Relatively early on in “Star Mort Rickturn Of The Jerry,” Rick has coffee with his daughter. Or his daughter’s clone. It’s a bit fuzzy, really; if you remember back in season three, Beth found out some hard truths about herself and couldn’t decide if she wanted to stay on Earth with her family or go out into the galaxy and have some adventures. Rick offered to make a clone of her with all her memories, so she could leave guilt free, but the episode (“The ABCs Of Beth”) ended on an ambiguous note. Which, at the time, felt like both a decent meta joke for fans to obsess over, and a way to “resolve” an unresolvable situation without fundamentally changing the status quo. If you remember, season three was all about Rick Winning Everything, even while revealing himself to be a deeply broken person in terms of the basic things like love and support and having relationships with anyone. (I mean, that’s always been in the show’s DNA, but season three went as hard into it as you could.) Not knowing if we were watching Beth or her clone seemed to be both a way to cement Rick’s status as the Technology-That’s-Basically-Magic God, and the latest iteration in the show’s endless supply of fake-outs, double-bluffs, and alternate realities.
I didn’t think it would ever come up again, honestly. But here we are with the season four finale, and there’s a Beth in outer space (Beth “Smith”) who’s leading the “Defiance” against the evil empire, and having a heck of a time of it. But she finds out she has a device in her neck that she didn’t know about; she decides it’s a bomb; and she comes back to Earth to kick Rick’s ass for booby-trapping her. Rick talks his way out of it, tells her the “device” (Earth Beth has one in her neck too) is just a way that Space Beth could download all of Earth Beth’s memories if she decided to come back, and the two go for coffee. Beth brags about her accomplishments as a rebel—she’s the most wanted person in the galaxy now—and Rick tell her (partly as a way to cover for the fact that he’s a bit threatened, but also as the truth) that someone’s always trying to take over the galaxy; the trick is to get whoever’s doing it to ignore you.
It’s a line that stuck out to me. “Star Mort” has a lot of unexpected continuity wanking (leave it to this show to make jokes about how dumb it is to nod to past events, and then bring the Beth Clone Saga, Dr. Wong, Tammy, and Bird Person—I’m sorry, Phoenix Person—all at once and assume you’ll keep up), a rare “hero” turn for Jerry, and a clever answer to ambiguity that allows for character resolution without giving specifics. We are reminded, for the umpteenth time, that Rick Sanchez is a shitty father, and a shitty granddad and father-in-law and just all around human being. (He believes he’s still a good friend, as he’s gathered up Phoenix Person’s remains, but the jury remains out on that one.) There’s even a sad pop song near the end, when we discover the twist that way back in “The ABCs Of Beth,” Beth told her father to make the choice for her; and he couldn’t; so even he doesn’t know who the clone or the original is.
This is supposed to be an emotional moment. It lands okay—it has all the cadence of a “god, this guy fucking sucks, and he knows he sucks, and you feel kind of sorry for him because he can’t seem to change” scene. And that’s okay, although it gets harder and harder to feel much of anything about Rick as the show goes on. Rick And Morty started as a deconstruction of sci-fi and genre tropes with a lot of sharp cynicism about human nature and an ability to indulge in nihilism just enough to be shocking, but not enough to give up completely. And it still is that show, more or less. But over the years, it’s become more and more a sort of anti-hero apologia, an excuse to celebrate a certain kind of misanthropic self-regard while pretending to skewer it. There’s a kind of self-loathing that’s really just narcissism in disguise, and while it’s not less painful or destructive because of that, it also precludes the possibility of actual change. It’s easier, really, to be shitty and then tell yourself you are shit (and that oh hey, the world is also shit), because if you really are this incredibly awful, and there’s no way you could ever act differently because of how awful you fundamentally are—well, problem solved, right?
Rick And Morty, of course, is aware of this nonsense too. A few times, sensible characters have pointed out to Rick just how dumb his bullshit really is; Dr. Wong ended “Pickle Rick” by more or less laying the whole problem out. And it’s not that Rick needs to actually “get better” or anything, as this is a comedy series and he’s not a real person. The trouble isn’t Rick’s line about how the secret to life is to make sure the evil empires ignore you; the trouble is that it’s hard to know where the character’s perspective ends, and the show’s perspective begins. Because for Rick to be that recognizably selfish is one thing; it’s not a new thought, and it’s one most people have had at some point in their lives, especially those of us with the privilege to pretend it applies to us. But for the show to pretend it’s undercutting that perspective even as it not-so-secretly endorses it (by having Rick always be right, and always be super-powerful and able to get out of anything, and also having most everyone else outside his immediate family be disposable and annoying)... well, that makes it hard to care even if the song they play when he’s sad is very sad indeed.
Which is why the big reveal about Beth really didn’t do much at all for me one way or the other. It’s not a story I needed resolved, and the turn in Beth’s character from season three always felt a bit off; bringing it back now was more a reminder of that awkwardness, even if the episode does end with everything pretty much the same. What does work is how much of “Star Mort” is spent with Summer and Morty teaming up and squabbling like asshole siblings and saving the planet; and how Jerry is actually useful and heroic, even if he’s still essentially Jerry; and how everyone in the family, from the Beths on down, is just so absolutely done with Rick’s shit. I can’t really feel bad for Rick Sanchez being, I dunno, trapped by his own genius or something at this point. But having him treated like the loser he kind of is? That’s got legs on it.
As for the story itself… well, Tammy got taken out pretty easy; it was a fun call-back, and Jerry puppeteering her corpse to distract Phoenix Person did a good job walking the line between “disturbing” and “entertaining,” but her death feels a bit like the writers just wanting to get rid of a loose end. The fight between Rick and Phoenix Person was thrilling, and while this the second episode in a row where Rick got the bejeezus beat out of him, it’s a smart touch that in both fights, someone else had to save his ass. Rick And Morty’s third season felt like the show pushing just about as far as it could go into a particular mindset, and while that purity of focus yielded some great episodes, it also left some scorched earth behind it in terms of Rick as a character. A lot of season four has been about slowly, awkwardly trying to find a way back to the equilibrium of the first two seasons, and it’s been more successful than I would’ve imagined.
Was it funny? Yeah, I laughed, and there were good jokes. (The post-credit scene of Jerry inadvertently making a garbage truck invisible was gratifyingly silly.) The story was suspenseful, the stakes were convincing (not an easy to feat to pull off on a show where “let’s just jump to another reality and try again” is a legitimate plot point), and while parts of the ending didn’t affect me in the way it seemed to be designed, I think the larger arc of the season, the efforts to make Rick into something less than the awesomest asshole in the universe, worked pretty well. I know I take this show too seriously, and I do my best to try and balance that with an appreciation for everything it gets right. It’s been nice, this last batch of episodes, to not have to work that hard to remember to say nice things.
- It’s interesting how little Dr. Wong really does in this episode; she’s mostly there to let us know that the family still goes to therapy (and Rick still does everything to avoid it). I’ll take it as an indication that the writers haven’t completely forgotten the points she raised all the way back in “Pickle Rick.” I am also glad they didn’t kill her off.
- “She died the way she lived, over-serialized.” -Rick, re: Tammy.
- “It’s funny. I always wondered who would win if we ever fought.” “Then you were always a bad friend.”
- “It fascinates me that an entire family can be this critical and suck this much.” Phoenix Person lays down some hard truths.