Overview: Rick escapes the Galactic Federation and destroys the Citadel of Ricks, Beth and Jerry go through a divorce, and Morty seems to be slowly realizing the damage Rick is doing to his life. 2017; Adult Swim; TV-14; 10 episodes.
Spoilers for Rick and Morty season three
Szechuan Sauce: After almost exactly a year and a half since its last episode, Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon’s Rick and Morty returned with The Rickshank Redemption last spring and promised the “darkest year” of their adventures. Season three delivers on that promise with the darkly clever episode Rickmancing the Stone, the unceasingly funny Jerry-centered episode The Whirly Dirly Conspiracy, classic Rick and Morty episodes like Vindicators 3, Rest and Ricklaxation, and Morty’s Mind Blowers, and the most complex and packed episode of the entire series The Ricklantis Mixup.
The Rickshank Redemption opens the season with one more exploration of series-favorite theme “life is meaningless” as a launching point into some of the darker themes this season. After Rick seemingly sacrificed himself to the Galactic Federation in order to secure the safety/survival of his family, season three begins with the complete dismissal of the idea that our favorite nihilistic scientist has found a sense of meaning or love in his life. As Rick reveals halfway through the episode, his sacrifice was just the beginning of an elaborate ploy for him to destroy both the Galactic Federation and the Citadel of Ricks (his two most powerful enemies), which he does by the end of the episode.
Rick doesn’t care about his family. He even has no problem with letting Summer (his granddaughter) die during his assault on the Citadel of Ricks, but he ultimately chooses not to let her die, just so he’ll appear as the hero by the end of the episode. The writers of the series even bait the audience into thinking Rick is genuinely motivated by his family by giving the audience a family-oriented “origin story” for Rick, only for it to be revealed as a fake memory that only serves to further Rick’s plan.
At the end of the episode, when Rick tells Morty that it’ll be the darkest year of their adventures, Rick claims he’s not fueled by love for family, but rather, he’s fueled by an eternal quest to taste an obscure McDonald’s Szechuan Sauce. This doesn’t literally state Rick’s endgame goals, but rather, it further expresses Rick’s beliefs that everything is meaningless, a belief he has expressed multiple times throughout the first two seasons. If nothing has meaning, why can’t Rick’s ultimate desire be an obscure, movie tie-in, dipping sauce?
Tales from the Citadel: One undeniable strength Rick and Morty has is its ability to shake up or put a twist on an existing story or genre in order to further express the dark nature of human existence. In Vindicators 3: Return of the Worldender, Rick destroys any perceptions of “good” and “evil” and the lines between when he traps the Vindicators (this universe’s version of the Avengers) in a Saw-like series of traps that are designed to bring out the worst in them. In Rest and Ricklaxation, Rick and Morty must reunite themselves with their “toxic” counterparts (a clever twist on the “separate oneself from bad qualities” trope), which advocates the idea that “good” and “bad” aren’t necessarily equivalent to “healthy” and “unhealthy,” respectively.
The episode Rickmancing the Stone (notably, the first episode to deal with Beth and Jerry’s divorce) sets up the recurring theme of modern society making its members soulless cogs in the machine. In the episode, Summer goes to a Mad Max-like wasteland and falls in love with the badass leader of the Death Stalkers. After being given electricity and a functional social structure, survivors in the Mad Max world become boring, everyday citizens living in suburbs. Summer’s badass husband becomes a bum husband, which mirrors Beth and Jerry’s marriage, and helps Summer contextualize the failure of it.
This idea is further explored and deepened in the complex Ricklantis Mixup. In the best world-building I’ve ever seen from a 20-minute episode, The Ricklantis Mixup literalizes the idea that modern society has made members of its society indistinguishable, soulless, and broken by bringing the audience back to the Citadel of Ricks post-destruction. An entire society of Ricks, many versions of the almost godlike, smartest being in the universe, built a society that is terrifyingly like our own. It’s a broken society where politicians are corrupt, cops are crooked, children are being programmed instead of taught, and just general inequality is observed in all sectors of the labor force. As one Rick put it best, “they told us we were special because we were Ricks, but they stripped us of everything that makes us unique.”
Pickle Rick: Despite tackling some heavy themes, the overall season was irreverently funny as well. It’s definitely not on the same level of the first two seasons, but it never fell so low as lackluster. One probable reason for that small dip in entertainment value is that the A-plots of each episode this season were severely stronger than B-plots. The B-plots of Pickle Rick, The ABC’s of Beth, and The Rickchurian Mortydate are the most evidently flat, compared to the rest of the episodes. However, the Pickle Rick B-plot of the Smith family going to therapy, while the A-plot followed Rick (as a pickle) fighting off Russians, is justifiable, only for Dr. Wong’s monologue at the end and how it emphasizes how boring therapy must be for intelligent people (like Rick and Beth).
Dr. Wong brings up a fascinating point about how Rick seems to disregard responsibility of his choices, due to his intelligence, and how that utter disregard has infected his family and his daughter Beth. This contextualizes his hostile relationship with Jerry, who seems to can’t even make a choice of his own, and it also sets up Rick’s proposition to Beth (in The ABC’s of Beth) to leave the Smith family behind to explore the universe, without there being any consequences. Having set up that theme of irresponsibility of choice, the logical conclusion would be that Beth accepts the proposition, but the season finale reveals that Beth didn’t accept it and that she was getting back together with Jerry, which is an odd direction to take the show in, considering it’s all set up for a darker season, a more free Beth, and a Jerry that would actually make choices.
Overall: In the end, none of those threads that were set up came to fruition and the series goes in a direction that is, to put it as Beth said, “more like season one.” Beth chooses to repair her marriage, despite Rick’s claims that nothing matters, so the season ends on a happy note. Jerry never ends up really fighting for his marriage, instead Beth just decides that he can return. The season finale, The Rickchurian Candidate, is definitely a difficult one to accept, but it doesn’t negate the masterful work in animation, comedy, and genre storytelling that the most of the season is.