Rick and Morty, S03E03: “Pickle Rick”

Rick and Morty, S03E03: “Pickle Rick”

While Examining Itself, Rick and Morty Never Forgets to be Its Gorily Entertaining Best


In signature Rick and Morty fashion, the show delivers an episode that defies analysis by essentially analysing itself. While its conclusions are a little navel-gazey, it remains the best show on the air at addressing its own themes and working through them, aided by its typically vivacious approach to violence.

Rating: 9/11


There is nothing more difficult for a critic to review than something that essentially reviews itself.

Rick and Morty‘s co-creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon (as well as Jessica Gao, the writer of this episode) understand this. All too well. They’re super aware of the analytic culture their meta, increasingly self-reflexive show exists within. And – beyond thrilling their audience with the most creative ways for a pickle-shaped Rick to dismember rats and people – their goal with this episode is to short-circuit that analysis. They wanna get there first and define the show on their own terms. Y’know how insult comics often make the worst jokes about themselves before other people can? It’s the same principle at work here, except applied to a show about intergalactic fuckery that has never shied away from the yawning chasm of ennui that exists within some (if not all) of its characters.

See, while a majority of this episode is taken up by Rick’s adventure as the titular “Pickle Rick” (about which, more in a moment), the main action is adjoined with a family therapy session. Morty, Summer and Beth are all in attendance, spearheaded by Dr. Wong (an unflappable Susan Sarandon). Now, as the very act of therapy involves psychoanalysis, it makes sense that a good deal of the episode would be spent addressing the Smith family’s many issues and helping them come to terms with what afflicts them.

I don’t think this gets brought enough: what the fuck is actually going on with Morty’s hair? Can someone explain this madness to me? (Adult Swim)

Right out of the gate, Beth can’t avoid the question of why Rick would rather turn himself into a pickle than attend therapy. The kids seem to understand that this was his intention, but they lack the authority to convey it to their mother without her dismissing them. Beth – a paternal figure deeply in denial about her own father’s shortcomings – instead gets to choose the narrative. Rick isn’t the problem, as she sees it; it’s her divorce from Jerry that’s causing issues, which is why the kids are acting out by huffing pottery enamel (Summer) or pissing their pants at school (Morty). It’s a tangled mentality, made all the more complicated by Beth implying that her actions have had an effect on the kids but insiting that her dynamic with Rick, her own father, is healthy.

Of course, under normal circumstances Beth would get to keep pushing this fucked-up outlook, but not in therapy. Through calm, non-judgemental precision, Dr. Wong is able to dismantle all of Beth’s deeply embedded rationalisations about herself and Rick. Eventually, when confronted with the notion that inviting him back into the house may be the very cause of all her family’s problems, Beth has little else at her disposal but her father’s tendency to lash out. “Fuck you” she deadpans at Wong, and when her kids object, she shoots them a, “Fuck both of you, too.” What’s clear is that, because she has so fully internalised Rick’s fear of emotional connections and vulnerability, the one thing she still values above all else is her relationship with him. Because what if she doesn’t have that and it turns out she’s stuck this way, that it’s too late to ever change? Then what?

Heavy stuff, yeah, but who am I kidding: the bulk of this episode’s success as an actual television show belongs to Pickle fuckin’ Rick. Abandoned by his family on his workbench with no means of returning himself to human form, Rick is swiped at by Izzy the cat (I miss Snuffles — shit, I mean Snowball, my bad) and rolls helplessly out of the garage. Laying on the pavement, Rick is almost baked to death by the midday sun before a fortuitous rainstorm whisks him away to the sewer. There, he traps a roach, murders it with his bare mouth, removes its scalp and, using his tongue to prod specific sections of its brain, engages its motor function so as to become mobile resting atop its corpse. And that’s all in about the first two minutes.

Aaaaaand then this starts happening. (Adult Swim)

What’s most striking about this plot – besides the uniquely horrific character design of Rick as a pickle, wearing the remnants of a rat carcass like a fucking deranged, tumescent warrior – is how unceasingly violent it is. It’s pretty common knowledge that one of Dan Harmon’s favourite films is Die Hard; honestly, just take a look at the first paintball episode of Community for any confirmation. So, of course, it makes sense that we’d eventually get an episode of Rick and Morty that goes full Die Hard in all its glory, even if it is the result of Rick stumbling into it by jumping out of the wrong toilet. Still though, it’s insane the level of effort that went into the different ways Pickle Rick murders rats and people in this episode.

The online response has been divided, with some calling out the violence as, while creative, cynically gruesome and devoid of a deeper meaning. While “Look Who’s Purging Now” from Season 2 needed senseless violence to suit its plot and last week’s “Rickmancing the Stone” was firmly rooted in nihilism, it’s hard to make the same argument for necessity here. I’m not saying the various modes of Rick causing mayhem aren’t entertaining, and damned if it’s not approximately 1,000% better than “Rick as a pickle” deserves to be. It’s just that there doesn’t seem to be any level to it beyond, “Hey, what if Pickle Rick had a shoulder-mounted laser powered by an AA battery?” The answer is, “Yeah, that’s a pretty cool idea. I would watch the shit outta that.” And it is, so we do.

