A new season of Rick and Morty is upon us, and it feels like the perfect opportunity for me to talk about this show at length. I only became a Rick and Morty fan a year ago after a friend suggested I try it. Since then, I’ve watched the series all the way through a good dozen times, never being able to shake this world or its characters for long. My initial idea for this was a Top 5 Episodes list, but there are too many great ones, so I had to expand. This is the first of three Top 5 Episodes lists, each with a different focus. They’re not necessarily my favorite episodes – although some of them are, and my very favorite will show up at some point – but the most important ones in terms of character and story. I’m also listing them in chronological order to better chart each character’s growth (and a little bit so I don’t have to rank them). And if you think I’m missing one or two biggies, chances are they’ll be on one of the others.
Rick Sanchez is one of the most fascinating TV characters to come about in the 21st century. A genius, an adventurer, a monster, a hero, a narcissist, a hedonist, a man desperate for both love and solitude; Rick’s many contradictions somehow gel to create one of the most endlessly likable (despite his massive flaws) protagonists in ages. Not to tell anyone what to think, but I can’t see anyone having a favorite Rick and Morty character who isn’t Rick. These, then, are what I consider the Top 5 Rick Episodes of Rick and Morty.
“People like Rick are making me obsolete. I mean, seriously; I may be the Devil, but your grandpa is the Devil.”
What appears to be a standalone episode actually reveals a lot about Rick, from the moral complexity of his actions to his need to love and be loved, especially by his family. Summer gets a job at a store run by the Devil (or “Mr. Needful,” as he’s called, and his shop is Needful Things, a direct reference to the excellent Stephen King book) – whom she also begins dating – where Old Scratch gives away his many trinkets for free, but they bear curses that take a much deeper toll from the customer. For example, Morty’s teacher Mr. Goldenfold buys an aftershave that promises to make him “quite irresistible to women,” only to find that it also renders him impotent. Like Goldenfold, the rest of the dopey denizens of their Seattle suburb are easy marks for Mr. Needful’s temptations – all except Rick, of course. Rick uses his scientific know-how to discover and undo the curses placed on Mr. Needful’s wares, eventually putting him out of business.
On paper, Rick appears to be the hero, saving innocent (albeit gullible) shoppers from demonic enchantments. But he isn’t doing it for altruistic reasons; Rick takes a dislike to Mr. Needful and removes the hexes from his inventory to hurt him. Once Needful Things goes under, Rick immediately abandons his services and burns down the storefront he constructed. He only takes an interest in Mr. Needful again when he dumps Summer after stealing her idea for a rebranded store, this time helping Summer to get buff and beat Needful to a pulp on stage during an Apple-like presentation.
That’s the rub – it was never really about Mr. Needful; it was about Summer. Since the beginning of the series, Rick never took much of an interest in his granddaughter, focusing all his energy on Morty. Summer has had to fight for his attention, like when she forced herself into his planet-hopping adventure in “Raising Gazorpazorp;” not only did Rick not appreciate that, but he blamed Summer for everything that went wrong. (“Great, now I have to take over this whole planet because of your stupid boobs.”) He even abandoned her to the Cronenberg apocalypse in the last dimension while escaping with Morty. In the opening scene of “Something Ricked This Way Comes,” he’s clearly annoyed and resentful that he’s got to take Summer to work rather than help Morty with a science project.
But once he sees Summer fall under the Devil’s spell, he suddenly becomes possessive and, in his own way, protective of her. He didn’t care about helping the cursed customers, but he did care about helping his granddaughter get away from an evil boyfriend. As Summer surmises towards the end, Rick never realized how much he wanted her in his life till his constant spurning drove her to another role model (whom Rick calls her “replacement grandpa”). That her replacement for him is the Devil sums it up: remove yourself from your family, and someone evil will take your place. (This is mirrored in the other plotline, where Morty is forced to ask Jerry to help him with his science project and ends up on an alien planet where the corrupt government is using Jerry because he’s an overconfident idiot who doesn’t know what Pluto is – a poor substitute for Rick’s scientific genius.)
