Photo: Adult Swim

Your parents will fuck you up. Beth and Jerry’s relationship has never been a shining beacon of hope, but on a show like Rick And Morty, where dysfunction rules and the most important thing in the universe may be the ability to find something you can hold on to, at least they’d managed to stay together. Beth is terrified of abandonment, Jerry is a Jell-O mold hunting for a spine, but their insecurities and needs combined in a way that sort of worked. And then Rick forced the issue and broke them up, and things have once again gone to hell. Not a bad way to start a season.

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“Rickmancing The Stone” is more about the fallout from the divorce than I would’ve predicted. The episode picks up a few weeks after the premiere, with Jerry settled into a Depressed Dad’s Motel (I wonder if he has a racing-car bed), and Beth drinking wine and freaking out. Summer and Morty are spending more time with Rick, and neither of them is handling the situation well. It’s a surprisingly nuanced take on a complicated, emotionally fraught situation. Summer is acting out, Morty is trying to hold it together, and Rick is doing his best to glide over everything, with mixed results.

There are also, of course, doomed robots, a Mad Max-styled theme world, and Joel McHale as the voice of Hemorrhage, leader of the Deathstalkers. So it’s not like any of this is boring. Rick is doing his usual Rick thing, hunting for isotope 322, which is very powerful and can do science stuff. The hunt brings him and his grandkids to a post-apocalyptic world where life is cheap, men and women hunt each other like dogs, and there’s also this weird bondage and leather thing going on that always seems to happen when civilization crumbles. Rick finds his science rock, but Summer starts getting really into the nihilism of the place, and when Rick discovers an even bigger rock, they end up sticking around long enough for Summer to start a romance, and Morty to bond with his arm.

Really this is Summer’s episode, but it’s balanced well enough between her and her brother. I especially appreciated how good the series has gotten at characterizing both kids in a way that’s reminiscent of their parents without being direct copies. Summer has Beth’s anger, Morty has Jerry’s ineffectual morality, but each of them is distinctly enough themselves to be a plausible family. As ever, it’s impressive how well the show manages to mix high-concept genre riffs with drama in a way that never becomes belabored, detached, or forced.

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Like: Because she’s upset about her parents but doesn’t know how to deal with it, Summer leans heavy into the nihilism, hooking up with Hemorrhage and going full Deathstalker until Rick ruins everything by giving the locals free cable. While Summer’s trying to distract herself from the ruin of her home life, Morty gets sucked into the Blood Dome after Rick steals muscle memory from a dead limb and turns his grandson’s left arm into a killing machine. Morty is slightly ahead of the curve on realizing everything’s fucked up, but he has his own issues to work out: namely, rage at his father for giving up so easily and leaving them in Rick’s less-than-trustworthy hands.

Even Rick’s struggling a little. I was on the fence after his rant at the end of “The Rickshank Rickdemption,” but having rewatched that episode and this one, it’s more obvious what the show is trying to do with the character—not so much returning him to zero as showing him stuck between caring about his family and being so smart that he knows that every emotional connection is essentially a one-way ticket to Sucksville. Not to get too heavy, but the fact that he acknowledges that he isn’t handling Beth and Jerry’s divorce well (a divorce he caused) reinforces one of the core tensions of the series, that split between “nothing means anything” and being a sentient creature who has to find some sense in the madness. Rick never lets his grandkids forget that they are easily replaceable. He also doesn’t let them just die. It’s a remarkable narrative balance, because the show wouldn’t work if Rick didn’t care about anything, but it also wouldn’t work if he cared in an obvious or easily predictable way.

So instead you have him abandoning Summer and Morty on the Mad Max world because they annoyed him, and building robot replacements to keep his daughter from asking too many questions. But when the robot replacements don’t work (there are two “robots briefly gaining sentience and then getting killed off” gags and they are both excellent), he goes back, claiming that the amount of effort it would take to find replacements would make the work meaningless. Which is probably true! But he still goes back, just in time to help Morty’s arm get revenge on the bastard who had him killed. Then he sabotages Summer and Hemorrhage’s connection by turning them into a typical suburban couple.

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It’s a rich tapestry, as ever, and a terrifically entertaining one. While “Rickmancing The Stone” might not be quite as high-concept in its sci-fi as the premiere, the use of post-apocalyptic movie tropes as a playground for children to work through trauma is clever as hell, and the result is hilarious and briefly moving. Everyone seems just changed enough to keep from being stale, building on the previous two seasons without ever making a big deal out of it. Even Jerry seems to learn a little, although that doesn’t keep the wind from whispering “loser.” (Because that’s what he is.) The show is exactly where it needs to be—back on our televisions.

Stray observations

  • “They don’t have to keep trying to kill us if we join them. They’re basically pussies.”—Summer
  • Morty’s muscle-memory-enhanced arm (which he names Armethy) has flashbacks. God, I love this show.
  • “Ah, you mean the Blood Dome?” “Save it for the Semantics Dome, E.B. White.”
  • So, is the “Loser” voice just a gag? Something more? I could honestly see it working either way.
  • “Ohhhh. We’ll be right back.” —Rick (Once again, the smartest man in the universe is aware he’s on a TV show. Maybe the series finale will have him figure out a way to murder Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland.)
  • “The longer you wait, the more it’s going to feel like committing a whole murder. I think your arm just called it too early because it wasn’t the arm of a paramedic.” —Rick
  • I remember being surprised at how much world-building the season premiere just flat-out destroys, but while I can’t imagine this makes life easier for the writers, that sort of destruction is very much in keeping with how the show works. Continuity is at once hugely important and relatively meaningless. A reality with infinite possibilities, and yet you can’t ever entirely get away from who you are.

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