Rick and Morty Season 3 episode 3, “Pickle Rick,” saw Rick transform himself into a pickle and use cockroach and rat body parts to become an unstoppable action movie killing machine. And that was just the episode’s subplot–“Pickle Rick” was really about the Smith family’s trip to therapy.
And although guest star Susan Sarandon’s deadpan delivery of lines like “If you have any friends or family that eat poop and would like to stop, give them my number” made the whole thing worth it, most viewers probably don’t tune into Rick and Morty for the family drama as much as for the absurdly over-the-top sci-fi comedy.
Rick and Morty normally uses sentimentality wisely, but part of that wisdom has also been that the show employs it sparingly. In Season 3 episode 2, when Morty and Summer took advantage of their time in a Mad Max-style irradiated wasteland to work through their parents’ separation, it felt like a smart and necessary follow-up to the family’s break-up in the premiere. Now we’re three episodes into a 10-episode season, and the Smiths dealing with their familial dysfunction is still the main narrative through-line. This stronger focus on family might wind up eroding one of the things that makes Rick and Morty so great: How fun it always is, even when things get dark.
Where are the alien races that make you question the fabric of reality–the intergalactic assassins, the universes contained inside car batteries, the infinite timelines where Rick and Morty blow up the world or turn everyone into mutant bug people? When was the last time Rick even asked Morty to shove a strange seed up his butt so they could make it through interdimensional customs?
It’s no secret that Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland had a more-than-normal amount of trouble writing Rick and Morty season 3, which is why it took so long for it to come out. It’s too early to call the season’s start a rut, especially since Rick taking on the Council of Ricks in the premiere was so spectacularly good. But it’s easy to imagine what Harmon and Roiland struggled with while creating the rest of season 3, because they’ve written themselves into a corner with Rick’s character.
Does Rick really care about being the family patriarch, or does he just want that sweet McDonald’s szechuan sauce? Why did he work so hard to oust Jerry if he really doesn’t care about anything? Does Rick crave power, or does he love his family and want the best for them–which means getting rid of Jerry? Is he just messing with us all?
There are infinite Ricks, and each one is special. But our Rick really can’t embody both motivations–love for his family, and utter nihilism. Yes, he’s an extremely complex character, which is one of the reasons Rick and Morty is so great. But the two philosophies are, by their very nature, mutually exclusive.
Rick himself attempts to explain it in this episode. “To the extent that love is an expression of familiarity over time, my access to infinite timeliness precludes the necessity of attachment,” he tells Jaguar. “In fact, I even abandoned one of my infinite daughters in an alternate version of earth that was taken over by mutants.” Sure, he ultimately shows up to family therapy, but you can definitely argue that it’s only because Beth has the anti-pickle serum in her purse.
But didn’t his apology on the ride home seem genuine?
Rick and Morty has, in some respects, reached new heights in the ways it uses its ridiculous sci-fi to explore the characters’ personal relationships. Rick transforms himself into a briny killing machine to avoid his obligations to his family, and Morty and Summer dedicate themselves to a life of radioactive scavenging to avoid processing their parents’ divorce. So far, Season 3 has been incredibly well written, especially considering how many fart and dick jokes they manage to squeeze in anyway. It’s just that at some point, it would be nice if that stuff became the subplot, and Rick and Morty started to feel fun again.