One of my favorite things about Rick and Morty, Adult Swim’s irreverent Doctor Who pastiche, is that the characters’ actions have real consequences that ripple out into later episodes. That sounds like standard fare for a TV series nowadays, but many animated shows have a tendency to hit the reset button after a particularly bonkers ordeal. They often live on an episode-by-episode basis; even a show as beloved as The Simpsons, which will enter its 29th season in the fall, is practically in stasis.
But Rick and Morty, which follows the adventures of mad scientist Rick Sanchez (voiced by co-creator Justin Roiland) and his enthusiastic teenage grandson Morty (also voiced by Roiland), isn’t like other animated shows. It’s the type of series that deals with multiverses and shape-shifting parasites that can implant false memories into your mind. But it’s also the type of show where characters like Rick — who is essentially an amoral, substance-abusing version of the Doctor — have real emotional arcs.
On a personal level, Rick constantly messing with space and time has irrevocably changed Morty’s family. Morty is often complicit in Rick’s otherworldly adventures, and the full extent of what that’s doing to Morty’s psyche is still unclear. (In a season-two episode parodying The Purge, Morty snaps and begins slaughtering a pilgrim-like alien species).
Rick’s presence also creates tension between his daughter, Beth (Sarah Chalke), and her husband, Jerry (Chris Parnell). Beth is levelheaded and whip-smart, but she’s desperately seeking adoration from her cold and nihilistic father, often to the detriment of her marriage. And like Rick, she has a superiority complex — especially where it concerns her dim-witted husband. Beth and Jerry do try to work on their marriage, with occasionally disastrous results; there’s an episode in season two where they go to couple’s counseling on another planet, and the place is literally destroyed in the process.
Still, it’s pretty shocking that Rick and Morty blows the marriage up in season three: The overarching theme of this current season, which has aired three episodes of its 10-episode run, is Beth and Jerry’s separation. By the second episode, Jerry moves out of the house and into a shitty motel, where stray wolves wait outside his mailbox so they can chew up and spit out his unemployment checks.
Rick and Morty has always been darkly funny, with a humanist core buried beneath its crass veneer and sci-fi concepts — don’t be fooled by Rick’s constant belching, swearing and reality-hopping. But the divorce storyline feels especially resonant, given the fact that co-creator Dan Harmon is currently going through a divorce of his own. The fictionalized split has been handled with the type of nuance that’s often reserved for TV’s best dramas. It’s certainly twisted and messy — that’s par for the course with Rick and Morty — but the characters’ problems are treated seriously, even when the circumstances are completely absurd.
Most impressive is how the show doesn’t really make Beth or Jerry the villain in their divorce. Neither character is faultless — they’re both seriously flawed — but neither of them deserves the bulk of the blame, either. Sometimes, relationships are just irreconcilable. It’s a mature perspective for the series to take; as someone who experienced a divorce growing up, I understand first-hand the complexities and toxicity of a frayed marriage. The effects of a separation will sit with a family for a long, long time, and often they never go away entirely.
Rick and Morty brings this dynamic to the fore in the best episode of the season thus far, “Pickle Rick.” Beth is taking Morty and his older sister, Summer (Spencer Grammer), to family therapy — Jerry’s not invited to come along — and she wants Rick to join them. But Rick, knowing about the appointment a week beforehand, turns himself into an actual pickle to avoid going to therapy, claiming it’s another of his scientific experiments. There’s an “anti-pickle” syringe that’ll change him back to a human, but Beth gets a hold of the syringe and takes it to therapy, leaving Rick in his pickle form for much of the episode.
We eventually learn Morty and Summer’s high school requested the therapy, as Summer was huffing pottery glaze and Morty was “desk wetting” as a result of the separation. The therapist, Dr. Wong (Susan Sarandon — seriously) quickly begins psychoanalyzing the family once Morty blurts out that Rick’s turned himself into a pickle to avoid therapy. Beth is insistent it’s just one of Rick’s experiments, and that the pickle talk is unnecessary and ridiculous. “Oh, I think this pickle is a better path than any other to the heart of your family’s dysfunction,” Dr. Wong responds.
Instead of attending therapy and digging into some serious familial issues, Rick would rather to turn himself into a sentient pickle and fight sewer rats, dismembering them and adding their body parts to his, making himself into some kind of a Cronenbergian monster.
Beth and Jerry could definitely take actions to improve their relationship — Jerry could show more initiative on his job hunt, and Beth could stop being so elitist — but Rick really is the focal point for the family’s issues. If there’s a bad guy in this divorce, it’s him. In the season three premiere, Jerry gives Beth an ultimatum: him or Rick. “Are we ever going to stop paying for indulging your father?” Jerry says. “Our children, our planet, our jobs — is there anything left to lose?”
“Just each other,” she replies. Even knowing that, she still chooses her distant father over her mopey husband.
Though he would likely vaporize me for saying so, deep down Rick actually does care about and love Beth, Morty and Summer. (Jerry, though? That’s a maybe.) But he’s aggressively egocentric and nihilistic — why would Rick go to therapy or do menial tasks at home when he can traverse multiple timelines or slice through sewer rats? Dr. Wong offers a very on-the-nose, devastating monologue at the end of the therapy session — once Rick shows up in Cronenberg-pickle form — detailing how Rick’s unwillingness to conform and open himself up might destroy the family.
“Rick, the only connection between your unquestionable intelligence and the sickness destroying your family is that everyone in your family, you included, use intelligence to justify sickness,” she says. “You seem to alternate between viewing your own mind as an unstoppable force and as an inescapable curse. And I think it’s because the only truly unapproachable concept for you is that it’s your mind within your control.”
Dr. Wong’s observation is so spot on, it’s essentially meta-commentary from Roiland and Harmon on how they view the family dynamic. What remains to be seen is whether anything will change now that Rick’s been confronted about his behavior. During the drive back home, Morty and Summer are eager to return to therapy and build from the experience, but Rick and Beth dismiss the subject entirely. They want to drop the kids at home and go for drinks. And that innate stubbornness will likely have further ripple effects. Beth and Jerry’s separation is happening and its repercussions will be irreparable.
The third season of Rick and Morty airs Sundays at 11:30 p.m. Eastern on Adult Swim. You can stream the first two seasons on Hulu.