There is no show on television that fucks with people as hard as Rick and Morty does. Case in point: Instead of live streaming “Vindicators 3: The Return of Worldender” online, Adult Swim showed a feed of two random dudes reading the script. Keep in mind that this is the network’s most popular program by far, with one of the world’s most rabid fan bases.. .and if you don’t have cable, you were stuck wasting a half hour of your life waiting for a series you thought cared about you. (I’ve reached out to Adult Swim to ask why they did this, so if you’re one of the out-of-luck livestreamers and you’re pissed, hopefully I’ll have an explanation for you soon.)
As it goes with Rick and Morty’s audience, so it goes with Rick and Morty themselves. “Vindicators 3” packs the series’ best long-con punchline since Beth shot Mr. Poopybutthole in Season 2’s “Total Rickall,” except that this time, the audience is the butt of the joke as much as are any characters on screen. As I’ve written before, Rick and Morty has established pretty firmly that Rick does harbor some sentimentality when it comes to his grandson. So when the mad scientist himself suggests that his blackout self might possibly have put a group of universe-famous superheroes through a deadly game of Saw just to force them to appreciate Morty, we’re inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s done crazier things for lesser payoff, and when people are drunk, they tend to be honest, right?
Turns out Blackout Rick is even more nihilistic than Sober Rick, because it was all a setup to reward Noob Noob—an unimportant handyman who spends the episode cleaning up Rick’s diarrhea and whose name, I suspect, was inspired by the Teletubbies’ fucking vacuum cleaner—for laughing at Rick’s jokes.
The audience here is Morty, who steps onto the platform with a smug expression, full of hope that maybe just this one time, he’s actually wrong about Rick’s lack of fucks. I’ve ragged on the show’s writers a bit for doing a little too much showing and not enough telling this season, but they struck a proper balance tonight with Morty’s crisp explanations of how Rick wants to show the Vindicators that they’re in no way special or even necessarily heroes. And Morty’s suspicion that Rick is jealous of the Vindicators’ appeal to his grandson is probably also correct; as we discovered last week, Rick gets off on his family’s adoration more than he’d like to admit. But most importantly, Morty’s ability to accurately define Rick’s motives creates even more buy-in for the phantom sentimental ending that then gets yanked out from under our feet. It’s a stark reminder to Morty, and to everyone watching, that Rick really does care only when he feels like it—something he explicitly mentions toward the beginning of “Vindicators 3.” Let us never forget that this is a series built on making meaning out of nothingness, a process that can only happen when people care enough to undertake it. Rick’s brand of nihilism isn’t absolute, but it is his default, because anything truly challenging is anathema to a supergenius who can take out a galactic-scale villain as part of a bender. It’s much easier for Rick to project feelings onto a minor character he’ll never see again than it is for him to admit emotional dependence upon a family member, so that’s what his wasted self does. He still cares about Morty… it’s just that anyone who expects that to be manifested in an obvious, clean narrative is a goddamn fool and will be taken for a rocket ride.
Anyhow, the other points Rick makes in “Vindicators 3” are a spot-on takedown of heroes everywhere, and of superheroes in particular. Gillian Jacobs (the season’s second Community reunion!) and Christian Slater give great performances as the increasingly crazed Supernova and the frustratingly cool Vance, respectively—both characters who fall prey to Rick’s incessant, methodical attack, actively proving his point that the Vindicators are nothing more than flawed humans/humanoids. How much of this is coming from Rick’s resentment at being left out of Vindicators 2 is anyone’s guess; I’d say he’s at least a little peeved at having been ignored, which would explain why he ends the episode by setting up a concert (featuring Logic!) to celebrate his own defeat of Worldender and turn himself suddenly into the episode’s hero. But then again, that sounds like something Rick would do anyway, because the dude loves to party. And showing Morty that the Vindicators are variously petty, vindictive and cruel before giving them spectacular deaths falls right in Rick’s wheelhouse. Vance’s death in particular is one of the best laughs in “Vindicators 3.” This guy’s set up to be the Starlord/Tony Stark analogue of the team, the very opposite of a Red Shirt, and then suddenly the lower half of his body is jetting around a subterranean chamber and spewing excessive amounts of blood for half a minute. The climax of the episode is, of course, the deadly love triangle spat between Supernova, Alan Rails the Ghost Train Man, and Million Ants (a top-five funniest character in Rick and Morty history). One of Rick and Morty’s great triumphs is to make melodrama feel real even when it’s very clearly satire, and that happens in the deaths of both Alan and Million Ants—moments in which you’re simultaneously riveted and busting a gut.
But the strongest gut punch of “Vindicators 3” might be that all the while, a very sober, very helpless, portal gun-less Rick stands by and watches his intoxicated labors bear their fruit. And although he doesn’t seem particularly perturbed by the Vindicators dying off one by one, he also never seems fully… vindicated. It’s possible that part of Rick is actually unhappy with things playing out to the conclusion he planned in his blackout state, that he isn’t too pleased to prove that there’s no such thing as heroes or villains (‘sup, Gearhead). Remember, this is a man who fought the Galactic Federation for years alongside Bird Person and Squanchy, so at the very least, he must see something as evil at least some of the time. Perhaps in this case, he recognizes that he really is the unambiguous villain. And as much fun as it is to fuck with Morty’s heart and the Vindicators’ self-importance, and as dope as it might be to get high with your enemies at the end of the day, it’s not actually fulfilling, because the part of Rick that needs attention and approval is starved, and alcohol can’t cut it as nourishment.
Zach Blumenfeld would like to thank the Omni Hotel in Los Angeles for having cable. Follow him on Twitter.