In the first episode of series 3, Rick bade us ‘welcome to the darkest year of our adventures’. Each week, we’re going to judge the new episode on exactly that basis and see where it registers on the darkometer.
It’s been quite a ride, hasn’t it? Rick is rapidly succumbing to his own hubris, Morty and Summer continue their respective slides toward the dark side, Beth and Jerry have failed to deal with their divorce in anything approaching a healthy way, and of course Beth may very well have ditched the family and left a clone in her place.
The two series finales we’ve had so have both – at least initially – involved some level of winding down. There was the house party, and then there was Bird-person’s wedding, God rest his avian soul. So it’s something of a departure from form when, mere seconds in, Rick and Morty have their game of Minecraft rudely interrupted by their old pal, President Keith David, who needs them to SAVE AMERICA.
You might be surprised it is still President Keith David, given that since the last time we saw him, America has gone through certain elections which may or may not have been controversial – I don’t know, this isn’t a review of real life. Perhaps you were expecting President Vince McMahon or President elderly Johnny Bravo. The fact is, though, while Keith David’s buttery-smooth delivery is strongly Obamaesque, it’s by no means exclusive, and the bombast can fit basically any President. Plus, lest we forget, the world of fiction has had black Presidents of America ever since ‘Ike’ Eisenhower was beaten to re-election by the late Nat King Cole.
Anyway, the high-concept sci-fi rigmarole President David’s called in the dynamic duo to deal with is little more than some weird alien dog getting loose in his basement. Granted the White House basement is bigger and more full of scandal than most, but still, he’s got the Men In Black and the SCP Foundation to deal with this sort of nonsense – a fact which isn’t lost on Rick and Morty, who are bored stiff. So, even at the risk of infuriating an awful little man with a drone fixation, they make an informed, rational decision to get back to Minecrafting.
Of course, the President isn’t just an awful little man with a drone fixation – he also has his own burgeoning hubristic journey, and more importantly, high-end recording equipment trained on every square foot of land between Cape Cod and Midway. So word of their decision gets back to him within moments. With a satellite trained on their house as they punch trees, he casually rings them up and asks how their bug-hunt is going.
Rick – and even, to his credit, Morty – bluff has best they can, but it’s the classic situation where one party has caught the other in a lie. President David, as he notes, holds all the cards. So within seconds, the President – our President, ladies and gentlemen – has flown off the handle and revealed he’s spying on them and knows they’ve blown off the bug-hunt. Morty reflexively tries to placate him while Rick, naturally, rags on him for spying on them. In response he cites the thousands of federal laws they break every day, a figure they’re extremely proud of.
As in any relationship that’s been plodding along alright until it suddenly, dramatically isn’t, all the dirt gets laid out on the table. The President points out that the only reason the whole might of the federal government isn’t after them 24/7 is that they save the world now and again. Which is a bit of a shock to Rick and Morty, who had always assumed they were the ones doing him a favour when they saved the world. And Rick goes further, making a grandiose claim that the government would absolutely not be able to arrest them.
Now, you and I saw the series première, in which the intergalactic government (remember those guys?) were, briefly, able to hold Rick before he tore their entire society apart. You and I know he isn’t bluffing there. You and I aren’t awful little men with drone fixations, is essentially what I’m getting at. So President David sees this as less of a fair warning than a challenge.
Moments later, a tiny civilisation is discovered in the depths of the Amazon, and, oh dear oh dear, they’ve already discovered nuclear fission. Which obviously looks like a job for Rick and Morty, but President David isn’t taking the snub lying down, and shows up using a massive, crude teleporter in order to negotiate with the new civilisation himself.
Instead of just writing or calling, he shrinks himself down to go and talk to them face-to-face – and shockingly, is using pills to miniaturise himself, a technique that Rick of all people finds dangerous enough to cite the health concerns. Unfortunately, having been welcomed before the Presidentress of the Mega-Gargantuans (who were probably quite hurt to discover they’re teeny, but are doing their best not to show it), he learns that Rick and Morty have already swung by, explained the situation, and negotiated a peace treaty. While, of course, roundly mocking him.
Between the teleporter and the shrinkage-pills, poor old President David is clearly trying to beat Rick at his own game. And we all know that just doesn’t work – Beth tried it and mutilated her own daughter. But perhaps I’m speaking too soon. Last week, we saw Beth mulling over ditching the family just like Rick did once upon a time – followed by an extremely ambiguous ending.
