Remember when we could just talk about Rick and Morty as a TV show? Somewhere along the line this goofy sci-fi cartoon became a symbol for toxic fandom and a favorite among internet message board fascists and misogynists. Its reputation was hurt by one portion of its fanbase that took its love for the show to obnoxious extremes, and another, far more insidious wing that openly harassed its female writers and claimed the show was being “ruined” by “SJWs.” It got so bad in 2017 that Dan Harmon, one of the show’s creators, publically spoke out against those fans in an Entertainment Weekly interview. Like so much else of the media we consume, Rick and Morty was fully sucked into the culture war, making it impossible to simply discuss its comic or storytelling merits. You couldn’t really talk about the show without talking about its fans and the larger divide in our culture today.
Not to downplay the biggest problem with those anti-woman fans—which, of course, is that they’re clueless, misogynist assholes who basically want to not just prevent any progress in our society, but ruin it as we already know it—but their complaints were especially foolish because Rick and Morty has always criticized, both explicitly and implicitly, the kind of arrogance, contempt and lack of empathy that defines them. Rick Sanchez is in no way an aspirational figure—he’s a giant sucking black hole of a person, and although his personal growth has been extremely slow, it’s still pretty much been the main focus of his character development over the first three seasons. Rick might be a funny and entertaining character, and perhaps there’s something to admire in his confidence and self-reliance, but he’s also cruel and petty and treats every other living creature, including his family, as disposable pawns that can be replaced whenever his plans (which he never explains to anybody else) call for it. Despite his growth Rick fundamentally sucks, and anybody who can watch this show and not realize they’re supposed to think that is probably far worse.
This weekend’s Season 4 premiere is the first new episode since the fan problem truly blew up during Season 3. It addresses the topic directly and unmistakably, with a fascist Morty holding Rick hostage and demanding he stop being political and focus on “fun” and “classic” adventures. The show doesn’t hide its hostility to far right internet trolls, or its contempt for fans who just want to see the same stories and jokes repeated in new episodes. One memorable character from a first season episode returns as an open middle finger to people who just want to see the show do its greatest hits again, with that fascist Morty representing those fans. This Morty orders Rick to avoid metacommentary, which is itself a bit of commentary so meta that the show almost finally swallows itself once and for all.
This isn’t the main thrust of the episode, though. It’s the B-plot, and I won’t spoil the main storyline here. Let’s just say it introduces another mind-bending sci-fi concept to a show already overstuffed with them, while also heavily referencing a pretty well-known anime movie. (It’s so well-known even I, a guy who knows almost nothing about anime and has little interest in learning more, picked up on it.) It takes one character to the edge of oblivion, and then spins it out into a pivotal moment in some of the show’s central relationships. It’s not just funny, but a well-written story that further develops multiple characters without ever feeling maudlin or self-serious. It’s good storytelling, good comedy, and, yes, good TV. And yet, despite making up the bulk of the episode, it’ll probably take a backseat in most people’s minds to the subplot about the show’s toxic fans. That’s the takeaway, and the stuff that critics and thinkpiecers (like, uh, this guy typing these words right now) will focus on. It’s enough to make you think we’ll never be able to just talk about Rick and Morty as a TV show ever again.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.