One of the great benefits of Rick And Morty’s sporadic approach to continuity is that the show can keep finding ways to surprise you with old friends. Last time we saw Birdperson, Rick was picking up his pieces after yet another disastrous (but not too disastrous) time with Beth and Beth’s clone in season 4. I had no expectations we’d see him again, he was back tonight, serving as the premise, setting, and emotional center of “Rickternal Friendshine of the Spotless Mort,” the second A-grade episode we’ve had this season, and, for my money, the best of the bunch so far. I’ve been struggling to explain why the past few of weeks of this show have been so frustrating to watch, and here’s why: because I know the creative team is capable of shit like this when they really put their minds to it.
This is, as it were, the good shit. This is why Rick And Morty is one of my favorite shows on TV, even now, even after I watched “Rickdependence Spray” and that one with the turkey soldiers. I got the first big laugh less than five minutes in—the AI that controls Rick’s Garage and its increasingly belabored description of Rick’s pause—and I kept laughing, more or less, till the end. And there’s good heavy emotional misery stuff here, of a kind that’s been sorely lacking on the show lately, as Rick dives into his dead best friend’s mind and tries to convince him to live again for all the wrong/right reasons. It’s funny to see another reference to Charlie Kaufman so soon after the last one, but whereas the Wizard of Oz joke was sub-par Family Guy shtick, here we get a whole half hour using the language of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to tell a not-entirely devastating story of the universe’s greatest asshole scientist once again not quite getting the point.
It’s clever, it is extremely clever, but it’s all clever to a purpose. Watching this helped pinpoint one of the big problems with this season’s weakest episodes: they don’t get Rick right. To be fair, it’s a tricky balance to pull off, and it’s one that the show didn’t always nail even at its height. Rick is a genius who is smart enough to be aware of his own hang-ups but never quite smart of enough to change them; and his inability to accept this, to work on himself in any way at all, means that he spends most of his time coming up with increasingly elaborate ways to distract from his essential isolation. We get glimpses of him in this episode of what he was like before everything went to hell, and it’s great; even better, we can never be sure how much those glimpses are authentic, and how much it’s just Birdperson’s memory papering over Rick’s flaws because he’s a better person (bird or otherwise) than Rick is.
At its worst, the season has settled on a version of Rick that’s indistinguishable from the one that pops in ads and Fortnight and fucking Space Jam 2—the safe one who’s easy to market, and who’s kind of a shithead but in a way that doesn’t have anything to do with us. The version of Rick in “Rickternal” is harder to market because of all the sharp edges. Here’s a guy who wants to bring his best friend back to life just so he can have someone to hang out with—and who briefly tries to keep the existence of his dead best friend’s kid secret because he’s afraid his best friend would be too busy being a dad to hang out with him. That’s a level of selfishness that is dramatically compelling, comedically exciting, and commercially poisonous. And it must be hard to get that line right without either making him a mascot, or making him so toxic it’s impossible to understand why we should care about him at all.
Maybe the biggest draw here is the inventiveness, the way we move through Rick and BP’s history together in ways that hint at backstory without ever getting bogged down by it. We see how they met, at a music concert where Rick was selling drugs; how they teamed up to fight the Federation; how they absolutely kicked ass at Blood Ridge (“Damn, that shit was cash”); how Rick tanked the friendship when he revealed he had a portal gun and didn’t really care about anything but BP himself. It goes by quick, and it doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know, but damn, that’s some good character work: Rick can care about people on an individual basis, but the fact that he’s able to jump to any universe at all has torched his ability to care about much of anything more than that. Or maybe he hasn’t. Maybe that’s just an excuse for him to not linger too long in anyone place.
There are a couple of hints here at Rick’s past that could mean something, but might not. The biggest one comes from Young Rick, the 35 year-old Rick in BP’s memories who catches the Real Rick and decides to tag along for the ride. (The dynamic is actually pretty similar to Rick and Morty’s, albeit with a more competent, less sex-obsessed version of Morty who doesn’t talk like someone’s being strangled.) “You live with a version of our dead daughter” is delivered quickly, acknowledged and then moved past so fast that I’m kind of wondering if this was already part of the lore I missed. I know about Beth’s troubled childhood, I know about the Clone Saga, but I don’t remember hearing that there’s a version of Beth who died young enough for a 35 year old Rick to know about it.
That, plus the scene of Young Rick and BP fighting in a bar for revenge (“Killing us won’t bring her back!”—also, all the enemies are Ricks with “sci-fi haircuts,” so this is probably some Council shit, and again, I’m probably forgetting something; going from “so fucking dumb I’m kind of embarrassed to be watching this” to “well i hope you took some detailed notes three years ago” is a mean trick, show) is pretty suggestive of some major horror lurking in the past, but as ever, the show refuses to give us more than the bare minimum of details, because giving Rick a tragic past is always going to feel like a cheat. I can’t source it, but I have vague memories of Dan Harmon saying that Rick didn’t end up the way he is because something bad happened to him; he’s just like this, and bad things happen anyway.
Still, that sort of nod to the past is always going to land well, and the matter of factness with which it comes up here, the way it’s basically just an aside that you could miss if you weren’t paying attention, works well. In case I haven’t really made it clear, all of this worked well for me, from Rick’s Garage’s terrified attempts to stay alive, to BP’s triumphant decision to live so he can rescue his and Tammy’s child, only for that triumph to be undercut almost immediately by him recognizing Rick’s selfishness and getting the hell gone. (I love the subtle cruelty of BP’s memory of Tammy telling him that she really did love him, because of course she would say that, being a memory and all.) And I love how Young Rick is clever enough to find a way to jump into Rick’s brain in desperate attempt to stay alive, and how the real Rick is fine with it; but Young Rick, realizing how he’s going to end up, decides maybe he’s better off not existing after all. That’s the kind of cruelty I come here for: funny, despairing, and entirely deserved.
- Post-credits scene wasn’t funny, but it was nice to see Birdperson and Tammy’s daughter kicking ass in space jail.
- re: Beth’s death, this could be nothing, but Rick did definitely have a memory of one of Council of Ricks throwing a bomb through a portal that killed his wife and daughter. He said the memory was fake later on (this was part of the Szechuan Sauce Saga), but maybe...
- There are a lot of jokes I missed, too. Looking forward to watching this one again at some point.
- Animation looked great throughout, smooth transitions and some nifty monster designs.
- Hey, it’s the return of the dipshit bug aliens! Boy do those guys die easy, huh.
- “Why am I saving a friend who remembers me as this insufferable?”
- “That’s our Vietnam!” “Your values are wrong!” (Young Rick’s insistence on how awesome Blood Ridge is going to be set against real Rick’s increased frustration was all gold.)
- At one point, real Rick explains the existence of the Shrek franchise to Young Rick, which is a hell of a mindfuck to lay on your younger self.
- “Rick, did you team up with a memory of yourself. Because that would be deeply sad.” (I forgot how good Birdperson’s characterization is, he’s got that stiff “I believe in logic” Star Trek thing but isn’t insufferable about it.)
- “Sorry. We do not get to choose the ones we love.”
- The climatic sequence of Rick having to shuffle through a bunch of shared memories while they’re trying to escape a rapidly collapsing mental landscape is as good as Squanchy’s stand-up act is terrible.