It’s no coincidence that many of season three’s episodes have contained more than one “version” of Rick floating around. In “Vindicators 3,” it was drunk villain Rick. In “The Whirly Dirly Conspiracy,” we’re briefly acquainted with a dumbed-down Rick that relies on Jerry, of all people, for survival. With “Rest & Ricklaxation,” Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland have decided to further explore Rick’s duality, and the tragic self-loathing that defines Morty’s existence, in what may be the season’s best episode yet (for the record, I know I keep saying that but, like, come on; this is a really good season!).
We can pretty much conclude that school and Morty aren’t really too familiar with each other anymore, so it’s a surprise to see Morty fawning over Jessica in the episode’s first scene. Of course, it isn’t long before grandpa Rick comes in and ruins everything, but a title card informs us that Rick’s quick little “20-minute adventure” (the first of many meta-as-heck jokes in the next two episodes) actually took six days, and nearly got both of them killed. And not in the cute way, mind you, where Rick is secretly in control of the whole thing. Even he’s rattled after they safely land their ship, leading them both to the conclusion that they could use a break.
Rick takes Morty to the best day spa in the galaxy, and the both of them agree to have the psychological toxins literally removed from their body in a quick, painless process. They agree, not knowing that their toxic selves have a sentience of their own, and nobody wants to know what happens when the smartest man in the universe’s worst tendencies are given a mind and body of their own. The earth-bound halves, however, prove to be mostly useless without their worst tendencies, making the fight between Rick and Morty and Morty and Rick an unusually even playing field.
The episode’s best moments come when we realize just which traits were severed, and which ones ended up where. When Non-Toxic Rick finally figures out how the machine determines what a psychological toxin is in each individual, it becomes clear the whole process is a matter of perception, leading to some pretty startling revelations about both characters. On the one hand, Morty’s most defining quality – his inability to defend himself – is both something he’s aware of and totally self-inflicted. But it’s that same self-doubt that keeps him grounded. We quickly see that, without it, he’s no better (and becoming just as capable) than Rick himself.
“Rest and Ricklaxation” is a welcome break from the show’s increasingly high-concept episodes, especially as something of a return to form for Community creator Dan Harmon. The writer is at his best when he has an opportunity to dig deeper into characters with which we’re already familiar. Harmon’s writing thrives on a certain ratio of sobering observations to cleverly placed in-jokes, and when the latter can include pre-established character moments, even better! The running theme of Rick’s secret love for Morty is also a big part of the episode when it’s revealed that Rick considers his affection for Morty to be a toxic quality, and is, therefore, a part of Toxic Rick’s personality. Only Rick & Morty can make something so scientific and depressing seem so endearing.
GEEK Grade: A
This week’s episode, “The Ricklantis Mixup,” is another foray into high (emphasis on high) concept sci-fi that would seem more at home in a Star Trek marathon than on a block of Adult Swim programming. After fielding an invite from the Citadel of Ricks, the Rick & Morty that we’ve come to know and love go on an adventure in the Lost City of Atlantis and have a wonderful time. They both get some “mermaid puss” and, judging from the smiles on their faces, nothing too horrible went down. But this episode isn’t about our Rick and Morty, but rather what kind of society might emerge if everybody was either a Rick or a Morty.
The answer? Not different at all. Much like the US in 2017, the Citadel of Ricks is divided by class and, instead of race, all the different variations of the Citadel’s only two people. The episode follows a handful of each, including a rookie Rick cop who’s partnered with a hardened Morty who hates other Morty’s, an obvious allusion to the growing tensions between police and people of color in the US. It’s also a very similar premise, in spirit, to David Ayer’s upcoming Netflix original, Bright. I wonder if he’s seen the episode yet.
Meanwhile, there’s also a group of four different Morty’s who make a break for it in a Stand By Me coming of age story, as well as the tale of a disgruntled, middle class Rick who takes matters into his own hands by brutally murdering his supervisor and taking his company’s most important Rick hostage. Strapped to a chair, the man being held is a less jaded Rick who, in an induced coma, is fed memories of Beth as a baby and has his serotonin secreted as an ingredient for the Citadel’s most successful candy bar.
And then finally, there’s the Morty running for president, the first in history with a real shot at winning. This is the subplot that plays around the most with the idea of identity, and differentiating each Rick and Morty as an individual despite their physical similarities. I mean, all of the subplots deal with that in one way or another on a more subtextual level, but the President Morty plot is the only one that milks it for a sweet, sweet twist ending, suggesting that our Rick and Morty may need to confront Evil Morty to save the Citadel of Ricks – with great reluctance, of course.
Even Rick says, at the beginning of the episode, that this one was going to function more as a standalone, which makes its cliffhanger ending (the only one of the season, no less) all the more ironic. But I’m glad we got a break from the archetypes of Rick and Morty that we’ve become most familiar with. The entire show rests on its viewers continued inability to figure out where it’s going. By opening up the floodgates, so to speak, and allowing for episodes that rest on a more comfortable understanding of the characters, Rick & Morty has shown a bravery for entering “fans-only” territory while making room for a lot of ideas that wouldn’t have worked even a year or so ago.
If “Rest and Ricklaxation” was the season’s funniest or “best” episode, “The Ricklantis Mixup” is its riskiest, and ultimately its most rewarding. There’s no guarantee that viewers are going to be familiar enough with the characters to engage with them like this. It takes a lot to get an audience interested in more conceptual detours, and the fact that they pulled it off so effortlessly is something to take note of. I’m excited for “Interdimensional Cable 3” next week – except they’re calling it “Morty’s Mind Blowers” and twisting up the formula by having it be Morty’s worst experiences instead of random TV channels – because it’s familiar and guaranteed to be funny. But episodes like “The Ricklantis Mixup” are a good way to determine where a show is artistically, and where it has the potential to go.
GEEK Grade: A
Next week, get ready to be disturbed beyond all belief. Also, I wouldn’t expect too much about Evil President Morty until the season finale, aptly titled “The Rickchurian Mortydate”.
Images: Adult Swim