Season 4 of ‘Rick and Morty’, Off the Rails but Still Hilariously On-Brand

There are probably thousands of alternate realities where Season Four of Adult Swim’s animated series Rick and Morty arrived with a thud. After making overly ardent fans wait more than two years for a fourth season of episodes, it’s not hard to imagine worlds where those episodes disappoint them, lacking in the magic that made the show a hit and turning them against the series.

In this reality, though, Game of Thrones took that hit while Rick and Morty continues to be as good as it’s ever been, at least based on the episodes that Adult Swim has aired so far. They’re part of a very short five-episode run that concludes in early December, with more on the way next year. And they represent the first batch of a deal for 70 shows that will keep Morty and his grandfather on adventures for years to come, assuming co-creator and voice of the titular characters Justin Roiland doesn’t permanently lose his ability to speak.

The first two new episodes, “Edge of Tomorty: Rick Die Rickpeat!” and “The Old Man and the Seat” remind casual fans that the show is still shockingly funny, whip-smart, gross, and much more committed than most TV shows, animated or otherwise, in taking absurd ideas way past their logical conclusions.

Rick and Morty continues to work its best trick, escalating its already out-there sci-fi premises, infusing them with even more crazy ideas, and taking them to unexpected conclusions. By the time an episode of the show ends, it’s often so far removed from how it began that it can seem like it has no thematic center. But Roiland, co-creator Dan Harmon and their team of writers have gotten very good at introducing chaos and unpredictability to the mix without losing sight of big ideas.

Edge Of Tomorty

In “Edge of Tomorty,” for instance, Morty discovers death crystals, a substance that allows the person holding it to see the myriad ways they might die based on their current life course. Morty catches a glimpse of a future where his crush Jessica comforts him on his deathbed. He becomes obsessed with making that possibility happen. Soon, he’s fighting off the military and a hologram version of Rick (the real Rick dies in a spaceship accident and reincarnates repeatedly in clone machines because this is Rick and Morty) as he turns into an “Akira Kid” with psychic powers.

The episode also features a disgusting meal of wasp-humans feeding on a gigantic caterpillar, fascist alternate realities becoming the default, and an ultra-meta callout at the end of the episode to a character ruining the Season Four premiere. But ultimately, the show asks the question of how we’d behave if we knew we could determine our own death, and deciding that we should plan for the future but keep our head in the present. It’s a very straightforward episode, despite all the bizarre detours. Like the episode that follows it, Roiland grounds it in the very-human framing device that grandpa Rick has reintegrated himself into life with Morty, his sister Summer, and his parents Beth and Jerry. He makes accommodations to stay in their good graces, such as asking permission to take Morty on his space and multidimensional adventures.

The Old Man and the Seat

In The Old Man and the Seat, we learn that Rick is a shy pooper who has built himself a utopia with a toilet that only he may use. When he discovers that somebody else used the toilet without his permission, he goes on a rampage to find that person and punish them. But it turns out that the renegade pooper has a lot in common with Rick, and shows him what he’s been missing by keeping people at arm’s length.

In a separate storyline, Jerry develops a dating app with an alien named Glooti. The app takes over the world and destroys millions of relationships before an ad wall turns everyone against it. For an episode about shy pooping and dumb dating apps, it has a remarkable roster of guest stars, including Taika Waititi, Sam Neill, Jeffrey Wright, Kathleen Turner, and Sherri Shepherd. The ending of the episode finds Rick reckoning with his own worst impulses, again, and lonely as he has ever been. It’s not as poignant as some of the show’s season enders, and other moments in the series run reveal the origins of some of Rick’s deep well of self-hatred. But it’s still a surprising grace note in an episode that’s largely about wanting a place to shit in private.

Even putting aside the technical aspects of the show, whose animation, sound design, and voice acting continue to shine, Rick and Morty still works because the writers stuff it with great jokes and smart concepts, from the way Summer mocks her brother and grandfather while they can’t hear her, to Jerry’s outrage that the death crystals have turned his son into an  “Akira,” with emphasis on the first syllable.

Rick and Morty hasn’t slowed down and it hasn’t stopped trusting that viewers can keep up with its breakneck pace and increasingly complex rules. At one point, Rick quickly slides into another dimension, drags another version of a character he’s confronting into the room, and gets the dimensional visitor to reveal information that contradicts the other man’s justification for breaking a rule. You have to know where Rick is going when he enters that portal, how he was able to bring someone over, and why he would go to the trouble to extract that information; it’s simply to prove a point, but even a fan of the show might need a second to parse all that plotting, which lasts all of 20 seconds.

That’s Rick and Morty in a nutshell, a series that sometimes seems too complex and stuffed with plot for its own good, but that, in its new episodes at least, is showing that the two-year hiatus hasn’t hurt the show creatively at all.

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Omar Gallaga

Omar L. Gallaga is a technology culture writer, formerly of the Austin American-Statesman, but he's not interested in fixing your printer. He's written for Rolling Stone, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Television Without Pity, Previously.tv and NPR, where he was a blogger and on-air tech correspondent for "All Things Considered." He's a founding member of Austin's Latino Comedy Project, which recently concluded a two-year run of its original sketch-comedy show, "Gentrifucked."

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