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Rick and Morty’s season 5 finale broke Rick and the show so both could grow

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The sci-fi sitcom crosses a point of no return, and may rejuvenate itself

Rick flying away as a hail of explosion decimates a crowd of people underneath him. Image: Adult Swim

Season 5 of Rick and Morty concluded on Sept. 5 with a two-part finale, leaving the mad scientist and his grandson-sidekick at a point where they can no longer run away from the past or the truth behind their relationship. As a fan of Rick and Morty, it’s a welcome change: With each subsequent season I’ve grown more exhausted with the show’s emphasis on one-off episodes where the plot repeats the same comedic broad strokes over and over again to diminishing effect — but maybe that’s by design. As the season 5 finale puts into perspective, much of the series’ run, the show’s format has mirrored the arc of Rick’s actual fragmented life, and now it was finally time to confront the messy consequences of his actions. And now season 6 may look nothing like what we’ve come to expect from the series, in a good way.

Across 50 episodes, Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland’s animated sci-fi sitcom has been propelled by Big Questions, from the farcical (what if there was a universe where people were chairs and food was made out of phones?) to the more serious. (Why does Rick hate himself so much?) In the two-parter finale, “Forgetting Sarick Mortshall” and “Rickmurai Jack,” the show finally circles back to answering one of the most profound, consequential questions at the heart of the series’ dynamic: What do Morty and Rick really mean to each other?

The question has hovered at the fringes of Rick and Morty’s premise as far back as the first season. “Close Rick-counters of the Rick Kind” shows a glimpse of Rick’s memory of holding infant Morty. But that’s impossible: If Rick has been gone for at least 20 years, as the series claims, and has only recently reappeared to his daughter Beth, how could he have memories of Morty as a baby?

Rick being held hostage by an evil version of himself with a memory of baby Morty playing in the background in S109 “Close Rick-counters of the Rick Kind” Image: Adult Swim

That question became even more conspicuous in the episode “Get Schwifty,” when Birdperson, Rick’s longtime pal, rescues Morty after he runs away with Rick’s portal gun. After defending Rick, Birdperson points to an assemblage of framed photos, one of which is of a much younger Rick holding what appears to be a very young Morty. Fans were right to ask: Why was Rick and Morty’s relationship one of the only recurring constants across the dozen or so universes glimpsed throughout the series — maybe the only constant?

After five seasons, “Rickmurai Jack” delivers the answer. Returning to the Citadel of Ricks, the trans-dimensional city-state first seen in the season 1 episode “Close Rick-counters of the Rick Kind,” Rick and Morty are captured by the “Evil” Morty who first appears in that episode, and who later takes over the Citadel in the Season 3 episode “The Ricklantis Mixup.” After scanning Rick’s brain, Evil Morty injects a memory device into Morty’s neck, causing him to experience a brutal vision exposing the dark truth behind his relationship with his grandfather.

It turns out that Rick and Morty’s dynamic is neither accidental nor some recurring quirk of the multiverse, but an elaborately orchestrated operation perpetuated by all Ricks across the multiverse to manufacture Mortys en masse. They aren’t just disposable sidekicks: The Ricks have ensnared them in an infinitely recurring, symbiotic relationship of abuse and forgiveness. The episode also reveals that the various universes the audience has seen throughout the series do not in fact represent the multiverse as a whole — they exist within a carefully curated selection of universes isolated within a barrier called the “Central Finite Curve,” in which Rick is always the smartest man in the universe.

Rick and Morty staring upward at the thousands of universes that exist within the Central Finite Curve. Image: Adult Swim

Rick walled off access to the rest of the multiverse as a way of asserting control over a world of frightening and unknowable possibilities, creating what Evil Morty describes as “one infinite crib built around an infinite fucking baby.” And he did it to spare himself the pain of growing attached to others and subsequently losing them. Another vision experienced by Morty explains why this is, elaborating on Rick’s backstory leading up to the beginning of the series.

After Rick’s wife Diane and daughter Beth were killed by an alternate version of himself from another universe, Rick created his portal gun as a way to scour the multiverse in search of that particular Rick, and kill him. Failing to do so, Rick fell into a deep depression, killing thousands of versions of himself, then eventually building the Citadel of Ricks, and with it, the dimensional drive that would isolate the universes within the Central Finite Curve from the rest of the multiverse.

Rick didn’t just disappear for 20 years and suddenly reappear in Beth’s life — he slipped into a universe where an alternate version of himself abandoned his family, and he assumed the identity of that absentee Rick. After countless years of searching for the version of himself responsible for murdering his original wife and daughter, all Rick wanted was what was denied him, and to an extent what he denied himself: a family.

