It’s undeniable that Rick and Morty made a name for itself with its imaginative approach to the world of science fiction coupled with its ability to sling quick jokes in succession like a boomerang. The Adult Swim hit sits on that foundation like a home would, and wiggles its sarcastic, witty, and self-righteous ass against the core of what made it a sensation in the first place. That’s why we love the show, and that’s why we eagerly tune in when a season begins despite the agonizing two-year wait for it to be written, drawn and animated in the first place. These are the things we know about the story of Rick Sanchez and his grandson, Morty Smith.
But sometimes, even an old dog tries new tricks. Similarly, the Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland series—which, for once, showed up early, just over a year after the previous season concluded—took a different approach this time around. The new batch of 10 episodes does a remarkable job of tapping into the complicated minds of these characters we’ve come to know and love, while also playing into the standard tropes we’ve come to expect. In fact, nearly every episode this season has meshed the interpersonal with the quintessential, cerebral, and scientific takes the show has become skilled at crafting—and in that melding, Rick and Morty has become more human than ever. The show used to be about concepts; now, it’s about connections.
Take, for instance, the decision to pull back the curtain on an oft-overlooked aspect of Rick’s life: his friendships. Up until now, viewers have seen the large extent of the scientist’s capacity for friendship live and die with Birdperson, a half human-half bird hybrid whom Rick counted as his closest confidant prior to the character’s death in season 2. This season, we meet another of Rick’s past pals—except this time, this one has become an enemy. The season’s opener, “Mort Dinner Rick Andre,” we are introduced to Mr. Nimbus, King of the Ocean, whom Rick is pretty desperate to keep at bay. In fact, it’s rare to see the headstrong patriarch so at the mercy of someone else. It’s interesting to note that Rick isn’t the only character who deeply connects with Mr. Nimbus, even if his ties present negatively at first. The episode features a cute and heartwarming subplot featuring Beth and Jerry, who are exploring the new heights of their sexual relationship following the reconciliation of their marriage. Talk about putting human connection on display. They both mutually fall in lust with Nimbus, who is portrayed as super hunky, and attempt to pursue a threesome relationship with him after he “taps” them for the privilege. It becomes a charming bright spot in the couple’s history, which has obviously been an exhausting rollercoaster since the show’s beginnings. As for Rick, he ends up facing his and Nimbus’ issues head on—another thing he isn’t exactly known for doing. The choice makes the character all the more relatable and brings on the nice cathartic feeling that is never far away when Rick has a moment of what he would call weakness, but we would call heart.
Considering Rick’s longtime bond with Birdperson—and the state the character was left in after his dead body was retrieved by the scientist following his massacre of a wedding—it makes sense that we would eventually get to see an amalgamation of the depths of that relationship. It came this season, in episode eight, fittingly titled “Rickternal Friendshine of the Spotless Mort.” The installment chronicled Rick’s attempt to restore his best friend’s conscious mind to his nearly destroyed body by infiltrating his brain and attempting to rewire it. The journey through Birdperson’s mind is a treacherous one, full of Ricks and the memories the aviary hybrid had of him. When the real Rick finally locates Birdperson’s conscious mind, the unthinkable happens—a bomb drops in the form of Rick revealing that Birdperson and Tammy, his wife and an undercover Galactic Federation agent who initiated the massacre at their wedding, had a child. The revelation is jarring and it stings; we feel Birdperson’s emotions undulating. He decides to live for his child and complies with the rest of the mission, allowing his consciousness to return to the living world. When he awakens, he confronts Rick about using the knowledge of his child as a bargaining chip. The thing about Birdperson is that he, as a character, is a vehicle for uninhibited wisdom, the things we’re all thinking but maybe we’re not saying. The exchange boils over with emotion, even in Birdperson’s pitched monotone. And, let’s be real, if Rick believes in and practices nihilism, what’s the point in actions like a high-stakes adventure to revive someone’s very soul? Rick moves through the world in spite of himself, and in this episode he proves it. It’s one of the most loving moments we’ve gotten from the character in the whole history of the show—and it’s also his only way of showing it.
Prior to this season, it could be argued that, of all the main characters, Jerry’s humanity has been explored the most, if only because of how achingly full of flaws he seems to be. Even Morty is treated with more prestige while still being mostly under Rick’s thumb. In several episodes, Jerry’s feelings and emotional capacity is treated like a joke, stepped on and disregarded. It’s easy to fall into the trope of almost dehumanizing him, even as an audience member. It’s weirdly gratifying to see him get the support he deserves in this season’s fifth episode, “Amortycan Grickfitti.” Beth is shocked to learn that Rick and Jerry are going to have a “guy’s night,” so she takes it upon herself to follow them into another dimension and see what they’re up to. She is disturbed to find out that Rick’s idea of “guys’ night” is Rick bringing Jerry to hang out with a group of demons who feed off of misery, which in turn pays back a debt Rick owes them for selling faulty skinhooks. They literally thrive off Jerry’s weirdness and awkwardness—and he doesn’t know he’s the butt of the joke. Beth’s feelings are on full display in this episode and she defends her husband in a way we have yet to see on the show. Beth and Jerry’s coupling has been, in a word, tumultuous, but all it takes is her protective side to remind us that there’s a foundation there. There’s a reason why they’ve made it this far; They understand and support one another better than most couples, when they’re listening, of course.
It’s hard to overstate how refreshing this turn of tactic has felt in Season 5. As a Season 1 lifer, I’m hooked on the big brain ideas that make the show unique and special, the things that keep us here year after year. But this time, they did things a little differently. Not by much, but by enough. The choice to give more screen time to the inner life of these characters we hold close—in truly every episode this season, including two episodes focused on Morty’s romantic life—was a welcomed risk that paid off in dividends. I understand these characters on a deeper level than ever, which makes me care about them more than I have at any point in the show’s run. Fans were presented with a family of open books this season, and it was up to us to see the merit in the moments. To isolate the incidents. To touch the emotional core. After all, that’s a bit of science, isn’t it? We still know next to nothing about the force of love, but we trust it, like we blindly trust the show’s writers or that one friend who suggested we watch Lost. Ultimately, love, trust, and emotionality really won out this season on Rick and Morty—and science is quite happy about that.
Lex Briscuso is an entertainment, film and culture writer with bylines at Life & Style, In Touch Weekly, Shudder’s The Bite and EUPHORIA. She spends too much time thinking about One Direction and the leftover moments writing poetry, fiction and screenplays. Her horror radio show, YOUR NICHE IS DEAD, is live Mondays 5pm ET only on KPISSFM. She tweets @nikonamerica.