I watched "Pickle Rick" and then I had to go sit outside for awhile.
I just had to detach. And I took my time, too. I breathed in the cool night air. I looked at the handful of stars you can actually see through the glow of the Los Angeles sky. When your brain buzzes around a lot, sometimes you have to slow yourself down. And yes, my mind was racing, contemplating the sheer totality of what I had just seen. But more than that, it made me think deeply about my own limitations. For when you work in creative fields, you spend your whole life pursuing the notion of "a great idea." No, that's not just coming up with the raw nugget of cool ideas that are original or zeitgeisty, but more following through with developing them. Being sure that they capitalize on the tenets of drama, plotting, characterization, and ultimately tap into deep resonant meaning, all in the pursuit of making something truly great. And upon watching this latest episode of Rick & Morty, I was struck (as I often am with the show) with the pangs of helpless comparison. No, it is not a mere matter of jealousy, for that feeling only tends to come up when you fear that you offer no value and thus regularly exercise schadenfreude (cue the mass of writers who complain about other people's deals, etc). Instead, the act of watching an episode like "Pickle Rick" is simply humbling.
I've written about Rick & Morty before, a show whose genius moves so fast you can barely keep up with it. I'd argue it's actually different from, say, the work of Steven Moffat, which can so often land brilliantly, but at his worst, you feel him cheating and wanting to skip all the hard work that actually makes grand reveals functional. But with Rick & Morty, there's rarely a misstep and the math always adds up. Even at its rapid, ever-changing pace, the ideas being put forth fit the dramatized actions and conflicts, they speak to the inner turmoil of the characters, and they get expressed through often dark and heartbreaking catharsis. No, it's a not a show that wants to delight in the reveal, but instead slide into brilliant turns and clarifications as confidently and nonchalantly as Rick does. And while the genius of the show is often attributed to solely Harmon and Roiland, who are no doubt great, we know enough to know that's never the story. Like how last night's episode was written by the great Jessica Gao, it often takes an army. And even now I'm still thinking about what transpired. For the episode brought us squarely into what is the essential crux of the show: Rick's broken system of emotions and reward.
In truth, I'm hard pressed to think of a show that has as firm a grasp on psychological acumen as this one. Sure, many shows have brought us deep into the minds and hang-ups of their main characters, from The Sopranos, to Mad Men, to The Wire. Rick & Morty seems to pull it off while doubling down on the ingenious sci-fi conceits that drive each episode. It was "Pickle Rick" that really and truly brought this dynamic to the forefront.
For we have Rick Sanchez, the smartest man in the world, the abusive alcoholic, the man hell-bent on feeding his hunger and selfishness, begin the episode with the seemingly innocuous gag of having turned himself into a pickle. Of course, despite his insistence that it's just a fun goofy joke built for its own sake, it turns out that his pickle decision was really just an excuse to get him out of the family's first therapy session. The kids, implicitly understanding that he is lying (while the mother makes excuses, desperate for her father's love) all go off to therapy. But they also take the anti-pickle serum, mostly to test Rick's commitment to his lie. Rick's plan has clearly backfired, but it goes down the tube when his inability to move any part of him but his face leads to a series of comic errors that leave him alone at the bottom of a roach-infested sewer, with no hope of survival.
It's actually kind of remarkable to see Rick so powerless and fucked. But immediately his mind begins working and survival mode kicks in (which is really all he has). He lures a roach and savagely, desperately chews its head until it's dead. From there, he can tongue the bug's nervous system to move its limbs and move himself in turn (it's as gross as it sounds). But of course, Rick quickly adapts to the situation, making his way up the food chain of the sewers, creating a full bug exoskeleton, and then a rat exoskeleton, etc. But then, having conquered the sewers, he emerges to the surface and immediately finds himself in a movie-esque bad guy compound. And now "Pickle Rick" must prove his incredible Die-Hard-esque badassery to survive the horrible onslaught with a ballad of orgasmic violence. This story choice is obvious, for action movies are fun, indulgent, and toxic masculinity to a T. What's perhaps more is the episode manages to casually annihilate about 50 popular action tropes over the course of 14 minutes ("a name like scar" / "jaguar" / etc.), complete with coherent plotting that would put most of those movies to shame. But, of course, it's just all another traditional masculine path of avoidance. For all the while, his family sits in therapy, with Mom refusing to the address the lingering shadow of her father's absence.
But later, having finally survived the heroic escapades, Rick shows up to the therapy session, tired, beaten, and nearly dead. He's done so because this is the seeming right thing to do, but it's more that he's simply too tired to keep avoiding it and he wants the serum back (a mere band-aid for his current problem). Of course, Rick can't keep up his veil of complacency for long, and his disdain for therapy comes out. And it all manifests in what is perhaps the single most brilliant explanation of therapy I've ever seen from a piece of art (and please know that therapy has become something I've come to hold quite dear)...
