Man, when Rick said this was going to be the darkest season yet, he wasn’t kidding. Nothing in these past ten episodes had the same shock value of seeing a mad scientist wipe out the human race with a mistimed “love potion,” but that actually kind of made everything worse. Because the surprise is gone. There’s only so many times murder remains an effective punchline before you start to think, “Oh look, a corpse.” We’ve heard about the parallel universes and how little individual life matters and how much Rick doesn’t give a shit about any of it so often that the subversive tension of the commentary—of trying to show how an authentic Doctor Who-style genius would arguably just be a self-absorbed ass—no longer has any impact. This level of self-awareness is just nihilism with fart jokes.

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And yeah, for a while, it worked. The parts of season three that were effective (and a lot of it was effective, and funny as hell) succeeded because they were honest. There was no effort to pretend that everything was fine, that this evil alien threat actually mattered even after all the other ones didn’t actually add up to anything. Evil Morty made an appearance, but he didn’t show up in the finale to break things, and that’s probably for the best. The third season dug deep into what it actually would be like to be so smart you can do pretty much anything, and to its credit, the picture wasn’t just “be awesome all the time.” Rick is still as fucked up as ever, and now Beth is in on the act. Morty and Summer seem sort of okay, but without anything like a stable family unit, who knows how long that will last.

But while that generated some good storylines, it’s not a direction you can go in forever. We need a conflict, stakes, plots that aren’t just Rick pointing out how stupid they are until they end. In previous seasons, the show managed a balance between self-mockery and honest joy in absurd scenarios. That joy is still there, more or less, but there’s a bitterness to it that’s harder and harder to ignore. “Pickle Rick” was great, but it also represents an endpoint—if Rick can literally turn himself into a pickle and still become an unstoppable killing machine, how do you up the ante? Where do you go next? At least that episode provided a rational counterpoint to Rick’s indulgences. By the time you have one of the titular protagonists of the show giving apparently sincere speeches about how hard it is to be smart, you’re in danger of getting lost in the weeds.

Which is why “The Rickchurian Mortydate” (jesus that spelling) ends with Jerry triumphant. It’s pretty much the only way the show could be sustainable going forward, because if Rick doesn’t get checked, if there isn’t something that forces him to come back down to Earth, he’s no longer interesting.

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Things start out simply enough, with the President calling Rick and Morty in for help to deal with an alien menace in the Kennedy sex tunnels. (Thankfully nothing has touched the Lincoln Slave Colosseum.) Too simply, honestly, so it’s a relief when our heroes get bored and leave. They piss off the President, and the whole thing turns into weird combination of pissing match and break-up. They fight, words are said, conflicts negotiated, and many Security Service dudes get killed. Eventually, Rick and the President get into a big fight that’s gorgeously animated, full of clever ideas and fluid action, and it’s also… kind of… samey? Like, we’ve seen Rick get into fights before, and it’s fine, but since we know he’ll win, there’s nothing much to look at but the fireworks.

The really important stuff is happening with Beth. Last week left her status ambiguous, as it was impossible to know if she’d taken Rick up on his offer of a free, impossible-to-distinguish-from-the-real-thing clone. While parts of that episode left me cold (in particular, the heart-to-heart between father and daughter was too much like people just reading off their character philosophies without any sort of nuance), the refusal to give a clear signal at the end, to not even hint, was a great choice, and it pays off here quite nicely.

Because Beth is happier now and she’s handling her kids better, but she still knows about that offer Rick made her. And, some self-doubt and a quick conversation with her dad later, she’s terrified that she’s the clone and that Rick will kill her the instant he realizes she’s self-aware. This is, on a thematic level, the major consequence of embracing a Rick lifestyle. Nothing’s ever certain, nothing’s ever nailed down. Infinite universes means anything’s possible, and if anything’s possible, how does any of it matter? If there are millions of other yous out there, how do you know which one you are?

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So Beth runs to Jerry, because Jerry isn’t much of anything. Jerry is a man of severe limitations, and that, ultimately, is why Beth wants him in her life. It’s a necessary corrective to an arc that was in danger of going off the rails completely. Jerry is the boring stuff, the bullshit, the humiliation and awkwardness that makes the successes actually matter; he’s failure in a skin sack, but the capacity for failure keeps the howling void at bay, allows you to put on blinkers and stumble through life without getting blinded by the possibility.

Bringing back Jerry at this point makes sense. The first season, Rick was the outsider figure corrupting a normal, dysfunctional family; the second season made Rick more of a family member without losing the balance; and the third season threw it all out the window, dropping even the illusion of consequence as Rick took over the family and Jerry wallowed in a bachelor’s motel. And now Jerry’s back, so, as Beth notes, we’ll go back to season one again only a bit more streamlined.

That’s a joke, of course, but the question it raises is hard to shake: can they really go back? Because of course you can’t, not completely. “The Rickchurian Mortydate” is entertaining (Keith David is, as ever, the best), but there’s a clumsiness to it, a feeling of gears-shifting and resets being hit. It’s most effective idea is that we still don’t really know if Beth is a clone or not. (You can’t prove a negative.) Everything else more or less does what it needs to do, but the problem with going as far as season three went is that bridges stay burned. From a thematic standpoint, Jerry’s return has the appeal of circularity, and offers some hope that season four won’t push quite so far. From a character standpoint, though, it’s anticlimax. Even when I know it has to happen, I’m not exactly thrilled about it. I mean, it’s Jerry.

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Stray observations

  • You could argue that the fact that Rick brings a machine gun to the cabin means that Beth’s a clone and that she manages to talk him out of killing her. Or that Beth is real and she talked him out of killing Jerry. Or he knew that bringing a gun would force her to give a speech that would give him a way back into the family while still seeming like he didn’t care.
  • “You’re not gonna have fun if you analyze everything.” -Morty, and, ha ha, I get it.
  • South Park did it four years ago.” “Whoa, they’re fast.” “Or we’re slow.”
  • Rick brings peace Palestine and Israel with the “Pretty obvious if you think about it” Accords.
  • “Everybody wants to be knocked out. No one wants to be dead.” -Rick

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