But, because it’s Rick, it’s still not that simple. Rick is not exactly a positive influence on Summer. His selfishness leaves a lot of people at the mercy of Mr. Needful’s cursed objects when he suddenly quits helping them. And when he helps Summer build muscle mass to beat up her duplicitous boyfriend, he injects her and himself with steroids. Whether he’s even a better man than the Devil is open for debate. “Something Ricked This Way Comes” is one of the earliest episodes to dig into the moral complexities that define Rick; he helps Summer and realizes the importance of being in her life, but he also influences her to do harmful things. He helps a lot of other people too, but for his own reasons and with no intention of continuing once it no longer serves his purposes. And while his ruthlessness sees a lot of positive results, it actually drives the Devil himself to suicide. There is potential for good and evil in Rick, and which he foments is determined by whatever best suits him in the moment.
“Do you know what I love about you, Rick? You’re the only single mind I’ve met that really sees the big picture.”
This is where we meet one of Rick’s exes – Unity, a hive-mind entity that takes over the bodies of entire populations. When Rick and Unity meet again, their attraction instantly reignites, and they start engaging in wilder and wilder sex acts. On the surface, this appears to be exactly what Rick would want in a relationship – a hedonistic exploitation film come to life, a relationship rooted entirely in physical pleasure. Rick’s reminiscences of their past include things like substance abuse and invading police stations for contraband. And their rekindled romance brings out the worst in both of them; Rick neglects Morty and Summer, seeing them as annoyances that draw him away from Unity, while Unity loses control of the people whose minds she’s consumed, leading to accidents and a race war.
This is what ultimately drives them apart again. Early in “Auto Erotic Assimilation,” Unity tells Rick that she’s grown since last they met. She was once only in control of a small town but has now assimilated entire planets and even formed a truce with a neighboring collective called Beta-7 (which is based on the Borg from Star Trek). And she’s got aspirations beyond that, hoping to one day enact what is essentially Ego’s plan from Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 and assimilate the entire universe. (That this evil goal is treated as any normal ambitious career path is hilarious.) But Rick gets her to ignore her plans and devote herself to empty pleasure, be it having sex with him in increasingly elaborate ways or nuking a town just because she can. She’s regressing, becoming the irresponsible girl she once was rather than the professional woman she’s grown into since escaping Rick’s influence.
Beta-7 helps to illustrate what Unity sees in Rick. She tells him that he appeals to her because he’s the only single-minded being she’s ever met who understands “the big picture.” But despite that understanding, Rick still concerns himself with the small things; he’s interested only in his own pleasure, living in the moment despite understanding eternity. In contrast, Beta-7 – which is also clearly attracted to Unity – is more “responsible,” talking about the higher ideals of consuming the universe, while Rick mocks them and flaunts his dalliance with Unity. Rick is the bad boy to Beta-7’s nerd (the term “beta” is in their name for a reason), the temptation Unity can’t resist even though she knows better.
This is born out in her notes to Rick at the end, a multi-person Dear John letter that tells Rick she’s got a weakness for him that she has to abandon if she’s to grow as a (for our immediate purposes) person. The line that sums it up is, “I realize now that I’m attracted to you for the same reason I can’t be with you: you can’t change.” Rick is keeping her static; she needs something more than just a guy whose loftiest goal where Unity is concerned is having sex with her in the form of a bunch of redheads in a stadium. With Rick, there is no future, just an unending present.
But then, that ending turns their whole relationship – and Rick’s character – on its head. After he learns that Unity no longer wants to be with him, he attempts suicide, surviving only because he’s fall-down drunk. This is the tragedy at the heart of the break-up; Rick didn’t just see Unity as an outlet for his pleasure – he really cared for her, maybe even loved her. And even beyond that, Unity’s dismissal of Rick confirms to a man who wants to grow that he never will; he’s doomed to be a bitter, selfish, destructive shell forever. Unity sees his attempt to get her back in the post-credits scene as a horny guy trying to get his sexual obsession back in bed, but the truth is, he’s a broken man desperately trying to get what may be his last shot at love – and redemption – to give him another chance. He goes about it in the exact wrong way because he’s Rick and of course he does, but his pleas harken back to the meaning of his former catchphrase, “Wubba Lubba Dub Dub”: “I am in great pain; please help me.” Although there were hints before, this is the first episode where we see how badly Rick bleeds.
“Okay… I may have fucked up here.”
