On Oct. 1, 2017, perhaps the most significant event in all of Rick and Morty's transdimensional adventures happened: Another character broke the fourth wall. Instead of the apathetic Rick Sanchez, it was his smart, ambitious, possibly cloned daughter Beth who acknowledged that their lives are a TV show. This gave viewers and fans some meta-commentary on the series, and while it happened in Season 3, it was arguably the most important moment in Rick and Morty Season 4 so far.
"Dad, you can't talk to Jerry that way anymore," she said. "We're a real family now! In many ways, things will be like Season 1, but more streamlined. Now, Jerry and I are happily-married parents, and the idea that I was motivated by a fear of you leaving can be eschewed."
Even at the time, this seemed like a thesis statement that had more to do with Season 4 than Season 3. And so far, that is still the case. Over two years later, Rick and Morty Season 4 has zeroed in on the show's granular dissection of familial archetypes, revealing what no portal gun can help Rick escape.
Rick and Morty Season 3 was something of a reset for the series. After almost two years off, the season premiere played like a pilot, even parodying its own bizarre, ad-libbed monologue from the very first episode. The season arc turned out to be an inwardly-focused reflection, using Beth's separation from Jerry to do a lot of work on her character and her relationship with Rick, while leaving Morty, Summer and their dad nearly static. In the end, all that empowered Beth to "eschew" the old model.
Season 4 kicked off after an even longer wait and an even more irreverent take on the season premiere monologue. Here, Morty is allowed to get in on the fun, talking in unison with his grandfather, who can no longer be in complete control. Summer joins in too, but she is embarrassed to find that she cannot do so without becoming vulnerable to a little mockery herself.
"I was just joking around! Just seeing if you guys pay any attention to me!" she said.
This was the first glimpse of Rick and Morty's new, accelerated structure for Season 4. Put simply, each of the five new episodes that aired this fall contained a complete inter-family arc nearly as dense as the one that took all of Season 3 to convey. In the premiere, Rick learns to be more patient and cede more control to Morty. In Episode 2, Jerry learns that getting his family back also means getting his accountability back. In Episode 3, Rick learns to adapt his manipulations to the new family power dynamic, and in Episode 4 Morty learns that even his new social capital with Rick has limits and dangers.
In Episode 5, those dangers become real, and Morty's ethics are challenged harder than he has let them get challenged in a long time. At the same time, Rick's hands-off, "I-told-you-so" tactics are shown to be as dangerous as his controlling ones. In a story reminiscent of "Lawnmower Dog," Morty ignores Rick's dry warnings to not get involved in something he does not understand, and he pays the price. Meanwhile, Rick shows the toxic apathy that Morty's agency leads him to.
"Hey, Morty, listen, I can tell you're upset about the whole snake encounter thing, so, I'll tell you what: I'm just going to go ahead and avoid you for the rest of the day."
Along the way, the show takes a few jabs at the time travel tropes it is famous for being wary of, but the underlying story is really about Morty's new-found defiance of Rick, and Rick's response — cutting him off. When all the timelines reset, the only things that have really changed are a tectonic shift in the relationship, and Morty's black eye.
It is odd to see a show that can and has taken us across the multiverse, all over space and into realms beyond the comprehension of carbon-based life, shifting more and more towards a family dramedy. It is even more odd to see how well it is working so far. While Rick's portal gun might lead to enough realities to fill out the show's 70-episode order, diving from premise to premise would get old much faster than watching our Rick learn to deal with our Jerry, and so on.
It is especially impressive that the show can steer so hard in this direction without threatening to jump the dreaded shark. We can already see how weary the writers are of getting stale. This season brought back Mr. Meeseeks — albeit self-consciously. This week, Keegan-Michael Key returned as the fourth-dimensional time cop, and a plumbus commercial we have heard before played in the background. Still, in five episodes, the Smith-Sanchez family's adventures have been more self-contained than ever, without ever threatened to reveal Rick's origin story, or the truth about Beth's mother, or even the political situation on the Citadel of Ricks.
While some fans would obviously love to see the canon expanded in these areas, the truth is that it would be the wrong move. Rick's origin story, Beth's mother and Evil Morty's secret plot are all like the talking cat in "Claw and Hoarder" — we're better off not over-thinking them. Therefore, the most impressive thing the writers of Rick and Morty can do right now is to dance gracefully around these black holes of stories, never even needing to avoid them.
There are some valid criticisms to be made of Rick and Morty Season 4 at this midseason point. The Easter eggs like Rick's QR-code helmet and the Lovefinderrz website are a little tiresome, for example, and the overtly sexual dragon storyline was rightfully too much for many fans. Even the call-backs mentioned above threaten to shrink Rick and Morty's terrifyingly endless world, but that's forgivable.0comments
These are all minuscule complaints compared to the show's triumphs — the countless ways it turns tropes of their heads, swirls morals in a cosmic blender and "subverts expectations," as fans are fond of saying now. At the end of the day, Rick and Morty succeeds by proving that "nothing you think matters, matters," and then convincing the viewer to go on living anyway.
The first part of Rick and Morty Season 4 is available for cable subscribers on the Adult Swim app. Cord-cutters can stream the new episodes through online stores like iTunes, Google Play and Amazon Prime Video. So far, there is no word on when the show will return to Adult Swim in 2020.