Therapist: "Rick, why did you lie to your daughter?"
Rick: "So I wouldn't have to come here."
Therapist: "Why didn't you want to come here?"
Rick: "Because I don't respect therapy. Because I'm a scientist. Because I invent, transform, create, and destroy for a living. And when I don't like something about the world, I change it. And I don't think going to a rented office in a strip mall to listen to some agent of averageness explain which words mean which feelings has ever helped anyone do anything. I think it's helped a lot of people get comfortable and stop panicking, which is a state of mind we value in the animals we eat, but not something I want for myself. I'm not a cow. I'm a pickle - when I feel like it - So... you asked."
Therapist: "Rick. The only connection between your unquestionable intelligence and the sickness destroying your family, is that everyone in your family, you included, use intelligence to justify sickness. You seem to alternate between viewing your own mind as an unstoppable force and as an inescapable curse. And I think it's because the only truly unapproachable concept for you is that it is your mind within your control. You chose to come here, you chose to talk, to belittle my vocation, just as you chose to become a pickle. You are the master of your universe. And yet, you are dripping with rat's blood and feces. Your enormous mind literally vegetating by your own hand. I have no doubt that you would be bored senseless by therapy. The same way I'm bored when I brush my teeth and wipe my ass. Because the thing about repairing, maintaining, and cleaning is - it's NOT an adventure - There's no way to do it so wrong you might die. It's just... work. And the bottom line is some people are okay going to work and some people, well, some people would rather die. Each of us gets to choose."
The stunned silence that follows is the kind that exists only when a horrible-yet-potentially-freeing truth has been unveiled, but nothing is so devastating as the scene that follows. As they drive home, Rick and his daughter apologize with niceties, putting the band aids on their relationship, and ignoring the magnitude of what has actually happened. Her children, Morty and Summer, sit in the back, wide-eyed and terrified about the avoidance they see before them. They sheepishly ask, "Are we going to go back?" and say "I liked her," clearly desperate to go back to therapy, to the person who genuinely might be able to help them all. The want to do the work. But their adult models are too scared of doing the work and facing the truth, so they will recede into themselves. They don't even answer the kids' words. Instead, Grandpa Rick and their mother make plans to go to a bar and drink the truth away... cut to credits.
I literally shuddered.
As an artistic document, I can think of no bigger indictment of the failures of intelligence than "Pickle Rick." Yes, we no doubt live in a world where a lack of intelligence and a lack of awareness (self or otherwise) fail us at every turn. But intelligence is far from the savior of the basic emotional truths at the heart of the human psyche. Our inability to grasp our own capacity for fear, anger, disgust, sadness and joy is what so easily mars the engine of our selfhood. For the biggest truth always rests in our hearts and bodies. There is no outsmarting it. There is no outrunning it. And yet, we'd rather turn ourselves into pickles instead of facing the obvious darkness in our hearts. Which means, yes, this episode is about our broken emotional systems. It is about the way we come to value certain "positive" traits (like intelligence and power) that we believe will allow us to keep surviving, because we believe they have what allowed us to survive so far. But they will never be enough to make us whole, or even make us balanced. They are just broken systems we keep feeding again and again, confident our little band-aid solutions will fix things simply because they momentarily alleviate the guilt or anger. And that's how we go on, trapped in cycles, succeeding to our own crippling ends, and never addressing the ways we are broken. It is an episode about the ways we lie to ourselves and others. Especially because we know that, in the end, there is only facing the truth. And how we are utterly terrified to do it.
Which is why I become somewhat incensed when flippant people talk about how Rick & Morty is bad because it doesn't aptly "punish" Rick and therefore communicate that he's bad. There is probably no comment on the internet that could make me more frustrated. Because if you watch this show and can't understand how it's blatantly condemning even the most "successful" version of Rick's psychology and still tearing it to shreds, then I don't really know what to say. For it's not even the simple confusing depiction and endorsement, nor is it part of the horrid need for abject moralizing in our media... It's just not seeing what's there. And thus it's being mad at the deeply uncomfortable feeling that the show provokes. And as such, like Rick himself, it is just another form of displacement. We want the show to punish someone so we don't have to, and more importantly, not punish ourselves. It is to demand both false truth and false catharsis, all while the show would much rather lay the poisonous truth into us with all the subtleness of a dagger.
Like therapy, like observation, like criticism, like self-reflection... There is only doing the work. These are the most difficult things to do in the world as human beings. But luckily for us, the audience, who gets a chance to look in on art with an open mind and open heart, there is undeniable power in how a simple 22 minute "story" can be the ultimate tool for self-reflection. And in terms of pure storytelling, I am proud to say that Rick & Morty does the work every time.
I can think of nothing so inspiring.