My Grandmother freaking loved Christmas. Every year she’d cover the roof with lights and boggle us with epic holiday feasts. She was a Christmas hosting goddess. It should be of little surprise, then, that Christmas went off the rails most years. Something would go wrong, she’d lose control, and our perfect Christmas would shatter again.
But hey, we’re not talking about Christmas. We’re talking about Rick & Morty!
Heck, what can I say about Rick and Morty? It’s one of the biggest stories of our time: literally anything can happen. Its setting includes all of Earth, all of space, endless microbiological words, and when it’s done touching the furthest reaches of life and the universe, it flips itself inside-out to reveal infinite parallel universes too!
In creator Dan Harmon’s own words “It’s a show that can literally go anywhere and do anything. It has a boundless margin… you can’t go too far. Not only narratively, but also tonally, there is nothing off the table for the show.”
Basically, it’s a story sans limits. And with a shiny new contract for 70 more episodes in the chamber, Season 4 seems even more unbridled. Understand, Season 1-3 were Rick and Morty on best behaviour, fighting to prove their relevance and marketability one season at a time in 10 or 11 episode runs. This is no longer: the shackles are off. Dan Harmon, Justin Roiland and their team are looking at nothing but blue skies out ahead.
It should come as little surprise that Season 4 feels a little different than previous seasons. You can almost sense the writers letting out the throttle episode by episode. You’d think they’d be worried about running out of stories, right? Instead, these crazy bastards started the second half of Season 4 throwing away over a dozen characters and storylines, including a Christmas special in May.
It’s been fun to witness these weirdos go Super Sayian. Many of the shows in Season 4 operate more experimentally, playing with non-linear timelines or insane meta-narratives. These are fun to watch, fun to analyze, but mostly fun to sit back and wonder, How the heck did they come up with this stuff?!
Not that they’ve gone entirely Studio 54 either. There are still plenty of straightforward, fully immersive stories to get lost in too. Their most recent adventure, “The Vat of Acid Episode” is a good example: with alien gangsters at the beginning and a classic SciFi device capable of changing life with the touch of a button, it had all the trappings of a “normal” Rick & Morty tale.
It’s a funny premise too: Morty watches one of Rick’s more odd-ball ideas crash and burn. A fight erupts when Rick can’t admit it was a dumb idea. This grows into a larger argument: not only can’t Rick admit when his ideas are bad, he also can’t admit when someone else’s ideas are good.
What follows is a staggering journey through the face-melting lengths Rick will go to put his grandson in his place. It’s Greek-Mythology level petty, emotionally devastating (glasses girl!!!! 😭😭😭), and has the single funniest OMG-reveal I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s brilliant, brutal and all boils down to teaching Morty one all-important lesson: Never. Question. Grandpa.
It’s a great episode and a ridiculous ride. Sure, it’s pretty ugly what Rick does… heck, it may be the single ugliest thing a person’s ever done to another person. But as die-hard Rick & Morty fans know, it’s all completely necessary. Why? Because Rick can’t let Morty get cocky.
So, in a way, Rick is doing this for everyone. As we know from the pilot, a cocky Morty means “trouble” and Season 4 is starting to see Morty become, at the very least, a touch more critical–
Rick: They think the galaxy is their own personal piggy bank.
Morty: What are we?
Rick: We’re Rick and Morty. (S4E1)
As well as a little unimpressed–
Rick: Oh shit. I almost parked. Hey, Morty, hold on. Watch this. [hits “Autopark” and the ship parks itself]
Rick: Well, I thought it was pretty cool. (S4E8)
Honestly, this isn’t anything new. Morty (or at least some Morties) have been known to define themselves by getting out from under their Grandpa’s thumb.
For that matter, Morty’s not the only character who’s figured out they need to escape Rick. Toward the end of S2E3 Rick nearly commits suicide after his ex-girlfriend, Unity, breaks up with him after reconnecting. If you recall, this Ex was no normal person though. Unity was a collective hivemind, a powerful entity that existed by mind-controlling whole planets and species at once.
In her break up letter she explains her reason for leaving him:
Unity: I realize now that I’m attracted to you for the same reason I can’t be with you: you can’t change… I know how it goes with us. I lose who I am and become a part of you because, in a strange way, you’re better at what I do without even trying.
In Rick’s own words Unity “thrives on enslavement.” In Unity’s words, Rick’s better at it.
Call me crazy, but I’m starting to smell a core character flaw! Sure, Rick may be the smartest man in the universe. But if he has an irresistible urge to control people, that’s going to make for some crap relationships with whoever’s spending time with him.
If so, it’s a fascinating fault, partially because it’s so simple and human, but also because it can lead to a LOT of interesting miscalculations. Take the scheme with the Vat for example; the plan falters because Rick failed to realize he can neither control nor accurately predict what other people will do. Point of fact, the plan actually fails twice.
The other big time we saw this flaw was with Evil Morty. First, Rick didn’t catch what he was up to, then later an entire city of Ricks managed to miscalculate and underestimate him.
Season 4 seems to be steering into this. Between S4E3’s gaslighting and S4E8’s petty-fest, Rick’s faults are getting harder to miss. Are we starting to see Morty figuring this out? Like, more than usual?
There’s an exchange during The Vat of Acid Episode where Rick asks:
Rick: When did you get so cocky?”
And Morty says:
Morty: Tonight! The night I saw you fail.
And then later in the episode, Morty asks a random Rick from who-knows-what universe:
Morty: Why do you care? How do you even know about this?”
And random Rick yells:
Rick: Every Rick has a Vat!”
Did the writers mean this to be literal? Is the Vat somehow a fixed point of probability, a predetermined failure that every Mort is fated to witness and become “cocky” about? If so, does that mean all Morties are destined to become “problems” for the grandfathers?
Eh. I don’t know what’s going on. The writers for Rick and Morty are some of the best storytellers of our time and they just got the greenlit to let-her-rip for the next seventy episodes. This is gleeful genius unleashed.
Also not for nothing, the lesson here is don’t get cocky. I can’t claim to know what’s going on and I certainly can’t claim to know what’ll happen in the future. At best, I can point out what I found interesting.
There’s a part in the Vat episode where a rat climbs on a steampipe to chew on some bones. The steam releases and the rat is vaporized with a shriek, leaving only its bones behind. A moment later a new rat climbs on the steampipe. Why? To chew on some fresh bones.
What’s it mean? Is it an allusion to the Rick and Morty fandom and our futile attempts to “pick at the bones?” Is it a larger discussion of man’s futility, the knee-jerk blindness with which we all jump toward things destined to destroy us?
Or is it just a joke?
Again, couldn’t say. You can’t force an unfinished story to explain itself any more than you can force Christmas to be perfect. In the end, none of us can control the outcome of the things we love. It’s dumb to think we can. All we can do is shut up, pay attention, and enjoy.