Just when I was starting to get a little fatigued by Rick and Morty, Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon have blown my mind anew.
At this point, the motivations of and dynamic between Rick C-137 and his Morty have been thoroughly explored—which is why Season 3’s extended soul-bearing monologues have been a detriment to the series. The episodes have largely been hilarious, but from a continuity and character-based standpoint, the development of Morty’s morals (or lack thereof) has been the only major reason to keep watching. Fortunately, there’s a Rick and Morty for every conceivable dimension, and with the show in need of a second wind, the remnants of the Citadel provide a relationship dynamic that’s entirely familiar, entirely foreign, and entirely rejuvenating. The Rick and Morty we know exit; Joe Walsh’s voice enters; suddenly, we’re in a world of class struggle, scathing political satire and ‘80s-style grit. “The Ricklantis Mixup” is like no other Rick and Morty episode that’s ever aired—it’s more like a peak-level episode of an HBO prestige drama with a strong lean into the absurd—and that’s an amazing thing.
Rick and Morty hasn’t been afraid to toss in social commentary in the past, but “The Ricklantis Mixup” is, by far, the most overtly political the series has ever been. At Comic-Con, Roiland, Harmon and Ryan Ridley (who co-wrote this episode with Dan Guterman) told me the 2016 presidential campaign constituted the vast majority of their cultural intake as they were writing Season 3, and it shows here. First and foremost, there’s the election for the Citadel’s newly democratic leadership, which is a complete subversion of America’s reality: the existential threat to Rick-society isn’t any one of the Rick candidates that acts like a buffoon on the debate stage, but rather the well-spoken Morty who runs on a legitimate reform platform and turns out to be a familiar, very sinister face. (More on that later.) More broadly, though, the societal hierarchy of the Citadel bears some dark connections to our own world and speaks forcefully and jarringly against not just racism, but also capitalism. The former is to be expected—again, attentive viewers know the Rick-Morty dynamic cold by now, and it’s no real surprise that a Mortytown slum exists. The police procedural satire nonetheless hits hard, particular Policeman Rick’s observation that it’s the “same old story, Ricks killing Mortys.” What’s more remarkable is the classism within the Rick ranks, especially given our knowledge that (nearly) every Rick is brilliant. Seeing a character that’s been described as a “super fucked-up god” reduced to assembly line work suggests two things: late capitalism is an absolute drag, and Rick C-137 is indeed the Rick-est Rick for staying out of that hell.
Perhaps more impressive than the commentary present in “The Ricklantis Mixup” is the strength of storytelling in the episode—simultaneously deadly sincere and sardonically self-aware. And while that modus operandi has come to define the series as a whole, what’s new here is the lean toward the serious. This isn’t a half-hour that makes you laugh out loud much, but that relative humorlessness works well. Most of the humor in Rick and Morty comes from the juxtaposition of Rick’s chaos agency with the mundanity of non-Rick beings—from Pickle Rick dodging bullets while his family sits in therapy, for instance, or from a group of superheroes stuck in a Saw game being torn apart by their own relationship drama. In the Citadel, where everyone’s a Rick or a Morty, suddenly the chaos is the mundane, and much of the absurdity no longer works because the world is coherent. As a result, the narrative arcs in “The Ricklantis Mixup” have to stand unsupported by jokes, and in this they succeed. The story of J-22, the assembly line worker, is particularly strong and may have replaced the melting boy from Season 2’s “The Ricks Must Be Crazy” as the most disturbing thing ever depicted on the show. Most importantly, the various vignettes—the assembly line, the Spielberg-esque quartet of Mortys-on-an-adventure, the cops and the Citadel presidential race—tie together neatly to tell one cohesive story of the broad-scale enslavement wrought by “civilized” society. The episode’s thesis is nicely wrapped up in a speech by the Morty running for president; even if he’s full of shit, he’s correct that the enemy for every character we meet, in the end, is the exploitative status quo.
That brings me to the big, chilling reveal. Most fan theories seemed to think we’d be seeing Evil Morty (from Season 1’s “Close Rick-counters of the Rick Kind”) in the future, and in “The Ricklantis Mixup,” the future has become the present. The episode pulls off the twist ending skillfully, returning to the bleak piano and ghostly choir of Blonde Redhead’s “For The Damaged Coda” that serve as Evil Morty’s de facto theme music and lingering on the deaths—of both Ricks and Mortys—that have stemmed and will continue to stem from the upheaval inherent in Citadel society as of right now. But the more sobering aspect of Evil Morty’s return is the realization that he’s…not so different from the Patrick Bate-Morty we met in “Rest and Ricklaxation” two weeks ago. Ruthless, confident, without a conscience and smarter than he gets credit for are all traits we’ve seen embodied in Morty’s ideal of himself, and they all exist in Evil Morty, who now seems like a possible culmination of the aforementioned long-term moral development (or atrophy) of the Morty we know. At the very least, the potential is there (and has been since early in the show’s second season, though never before this obviously). The upshot for Rick and Morty in general is that it’s definitively abandoned the idea of resetting after every episode, and there’s a long game planned beyond the mere pursuit for Szechuan sauce. Some R&M fans I know appreciate the show more for its silliness than its gravity; if you fall into that camp, the increasing continuity will likely continue to bother you. But as I mentioned earlier, I think the show’s basic premise was starting to exhaust itself, and the reintroduction of Evil Morty to the picture gives us a reason to break that cycle; he’s the type of character who can do for Rick and Morty what Gus Fring did for Breaking Bad.
That is to say, the original Rick and Morty now float even more powerfully above the world. “The Ricklantis Mixup” is an episode whose post-credits scene is crucial to its message; the show’s protagonists take no part in any of the funky shit going down at the Citadel, instead returning from a very sexy time in Atlantis very excited about themselves and in high spirits. Our Rick and Morty exist without boundaries of realism—their only constraints are their own mental demons—and their lives and relationship are much the better for it. So who’s the real villain: Rick, Morty, or the society that would drive them (and the socioeconomic classes of America) apart?
Zach Blumenfeld would like to thank the incomparable Jim Vorel for filling in on review duties two weeks ago, because writing a thousand words immediately after a very drunken wedding would’ve been hell for both author and reader. Follow Zach on Twitter.