Now, prompted by her own act of letting Summer run around in what is basically a sexy cowgirl Halloween costume, even Beth is pondering the obvious question – is she a clone? And did the real Beth run out on her kids? She calls Rick to try and clarify, and he comes straight out and says she isn’t a clone. But then of course that’s what he would say – a line of thinking Beth is also quick to go down. And Rick is out somewhere toking up on space-reefers, so can’t give the reassurance his full attention.
(Or, indeed, is unable to reassure someone who’s inherited his capacity for paranoia. Beth very quickly gets onto the idea that if as a clone she develops self-awareness, Rick will have to kill her – which, to be fair, is what he did to the robot Morty in ‘Rickmancing the Stone’ even as it looked like it was developing sentience.)
But what’s Rick doing getting astro-high? Wasn’t he in a snark war with the President a minute ago? Well, like Mark Corrigan, he doesn’t stone alone – and has passed the dutchie to the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, getting them to finally settle their differences. President David might not be able to beat Rick at his own game, but Rick can definitely beat President David at his. And as a final twist of the knife, Rick’s even letting President David take the credit, just to really rub it in.
President David immediately initiates a global search, only to find Rick and Morty waiting in the Oval Office, the one place he would never expect. Rick says all this peace-pipe action has been so they and the President can just call it quits and get on with their lives – but on the minor condition that Morty finally gets a selfie with the President. Morty, of course, immediately smells trouble.
In the game of two powerful psychotics disagreeing, a miss is as good as a mile. More hurtful words are exchanged, and the President orders one of his secret service guys to take Rick down. Rick warns the boy off, promising that if he even touches him, he’ll die. And…the guy touches him. And he dies.
We never get an explanation of how this happened. The President can only fumble for ways in which it’s impossible. All Rick is willing to grant is that it’s a deterrent, not unlike nuclear weapons. It could have been nanobots or strangely specific radiation or a brain haemorrhage ray, there’s any number of high-concept sci-fi explanations for how that could have happened, but really, we don’t need one. Because after a few more secret service guys die pointlessly trying to shoot Rick, one of the chiefs of staff claims Rick isn’t a god – and it’s then that he gets mad.
After evil Morty’s conspicuous lack of a villain speech in ‘The Ricklantis Mixup’, Rick easily pulls double duty with this one, comparing himself to Doctor Who and making everyone present doubt the nature of reality – and for a brief second feigning omniscience to needle the chief of staff how had the temerity to doubt him. While he’s distracted by the monologue, the President realises that if you want something done, you have to do it yourself – and belts him.
The ensuing fistfight is suitably climactic. It perhaps doesn’t ring true that the President puts up more of a fight than the secret service, but then this is President Keith David we’re talking about. And it gives him a chance to bring out some high-concept sci-fi gimmicks of his own, since they are on his turf. The fight takes them tearing through several floors of the White House, down into what appears to be the Truman cocaine lounge and McKinley hooker dump, before the President’s jetpack (what an excellent phrase!) takes them back up and outside through the lawn.
Rick gets the President in a headlock, and has him yielding and ready to be selfie’d – only to realise Morty is gone. He’s stolen the portal gun and is holed up with the rest of the family, because Beth has somehow picked up the idea she’s a clone. Now with family matters to deal with, Rick abandons the fight. The President still demands they settle things now, insisting that Presidential rule can’t co-exist with ‘a living god’. And not one of those niche gods either, like Poseidon or Thor, no, Rick is more of a Bugs Bunny-style indestructible cosmic prankster.
Rick strikes a deal where he’ll back off if he can use the President’s cheap imitation transporter to get him to the rest of the family’s hideout. Over in the b-plot, Beth has sought some kind of perspective on whether she’s a clone from Jerry, because for all his faults, he knows her. He responds with a fumblingly sweet story about being on a date with her and getting a chocolate wrapper stuck on his hand. How exactly that works aside, this actually – against all the odds – manages to rekindle the relationship.
Rick rolls up to the hideout with a gun in his hand, and Beth comes out to meet him, declaring that even if she is a clone, all he’ll accomplish by killing her is tearing the family apart. It’s a fine speech that is immediately undercut when Rick reiterates she’s his daughter, and reveals he brought the gun to kill Jerry – something he doesn’t quite have the heart for now, though he still has plenty of heart when it comes to ragging mercilessly on Jerry.
