It was made explicitly clear in the premiere episode that Rick and Morty's third season would be its darkest yet. Like with most other things, Rick was indeed correct: This was the darkest season of the hit animation, but not quite in the ways many may have expected.
That same episode, "The Rickshank Rickdemption," ends with Beth and Jerry deciding to get a divorce, a stark contrast to the preceding, alien-empire collapsing escapade. At the time it seemed this may just be a bold piece of juxtaposition to play with our expectations, but, no, it was true: Beth and Jerry were getting separated for good. Indeed, the following two installments were dedicated to the direct aftermath: the Mad Max: Fury Road-riff "Rickmancing the Stone" and the chilling genre-hopping exercise "Pickle Rick." The former is a fun, effective reminder of the new status quo, while the latter is a statement of intent.
"Pickle Rick" begins with Rick having transformed himself into a pickle to avoid family counseling and concludes with him, still in pickle form, being psychologically deconstructed by their counselor in one of the best exchanges on a TV show this side of Mad Men. Rick, who'd just made himself a makeshift body of limbs out of rat and roach body parts to compliment his veggie physique and used said body to take down a terrorist organization, shows up to the therapy session and basically calls the whole thing pointless. Dr. Wong, who'd just been discussing some of Summer and Morty's recent erratic behaviour as a result of the divorce, rebuts that it's only pointless if you're unwilling to do the unexciting stuff to mend what's wrong. Rick would rather die than even begin to humor such things, and on the drive home, he and Beth discuss anything but what just happened while the kids comment how much they hope to go back to Dr. Wong.
"Pickle Rick" made it clear that not only have Jerry and Beth divorced, but that it won't just be a passing plot point. Their separation and the effect it has on the family isn't going away. Family dysfunction had always been a theme of the series, and now that events had caused things to come to head, the show wasn't going to act like it's no big deal. These characters are going through an important transition in their lives, and we spent the season watching each anxious, excruciating step as this family tried to figure out what their problems are and how they could even start to fix them.
And over the course of the season, a range of influences can be seen, but a lot of its approach is particularly comparable to Malcolm in the Middle and The Simpsons, two standard-bearers for depictions of lower-middle class suburban family life. At their peak those shows captured, with remarkable poise and tact, the topsy-turvy life of modern turbulent home. The kids created a mess while they figured themselves out, worn our parents whose marriage is increasingly teetering towards stale, the chaos sometimes being all that's keeping them together.
Yet, despite how well these shows recreated these microcosms of familial lawlessness, they always fell back on the same nuclear family ideals. No matter how hard things became between Homer and Marge, how fruitless it seemed their relationship had become, they never separated. Even when Hal and Lois admitted they loved each other to different levels, they stayed together. Their children could always count on their family home and their loving parents for guidance and support. The distress, though palpable and ever-present, just couldn't overcome the solace these families found in one another, no matter how negatively they affected each other.
As noble an aspiration as this is, it's an unfair fantasy that plays on the turmoil without committing to the attached realities, instead relying on happy-ending portraiture to sidestep the really hard stuff. Because dysfunctional families often don't find a way to stick together. Sometimes they do the opposite, with small problems becoming big problems, and big problems becoming bigger arguments and everything falling apart in a drawn-out implosion with emotional shrapnel flying every which way. The kids suddenly become acutely aware how imperfect their parents are—petty, trivial, mean, selfish—and remain stuck in the middle, trying to make sense of it all while slowly building their own little nest of problems, wondering which ones are inherited and which ones are new. They wonder if there's any hope in building a family of your own being any different.
Instead of avoiding any of this, Rick and Morty wades into it headfirst. First with the divorce itself, and then the aftermath. Jerry placed all of his self-worth on his relationship with Beth, the lack of which has now left him so low he's barely able to maintain a small apartment. Beth, on the other hand, has a fixation on pleasing her father and earning his affections that has not only caused her to struggle to meaningfully relate to her own children but that she's also willfully oblivious too. Morty and Summer both have burgeoning personality disorders, and the added weight of having to be the adults with their own parents isn't helping. And Rick? Well, Rick's the narcissistic, alcoholic part-nucleus of the premise and whole-nucleus of many of the family's problems.
There are consequences for the conditions these characters are put through, and those consequences are taken seriously. Rick and Morty isn't interested in keeping itself or us comfortable. The show is engaging in the difficult questions that loom over its thematic choices, and figuring out what living with the answers looks like. Jerry and Rick holidaying together, Beth learning to connect with Summer as a mother, Beth confronting Rick on his shoddy parenting, Summer and Morty calling out Jerry's complete lack of courage—these are the awkward positions nobody wants to be in, but they must be put into if any progress is to be made. Even if it's more than some of the participants deserve, and even if the result isn't anything you want to hear. At least it's a start.
And if it seems like things are a little different, that's because they are, and because they need to be. The madcap adventures would lose their charm if written in perpetuity to begin with, but acting like everything is fine would betray the intelligence of the show, and the intelligence it expects of us. Like any situation involving trauma, there's some deflection ("The Ricklantis Mixup") and some unhealthy coping mechanisms ("Morty's Mind-Blowers"), but these are side effects all but inherent to acknowledging painful events. They're a sign, as Dr. Wong puts it, that someone is doing the work to begin repairing and maintaining themselves, because step one is admitting there's a problem, and by doing so Rick and Morty has already done more than most in fixing itself.
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