Early on in the latest Rick and Morty episode Rick takes a pill that gives his butt a second crack so he can fart in harmony with himself. It’s incredibly fitting, as this episode disappears so far and deep into its own ass that it needed extra space to make it possible.
Rick and Morty has always had a postmodern streak, with a gleefully meta approach to stock science fiction and comic book concepts. Now halfway through its fourth season, and perhaps on the downside of its run as a true pop phenomenon, it’s become increasingly fixated on its own image and history, and how it intersects with the larger culture. Just as November’s season premiere dealt with the show’s reputation for overzealous fans, the midseason premiere, which airs this Sunday on Adult Swim, has its gaze locked squarely on itself. It’s impossible to tell if it likes what it sees, or not, as it doesn’t have any clear or consistent point. Which, in the end, might be the point, and plays into the show’s greatest strength, anyway.
“Never Ricking Morty” is a confusing story of constantly shifting characters and settings, built around the conceit of a “story train” that punctures through different possible realities and the entire notion of canon. Commanded by the villainous Story Lord (a well-groomed middle-aged gent with a six-pack who Rick refers to as a “Matrix space Frasier”), the story train sends Rick and Morty through an anthology of bite-sized adventures and asides, tied both to each car of the train and the nebulous space outside its windows. It’s a more narrative-driven, more ambitious version of the show’s “interdimensional cable” concept—something the episode makes sure to point out more than once.
It doesn’t feel as improvised as the interdimensional cable episodes—or at least isn’t as obviously improvised—but it struggles to impart a coherent message. At times it’s critical of itself and the show’s wellspring of anti-sentimentality, but then immediately runs away from any critique of its own cynicism. A humorous and accurate putdown of so-called “faith-based” entertainment—the kind of toothless stuff you’d buy at Christian book stores or whose theatrical debut is built around block ticket sales to church groups—ends with Rick preemptively cutting off any complaints about the show making fun of Christianity, while still being smug about the whole thing. At this point Rick and Morty is so aware of all the arguments around it—and of all the potential arguments around new episodes—that “Never Ricking Morty” can’t make any decision without quickly undermining it. It’s a wayward half-hour of metanarrative that can never focus and never calm down, and as a result it’s one of the most exhausting half-hours of TV you’ll see.
It’s also really funny, though, which has always been the show’s saving grace. Justin Roiland, Dan Harmon, and their writers might lose themselves in the weeds of their own cleverness, but they almost never forget to write good dialogue and punchlines. Besides the Story Lord—who would probably be Rick’s archnemesis if this show was interested in comic book-style repetition, instead of the more conceptual kind of repetition it’s known for—this episode also gives us an on point discussion of the Bechdel Test at the unlikeliest moment, the fanboy-mocking return of a few popular recurring characters, and more than enough jokes that land.
It doesn’t really hold together beyond the jokes, though. Rick and Morty wants to revel in cynicism while simultaneously mocking itself for it, like it’s creating a kind of plausibility deniability around the show’s most consistent and remarked upon viewpoint. At least it’s still often hilarious, enough to make up for its narrative and thematic flaws. When it comes purely to comedy, Rick and Morty continues to be a success.
Rick and Morty returns to Adult Swim on Sunday, May 3, at 11:30 p.m. ET.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.