Rick and Morty returned tonight for its long awaited third season and, carrying on the tune of last season’s finale, emotions are running high in the face of uncertainty.
[Warning: The following contains very light spoilers for the first and second episodes of Rick and Morty’s third season.]
Rick is a broken man. This isn’t a jarring new piece of information. From the moment we were introduced to Rick, we were told he’s someone we shouldn’t trust and, against our better nature, probably shouldn’t like. Still, Rick has charming tendencies and, despite knowing that we’re making a terrible decision, we do like him. We want Rick to find inner peace and have a good relationship with his family. We want him to be okay with the person he’s become. Most importantly, we want Rick to be happy.
Rick chose ambition and ideology over his family and, years later, is trying to rectify the mistakes he’s made in the past. He’s hoping that with every selfless decision he makes, he’ll be one step closer to happiness; one step closer to acceptance from the only people who refused to abandon him, despite the fact he abandoned them.
It’s easy to empathize with Rick because, in our own ways, we’ve all ignored those we love most as we explore our own interests. Ambition is a double-edged sword and, having a family willing to stick by you no matter how poorly you may treat them, is the stone that sharpens the blade. Rick can only exist as his selfish, bastardly self because his family refuses to leave him, despite all the horrible things he does.
In the show’s third season, that family unity will start to drift apart. Rick manages to find a way to escape from prison and return home to his daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren, but everything has changed. The collective that stood behind Rick in his fugitive journeys — even if begrudgingly so — isn’t whole anymore. Things are changing quicker than Beth, Summer, Morty, Jerry or Rick can grasp and, once again, the patriarchal figure is left to deal with an emotion he’s tried hard to evade: guilt.
If the first episode of the show’s first season recognizes that Rick screwed up in his past, and admits it is time that he take responsibility for his mistakes, the second episode is all about the power of escapism. Set in a post-apocalyptic world that satirizes Mad Max: Fury Road, Rick, Morty and Summer decide to set up camp in a world unlike their own. There aren’t any rules or new responsibilities that the three are trying to cope with. It’s a maelstrom, a chaotic world where violence rules all. Most importantly in the context of what is happening, it’s a world full of disgusting, murderous neanderthals — far worse than anything Rick, Summer or Morty could be.
Part of the reason they’re drawn to this post-apocalyptic realm is because they can ignore their own reality. They can forget their turbulent home and help another civilization succeed, then face what’s happening in their lives.
Escapism is the theme tying together the first two episodes. It’s what helps Rick overpower the Galactic Federation agents who have gotten inside his head in the premiere and it’s what helps him power through problems at home in the second. Summer adopts the same survival method, choosing to ignore the blatantly obvious truth for fear of the changes that are coming.
Change is scary. So is the truth. So is doing the right thing. The only voice of reason is Morty, who tries to convince Rick and Summer that the only reason they’re running away from their problems is because they’re scared of change. They aren’t coping with changes their family is going through in a healthy way and, as Morty points out, that’s will hurt them more in the long run. They need to return to their own reality, not the infinite other realities that, while appealing, can’t promise any long-term happiness.
Narratively, the viewer must embrace the fantasy that an escape provides, and not look to it for an answer. Escapes are a way to provide artificial, contented happiness before returning to reality. Movies are escapism. Video games are escapism. Rick and Morty is escapism, albeit it one of its more self-aware forms. This form of entertainment is meant for us to enjoy, but we’d be miserable if we spent our entire lives ignoring the reality of our existence.
These are the conversations and questions Rick and Morty wants its audience to have and ask. Am I happy? Am I running away from my issues? Am I being a dick to my family? Rick and Morty gets to the heart of our deepest fears and, knowing full well that our answer is to run away to the world of our favorite TV show, doesn’t let us forget about the question. Sometimes, as the show addresses, the best way to cope with a problem in your life is just to confront it headfirst.
It’s evident that Rick and Morty isn’t going to let up on its important, existential questions anytime soon this season; it’s also as funny as it ever was. This is still the same Rick and Morty we’ve always know and loved, just a little bit wiser and tad less selfish.
There’s no question that Rick and Morty is back, and after close to two years of waiting, it just feels so damn good to write those words.