The most surprising part of this weekend’s season premiere of Rick and Morty was that it happened at all. After an 18-month wait, the new episode of Adult Swim’s beloved cartoon about a mad scientist and his goofy grandson dropped without any notice, a release itself designed to look like a terrible prank on its fans. A close second to that surprise is the deft ferocity with which “The Rickshank Rickdemption” restored Rick and Morty’s status quo while totally upending it.
By the episode’s conclusion, Rick has escaped prison, disintegrated the intergalactic government, eliminated the inter-dimensional Council of Ricks, and banished his stepson Jerry from the family. As he tells Morty in a terrifying closing monologue, this was the plan all along. He turned himself into the Galactic Federation precisely to take it down, but also to get rid of Jerry and consolidate his role as patriarch of the Smith family. Though he’s long been the smartest man in the universe, Rick’s never quite had dominion over the domestic sphere — Jerry was always in the way. Now he’s gone and Rick can do whatever the hell he wants.
Rick and Morty offers a particularly complicated notion of family, and of parenthood especially.
Rick and Morty‘s overarching moral calculus is difficult to pin down: its point of view seems to be that things are pretty bad but also kind of good, maybe, even though we may not like to admit it, not that any of it matters. And the family unit is always, in some capacity, at the center of everything. This is true in most television series, but Rick and Morty offers a particularly complicated notion of family, and of parenthood especially. Almost every main character in the show is a parent; almost every one of them lets their children down. This might seem contradictory for a show that venerates family above all else. But maybe it’s right on point: in Rick and Morty, as in the best prestige dramas, there is nothing constant that is not constantly slipping away.
How many parents are there in the Smith family? Let’s take a quick survey. First we have Rick, who fathered Beth before later abandoning her — it’s unclear whether this happened before or after her mother died. Then there’s Beth, of course, who seems perpetually more interested in making sure Rick doesn’t leave again than in being a good mother to Rick and Summer. Jerry, on the other hand, is so devoted to Rick and Summer that he wants Rick out of the picture — though he doesn’t seem to care that this would devastate his wife as well as his kids. Both Jerry and Beth are rewarded for their selfishness with the destruction of their family unit: in “The Rickshank Rickdemption,” Jerry tells Beth she must choose between him and Rick, which, well, was there every any question what she’d say? And finally, we have Morty, who in season one gets a chance to make up for his parents’ failings in the form of an alien baby conceived with an alien sex robot. He, too, fails, first lying to his son about the true nature of the world, then driving him away when the truth emerges.
Forgiveness is a virtue as well as a plot device, and the more these characters welcome each other back and send each other away, the more Rick and Morty can dial up its emotional complexity.
All of these characters have held, in their hands, the lives and fates of those they love. The one exception is Summer, though even she’s enjoyed a taste of that terrifying responsibility. In “The Ricks Must Be Crazy,” Rick locks her in his artificially intelligent space-car, instructing it to keep her safe at all costs. It murders the first person to threaten her; when she tells it not to kill the next, it merely disables him instead. But these are strangers in a strange dimension, one Summer is free to leave at the end of the day — and return to her family, which for her is still a refuge rather than a battlefield. Perhaps that’s why she wants desperately to rescue Rick in season three while Morty would rather leave him imprisoned.
In Summer’s eyes, Rick holds the Smith family together. In Morty’s, he is a perpetual threat (albeit one Morty believes he can manage). Summer is ultimately rewarded for her naïveté with Rick’s return and Jerry’s departure. The moral logic of Rick and Morty demands that for one person to win, one of their loved ones must lose. For all the show’s bright colors and silly words, the stakes are always real, always high. Loss is always just around the corner.
But so is redemption. Despite Rick’s unhinged confession at the end of the season three premiere, in which he promises vengeance against all who cross him, we’ve seen him alone enough to know that he truly cares about people. In “The Wedding Squanchers“, he falls into a defeated slump when he overhears Beth telling the family she doesn’t want to lose him again; after Unity leaves him in “Auto Erotic Assimilation,” he falls into a funk and almost kills himself.
A comedy about bad parents needs all the bad parents it can get.
As much as Rick tries to repress it, there is undeniably a part of him that wants to be happy, to make his loved ones happy too. Morty must recognize this and joins on Rick’s often life-threatening adventures partially as a way of keeping him around. (“The Rickshank Rickdemption,” uh, complicates this, though it remains to be seen exactly how Morty will react to Rick’s vengeful side). And we have seen time and again that Beth and Jerry have a capacity to forgive each other matched only by their capacity to drive each other away.
Is Jerry gone for good? I wouldn’t put it past Rick and Morty to make its characters suffer the consequences of their actions. But I also cannot think of any way for Beth and Jerry to suffer more than if Jerry weaseled his way back into the picture. Forgiveness is a virtue as well as a plot device, and the more these characters welcome each other back and send each other away, the more Rick and Morty can dial up its emotional complexity. And after all, a comedy about bad parents needs all the bad parents it can get. Here’s hoping at least one of them gets it right someday.