Rick and Morty has started talking to itself. Pickle Rick (arguably the season’s most-anticipated episode, thanks to Adult Swim’s canny marketing team) spends most of its running time poking fun at its own structure & some of the views espoused by some of its more obnoxious fans. The eponymous transformation, where Rick literally turns himself into an edible pickle, feels like a high-concept parody of high-concept sci-fi, which is a well-earned poke at the show’s structure. But the B-plot where Summer, Beth, and Morty go to family therapy showcases the episode’s true intentions: to dismantle the myth of Rick Sanchez.
Rick’s plan—turn himself into a pickle, wait for the rest of his family to leave for family therapy, then wait for his Rube Goldberg-style mechanism to drop a syringe full of, uh, pickle antidote—is so perfectly in character and the first sign that Pickle Rick would be more self-parody than anything else. It’s a wildly over-the-top scheme, and one specifically designed to avoid the very possibility of communication altogether.
In the past, Rick and Morty has done a solid job of using high-concept science fiction to tell more personal stories. Hell, last week’s Rickmancing the Stone juggled several conceptual balls simultaneously all while exploring the potential long-term effects of Beth & Jerry’s legal separation. The Pickle Rick concept takes that idea to its logistical endpoint, throwing a horde of ideas at the screen, all in service of showing how Rick’s fear of emotion and communication only makes his life harder.
There’s a lot going on in the Pickle Rick-centric A-story, pulling most distinctly from Die Hard, Escape from NY, and Cronenbergian body horror, as Rick jumps from the house to the rat-infested sewers and eventually, a foreign embassy/prison. Pickle Rick is unquestionably the show’s goriest episode to date, as Rick murders embassy guards in a pickle-sized exosuit built from rat corpses. It’s actually more than a little distracting, as is the case whenever the show indulges Rick’s mean streak. The violent deaths are cheeky fun the first time around, but the joke runs thin fairly quickly.
Most of the scenes with the Sanchez family playing off family therapist Dr. Wong tread previously covered ground. Rick lies to and mistreats his family, Beth refuses to acknowledge any harm perpetrated by her father, Morty & Summer understand who their grandfather is but love him anyway, etc. This is very familiar territory for the series, but actual progress is made—both in the reality of the show and on a meta-narrative level—when Rick finally makes it to Dr. Wong’s office.
Rick (still a pickle) sits on the couch next to Morty and delivers his usual spiel about how smart he is and why caring is dumb. But, in a surprising moment, Dr. Wong immediately sees through Rick’s bluster and gets to the heart of his neurosis. “You seem to alternate between viewing your own mind as an unstoppable force and an inescapable curse,” she tells Rick. “I think it’s because the only truly approachable concept for you is that it’s your own mind, within your control.” Having a character outright state that the Smith/Sanchez obsession with intelligence at the expense of emotion is a “sickness” feels like the show is thumbing its nose at some of its more obnoxious fans, as well as looking for new philosophical ideas to plumb. The scene still indulges (and pokes fun at) Rick and Morty’s now-trademark move of having a character monologue as an easy way of communicating the episode’s thesis, and I wish the show would just let the subtext stand on its own.
Rick and Morty started very slowly moving away from nihilism last season, but for Dr. Wong to refute former theological mouthpiece Rick and essentially get the last word makes me believe the show wants to criticize itself more often. We’ve still got seven episodes left in the season, but Pickle Rick is a tremendously encouraging sign.