Like its mad scientist protagonist, at times it feels like Rick and Morty does everything in its power to remain unlikeable.
Grotesque, crass, nihilistic, confrontational, distressing, and almost insufferably up-its-own-ass intelligent — it’s actually the show’s undeniable heart (and tendency to rip it out of your chest) that grounds the sci-fi juggernaut in issues that can hit a little too close to home.
If Rick and Morty has ever made you uncomfortable, you’re not alone. And, actually, not outside the intentions of its creators.
“We always saw this show as our little darling that was supposed to have nothing to do with success, or attention, or pleasing people,” co-creator Dan Harmon recently told us.
On those first two accounts, he and fellow mastermind Justin Roiland failed miserably.
This season, Rick and Morty is up 81% year over year, and has become the #1 comedy on TV among adults 18-24 and adults 18-34, according to Nielsen’s Live+7 ratings — putting it ahead of primetime favorites like The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family. The critical praise for Rick and Morty remains damn near unanimous.
As the Season 3 finale approaches on Sunday, Oct. 1, it appears Rick and Morty has transitioned from cult favorite into full-on cultural phenomenon in just a few months, since the premiere in April.
But the metamorphosis goes far beyond ratings. Over the course of the season, we watched a show that did all it could to alienate itself from everyone turn into a show that’s about as personal and intimate as a nightmarish Thanksgiving at granny’s house.
The familiarity that grounds Rick and Morty‘s universe(s)
Since Day 1, the series has reveled in an unrelenting, disconcerting kind of honesty. But when Season 3 promised to be the “darkest” one yet, no one really understood what that meant. More gore, presumably — plus the soul-crushing existential dread we’ve come to know and love.
Then the premiere finally aired. Both gore and existentialism abound in Rick’s annihilation of not one but two planetary systems of governance. But the most disturbing twist of all in “The Rickshank Redemption” cut deeper than even species-wide genocide.
And it took place in the family garage, without a drop of blood being spilled.
Mere seconds after Beth declares she’ll never let her father come between her and Jerry’s marriage again, the devil himself portals back into her life uninvited.
“Guess who dismantled the government?” he declares as an apology for abandoning his daughter (again).
Without so much as a blink, Beth wrestles out of her husband’s embrace to crawl back into daddy’s arms like a beaten puppy to its abuser. “Please don’t leave me again.”
“I never will, baby.”
From there on out, we can only watch in horror as Grandpa Rick’s reign of terror takes hold of the house. Having manipulated Jerry out of the picture, Rick reveals his psychotic plan to his grandson — globs of alcohol-induced spittle flying from his deranged mouth:
“I’ve rep[burps]laced them both as the de facto patriarch of your family and your universe. Your mom wouldn’t have accepted me if I came home without you and your sister, so now you know the real reason I rescued you. Oh! I just took over the family, Morty!”
Yup. Definitely getting darker.
How Season 3 transcended itself (by accident)
To anyone who’s ever been a member of a family, these scenes of dysfunction feel unshakeable.
You know this man, the de facto patriarch, who manipulates himself into the center of everyone’s universe, only to abandon them at every opportunity. Or perhaps you know his daughter, wine glass perpetually in hand, struggling to fit a role she never suited, while enjoying herself most with the poor robotic approximations of her children programmed to emote only supportive affirmations toward her behavior.
Maybe you’re the kids, watching helplessly from the backseat, as the insurmountable truth that none of the adults know what the fuck they’re doing dawns on you. That, in fact, nobody knows what the fuck they’re doing.
The psychological damage stemming from the collapse of their traditional family unit ripples through nearly every episode of Season 3 with stinging authenticity. The sci-fi premises that used to define the show’s boldness have become more of a backdrop, as week to week the tragedy of a family fighting to put their ill-fitting, broken pieces back together unfolds. Only to fail. Again and again.
Rick and Morty has become one of the starkest portraits of familial love, and our endless capacity to care for and destroy the people we’re closest to — often simultaneously.
This shift has surprised perhaps no one more than the show’s own creators.
“If anything we were trying get back to basics,” Harmon said. “We were just chasing the initial dream — that joy of infinite possibilities that we got from Season 1… and I guess along the way we screwed up and made Breaking Bad instead.”
Whether intentional or not, the numbers don’t lie. Rick and Morty is striking a cord of universality that it never has before. But in typical Rick and Morty fashion, that universality doesn’t come from any place of comfort.
