The last half-decade has seen a renaissance of sorts in animated, adult-oriented TV comedies. New series like BoJack Horseman, Rick and Morty, Big Mouth, Tuca and Bertie, and Undone probe extremes of the human experience—from mental illness to existentialism to puberty to spirituality—with humor, empathy, and the kind of ambition made possible only by the limitless potential of the medium. Confronting the drudgery of being alive, it turns out, is often a more bearable, and even more truthful, exercise through the elastic, colorful lens of cartoons.
Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty has to be the rowdiest of the bunch, with its gleefully brutal view of an uncaring universe and the flawed, infinitesimal people trying to find meaning in it. Its third season marked a creative high point for the series. It pulled off staggering, practically Verhoevian feats of dystopian sci-fi political allegory (“The Ricklantis Mixup”), notched the series’ first Emmy Award (for the singular “Pickle Rick”), and launched an incisive, often shattering interrogation of Rick’s pathologies: his self-hatred, his narcissism, and his carelessness, which destabilized and eventually broke down his family. He emerged, if not a better man, at least intermittently more self-aware. For a minute, he was even repentant.
In the season three finale, “The Rickchurian Mortydate,” the Smith family (Rick’s daughter Beth, her husband Jerry, and their kids Summer and Morty) reunited, promising a fresh start for each other and the show. (“In many ways, things will be like season one but more streamlined,” Beth says brightly in the episode’s final scene.) The season four premiere, “Edge of Tomorty: Rick, Die, Rickpeat,” arrives more than two years later but stays true to Beth’s word. In ways both refreshing and disappointing, it is indeed a throwback to a simpler Rick and Morty, with lower emotional stakes, some of the show’s signature inventiveness, and more straightforward sci-fi adventure.
“Edge of Tomorty” isn’t the funniest the show has ever been, and it is far from the most groundbreaking. But the episode does boast a wildly profane imagination, gruesome visual contortions, and the self-awareness needed to poke fun at its own slightness: “Oh boy, so you actually learned something today? What is this, Full House?” Rick mocks Morty in the final minutes, after his grandson vows to start “living in the moment.” That advice—to dwell in the small joys of living rather than despairing at the bigger picture—is nothing new, per se. It’s intrinsic to the show’s philosophy. But that seems to be part of the point of this episode—to shake off the heavy emotional lifting of last season and reassert Rick and Morty’s right to just run to hell with a ridiculous idea, make us laugh for a bit, and call it a day.
The episode’s cold open smashes the reset button with remarkable efficacy. Rick is again bored by his family, auto-responding to their dinnertime chatter through a chip in his brain that allows his real consciousness to wander elsewhere; he’d rather make an Amazon wish list than talk to his daughter. The only mark of change in him shows when he begrudgingly rephrases a demand into a request for Morty to come along on a mission to collect objects called “death crystals.” The Smiths themselves, especially Beth, meanwhile, seem less beholden than usual to Rick’s whims and approval. Beth can gently chide her father; she doesn’t tense up the second he leaves the table, afraid he’ll never come back. Progress! The cold open also does a delightful, whirlwind job of re-establishing the Smiths’ default dynamics: Everyone laughs at Morty; Beth protects a helpless Jerry; Summer whines about being excluded. All is well. (And for now, at least, Beth no longer suspects she’s a clone.)
But those relationships take a back seat to hairpin turns from comedy to gore to action and back in “Edge of Tomorty,” which ranks among the bloodiest installments of the series so far. It all goes haywire when Morty gets a hold of one of the death crystals, which reveals to him every way he might die based on his actions in the present. The effect is intoxicating for him and creates a kaleidoscope of morbid hilarity for us. In one panel, Morty dies in a Terminator 2-style nuclear blast; in another, every inch of his flesh oozes off his bones; we see him die in balding middle age of a heart attack on a toilet; hit by a truck while walking and texting; impaled, eaten, sledgehammered, and crushed, all at once in an uproarious little symphony of chaos.
That is, until Morty sees himself dying peacefully of old age with his high school crush, Jessica, professing her love beside him. Instantly obsessed, Morty steers Rick’s spaceship in whichever direction keeps her image in the death crystal. They crash, and Rick sails through the broken windshield and square onto a jagged rock, dying so abruptly and violently that the only human response to the shock is to laugh.
“People that spend their life avoiding death are already dead,” Rick tells Morty at the top of the episode, for all the good it does either of them. While Rick’s consciousness downloads into a backup clone belonging to a Rick from another universe (he dies and re-downloads again and again in a nod to Edge of Tomorrow, with increasingly unhinged results), Morty is consumed by a single-minded desire to drive himself toward death at Jessica’s side.