Now on the lowest rung of his own family, Rick considers skipping off to another dimension again. And we then get a tease of fly-fishing Rick, the Rick from the fly-fishing universe, cheerily introducing himself to the President. But it turns out Rick has merely borrowed Jerry’s fly-fishing hat as a brilliant disguise. He returns to the family all sitting down over sugar chicken, and – to his disgust – must then suffer them mocking the whole ‘is Beth a clone’ idea on the basis that he’d never, ever tell them.
The darkometer, which goes from ‘first lambs of spring’ to ‘MEGADETH’, must consider many factors in the final analysis. We’ve got the bloody deaths of many, many innocent people, and the government of a world superpower being both terrifyingly efficient and incredibly petty – but we must weigh that against both Beth, and Rick in the clutch, being unwilling to break up the family. The darkometer rates ‘The Rickchurian Mortydate’ as…’Rick loves his grandkids’? Who’s been screwing with thi-
Throughout the series, I’ve held the ending of ‘Rick Potion #9’ – in which Rick and Morty hijack the lives of their alternate-dimension selves who died in a tragic accident – in the back of my mind as the high-water mark, the all-time darkest bit. And, to be honest, nothing’s kicked it off its perch. Some of ‘Morty’s Mindblowers’ came close, but that was being played for laughs throughout. There’s certainly been higher body-counts, like Rick destroying the galactic federation and the Citadel of Ricks in one fell swoop, but those were unnamed characters who we weren’t invested in. So as Rick – a ‘living god’ in this universe, remember – openly declared that this would be the darkest year of their adventures, what gives?
The obvious clue is that the episode ends on, not Rick ascending to Satan-level evil and committing some atrocity we’d never dreamed of, but him as butt of the joke. And, what’s more, him tolerating it – disliking it, but tolerating all the same. But the real giveaway is the post-credits scene – the final dramatic return of Mr. Poopybutthole.
He’s fully recovered from the time Beth shot him – and, what’s more, now has a young family and has gone back to school to get his GED. Then, having established this, he addresses the viewer directly, asking ‘what did YOU do while you were waiting? Hopefully you didn’t just fuck around and waste your life! Ooh-wee!’ And this is coming from Mr. Poopybutthole, the one true good guy of the series. That’s not just ripping on the assumed viewer, that’s sincere.
…well, maybe there’s some ripping on the assumed viewer in there. The creators have had some notable, public moments of disagreeing with members of the fanbase recently. In a way the show’s a victim of its own success – with a fanbase as big as it has, it’s going to have a fair percentage of dicks, assholes, bloody-minded lunatics and dimwits, just like the general population. This isn’t meant to judge them – those people I just called assholes – it’s to say that with that comes an overemphasising of some of the simpler, cruder punchlines. ‘Pickle Riiiiick!’, anyone?
More importantly, though, there’s going to be a huge amount of people who take Rick’s ‘90s-style nihilism at face value. And granted, the show has itself to blame there, not simply because it uses Rick as the voice of reason, but because he also serves as lovable, charming rogue. It’s like if Archer had Archer as drunk and amoral as he is normally, but then also single-handedly solve the Cold War.
So how better to mess with the fanbase than promise ‘the darkest year of our adventures’, with liberal servings of Rick being so tough and cool that nobody better mess with him – and then to pull the rug out from under them at the last moment, by ending on a thorough mockery of his ‘nothing matters’ values? I’m not even talking about the family ripping on him, I’m talking about the last scene – and indeed the after-credits scene – being a family, who love each other (sort of), sitting down together over dinner and sharing a joke. You know, all that boring stuff that actually makes life worth living.
And really, the narrative needs that. I mentioned the massive body-count of ‘The Rickshank Redemption’ earlier, and how we weren’t invested in any of them as characters. If you do believe in everything Rick says, then why be invested in anyone or anything? And if all the characters are misanthropic monsters who believe it themselves, why would even the average person be invested in any one of them? As I said, Rick has the advantage of being the charming rogue. If Jerry decided nothing mattered, I assure you none of the teen fans would find it quite so compelling.
Beyond just messing with the fans, the creators are clearly trying to show that they have concepts other than nihilism in their toolbox. It’s a reach at the eleventh hour, which you could take either way – as desperate ass-covering or as a long-con style punchline. It is, however, combined with something that is almost always a reach but often given a pass for it – the resetting of the narrative to the status quo. Because, as another animated show full of high-concept sci-fi rigmarole once said, ‘it was just a matter of knowing the secret of all great tv shows – at the end of the episode, everything’s right back to normal’.
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