“Pickle Rick” is a fan favorite for a reason – a reason beyond that it’s hilarious, violent, and a lot of fun. This episode epitomizes what makes Rick such a great character by putting him in the most vulnerable state we’ve ever seen him in and forcing him to get out of it with no help. That this predicament is entirely of his making is equally important. The title is not a trick or play on words; Rick literally turns himself into a pickle, retaining none of his human qualities outside of his eyes, nose, mouth, and mind – all in an effort to get out of going to a therapy session with his family. But when Beth takes the syringe filled with the antidote to his pickledom with her, Rick is suddenly trapped in his new body, unable to move but forced to fend for himself.
After an initial series of coincidences – Rick is knocked off his work table by the family cat and washed into the sewer by a rainstorm – Rick begins to put his mind to work, slowly overcoming the disadvantage of being a pickle. He uses the brine in his new body to attract a cockroach, then kills it, scalps it, and uses his tongue to stimulate its brain and cause its legs to move; now, he’s got mobility. From there, he constructs elaborate devices using bug limbs until he’s able to kill a rat and fit himself into its body, eventually making his way out of the sewers via a toilet, which leads him into a Russian embassy. (It’s not specified as Russian, but it’s clearly supposed to be.) There, he takes on an army of corrupt Russian officials and security personnel, constructing deadlier weapons and traps as he goes along, and even making a strategic alliance with the man the Russians send to kill him, until finally getting to the therapy session and, eventually, the antidote that will save his life.
That’s a crazy story, but it works so well (again, aside from how fun it is) because it demonstrates Rick’s intelligence, ingenuity, determination, survival instinct, and sadism. Even in a seemingly powerless state, Rick’s mind is his deadliest weapon, allowing him to use his understanding of biology to control vermin and mechanics to construct devices to help him achieve his goals. He doesn’t have access to his gadgets or chemicals, but he’s able to use whatever tools are available to make his machines – tools like animal bones, cockroach legs, broken bottles, and the like. This isn’t easy, of course, and it takes both trial and error and the kind of patience a desperate man likely wouldn’t be able to dredge up in himself, but Rick does it because he won’t give up and accept death or (probably more importantly to him) failure.
And yet, through his increasingly dangerous ordeal, Rick remains angry and spiteful towards anyone who would get in his way. When the rats attack him, he not only kills them all, he tortures the final one, even insulting it before he kills it despite it being unable to understand a word he’s saying. Rick does this for his own sake, to satisfy his need to hurt those who cross him, even if they’re simply animals acting on instinct. Once he makes it into the embassy, he ruthlessly cuts down the security team; on the surface, this is merely a means of self-defense, but the smile on his face makes it clear that Rick is taking joy in killing these guys. When the head Russian sends a tormented assassin named Jaguar after him and the two fight each other to a standstill, Rick teams up with him and helps him escape the Russians’ grasp and get revenge for his dead daughter… but he stops short of allowing Jaguar to see another version of his daughter in an alternate universe. Rick uses Jaguar and abandons him when he no longer needs him instead of giving the man what little comfort he can, just like he did to the townspeople in “Something Ricked This Way Comes.” His survival instincts are, at least in part, a manifestation of his selfishness.
When Rick gets to the therapy session, the real introspection begins. Rick tells Dr. Wong why he doesn’t like or respect therapy, and his tirade boils down to one central idea: Rick doesn’t like acceptance. He’d rather change a world that doesn’t suit him than live in the one fate dealt him, and therapy is anathema to that. This is why he simply abandoned the Cronenberg world he inadvertently created and came to one where more desirable versions of Beth, Summer, and (to a much lesser extent, I’m sure) Jerry were available. And when we eventually learn Rick’s true backstory and motivation, this takes on even greater relevance. It also puts his pacification of Jaguar into a potentially different perspective. Did Rick lie to Jaguar about alternate versions of his daughter just to get rid of him, or was he sparing Jaguar the agony of constantly trying to make life better? Does part of Rick believe that acceptance is the better, healthier choice, even if it’s one he can’t make for himself? Dr. Wong’s analysis of Rick – that he needs to live a dangerous life because he can’t be comfortable in a normal one – is also correct, but not for the reasons she thinks, but this is another facet of Rick’s character we’ll learn later. For now, though, “Pickle Rick” has given us our best look yet at why Rick is cool, as well as a look at how being that cool takes its toll on him.
