When describing Rick, Bird Person put it best: “The path your father and I walked together is soaked deeply in the blood of both friend and enemy.” As goofy as “Rick and Morty” treats the adventures of this scientist at the center of these interdimensional adventures, it’s just as good about enriching his genius bona fides in different ways. It took branching out on his own, but Sunday’s episode, “Pickle Rick,” was one of the series’ best examples of untethering Rick Sanchez from all laws of nature and physics and marveling at the results.
When an elaborate turning-into-a-vegetable scheme keeps Rick from attending a family therapy session, Beth, Summer, and Morty leave the oldest member of the family in briny form, sitting on his prized workbench. From its first appearance in the Season 3 trailer, Pickle Rick has been the kind of elemental idea that “Rick and Morty” executes so well, a writers’ room riff padded out with enough details to make it more than a catchphrase gimmick.
Still, Pickle Rick arrived fully-formed and as meme-ready as anything the show’s ever done. So it’s a fitting surprise that after the family leaves, Rick’s first big opponent is the cat. For all his knowledge of the multiverse, it turns out that Rick’s road to revival begins with a cursory familiarity with viral YouTube cat videos.
Escaping a scorching driveway, into an underground sewer system, Rick descends among the pipe-dwelling vermin and builds an elaborate, brain-harnessing system to regain some of his lost extremities. So much of “Rick and Morty” is about finding the banalities of Earth among societies in distant galaxies, but it’s just as fun to see the show’s writers (Jessica Gao is credited on this week’s episode) find ways of reversing that formula and making things on this planet seem entirely alien. Using dying brain synapses to build an unruly hodgepodge of rat viscera, Rick begins his escape back via a syringe filled with life-saving serum.
In the process, Rick ascends the waste tubes into a top-secret facility run by an apparent, shadowy Eastern European financial consortium. Tapping into another faithful-yet-imaginative genre parody, Pickle Rick becomes the star of an elite assassin action flick, eventually facing off against Jaguar, a murderous captive with a heart of gold.
The strength of “Rick and Morty” continues to lie in the series’ increasingly sharp details. (Forget the elaborate rat exoskeleton: Who even thinks to give a pickle a black eye in the middle of all this chaos?) All of those diabolical Rube Goldberg killing apparatuses are the unchecked id of “Rick and Morty.” Credit the show for being able to deliver on the imagination of that elaborate underground body assembly system. Even the sound design of Pickle Rick’s mustard salve soothing his laser burns helped lend a strange amount of credence to a crazy premise.
Back at the therapy session that Rick so deftly avoided, Beth makes some particularly strong breakthroughs. Having a counterbalance this normal to action so exaggerated only works if the other half is on the complete opposite end of the absurdity spectrum. This time, the other thread doesn’t have the same level of poignancy that last week’s “Mad Max” craziness ended up leading toward. (Unless you put the episode’s farewell drinking plans in the same category as Summer and Jerry’s heart-to-heart at the end of “Rickmancing the Stone.”) But a thorough monologue from new therapist Dr. Wong effectively outlines how this family can expect to stay together, even under the constant threats of Rick enemies, alien and domestic.
As much as “Rick and Morty” has a renewed focus on the family dynamic, the reins are also off on the show’s violence. Sure, this is the same “Rick and Morty” that once laser-diced a complete stranger and dissolved a baby into goo between a grieving father’s fingers, all in the span of mere minutes. But “Pickle Rick” reached some new levels of grotesquery, from Rick’s rat massacre to a plasma gun boring through the brains of three different unsuspecting bodyguards.
After being front and center last week, Summer takes a literal back seat in this trip to the doctor’s office. Her new enamel-sniffing habit being shoved aside in favor of Beth and Rick’s reconnecting is one of the episode’s most twisted jokes. As much as it’s not shocking to see Summer back to being a quasi-punchline again, it’s surprising that Morty is relegated to the sidelines as well. There’s a certain thread of magic that gets lost when the Rick/Morty dynamic gets removed from the heart of an episode, but all of the genre riffing and intense commitment to detail nearly make up for it.
In a universe where an aging alcoholic super-genius can turn himself into a deli snack, the concept of “consequences” is always going to be thin at best. But thanks to the show indulging each side of a psychological divide between extreme sci-fi and straightforward, small-scale family drama, there will always be more to “Pickle Rick” than a three-syllable war cry.
Guest Star Recon: Susan Sarandon’s no stranger to comedy, but she delivers all of Dr. Wong’s psychoanalytic overview with the perfect amount of sincerity and inquisitiveness. Peter Serafinowicz is a world-class bad guy, equally able to deliver the sniveling pleas for his life with equal ability. His final moment before exploding on the helipad is as good a capper as the “Jaguar” freeze-frame. Speaking of the wing-suited assassin, that couldn’t have been voiced by anyone other than the inimitable Danny Trejo. (And even in an episode without Jerry, kudos to Chris Parnell for still being able to join the fun as one of the doomed henchmen.)
“Rick and Morty” Season 3 airs Sunday nights at 11:30 p.m. ET on Adult Swim.