6. “The Ricks Must Be Crazy” (Season 2, Episode 6)
When it comes to story layers in “Rick and Morty,” more is almost always better. Here, those added levels come in the form of tiny microverses, ultimately powering the battery in Rick’s spaceship. Roping in Stephen Colbert and Nathan Fielder, the episode balances out an inventive interspecies shortcut with a sly consideration of free will and the relative value of ignorance. But what really separates this episode is what goes on topside.
This show has never done anything quite as diabolical as the pitfalls of “Keep Summer safe” directive, dissolving seven-year-olds and all. And on the list of glossed-over horrors only alluded to, planting the idea of that Morty could turn into a car at any given moment is almost more petrifying than actually seeing it come to life.
Best Quote: “‘Quantum carburetor?’ Jesus, Morty. You can’t just add a [burp] sci-fi word to a car word and hope it means something. Huh, looks like something’s wrong with the microverse battery.” – Rick
5. “Meeseeks and Destroy” (Season 1, Episode 5)
Roiland, Harmon and Co. probably weren’t setting out to launch a merchandising goldmine with Mr. Meeseeks, but this warped version of a magical cartoon character shows just how the series infuses what should be breezy premises with real philosophical heft. As a twin delivery of jolly catchphrases and existential dread, the confounding layer of Meeseeks’ obligations and purposes yank this from amusing to fascinating awfully quick. And that doesn’t even take into account the twisted “Jack and the Beanstalk” adventure of Morty’s choosing, which finds an especially demented fairytale twist before we even meet any of the Thirsty Step barflies.
Best Quote: ““Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum! I smell the violation of civil liberties!” – Tiny-Persons Pro-Bono Defender
4. “Lawnmower Dog” (Season 1, Episode 2)
Individually, the slow self-actualization of dog communication technology and the dreamscape adventures of Scary Terry would be enough to put this episode high on the list. But even in the show’s second episode, the way that it effortlessly balances two wildly divergent ideas, all to serve the same storyline, is an impressive twin feat of joke-telling and storytelling. With an apocalyptic montage of a mech-canine takeover of American government and society, it’s also our first indication that “Rick and Morty” can go from zero to hellscape in the blink of an eye. It’s the show’s own version of the Butterfly Effect, taking the tiniest Rick action and following it through to its logical, disastrous end point.
Best Quote: “It’s like ‘Inception,’ Morty. So if it’s confusing and stupid, then so is everyone’s favorite movie.” -Rick
3. “The Ricklantis Mixup” (Season 3, Episode 7)
“Rick and Morty” has woven some of its best tales through a sense of obligation: What do these characters owe to their families, to alien species or, in this case, the alternate timeline versions of themselves? “The Ricklantis Mixup” isn’t without our C-137 friends (or a stray Jessica reference, for that matter), but this is another devastating look at the worlds that Rick leaves in his wake. A quartet of intertwining Citadel stories, from ambling teenagers to manipulative power-hungry Mortys, it’s another example of the show generating soul-crushing pathos in less time than it takes to get to the next commercial break. With as much to say about the characters we see on screen as the ones we don’t, it’s an impossible juggling act worthy of the “Rick and Morty” upper echelon. It has the benefit of building on our past understanding of the tangential relationship they have to the core “Rick and Morty” adventures, but as a self-contained rumination on power, manipulation, and subverting expectations, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more wrenching twenty minutes of TV anywhere else.
Best Quote: “Mortys are raised to be sidekicks. Without a side to kick, they just start kicking.” –Cop Morty
2. “Rick Potion #9” (Season 1, Episode 6)
It’s hard to overemphasize how daring of an episode this is, not only because of how early in the show’s run it came, but what it meant for the series going forward. With the show’s multiverse approach, literally anything can happen (including turning the last name of a Canadian film auteur into a verb and noun). But “Rick Potion #9” not only proves the show’s ability to excel at a very specific kind of grotesquery, but to make that ugliness have psychological lasting impacts on the characters caught up in its aftermath. Hybrid mantis people are horrifying enough, but what’s even scarier is a reminder of how expendable and interchangeable everything is in this world. Morty being confronted with his own mortality is an all-time gut punch. You’ll never listen to Mazzy Star the same way again.
Best Quote: “I’m Mr. Crowbar, and here is my friend, who is also a crowbar!” -Jerry
1. “Total Rickall” (Season 2, Episode 4)
Whether you watch it on its own or in the context of the show, no other “Rick and Morty” episode distills what the show does best better than this memory-induced free-for-all. Rick, surrounded “Where’s Waldo” style by a battalion of imaginary creatures waving at the audience is a textbook example of the show overflowing with so much detail that one viewing is never going to be enough. And from Mr. Poopy Butthole’s sneaky infiltration of the opening credits through Jerry’s tragic loss of a past he never actually had, this uses a entire shadow series’ worth of material to create some intricately tuned chaos. It’s a tableau of infinite fake things, flashing just brightly enough to make them memorable. It’s gorgeous, it’s terrifying, it’s hilarious, and it’s one of TV’s great animated series at the absolute peak of its power.
Best Quote: “Shut up, Hamurai! Shut up, Amish Cyborg! What is this, ’90s Conan?” -Rick