“Pickle Rick” was arguably the most eagerly anticipated Rick and Morty episode ever. When the first clips leaked long ago, before April Fools’ Day, some fans thought this would be how Rick escaped from space jail. Since then, Adult Swim has put a wealth of footage from “Pickle Rick” online, including the scene where Rick lays waste to a horde of sewer rats. And there were even Pickle Rick shirts on sale at the Rick and Morty fan event at Comic-Con. It’s easy to see why the concept got so much hype: it takes “so stupid it’s brilliant” to the extreme. That’s why seeing Rick’s briny adventure juxtaposed with the family therapy session he’s missing—one of the series’ most straight-shooting storylines to date—proves incredibly jarring.
This episode is a fairly obvious homage to John Wick, from the long action shots to the reverence with which the Russian gangsters (led by Peter Serafinowicz!) treat their invader, and “Pickle Rick” delivers on the visual thrills. Rick and Morty typically gets more accolades for its writing than for its animation, but the artists deserve this week’s MVP award for putting together beautiful, free-flowing sequences of mass murder. And there’s no other word for it: on a night when Game of Thrones roasted dozens of men alive and sent hundreds of others into likely shell shock, Rick and Morty was somehow more deadly and cared far less about the damage its antihero inflicted. That attitude toward killing runs deep in Rick, all the way back to the pilot episode, and it’s undoubtedly influenced by his knowledge of the multiverse, as he explicitly tells us later in “Pickle Rick.” (More on that later.)
Beyond the many deaths, the Pickle Rick subplot is a goddamn blast. Danny Trejo shines as Jaguar, the “animal” imprisoned for unknown reasons who basically turns out to be Machete with guns, and his fight with Rick is playful even as the two characters fight for their lives. (The highlight, of course, is when Rick staples a pickle slice to his wounded side.) And although Rick says he just wants to get out, he’s clearly enjoying himself as much as we’re enjoying watching him. Desperate fugitives don’t take the time to recycle a water bottle or blow up the entire building from which they’ve escaped. This leads us to the clear inference that Rick likes the problems he creates when he runs from his problems. The very act of self-denial gives him life force, whether he’s in pickle or human form.
But in “Pickle Rick,” the show’s writers aren’t content with leaving the viewers to draw the inferences on their own. This is shaping up to be a very talk-y season of Rick and Morty, and that trend won’t do the show any favors going forward.
Like “Rickmancing the Stone” (upon which I’ve soured a bit since I gave it an 8.1 last week), “Pickle Rick” puts its characters on a pulpit and has them shout their motivations and feelings to the world. This honesty has worked well in the past, but only in short bursts, as with Morty’s famous “Come watch TV” monologue from Season 1’s “Rixty Minutes.” More typically, Rick and Morty’s sincerest and hardest-hitting moments have been wordless. Rick’s suicide attempt after being rejected by Unity in “Auto Erotic Assimilation” tells us all we need to know about his embrace of the nothingness; Beth shakily pouring herself a glass of wine after shooting Mr. Poopybutthole in “Total Rickall” (still the best joke payoff this show has done) puts her insecurity and budding alcoholism on proud display in one fell swoop. The series is capable of producing these moments, so why would Justin Roiland, Dan Harmon and company settle for Rick straight-up telling Jaguar that the infiniteness of the universe and his family has hampered his ability to care about them? True, Rick is more likely to open up to a total stranger than to anyone who means something to him, but this sort of confession sounds like the type of thing Rick and Morty would’ve mercilessly mocked in its first season. I think it’s an overall good that the series is more closely examining the earnestness that saves humanity from nihilism—I’ve never once doubted that Rick has a heart—but, like their main character, Harmon and Roiland are struggling to express themselves elegantly on the matter.
The same goes for the episode’s B-plot, which has its funny moments (eat shit, Mr. Goldenfold!) but overall feels like a drag. Rather than trying to knock down a series of one-liners and make the situation more ridiculous, “Pickle Rick” gives us a (relatively) realistic glimpse of what happens in a family therapy session. Here, I think, the show deserves a bit more slack, because what else is a therapist to do but level with her clients? But as well as Susan Sarandon nails her line delivery, her Dr. Wong still seems more like a mouthpiece for Dan Harmon than a real character. We don’t really learn anything new in the therapist’s office—Beth’s willingness to stretch a defense of her father to unbelievable lengths is well-chronicled, and are we supposed to be surprised that a session supposedly convened to address Summer and Morty’s behavior ends up centering on their mother? If anything, it’s a miracle that Summer’s pottery-huffing and Morty’s pants-peeing came up even once in the presence of their mother’s selfishness and self-loathing. Factor in the lack of laughs, and the therapy session looks to signal a real change in direction for Rick and Morty, with even more emphasis on the misery of mundanity than before. We were indeed promised the darkest season yet of the series, but for maximum effect, that darkness should come about naturally out of Rick’s absurd adventures instead of being channeled in directly via long monologues.
The end of “Pickle Rick” does that quite well, packing a strong emotional punch that leaves a good, non-briny taste in my mouth. The conversation between Beth and her father shows more clearly than ever that they are blood relatives with a seemingly hereditary penchant for self-destructive narcissism. But the more powerful aspect of the scene is the eyes of Morty and Summer, locked into a thousand-yard stare as their mom and grandpa totally ignore the kids’ needs to discuss where they’re going to drink together. With Jerry out of the way, we’re beginning to glimpse the stabilizing effect his wet-blanket but well-meaning personality had on the family: he kept Beth grounded in her real life instead of letting herself atrophy in a toxic relationship with her asshole of a dad. And until she reconciles with him, Rick and Morty is going to travel a particularly gnarled and nihilistic road, one no one can escape by turning into a pickle.