“I don’t discuss problems; I incinerate ‘em.”
Rick is a bad father and a bad friend… except when he isn’t. “Star Mort Rickturn of the Jerri” highlights Rick’s contradictory natures, the good and bad in him, and how both are mixed into almost every decision he makes. The episode begins with a spacefaring warrior version of Beth, who discovers a bomb in her throat – an indication that she is a clone of the real Beth. This harkens back to the season 3 episode “The ABCs of Beth,” where Rick gave his frustrated daughter the option of having him clone her so she could go off having adventures while the clone stayed on Earth with her family. Now, we discover that there is a version of Beth doing what she’d dreamed of in that episode, but that she may be a clone of the real Beth, who stayed with Jerry and her kids. Much of “Star Mort Rickturn of the Jerri” goes back and forth between the two possibilities, with Rick not giving either of them (or us) a clear answer.
The reason for that is revealed at the end: Rick did create a clone of Beth, but he had the cloning machine shuffle the two versions of his daughter while he turned around and got drunk to make sure he wouldn’t know which is which. This is supremely disturbing and irresponsible, and as it happens (via flashback), we’re given the impression that Rick did this to spare himself the difficulty of losing his true daughter if that is the one who chose to leave Earth. This is complicated by the knowledge that the Beth of this world isn’t actually his Beth; they’re both equally real to him because they’re both doppelgangers of his daughter. When he tells Space Beth, “It really was nice to see you,” after freezing her, he means it, even though he has no idea which one she is.
However, because of Rick’s switcheroo, both versions of Beth are equally real to themselves, too. Since it’s impossible for them to know which one of them is the clone, they’re both free to live their life as if they’re the real Beth. Space Beth can live out her wildest dreams knowing that she’s also at home taking care of her family, while Earth Beth can be a responsible wife and mother while satisfied that she’s also out there somewhere, living a life of adventure. Rick gave his daughter the gift of a guiltless choice, the ability to have her cake and eat it too, and in the end, this makes both Beths happy. Even her family doesn’t seem to care which one is which (although Jerry laments not being able to get them both into bed with him). Morty and Summer are good with having two moms, and while everyone makes Rick the bad guy, he’s the one who opened a world of possibilities to them. It just may have been inadvertent because he didn’t want to make a tough choice.
Then, there’s Birdperson – or Phoenixperson, as everyone refuses to call him. When last we saw Rick’s best friend, he was resurrected from his wedding-day assassination as a cyborg for the remnants of the decimated Galactic Federation. Now, he and Rick meet again, and their reunion quickly turns into a fight to the death. Normally, in a scenario like this, the hero would desperately try to revive whatever is left of his friend’s mind and bring him back from his cybernetic prison. But not Rick; he immediately goes for the jugular, even telling Birdperson that he’d always wondered which of them would win in a fight. (“Then you were always a bad friend” is the retort.) This is an example of how Rick’s selfishness will always win out over his emotional connections; he cares for Birdperson as he cares for few others, but he’s not about to let himself die when faced with a killer robot wearing his friend’s face. If one of them has to go, it ain’t gonna be Rick.
Well, that was the plan, anyway. But Birdperson’s Phoenixperson upgrade proves to be too much for Rick, and as he’s lying on the floor with his guts barely still attached and Birdperson moving in for the kill, his daughters arrive to rescue him. Rick’s questionable decision regarding Beth becomes his salvation, and with a last-minute assist from Jerry (who screws up and almost gets himself killed because he’s Jerry), Birdperson is shut down, and Rick lives to fight another day. But that isn’t the end; when everyone has walked away from him, Rick reveals that he took Birdperson with him and is determined to bring his friend back to life. So, as with Beth, we’re left to wonder if Rick is a good friend or a bad one, someone who will kill his best buddy to save his own life or dedicate himself to restoring him. And again, Rick is both; he’s a damaged guy convinced he must be ruthless to survive and a lonely man desperate for human connection. He avoids responsibility with Beth while also setting her free, and he’s both willing to kill his best friend and dedicated to saving his life.
“Thank you for not giving up on me.”
