At some level, it makes sense for Rick and Morty to make a crack at itself for returning to the family dynamic of its outset. Infinite realities means infinite possibilities, yes, but it also means that whatever can happen has happened—and will likely happen again.
(The reviewer inhales deeply from the bong, then sets it down and continues typing.)
But for a series that has shown us universes in a car battery, mass-murderous pickle men and a city populated by millions of genetically identical people, how can it possibly be satisfying to return to the mundane?
Perhaps the greatest flaw of “The Rickchurian Mortydate” is that it forces us to ponder this question by putting it in the mouths of its characters. If Beth didn’t literally mention that the Smith family reunion would return Rick to the outsider status he grudgingly held in the series pilot, the shows viewers would’ve figured that out on their own. (Or they would’ve read articles telling them that was the case.) There is such a thing as taking self-awareness too far, and while Rick and Morty typically rides that line with skill—even in this episode, the joke about South Park making fun of Minecraft a few years ago was well-placed and quick enough to elicit a good laugh—certain core aspects of the show need to remain for viewers’ eyes only. That core remains the pursuit of meaning, serenity, contentment, et cetera, in a chaotic and uncaring multiverse, and for the moment, the Smiths seem to be on the right track. But if the possibility of being a clone is enough to make Beth wig out, how does the metafictitious reality of her being a character on a TV show elicit such a comparative shrug? One might say that she and her family have simply accepted the bizarre nature of reality and chosen to tend their garden in the meantime, but given Beth’s hereditary restlessness and Morty’s growth in agency since the series began, I find that hard to believe. Breaking the fourth wall only increases my skepticism.
Luckily, though, “The Rickchurian Mortydate” isn’t a total reset. In many ways, it’s the antithesis of Season 2’s finale, “The Wedding Squanchers.” There, Jerry tried to excise Rick from the family because the Smiths were so unhappy; it was inevitable that even with Rick gone, their problems would remain. Here, the attitude toward Rick isn’t so much forcible removal as it is obsolescence. He’s the physical embodiment of existential angst, and with dreams of presidential selfies and interdimensional exploration given up for a devoted marriage and a cabin in the woods, there’s no longer a role for Rick to play. And now Rick is more isolated from the family than he’s ever been, and the irrational elements within his genius mind have a more significant role to play. The ultimate success of this season finale resides in the absolute joy it takes in exploring what that means.
We’ve seen Rick be petty before, and to some degree, his power struggle with the President (Keith David) resembles his tussle with Zeep Xanflorp from Season 2’s “The Ricks Must Be Crazy.” But there, Rick’s very identity as the smartest being alive was at stake. Here, there’s no good reason for Rick to care about battling with the President, especially after Morty stops giving a shit about getting his long-desired selfie. In that light, it seems like Rick’s just doing this because he’s bored.
Granted, that boredom is a total blast in “The Rickchurian Mortydate,” as it usually is. And Keith David, making his third appearance on the series, steals the show. His President is eerily reminiscent of our current one in terms of immaturity and dick-swinging, but his delivery carries enough gravitas that the performance is a hilarious oxymoron rather than a grill-icing reality check. He’s helped by some of the funniest animation Rick and Morty has given us to date—every time the President appeared nude so matter-of-factly on the screen, I chuckled—and sharp jokes. The pièce de résistance is the fight with Rick, which featured so many seamless transitions between rapid-fire allusions so as to serve as a brief history of sci-fi warfare. At its best, Rick and Morty leans into the wild inventiveness made possible by animation and practices a daring physics that makes totally absurd sequences of events flow with precision, and that happens here.
Then again, one of the more surprisingly affecting moments of “The Rickchurian Mortydate” is Jerry’s remembrance of his trip to the Milwaukee Symphony with Beth. In a season that has struggled with the show-don’t-tell directive, here is a moment in which a protracted monologue adds multitudes to the scene. Both characters become figurative teenagers again, removed from the poison of Rick and the drama of starting a family, and this development represents the ultimate triumph of Jerry’s will over Rick’s—and the first moment in a long time, if ever, in which he’s a likable person. Usually, the fact that Summer’s birth halted Jerry’s emotional growth makes him seem like a pathetic, dependent man-child, but with Beth having taken her intellectual bender to its logical extreme of existential self-doubt, the flutters of 17 serve to keep the couple grounded in shared, ordinary experience. Getting sweaty palms on a date is just part of being human, and when the alternative is wondering whether or not you’re a clone of yourself, humanity seems beautifully stable.
Therein lies another key difference between the upshot of “The Rickchurian Mortydate” and the beginning of Rick and Morty: a more optimistic view of the human condition. The Smiths have been miserable for nearly the entirety of our time with them, and even Morty’s “come watch TV” thesis statement was more about calmly accepting dissatisfaction than about any sort of active happiness. But now, with Jerry and Beth back together, Morty realizing he values a warm household more than constant adventure and Summer free to wear Daisy Dukes, it appears that real serenity is a possibility if we embrace our irrationality and all-too-human flaws. Perhaps witnessing this firsthand will work a fundamental change upon Rick, who until recently seemed pretty much immutable.
So no, again, this is not a total reset of Rick and Morty, even if “The Rickchurian Mortydate” makes the mistake of presenting itself as such. There are still plenty more frontiers for the series to explore—and plenty of loose ends and villains who could wreak havoc upon their return (hello, Evil Morty and Phoenix Person). And one arena in which there’s little problem with self-awareness is rubbing in what’s sure to be an interminable wait for Season 4. Long live Mr. Poopybutthole, emissary of zero-fucks-given.
Before I sign off, here’s a retrospective ranking of Season 3’s ten episodes, which have shifted around in my esteem over the past few months:
10. “Rest and Ricklaxation”
9. “The ABCs of Beth”
8. “Rickmancing the Stone”
7. “The Whirly Dirly Conspiracy”
6. “The Rickchurian Mortydate”
5. “Vindicators 3: The Return of Worldender”
4. “Pickle Rick”
3. “Morty’s Mind Blowers”
2. “The Rickshank Rickdemption”
1. “The Ricklantis Mixup” (the best episode in series history)
Zach Blumenfeld is excited to get to bed earlier than 3am on Sunday nights from here on out. Follow him on Twitter.