Rick and Morty has made a name for itself for its caustic tone, its devil-may-care approach to storytelling, and its counterculture identity of being the show that proves that everything you like is stupid and that caring about the world is a waste of time. But where Rick and Morty really succeeds is in its gritty exploration of science fiction, and last night’s episode “The Vat of Acid Episode” reminded me why I fell in love with the series in the first place. While the previous two episodes have placed the sci-fi in the backseat to generate meta-commentary about the process of writing a popular cartoon show, the latest Rick and Morty adventure is at least 80% about exploring a words idea to an extremely heady endpoint of existential nihilism. It’s also about Rick’s abject cruelty, a motif the show repeatedly revisits but one with which its fandom regularly refuses to reconcile. SPOILERS AHEAD for the latest episode.
The episode beings with Rick and Morty (Justin Roiland) traveling to a distant planet to trade crystals with some alien mobsters inside an intergalactic acid factory, which is a thing that exclusively exists in angry cartoon shows and Batman movies. The aliens pull a double-cross, and Rick pulls Morty into a fake vat of acid that he set up beforehand as a contingency plan. After getting extremely and justifiably agitated over Rick’s obviously ridiculous idea, Morty emerges from the fake acid and simply blasts the mobsters with one of Rick’s numerous instantly-fatal death rays. This provokes a massive argument on the trip back to earth – Morty wants to know why the hell Rick dismisses all of his ideas immediately, while entertaining dumbshit plans like a vat of fake acid pre-loaded with bones to fool a bunch of gangsters he could’ve easily disintegrate in less than five seconds. The argument gets so heated that an enraged Rick finally decides to build one of Morty’s ideas – a device that allows you to “save your game” in real life, and let you reload from that point with the press of a button. Rick pushes back against it for a bit, insisting that none of Morty’s ideas are actually worth doing, which becomes an important point later on in the episode. But for now, let’s talk about the fucking devastating montage that follows.
Morty begins wielding the device like a $400 Amazon gift card, using it to rewind everything from legitimate life-altering events (pantsing his long-absent math teacher Mr. Goldenfold in the middle of class) to bullshit like his entrée choice at Buca di Beppo. Eventually we see this string of do-overs lead Morty into meeting a nice girl at a coffee shop, and the two strike up a relationship. (It cannot be overstated that this montage is set to Eric Clapton’s “It’s in the Way That You Use It”, which is a song that automatically makes any activity extremely hilarious.) Their relationship eventually leads to them going on a vacation together, but their plane crashes in the mountains, and like the soccer team in Alive, they are forced to feed on the bodies of the passengers that didn’t survive. Morty valiantly travels out on his own to track down the reset device, which he lost during the crash, but once he finally locates his backpack, he decides to use the last ounce of his strength to call for help rather than press the reset button, because he loves his girlfriend too much. They get rescued, become minor celebrities, and bring their two families closer together.
And then Jerry (Chris Parnell) finds the device in Morty’s backpack and presses the reset button, sending Morty back to the moment before he met his girlfriend. Before he can really make sense of what has happened, Morty falls on the remote and reprograms the reset point, erasing everything he did up until the point he met her. It’s reminiscent of the Season 2 episode “Mortynight Run”, in which Morty lived an entire life as a man named Roy in a VR game, only to be yanked out of it at the moment of Roy’s accidental death in a carpet store. It’s a catastrophic mindfuck, is what I’m saying.
The existential implications of such a device are chilling, and while I’d like to say the episode pulls no punches in exploring those implications, I must admit it only goes halfway. Rick reveals that the only way to get the device to work was to teleport Morty into alternate dimensions while simultaneously murdering that dimension’s version of Morty, meaning Morty killed a version of himself every single time he “reloaded” one of his save states. But the episode doesn’t reflect on the impact that the device must have had on the numerous alternate dimension versions of everyone Morty interacted with – according to Rick, there must be an infinite number of Morty’s friends and family scattered across an infinite number of universes that also experienced the same things he did. Additionally, some of those people must’ve seen Morty melt into a pile of temporal goo like two Ron Silvers smashed together in the end of the 1994 motion picture Timecop. That’s a neverending kaleidoscope of horror inflicted on a neverending number of people. But at the same time, Rick reveals that the only reason he created this device, and subjected Morty to the agony of an alternate life that he can never recapture, is because Morty dared to question his acid vat in the opening minutes of the episode. So, yeah – in case you haven’t been paying attention to the series up to this point, Rick has completely devastated (and killed) an incalculable number of people because he got into an argument with his grandson. Rick sucks, is my point. He’s the worst human being to have ever existed.
However, it feels like the series is starting to forget to address this point. Even at the end of the most insufferable episode of all time, Season 3’s “Pickle Rick”, the show still took the time to address the fact that Rick is a monster who is the architect of his own misery. “The Vat of Acid Episode” pins all of the misery on Morty, even though Rick engineered it all to teach Morty a grim “lesson”. The episode conspicuously ends with a mob of outraged citizens, carrying two different signs about racist white appropriation of black culture, commenting on how the entitlement of outrage culture led to Morty’s death. Series co-creator Dan Harmon has run into some controversy on social media, and this ending, coupled with Rick’s scorched-earth, take-no-responsibility response to Morty’s criticism, casts the episode in a particularly cynical light that makes it difficult to fully enjoy. We’re three episodes in to The Other Five, and so far each one has been (at least in part) a rant about how hard it is to write Rick and Morty. I hope the next two episodes manage to fully embrace the smart sci-fi deconstruction that made the show so unique in the first place.