‘Rick and Morty’ Returns to Capture the Surreality of Life Under Quarantine
The animated Adult Swim show has returned after a long hiatus. It was worth the wait.
There’s a half-crazed mention of “this virus” in the post-credits scene of the episode marking Rick and Morty season four’s return to Adult Swim, though it was at least partially completed before a global pandemic shut us all into self-quarantines. (Snippets of Rick’s battle against Story Lord play out in the intro theme song throughout the season.) Call it clairvoyant then or call it coincidence, but “Never Ricking Morty” manages to articulate the surreality of life these days with a kind of madman’s precision. Like, you ever wonder what it’d be like to be stuck indoors on a train moving in perpetually circular motion with no engine, no endpoint destination, and the creeping suspicion that we all exist in a simulation authored by the most obvious writer in Hollywood? Welcome aboard the Story Train. Tickets, please.
Coming after a four-and-a-half month hiatus, “Never Ricking Morty” stands on par with the strongest episodes of the season so far. (Those include “One Crew Over the Crewcoo’s Morty,” a virtuosic, baseless rant against heist movies, and “Rattlestar Ricklactica,” an elaborate Terminator homage, except with space snakes.) It’s also of a piece with the season’s self-conscious pivot away from the emotional introspection of season three. “Pickle Rick” this ain’t, and that’s fine. Not that Rick and Morty can resist a good meta-narrative tease.
Plot threads investigating Beth and Jerry’s codependency, Rick’s buried trauma, and the show’s other usual avenues for “grappling with the nature of who we really are” (as the Story Train commercial so neatly phrases it) have tapered off in season four. But as “Never Ricking Morty” works itself into a frenzy under layers and layers of meta-critiques—of the show, of this episode, of the contrived narrative device it relies on—it does stop to remind us of certain long-awaited character returns. Namely, the ongoing threats from Evil Morty and what remains of the Galactic Federation, now headed by Summer’s ex-classmate Tammy Guetermann. The episode does loudly announce that little of what we see is technically “canon,” though. So, probably best to follow Morty’s philosophy here: “We don’t need to overthink shit, okay?”
Written and directed by two Rick and Morty regulars (Jeff Loveness and Erica Hayes, respectively), the episode finds Rick and Morty at the mercy of a train controlled by Story Lord, a new villain whose persona Rick succinctly sums up as “like a Matrix space Frasier.” Part hackneyed studio exec, part maniacal fan, Story Lord is driven by the prospect of mechanically harnessing the pair’s endless narrative potential, valued according to three rubrics: relatability, marketability, and broad appeal. Basically, he wants to power his train with a never-ending anthology of Rick and Morty adventures—a notion the show’s slow-but-steady-moving writers and animators seem to have strong feelings about. You zealots wanted more Rick and Morty, huh? You’re sick of waiting months, even years between episodes? Cool, this one (playfully) screams, here are a few dozen potential episodes crammed into and wasted in one.
Thanks to Story Lord, “Never Ricking Morty’s” main continuity is constantly sabotaged by unrelated, one-off alternate narratives, each as instantly absorbing as the last. The effect is as dazzling as it is vaguely stress-inducing: a whirlwind free-for-all where perfectly viable storylines are created, burned up, and discarded in less than two minutes. (“Is any of this canon?” Morty asks at one point. “It could’ve been!” yells Rick.)
In itself, that construct jokingly echoes the much-loved Interdimensional Cable episodes, in which we get to watch sublimely nonsensical TV from across multiple dimensions. It also doubles as a convenient way to tease long-gestating narratives viewers might have almost forgotten about by now, years after they last appeared. In one glimpse, Lawnmower Dog’s ranks of mecha suit-wielding canines square off against an army of talking cats (earlier this season, Jerry let one talk him into flying first-class to Florida), while Summer and Tammy Guetermann face off in a death match. In another, Rick and Morty are seen standing alone against an army of Ricks, Meeseeks, and aliens led by Evil Morty. Did you want to see how that turned out? Too bad. None of this is real. Wubba-lubba-dub-dub!
Rick’s efforts to jam up the train with storylines contrived enough to disrupt the flow of the episode yield the best bits. In two of them, Morty is pressured to improvise narratives of his own on the spot, a task he proves too unimaginative for. The half-formed results are animated and voiced by actors anyway though, in a staging of the world’s most pitiful cartoon. On his second try, Rick wises up: this time, Morty must dream up a storyline that would otherwise never take place on the show. Something unheard of, even amid aliens, inter-dimensional travel, and the multiverse—one that passes the Bechdel test. Morty’s attempt to write women’s dialogue is tragically hilarious for how stiff and dull it is (Beth and Summer’s talk turns from tea straight to periods). It’s doubly fun to think of how many real Hollywood screenwriters produce similar results when forced to write two women talking about something other than men. (Women do shoot lasers out of their crotches, though; that part was realistic.)
The episode is keenly aware of when its meta shtick begins to wear thin. With the coke-fueled pace at which it moves, that ticks in around minute eight—but it does call out its own obnoxiousness and reset before diving in again. Ditto Rick’s coup de grace in the finale: an earnest embracing of Jesus Christ and the power of prayer, the ultimate anti-Rick and Morty development. Just like that, Story Lord’s power is ineffective. Rick condemns him to “eternity in every writer’s hell: the Bible,” a line that’s sort of funny, but only sort of, prompting Morty to deem the episode’s resolution “cynical” immediately: “I just don’t want to take any cheap shots, you know?” Then comes the quintessential, existential twist: none of this, not even the episode’s main continuity, was ever real: the Rick and Morty we just watched are aboard a toy train the “real” Morty bought at the Citadel of Ricks gift shop, presumably before Evil Morty took over the place.
Part of Rick and Morty’s appeal four seasons in is its refusal to rely on what has come before. It remains adamantly inventive at all costs and self-aware sometimes to a fault—and more than well aware of that, too. A re-introduction like “Never Ricking Morty” is a good reminder of those strengths and faults, and of what makes the show worth the wait. For at least a few more weeks aboard the deranged Story Train of our current timeline, there are far worse places to seek solace—or at least a laugh.