Narrative shows—dramas and comedies alike—depend on stakes. Actions need to have consequences in order for a story to work; not just in terms of building emotional investment and relatability (whatever that really means), but just as a way of establishing enough enough internal consistency for what we’re watching (or reading about) to have any meaning at all. Consequences lead to different potential outcomes, and the characters involved in those outcomes have preferences as to how things will work out; so does the audience. Sometimes our preferences mirror the characters’, sometimes they’re different, but on a basic level, we need a reason to be interested in what happens next. Which is a very convoluted way of explaining what I mean by “stakes.” And if you’re still awake after reading this paragraph, bravo to you, because I barely made it.
The thing about Rick And Morty is, how do you create a sense of stakes when all outcomes are always possible? The most basic consequence is the threat of death, but the show has repeatedly demonstrated that that doesn’t really matter here; there’s always another Rick, there’s always another Morty, and so on. And while the Rick and Morty we’re follow now are, I think, the one we started the series with back in the first season (actually I’m pretty sure I’m wrong about this, but since being wrong would actually prove my point, I’m not going to get too worried about it), the show has wrung a lot of plot and comedy out of repeatedly reminding us that it doesn’t really matter. Life is short. Nothing means anything. Come watch TV.
The trick, then, has been holding our attention with a seemingly boundless knack for concept invention, a gratifyingly deep bench of both sci-fi concept and nerd pop culture references (back when “nerd” meant “I like weird unpopular shit,” and not just, well, most people on the planet), and the occasional, and sometimes shockingly effective, moments of emotional truth. “Mortiplicity” delivers on all three categories, and while I’d be lying if I said this was the most moved I’ve ever been watching the show, it doesn’t matter. I laughed more than enough to make up for any paucity of emotional depth, and the high concept was strong enough that it held my attention throughout. I’ve criticized the show in the past for being overly infatuated with its own cleverness, but this episode is just an extremely good balance of “what if” taken to parodical extreme, with just a dollop of sincerity to give it an edge.
That premise: Rick and Morty are going to kill God. Well, that was the plan, anyway, and they explain it over breakfast (Jerry is excited because he has a job interview), but before we can get to the death of Iehovah, a group of squid soldiers burst in and kill everyone. We quickly cut to another home; now the family is running around hunting Mr. Always Wants To Be Hunted when Rick’s watch beeped. “Someone just killed a decoy family,” Rick says, and then quickly explains that because there are lots of crazy aliens out there who want him dead (and ever since that confusing Space Beth situation), Rick went to the trouble of making decoys to keep the real family safe. But then this group is killed by squids. We cut to the family frolicking at an Italian Villa; Rick’s watch beeps; he explains again; the squids bomb the room, everybody dies. Especially Jerry, who dies hard.
At this point, you can probably see where this is going, and the episode never disappoints those expectations. Rick And Morty creates stakes in its all-consequence reality in a couple of ways—developing the core characters enough to make use care about their relationships even when everything is exploding in chaos, as seen here, is a good one—but one of its best tricks is creating tension out of its own premises. It’s a kind of meta-fictional gambit; it introduces this idea (Rick created decoys, the decoys start getting killed) and then challenges itself to fill the full twenty minutes by both never breaking the rules of that idea, and by never boring us or repeating itself. It’s fun because we know the Summers’ dynamic well enough that there’s a lot of comedy in just seeing each iteration squabble before its inevitable destruction, and it’s also fun because we’re waiting to see how the episode will top itself next.
And boy does it ever succeed. Cleverness can be exhausting when it’s stretched out over too long a time span (or when it becomes too satisfied in itself), but there’s just so much delight in seeing all the various iterations of how this plays out, from Rick (quick side note: we don’t actually see the “real” Rick until the end, if then, but I’m just going to call them all Rick unless they have some other special distinction) using a feint at existentialism to trick Morty into staring at his naked ass, to the reveal that the squid soldiers at all, but just decoys dressed up as soldiers in order to follow “Rule 34 of Asimov’s Cascade.” It quickly becomes apparent that the decoys starting making their own decoys, because all of them think they’re Rick, and if one Rick is going to come up with the idea of making a decoy, every Rick is going to come up with that idea. And some of those decoys get increasingly freakish.
But in what’s arguably the episode’s true stroke of genius, none of the iterations stray too far from the, well, essential Rick-ness of the situation. As always, his brilliant solution ends up causing more problems, because his brilliance is inherently corrupt; any Rick that exists will have the intelligence to come up with just about anything, but lacks the emotional intelligence to spend any time at all thinking about, well, those consequences. All of these families existed, had lives, cared about being alive, and they all slaughter each other for no other reason than Rick has to be the only Rick around. As one of the decoys explains, it’s Highlander rules. There can be only one.
Which is that emotional truth we were talking about before. That’s not to say this is a grim episode in any way; there is a fuckton of death (I measured), but because the premise makes it clear very early on that every new family we see won’t be with us for long and because we just keep seeing exact copies of the same family (with occasional variations down the line), those deaths have the kind of screwball manic energy the show often aims for but doesn’t always achieve. It’s the upside to having an infinite number of realities of limitless possibility—you can’t ever get too worked up about violent death because there’s always a replacement indistinguishable from the last coming down the line. And hell, they’re all decoys anyway.
Of course, the downside of that infinite number of realities thing is, again, a big part of what makes this episode work: there can be hundreds, thousands of copies of Rick and his immediate family, but Rick will always be Rick, Morty and Summer and Beth will always be themselves, and Jerry will be the Jerry-iest Jerry in the universe. I don’t want to lean too heavy on any expectation of thematic nuance here, because “Mortiplicity” ultimately lives (and lives very well) on the strength of its ingenuity and its commitment to its premise. But it’s hard to shake that feeling that no matter how big existence is, how much possibility space there is, it’s still just this guy who can’t stop killing himself and everything he loves, over and over and over again.
But hey, puppet Jerry, that was a trip.
- Shout out to my fiancee Caroline who caught the end song, Queen’s “Who Wants To Live Forever,” a great song and a Highlander reference. (That post credits sequence with puppet Jerry forced to exist for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years, was terrific.)
- “I’m Mr. Always Wants To Be Hunted!” “Yes, and how interesting did you think that would stay?”
- The family dynamics here were pretty excellent throughout.
- I would’ve expected “Rule 34 of Asimov’s Cascade” to be… nuder.
- One Morty referencing Westworld, another referencing Ex Machina in the same spot; I don’t really have anything to add, it just made me laugh.
- Excellent fake out with When Wolf.
- Pretty sure Puppet Jerry escaping and leaving the others to die was a reference to Burke in Aliens, although the episode wasn’t explicit about it so maybe not? (Jerry is, I think, too much of a fuck-up to be an actual Burke.)
- “Can you whip up a “Starfox Boss’ Season 4 classic.” -Rick (The hologram was, indeed, some Starfox Boss shit.)