It stems from the shared agony of being alive, and stumbling through the illogical reality of human existence.
The two major emotional themes of the season have personal relevance to Harmon in particular. For one, in between Season 2 and 3, he started going through his own divorce. For another, he got himself into therapy.
“In previous seasons, the height of my introspection had to do with how angry I was at NBC. Or humankind in general,” he said, referring to his disastrous experience as the creator of the beloved but niche NBC show, Community. “The big shift [of Season 3] is that I don’t have anything to be angry at, except myself.”
In one of Harmon’s favorite episodes of the season, “Pickle Rick,” the once infallible and all-powerful patriarch can be seen on a therapist’s couch. Having turned himself into a literal pickle to avoid dealing with the damage he’s inflicted on his own family, Rick looks positively dwarfed in the seat.
And, for the first time in Rick and Morty history, a character bests the smartest man in the universe.
“You seem to alternate between viewing your own mind as an unstoppable force and as an inescapable curse. And I think it’s because the only truly unapproachable concept for you is that it’s your mind within your control,” therapist Dr. Wong tells him. “You chose to become a pickle. You are the master of your universe, and yet you are dripping with rat blood and feces.”
Before their time runs out, Dr. Wong tries one more appeal: “The bottom line is, some people are okay going to work [in therapy], and some people well, some people would rather die. Each of us gets to choose.”
For Harmon, this scene was the most clear demonstration of his own transformation as a writer and person.
“I don’t know if I could’ve written that two years ago,” he said. “Two years ago, I would’ve made sure Rick got the final word.” For once, he didn’t.
“I wanted to make sure Dr. Wong’s response came from a place of, ‘well, don’t let yourself off the hook — just because you’re mad and alone. That doesn’t make you above other people who just want to get better. And it doesn’t make you beneath them, either.'”
In Season 3, Rick and Morty managed to pull off its biggest, darkest turn of all. To the utter shock of an audience desensitized to all things blood, guts, and abject atheism, the show transformed from one of infinite comedic cleverness, into one of equal and biting emotional intelligence.
The human heart at the center of the Mr. Poopy Butthole
“It feels like we swam the English Channel, got across, then somebody said: ‘that was amazing how you outran that shark that was trying to eat you,'” Harmon said in reference to Rick and Morty‘s explosion into popularity. “It’s just like… ‘what? No, I was trying to swim the English Channel.'”
He paused to reconsider. “Actually, it’s the opposite: you were swimming away from a shark, and then told you coincidentally swam the English Channel.”
For a show with an ethos that insists it does not care about people, the world, or the senseless pain it inflicts — Rick and Morty understands human nature in a way that few other shows do.
Addressing a popular fan debate over the source of their mad scientist’s drinking problem, Harmon noted that he remembered Roiland saying that “the day we find out the ‘one’ reason why Rick drinks, the show’s over. Because nobody drinks for one reason.”
He added, “I mean, none of your friends have origin stories, either. Real people are defined by their own undefinability. Out of all the unreal things, I think the most real thing about Rick is that you don’t know what makes him tick or where he’s coming from.”
We can make guesses. Like with our own family members, we can take Rick at his word when he says “as far as Grandpa’s concerned, you’re both pieces of shit!” Or we can see him for what he is: a walking contradiction, like the rest of us, with all the redeeming and irredeemable qualities that make us human.
Perhaps the most central question driving the tension of Rick and Morty throughout the course of the series is whether or not Rick actually loves his grandson (or is even capable of love at all). But much like our real-world relationships, the answer is a double-edged sword.
“If you really really loved someone, and [like Rick] also knew the universe was a meaningless gaping mouth waiting to eat innocent life alive — it could take the form of telling that person over and over again that they mean nothing. That you don’t care about them,” Harmon points out.
If you’re a person who’s ever lived, breathed, and dared to try and connect with another person, that internal conflict likely carries an unsettling resonance.
Ironically, it’s not the surreal circus of infinite multiverses, microverses, interdimensional space travel, alien planets, sex robots, Mr. Poopy Buttholes, or even Birdpeople that makes Rick and Morty stand out.
Instead — more than any other drama, comedy, or live action show before it — the most unprecedented thing the show ever did was to further commit to its stark, unvarnished realism.