The follow-up to Rick’s quest to save Birperson is in this episode, and it reveals a ton about Rick through his best friend’s memories of him. After stitching Birdperson’s organic body back together and discarding the robotic remnants of Phoenixperson, Rick and his AI computer deduce that Birdperson’s conscious mind is buried in his unconscious mind, so Rick transfers his consciousness into Birdperson’s to save his friend from his own collapsing brain. Right away, we get an insight into Rick’s mindset: the computer asks Rick why he doesn’t simply go to a universe where Birdperson is still alive and pluck out that version of him (or, rather, she starts to ask him before Rick figures out what she’s getting at mid-sentence). But he’s emphatic that it has to be this Birdperson. Seeds are being planted; why does Birdperson’s identity matter but not Beth’s or Summer’s? And why does this Morty have to be Rick’s Morty? That won’t be answered for two more episodes (and two more articles here), but it still complicates Rick’s view on the meaninglessness of life and identity in an infinite number of universes.
The point, insofar as “Rickternal Friendshine of the Spotless Mort” is concerned, is that this Birdperson matters to Rick, and he goes through a journey into his past – from Birdperson’s perspective – that he knows could kill him to get his best friend back. This is for our benefit as much as Rick’s and Birdperson’s. First, we see how they met at a Woodstock-like alien music festival where Rick brought some interdimensional version of a bong, and Birdperson asked for a hit. (“I am, indeed, down to clown.”) It’s a quick scene, but it establishes what initially endeared them to each other: they’re both rule-breakers who won’t let the Galactic Federation control them. Next, they’re in a shootout with other Ricks, and some exposition explains that they’ve formed an alliance, each helping the other on his personal mission. Then, Rick spies a meeting with Birdperson’s resistance group planning a “last stand at Blood Ridge,” followed by a trip to said battle, which is not so much a last stand as a complete routing of the Federation forces. The tragedy of Blood Ridge lies not in the battle itself but in the fracturing of a partnership, as Rick offers to take Birdperson on limitless interdimensional adventures, but Birdperson declines, choosing idealism over friendship.
Okay, this has become a bit of an elephant in the room regarding “Rickternal Frienshine of the Spotless Mort,” so here it is: I don’t think Rick is in love with Birdperson; in fact, I think it’s important that he isn’t. Rick’s entire existence has been seeking companionship, different forms of love, and screwing them all up because of his selfishness and narcissism. He shares familial love with Morty, Beth, and Summer and romantic love with Unity. Birdperson represents the love between friends, two guys who found kindred spirits in each other despite their differences. Rick wanted Birdperson to be what Morty would eventually become to him: a partner with whom to share his adventures. When he says “Because we love him” to his younger self, he’s talking about the love between friends, one that he had to grow older to realize he wouldn’t give up because they took different paths in life.
But Rick could definitely screw it up, and he does when he learns of Birdperson’s daughter and keeps it from him as Birdperson’s mind collapses. Rick is desperate to have his friend back, maybe even to have those adventures they’d spent decades missing out on now that the Galactic Federation has been crushed twice. But when Birdperson resolves to die – or finish dying, as he frames it – Rick finally lets the cat out of the bag in a last-ditch effort to save his friend. And while it works, Birdperson is not thrilled with Rick once they wake up in the real world. Once again, Rick is both a good and a bad friend, someone who would risk his life for Birdperson but keep the existence of a child from him to ensure they could hang out together. Birdperson’s assessment of Rick is equally complicated – so much so that he simply flies away, giving Rick a vague assurance of when they’ll meet again.
Birdperson’s complex feelings towards Rick are personified in the younger Rick, a memory that teams up with our Rick to save Birdperson. This is Rick as an angry young man, at turns vengeful and idealistic, stubborn and complacent, fighting for a cause and, immediately after, dreaming of a life where he can have fun with his best friend. Birdperson remembers Rick as selfish and dishonest, but also as loyal and self-sacrificial, and while this Rick is the projection of an unreliable narrator, Birdperson’s final scene indicates that he has a pretty good understanding of his friend. This is why it’s Birdperson who calls Rick both a good and bad friend at different points throughout the show and the one who sympathizes with Morty’s frustration with his grandfather while advocating for forgiveness and understanding of Rick. Birdperson is essential to figuring out who Rick is, and “Rickternal Friendshine of the Spotless Mort” is the episode that best illuminates their confounding friendship.
Thanks for reading! Let me know in the comments if you agree, disagree, or anything in-between, and come back tomorrow for the next Rick and Morty list!