Rick staring at his daughter Beth in front of a crashed spaceship in S510 “Rickmurai Jack” Image: Adult Swim

The past two seasons of Rick and Morty leading up to this point have been a mixed bag of decent (albeit uneven) one-off episodes introducing a host of breakout supporting characters who subsequently faded into the background after their episodes wrapped. As seen in the gut-punch climax of “Rick Potion #9” and its later reference in episodes like “Rixty Minutes” and “The Rickshank Rickdemption,” Rick and Morty as a show is at its strongest when it manages to thread these supposedly one-off episodes together in surprising ways throughout its larger continuity.

The resistance of the show’s writers to such stories reflects not only Rick’s resistance to introspection and responsibility, but an inability to grow, born out of unresolved grief and anger. Up to this point, the show has been comfortable relying on the idea that Rick is the smartest man in any universe. With the revelation that he isn’t — he’s just a sad and lonely man who cocooned himself inside a swath of possibilities where he’d never truly be challenged, and thus never be prompted to fully grow through and past his unresolved pain, the show has never been more explicit in its attempt to dismantle the self-invented myth of Rick’s own genius.

While I’ve always found Rick to be a charismatic and funny enough character, there have been several points while watching the series that have forced me to pause and question just what exactly was it that I found so charismatic and funny about the character to begin with. The show has never been shy when it comes to alluding to the deep wellspring of pain, sadness, and self-hatred that dwells inside of Rick. With “Rickmurai Jack,” we now know where that self-hatred ultimately stems from. Rick doesn’t just hate himself, or the version of himself that killed his family; he hates the very possibility that there could ever be a version of himself that would harm his loved ones like that, and that is why he keeps them at a distance.

At the end of the season, Evil Morty accomplishes his plan to destroy the wall separating Rick’s multiverse and escape to the rest of the larger multiverse. The Citadel of Ricks is destroyed, along with most of the alternate Ricks and Mortys aboard it, leaving the show’s “original” Rick and Morty stranded in space. Rick’s Portal Gun, which operated on the portal fluid produced by the Citadel, is no longer operational. This is a paradigm shift unlike any the series has seen so far.

Rick and Morty escaping from the destruction of the Citadel. Image: Adult Swim

Given the show’s propensity for soft-rebooting itself out of consequential developments in the past, such as when Rick was incarcerated by the Galactic Federation at the end of season 2, It’s always possible that Rick could just “Morty’s Mind Blowers” this shit away, or hop into an adjacent alternate universe again and pretend like everything is hunky dory. But for the show’s sake, he shouldn’t. It would be a severe disservice to these characters and everything they’ve gone through together up to this point. For better or worse, what Morty now knows about Rick and the truth of their relationship should radically alter their dynamic in the seasons to come. The destruction of the Central Finite Curve has opened up a whole world of possibilities that we never knew existed, or even thought possible before.

With this new development, the show has opened a way for Rick to develop and change in ways we’ve only glimpsed before. Although Rick has shown signs of growth in the past, as seen in his willingness to sacrifice his own freedom for the sake of his family’s safety in season 2’s “The Wedding Squanchers,” and his decision to stay with his family rather than abandoning them for another universe in season 3’s “The Rickchurian Mortydate,” the revelations at the end of “Rickmurai Jack” nonetheless highlight the fact that Rick actively avoids moving forward or being honest with his loved ones in any meaningful way, and ends up holding his loved ones back in the process. What this season’s finale seems to suggest is that, going forward, the next season and beyond will not be same old Rick and Morty fans have grown to expect, but a new way forward that will finally see Rick placed in a situation where he has no other choice but to grow as a person and actively work to resolve his trauma.

The last few seasons of Rick and Morty have been in a kind of sitcomy holding pattern, dabbling in character dimension but hesitant to commit to any defining moments. After five seasons, the comedic beats and story format that worked back in 2013 feel more like a crutch. In that sense, the concept of the Central Finite Curve is analogous to the structure of the show itself. By destroying the Curve, it feels like a creative declaration on part of the show’s writers that the episodes going forward will work to both advance the relationship between Rick and Morty and subsequently re-define what it means to tell a Rick and Morty story in the first place.

Rick and Morty at its best is a show that surprises its audience, that subverts not only what we’ve come to expect from the tropes of science-fiction, but what we’ve come to expect from the show itself. The series’ ability to reinvent itself is the spark at the heart of its appeal and, if the show is willing to commit to consequences of this season’s finale, this might be the series’ boldest reinvention yet.