It’s a new side of the show’s playful take on pre-determinism—remember Rick’s butter-passing robot?—and it may even be a more optimistic one, if also more violent and chaotic. Every decision Rick and Morty make drastically alters their potential fates; nothing they do is pointless. “Nobody exists on purpose,” as Morty once said, and “nobody belongs anywhere,” but when even the most minute assertions of free will change the outcome of your life literally right before your eyes? Maybe there’s a reason we see Morty step into Sarah Connor’s nuclear nightmare in one of his potential deaths. “No fate but what we make,” right? The lunatic way the show visualizes the idea is mostly horrific, sure. But it’s also kind of… nice.
Back on Earth, Morty’s mission leads to the episode’s funniest sequence, the kind of idea someone gets to only after devoting incredible time and thought to an incredibly silly concept—so, a Rick and Morty specialty. Morty stands trial for going overboard in defending himself against a bully—then the police, then the National Guard; news anchors dub him the “unstoppable science fiction boy”—and just blurts out whatever sounds that keep Jessica’s image in his death crystal. Through trial and error, he apes the last words his judge’s dead husband said to her (“I’ll always remember our time in Peru”), sounding fully deranged, and of course gets off scot-free.
All the while, Morty contends with a hologram version of Rick that invites some of the episode’s staler jokes. Holo-Rick is a caricature of overly sensitive liberal types and a master of puns: “Calling density-privileged entities ‘real’ is incredibly holo-phobic,” he sniffs, and then, “Do me a solid, problematic wordplay aside?” He snipes at Morty just for holding the death crystal (“that’s a little offensive”) and stages a protest with multiple versions of himself (including a visibly stoned outlier he calls “Berkeley”). The excellent wordplay saves these jokes from sounding too hacky, though they do veer unexpectedly close to cliché for a series that prizes unpredictability and outrageousness.
Still, the payoff to Holo-Rick delivers, at least in body horror. He flips into a giant, murderous maniac after accidentally being converted into solid matter. Then his head explodes after Wasp Rick stings him, laying eggs that hatch into larvae and eat his brain. It’s an unspeakably gruesome sequence that unfolds in all of, like, six seconds—one more testament to the wonderfully sick minds that animate the show.
On the other side of the spectrum, Rick’s repeated run-ins with Nazis yield weirder, more surprising results. The mad scientist keeps spawning into universes ruled by fascistic dictatorships, whether human, shrimp, or wasp. (“When did this become the default?!” he screams, on behalf of humanity.) In one timeline, he’s taken hostage by a Nazi Morty who shoots his own Rick dead because, in his words, “He was too political.” The bit becomes more surreal as it goes on, with Nazi Morty demanding “fun, classic Rick and Morty adventures, like in the old days” while pressing a laser gun to Rick’s head.
There are echoes here of the backlash against the show’s inclusion of female writers in season three, mostly from fans who insisted that women’s contributions had led to a decline in the show’s quality and demanded a return to “classic” form. But Nazi Morty is also just like any other overly entitled fan, whether of this show, Star Wars, or some other nerd property, who threatens to dismiss the art he claims to love if it doesn’t adhere to narrow specifications that appeal to him directly. Mostly though, “He was too political” is just a hilarious thing to hear coming from a Nazi. (So is “I like Mr. Meeseeks.” What cold, dead heart doesn’t?)
The real Morty, meanwhile, finds a way to fuse with a black-tentacled entity that renders him inert inside an all-powerful organism. (They call him “Akira Morty.”) His short-lived plan is to live inside it until he’s old enough to resume his path toward the death he wants. Before coming to bust Morty out, Rick has dinner at Wasp Rick’s place, and sees how nicely that version of the Smith family treats one another. More, it hits him that this isn't far off from how his “real” family now does, too. But only a fleeting moment of self-reflection passes—“Guess I don’t have it as bad as I thought”—before another whiplash turn back to butt-kicking action. Which is fine! Though the dinner scene did remind one of how much deeper this show can go when it examines the bonds and burdens of family with its whole cast, rather than just Rick and Morty.
In its final moments, “Edge of Tomorty” lays out its season four mission statement in explicit terms: to get back to basics while allowing room to experiment. Or in Rick parlance, “Yeah, sometimes we’ll do classic stuff, you know, sometimes we’ll do whatever!” It will be the show it wants to be, despite whatever I or its worst fans or its most dedicated viewers want. That in itself is heartening news, though I sympathize with anyone selfishly craving a little more of season three’s emotional depth. (That said, there’s no reason to believe this season won’t go there; this is just the first episode.) Rick and Morty has been notoriously slow to produce; only five episodes will debut this fall, with the back half of this season coming next year. But the series has always planned on longevity. To stay as vital as it’s become, it’ll have to think ahead and live in the moment—giving us a little of what we already know we want, and surprising us with more. Luckily, it seems that’s just what it’s planning to do.