Anyway, once Rick deals with the ambiguous foreign nationals at the unnamed embassy (and gains an unlikely new ally in the form of Jaguar, voiced by Danny Trejo!), he makes an appearance at the tail end of the Smith family’s therapy session. So, here’s where we come to the episode’s most interesting moment, even if it is a bit of a misstep. Rick is confronted by the elaborate lie he told to avoid attending the session, and so responds by calling therapy bullshit: he doesn’t need an “agent of averageness to explain which words mean which feelings.” Then Dr. Wong, in all her impenetrable calm, takes Rick’s every justification apart, delves to the core of who he is as a person (or, y’know, a pickle) and lays it out bare. She nails it of course, and while it is a technically impressive speech… I dunno, it just didn’t land for me.

It’s the strangest form of lazy writing, in that it’s well-crafted and profound but so on the nose that it may as well have been delivered straight to the camera. It’s kinda weird to think that someone like Harmon, who is a master at subverting most dialogue tropes, would lean so heavily on this one, where the show just comes out and explains the entire subtext of what drives the protagonist.

Is this kinda part of the joke, that it’s a long-arse, “spell out the character” speech that knows exactly what it is? Maybe, but I don’t think an extra layer of awareness fixes this. Besides, there’s too much earnestness in Wong’s words and delivery for me to think that this scene is winking at us. I believe it is what it is, a well-intentioned, beautifully written moment that doesn’t really have any place on this show. In truth, it feels more like the work of a very eloquent recapper than a Rick and Morty writer.

(Adult Swim)

Still, I think there are too many levels that Dr. Wong’s lengthy speech works on to dismiss entirely. Most alarmingly, in the ominous car ride home Beth and Rick seem entirely unfazed by the reality Wong has attempted to present to them. They laugh her off and decide maybe they should go get a drink together, which on any other show under any other circumstances would be a heartwarming conclusion. Not so when Morty and Summer are sitting blank-faced in the back seat, staring straight ahead and offering ignored comments like, “Are we going back…?” and “I liked her…”

In that moment, it makes sense to have Dr. Wong be such a sharp judge of character and ruthless behavioural analyst. For the sake of the tragedy at play here, she needs to be an implausibly adept therapist and orator, one who could actually get to the heart of why Rick and Beth’s relationship is so dysfunctional. Because it makes it that much sadder – and, actually, scarier – that these two would still blow her off, while Morty and Summer are left wondering if anything could possibly get through to them. My guess: it’s gonna take a fucking miracle, and I doubt Rick believes in those.


Quotes & Random Thoughts


  • Introducing Second Rickpressions, a new feature of the Q & R.T. section for jokes that I missed or didn’t get until the second viewing. This week: the motivational poster in Dr. Wong’s office with someone eating a hotdog, labelled “Courage”. Remember that most of her patients are dealing with coprophagia. Look it up.


  • “The reason anyone would do this – if they could, which they can’t – would be because they could, which they can’t!” Rick, tying knots in our brain with his trippily semantic rundown of why anyone would want to be a pickle.


  • “Well, Dr. Wong… by the way, racist name.” This is a funny line, no doubt, but if I’m honest it got to the heart of something I was super uncomfortable with while watching this episode. Sarandon’s performance is stellar, but it’s weird watching a show in 2017 casting white actors in the role of Asian characters, even when it’s animated. I feel the same way about Alison Brie as Diane Nguyen in BoJack Horseman, finding her acting great while questioning the decision behind it. I dunno, just seems strange to me.


  • “Goddammit, I love myself!” Honestly, Rick, sometimes I find it hard not to as well. Love you, that is. I hate myself.


  • The little details of the generic action film that takes up the episode’s second half are hilarious. Most especially, I fucking love that the guards call Rick “Solenya, The Pickle Man” based on an urban legend from their undisclosed country.


  • “To the extent that love is an expression of familiarity over time, my access to infinite timelines precludes the necessity of attachment. In fact, I even abandoned one of my infinite daughters in an alternate version of Earth that was taken over by mutants.” Rick’s incessant need to over-explain his stunted emotionalism is… I mean, you could call it poetic, in that it confuses you and makes you sad all at the same time.


  • Regardless of whether it’s a little too direct to fully work, Dr. Wong’s monologue dressing down Rick is worth quoting in full: “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’s 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 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 I wipe my arse. 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.”


  • “I missed having hands… and blood… and a stomach… we should get a drink!” As far as abrupt jokes about Rick’s alcoholism go, this is one of my favourites.


  • The week’s tag sees Rick and Morty about to be murdered in that giant grand piano that is now a part of the main credits. Of course, Jaguar swoops in at the last moment to save the day, with Rick getting the last word: “That, Morty, is why you don’t go to therapy.”

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