Rick and Morty has always had some element of stoner culture to it—after all, it’s a sci-fi show with a portal that looks like a puke-soaked acid trip hallucination—but in “The Whirly Dirly Conspiracy,” we see the series going full Adult Swim in both animation and content. This was the trippiest half-hour of the show since Jemaine Clement did his best Bowie impression in Season 2’s “Mortynight Run,” and that was very much to the episode’s benefit, since Rick and Morty delivers its best commentary when circumstances are furthest from reality.
And this episode starts off really real. When I had the chance to speak with Rick and Morty’s cast at San Diego Comic-Con, Sarah Chalke and Spencer Grammer mentioned that Jerry’s story would get incredibly dark, and the opening of “The Whirly Dirly Conspiracy” proved them absolutely right—at least in terms of Jerry’s objective circumstances. But crucially for the rest of the episode, we aren’t plunged into abject, inky abyss. Jerry seeing his family (sans Rick) in a mold stain on his decrepit ceiling is still hilarious, as is the rest of his pathetic routine and, especially, Rick’s arousing him from bed before he can even put on pants. Attentive Rick and Morty viewers already knew that Jerry is the living equivalent of the Arrested Development-ized Charlie Brown sad walk, and even when we hear that Morty was afraid that Jerry might kill himself, we’re confident enough in Jerry’s lack of willpower to commit that act that the whole situation elicits piteous laughter rather than true vicarious heartache. That, of course, is the meta-point “Whirly Dirly” is making about Jerry: here’s a character so fueled by pity that his agency is entirely dependent upon the will of others.
Of course, those of us who’ve lived through Jerry and Beth’s couples therapy in “Big Trouble in Little Sanchez” already knew this, and Rick speaking the harsh truth aloud to his ex-son-in-law doesn’t add a whole lot to the equation, since we already knew that Rick despises Jerry. Once again, we witness Rick’s genius in breaking down a situation—a skill he can’t apply to himself without the help of a therapist, it seems—but the most significant aspect of this scene is Rick’s candor with Jerry (rather than just killing him, as he does with other life forms he considers subhuman). Perhaps it’s partially spurred on by Morty’s demand that Rick take Jerry on an adventure, which would suggest that Rick has actually developed some respect for his grandson. Perhaps it’s even due to some secret, overarching empathy buried deep within Rick’s heart, as we’re briefly led to believe that Rick and Jerry may have the potential to build a real relationship. But after the various shit that Rick has pulled over the course of the series, it’s hard to buy for more than a second that the two of them clinking drinks is more than a Rick-borne ploy of some sort; we expect Rick to turn on Jerry in some way. In fact, it’s sort of unbelievable that Jerry is given the opportunity to turn on Rick first. The only explanation I can rapidly devise is that the very concept of immortality grants disarming solace to a mad scientist who harbors an existential fear of boredom, which goes hand-in-hand with being dead. (Speaking of which, doesn’t the setting of “Whirly Dirly” feel like a jab at Westworld? Regardless of whether this was intentional or not, the death of the alien child when the resort’s gimmick goes offline hits harder than any moment in Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s overblown melodrama.)
Jerry does turn on Rick in “Whirly Dirly,” though—and then, because he’s Jerry and he’s a decent person who lacks a spine, he does a rapid about-face. Again, we’ve seen this before and know that the flip-flopping is integral to Jerry’s persona. But the narrative dynamics of the episode hit every beat almost perfectly, resulting in a supremely polished storyline that holds together even when Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon generously pour in the weird. Actually, the psychedelia that runs rampant through the midpoint of the episode works better juxtaposed with Jerry’s mundanity than it has worked in the rest of the series to date. Jerry, wet blanket though he may be, is the most stable member of the Smith family, and to see him taken on a time-warping mental journey undermines the very notion of stability as effectively as divorce ever could.
The B-plot of “Whirly Dirly,” on the other hand, stands out as one of the show’s most substantial supporting storylines to date. First off, it finally articulates the mounting evidence that Beth shares her father’s pathological self-reliance in the form of a vicious Morty takedown, which is even harsher than a Rick takedown because we know that Morty is more or less sincere. This is something we saw percolating powerfully in “Pickle Rick,” so it’s particularly important for the Smith family’s long-term health that when challenged by this assertion, Beth proves herself fundamentally different from her father, who would never convert himself into a monster to converse with Summer—he has infinite versions of his granddaughter, as we’re so blatantly reminded in “Rickmancing the Stone.” And second, the fact that Rick and Morty accomplishes this narrative with minimal dialogue bodes well for the series itself, which was becoming fairly long-winded in its moral statements. Reducing Beth’s reconciliation with Summer to a string of grunts in the background as Morty threatens the heartbreaking Ethan finally, for the first time in Season 3, brings the show fully back into its signature brand of cynical sincerity, a return with which it had flirted in last week’s “Vindicators 3.” Sentimentality is silly, the climax of “Whirly Dirly” seems to say, but there is a well-deserved place for it in a family relationship, one that we must embrace even as we mock it.
The end of “Whirly Dirly” encapsulates this stance perfectly, with Jerry left out in the cold as he watches his family happily reunite without him in the picture. The Smith family’s erstwhile patriarch is returned to his position of sad-walker, hard to take seriously as a tragic character…and yet it’s impossible not to genuinely feel for Jerry. We might not have learned anything new about what he wants for himself and his family, but the genius of Rick and Morty is that its emotional punch isn’t necessarily tied to any lesson-learning. That’s not how life works. Instead, you get pigeonholed into a reputation as “vagina-fantasy man” by sheer randomness of phrase, and then you’re confronted with the real fantasy: a return to a happy life you once thought you had. But it’s going to take more than a pity party to restore Jerry to his role in the family.
Zach Blumenfeld hopes the wedding he’s attending next weekend results in a marriage better than Jerry and Beth’s. Follow him on Twitter.