As Bojack Horseman said during the “Free Churro” episode of his titular show, “The first rule of a sitcom is that things can’t change and people can’t be happy.” In order to keep the show going from season to season, the story has to reset at the beginning of each new season, no matter what kind of big changes the characters go through in the previous season.
Rick and Morty has mostly followed this rule: Though aliens have invaded the planet and Rick has gone to prison in the past, things usually go back to normal in the next episode and everything turns out fine for the Smith family. But slowly, and particularly this season, the show has attempted to do something few sitcoms do: Add some real consequences and change the status quo.
Of course, this is not entirely new within the show. The very first season had Rick and Morty destroy the Earth before fleeing to a different dimension where everyone else lived but they died, buried their doppelgangers in the backyard, and took their place. Though this was mostly ignored in order to follow sitcom rules and to allow the show to keep its same tone, the show did reference this as a turning point for Morty, who was traumatized by the experience of burying himself. Who can forget Morty’s “Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV?” monologue? Rick and Morty has played with a lot of TV tropes and genres, and it has subtly tried to push established rules, but Season 4 has introduced seemingly permanent changes to the Smith family, and the show is better for it.
After Rick’s daughter Beth and her husband Jerry spent much of Season 3 separated, they finally reconciled after Beth struggled with the idea that she may have been a clone (See? A reset!). But instead of going back to the way things were, the show made permanent changes to Beth, who stopped having a fear of being abandoned by Rick late last season, and turned the entire family against the abusive Rick.
Though the season premiere of Season 4, “Edge of Tomorty: Rick Die Rickpeat”, in many ways follows the same old Rick and Morty formula — Rick forces Morty to go along on an adventure, things go terribly wrong for Morty, and Rick reluctantly saves the day — this episode makes a subtle yet significant change to the Smith family dynamic: Rick now has to ask Morty for permission. When Rick grabs Morty away from the breakfast table to help him get death crystals from Forbodulon Prime, Beth interrupts and says, “There’s a way we do this now,” before Rick asks Morty to please go with him. Sure, Rick still gets his way, and Morty only gets hurt for tagging along, but we’re seeing Rick slowly become alienated from the family he previously held onto by the tips of his fingers, and he’s very annoyed by this change.
The same thing happens later in the season with “Claw and Hoarder: Special Ricktim’s Morty.” Before the “soul orgy,” we see Morty stand up to Rick and demand he gets the dragon his grandpa promised him. When Rick tries to brush it off as another dumb Morty request, Morty reminds his grandpa that he agreed to help him with his latest adventure in exchange for the fantasy creature. When Rick causes an accident that leaves Morty in the hospital, Beth reiterates Rick’s promise to Morty, prompting the mad scientist that the entire universe fears to actually listen to people, comply, and give his grandson a dragon.
We still have a bit under 70 episodes of the show to go, so it’s unlikely that things will radically change or that Rick will become an entirely different person, but the show is finally starting to acknowledge that it can’t stay the same forever. Rick and Morty will continue to go on adventures, but just like real-life people, they will slowly change over time, and things won’t go back to the way they were before.
The first episode of the back half of the season directly addresses it, albeit in a very confusing and very meta fashion. “Never Ricking Morty” finds the titular characters trapped in a circular train, trapped by a Story Lord who wants to drain Rick and Morty of their creative potential. The show both follows and is mostly a way to visualize co-creator Dan Harmon‘s story circle structure. For the uninitiated, Harmon famously plots his stories following a variant on Joseph Campbell‘s Hero’s Journey, only here it’s a circular template where the hero leaves a comfort zone, obtains something in an unfamiliar situation, and finally returns to their comfort zone having changed in some way. Through some wacky and over-the-top ways, “Never Ricking Morty” follows this structure, and ends with Rick and Morty seemingly embracing consumerism, talking about their merchandising potential, all while Rick actually acts like a decent and loving grandpa to Morty.
Will this change be permanent? Maybe not. But Rick and Morty is doing its best to signal to its audience that the sci-fi comedy that began in 2013 is slowly and subtly changing, and honestly, it’s the best thing that can happen to this show.