Rick himself—this Rick, the only apparent surviving Rick—who can offer any threat at all.
So how do you keep telling stories with stakes when you have a main character who is pretty much invincible? Rick manages to build multiple death traps, and an amusement park ride, in the span of one night while drunk off his ass. Really, the only way to provide any plausible conflict at all is to focus on the internal, but at the same time, he’s a super-genius so it can’t be shit he isn’t already aware of. You have Morty around and give Rick just enough need for companionship that he keeps dragging the kid to various adventures (even bribing him with a “you can pick our 10th adventure” card), and you give him a few other people in his life he can care about, and we’re back at that old saw about whether or not it’s worth caring about people when all that affection really does is create conflict and pain.
The crux, then, is how do you keep telling stories that relentlessly deconstruct themselves even as you tell them. How do you walk the line between constantly pointing out the stupidity of what you’re doing and still finding just enough novelty and legitimate emotion to stave off complete nihilism. Once the Vindicators start dying (Goodbye, Vance! Go do another Mr. Robot), once Drunk Rick takes over, it’s clear enough what’s going to happen. Rick will escape more or less unscathed, the Vindicators will be more or less wiped out, and Rick’s point from the beginning—that the whole idea of “Vindicators” (and the superhero teams they emulate) is a fundamentally idiotic ego-trip—will be proven true. Hell, it’s not even a new point. Watchmen got there 30 years ago.
So why does this still work? It helps that Morty is getting smarter. He’s not improbably smart, but he is learning, and his resigned irritation at Rick’s games is both one of the episode’s better jokes, and one of the things in the story that feels like it actually matters—because Morty is still capable of change, at least, and the kid we see seeing through his grandfather’s drunken games (the Israel punchline? Holy shit) is not the same one as the kid who freaked out in season one when Rick threatened to blow up the world. And he’s not improbably clever, either. He thinks he sees through Rick’s final trap, believing that it’s all been a lesson about how Rick is worried the Vindicators are taking his grandfather away, when really the whole thing is a tribute to Noob Noob, the doofy janitor who laughs at Rick’s jokes (who also happens to weigh more or less as much as Morty does, which is a lucky break).
And it also works because there’s still a subversive charge in just how dark the show is willing to get without giving up completely. There is an endpoint for all of this in which the whole idea of telling stories at all becomes a moot point; in which “adventures” are just so much empty and meaningless nonsense in a reality where you’re better off just doing fuck all and hoping to avoid an agonizing death. The reason Rick And Morty is so impressive this season so far is that it’s managed to maintain emotional authenticity in its major characters without stooping to easy sentiment or laziness. Rick is both an unstoppable engine of chaos and his own worst enemy. Until that gets old, it works.
- How dumb are the Vindicators for bringing Rick back? I guess they didn’t want a repeat of Vindicators 2 (which killed off three heroes of color), but damn.
- I just realized Rick must have posed all of the Worldender’s minions in sex positions after killing them. Yikes.
- At the start of the episode, the Vindicators are Supernova, Vance Maximus, Ghost Train (Lance Reddick), Crocubot, Rick, Morty, and Noob Noob. By the end, only Supernova, Rick, Morty, and Noob Noob are left.
- “Uh, I was also late due to my drinking and mentioned it to zero applause.” —Rick
- “Rick says good and bad are artificial constructs.” —Morty
- Line from my notes: “Rick is in the Briefing Room and there’s shit everywhere.”
- “Are you seriously Sawing the Vindicators?” “Morty, I’m a drunk, not a hack.” (FYI, he was totally Sawing the Vindicators.)
- “Rick’s point is that none of you are special or different. That’s always his point.” —Morty
- “Morty, how many of these—” “Too many, Rick! Too many!”
- “I will say, we are getting some good licks in while choking to death—” “Right?”
- Gear Man is (was?) a tool. Who’d’ve thought.
- Oh, and the show also still works because it’s honest. You may not agree with everything Rick says, but at least no one’s pretending he doesn’t have a point just to make you feel better.