If someone were to ask me what the appeal of Rick And Morty is, I’d tell them to just watch the damn show already, god, is my word somehow not good enough for you or something, and if it isn’t, why are you even asking me this question in the first place? But if I was in a good mood, I’d stress the show’s wit, its cleverly concealed heart, and its high-concept science fiction brilliance. And I’d make sure to point out how great the writers are at taking familiar ideas and jokes and pushing them as far as they can go without totally breaking them.
Take the premise of “Close Rick-counters Of The Rick Kind.” The cold open has the family sitting around the dinner table as Beth asks Rick if he wants any special treat for the one year anniversary of his homecoming next morning. Rick is passing on the idea of flying saucer shaped pancakes when a portal opens up, a battle damaged Rick and eye-patched Morty pop out; Evil Rick shoots Rick, and Eye-Patch Morty tranqs Morty and they take his unconscious body away.
It’s disorienting to say the least (and trying to write about this episode is going to be no damn picnic, unless it was a picnic full of alternate reality Ricks and Mortys and I think you see my point here), and things don’t get any easier when the following scene picks up seemingly where the previous one left off; it’s the next day, and Beth has made Rick his anniversary breakfast. As Rick realizes that all pancakes are flying saucer shaped because, oh right, pancakes are circles, a trio of armed, uniformed Ricks show up through a new portal and arrest Our Rick on the charge of Rick-icide.
Alternate realities are a staple of comic books, science fiction, and, hell, this series; the first season hasn’t quite ended yet, and we’ve already gotten a clear sense of a reality so chaotic that it’s practically limitless. But even this one takes some unpacking. Basically, most realities have a Rick, and those Ricks realized that due to their genius (and occasional questionable ethical lapses), they’ll always have enemies looking to hunt them down. So a bunch of Ricks—and I mean a bunch—joined forces to form a kind of Rick-topia, a safe haven for the Ricks and Mortys throughout all dimensions. Rick-topia is populated entirely by Ricks and Mortys, staffed by Ricks, and ruled by a Council of Ricks, wise elders who sit in judgement over crimes against Rick-manity, and who are now convinced that our Rick (Earth Rick C137) is running around murdering other Ricks because Rick only knows why.
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What you have here are writers (or a writer, or maybe an artificial intelligence that’s using an animated television series to slowly indoctrinate us into submission) taking an already pretty mind-bendy concept—parallel realities—and taking that concept as far down a path as possible, using what we know both about the universe(s) of the show and the fundamental nature of Rick’s character in a sort of cause and effect type relationship. The Cause: A whole lot of super smart Ricks exist, know about each other, and know how to contact each other. The Effect: Those Ricks are going to get together, right? And if they got together, wouldn’t the results be pretty damn amazing?
This is a concept that makes perfect sense once you understand it, but it poses a hellacious challenge to use it without making the episode so complicated and expository that the story gets lost. “Close Rick-counters” handles this well; there’s a couple of uncertain minutes when it’s not entirely clear what’s going on, and then our Rick launches into an explanation to the terrified Morty, and the idea goes from being bizarre to weirdly obvious.
There are miniature examples of this kind of seeing-an-idea-through approach throughout the episode too; like the “pizza ordering a large person” joke which turns into “phones order a sofa” joke which turns into “upholstered chairs ordering a phone while talking into a slice of pizza joke.” It’s all part of a relentless determination to question every potential assumption, to never be satisfied with the first take on something. Sometimes, that means taking a premise (an alternate reality where pizza is people!) and riffing on that in a way that both expands the show’s possibilities and subtly mocks the concept of alternate realities in the first place. Sometimes, it’s like the bit where a member of the Rick police makes sure to draw a red X on his forehead so there’s no confusion between him and the real Rick. This is a show designed to answer any potential message board nitpicking in advance. You can’t out-nerd it. It won’t let you.
All of which makes the occasional moments of heart even more surprising and effective. Jerry’s bonding with “Doofus Rick” (who is accused of eating his own poop, although, thank god, we don’t ever see that) is both hilarious, because Jerry is pathetic, and kind of sweet, because at no point does the episode actually undercut the relationship itself. Jerry gets mocked by various Ricks, but Doofus Rick doesn’t turn into an asshole, and the friendship never becomes unpleasant or anything but kind of adorable and pathetic.
This goes doubly for the real emotional core of the story: Morty’s frustration with how Rick sees him, and his horror when he finds out Rick is just using him as a kind of human camouflage. (Morty’s… “Morty” brain waves neutralize Rick’s genius brain waves.) One of the subversive hooks of the show is that the relationship between the mad scientist and his grandson isn’t, at least at first glance, a healthy one. Rick uses Morty for various reasons, not because he loves the kid and wants to, I dunno, teach him valuable lessons about ilfe, but because Morty serves a function, no more, no less.
“Close Rick-counters” doesn’t entirely refute this premise, but it does suggest that the situation is more complicated than just a selfish bastard exploiting a 14-year-old kid. Rick actually tears up watching his own memories of Morty (to recap: Rick and Morty find Murder Rick in a dome covered in constantly tortured Mortys; Murder Rick plans to steal all of Rick’s memories and then kill him). He won’t admit to anything, probably because Rick’s opinion of love and affection isn’t all that high—both are weakness, both cloud judgement, and both are totally lamewad. But Rick does feel things, and the episode manages to remind us that he and Morty have something like a friendship, even if it’s nowhere near normal.
It doesn’t hurt that Morty finds the strength to lead all the other Mortys out of captivity, take down the apparent bad guy, and save Rick’s life. Of all the Mortys everywhere, our Morty is the Morty-iest. He may not have the sharpest brain-waves, but he’s got chutzpah, and his refusal take the crap Rick throws at him without occasionally standing up for himself sets him apart. “Close Rick-counters” doesn’t have a big emotional climax, unless you count Jerry and Doofus Rick (don’t); our Rick and Morty reach an accord, but they don’t hug it out, and Morty doesn’t know that Rick got a little weepy at the sight of baby Morty holding out his hands. Yet the clarification of their relationship, the way we see why Rick needs Morty around for a variety of reasons, is enough. Yeah, the shielding is useful. But Rick knows that existence is a constantly shifting mess of chaos, violence, and complications; it’s good to have someone you can count on.
Unless he takes over your mind.
- I really hope we haven’t seen the last of Evil Morty. I want to know what that kid’s deal is.
- Farewell, Scientist Formerly Known As Rick. The multiverse was never meant for one so beautiful as you.
- All the Rick cops hanging out trying to track Rick down are really, really nice to Beth. I wonder if we’ll ever get more back-story on her mom, and why Rick left, and why he came back.
- “We both know that if there’s any truth in the universe, it’s that Ricks don’t care about Mortys.” Evil (mind-controlled) Rick. Except that’s not true about our Rick. I wonder if Evil (mind-controlled) Rick did something to his Morty that made him snap and try and eliminate every Rick in existence?
- During his brief time in captivity, Morty meets a cult of Mortys who believe in the One True Morty. The Good Morty. They give him a tract that looks a lot like a Jack Chick comic.
- Glad that Rick grabbed that One Free Morty voucher, those things come in handy.
- That dome covered in screaming, bleeding Mortys is going to haunt me. Such overkill.