[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Rick and Morty” Season 3, Episode 5, “The Whirly Dirly Conspiracy.”]
It’s not as elaborate as the premiere, not as recognizable a template as the “Mad Max” or “Guardians of the Galaxy” diversions, nor is it iconic like “Pickle Rick.” But with “The Whirly Dirly Conspiracy,” “Rick and Morty” seems to have regained its guiding principles to deliver the best episode of Season 3 so far.
Cutting to the chase in a quick cold open (that finds Jerry doing even worse than we might have previously suspected), Rick drags Jerry from his dismal apartment and on a carefree trip to a planet where death is an impossibility. Protected by a shield of immortality, the two of them kick back with various colored beverages, assuming this consequence-free getaway is the recharge that Jerry needs.
Naturally, that plan is quickly torn asunder by the general manager of the restaurant where the two set up shop. Another collateral victim of Rick’s space misadventures, this exiled ruler turned middle manager convinces Jerry to help him in his revenge plot. When Jerry gets cold feet and thwarts the eventual assassination attempt on Rick’s life, the resulting wreckage leaves Rick and Jerry at odds with each other. Getting off the planet to safety also gives them the chance to clear the air and give voice to the simmering antipathy that’s always lingered underneath their shared home life.
Read More: Every Episode of ‘Rick and Morty,’ Ranked
In many ways, it’s a better, more enlightening therapy session than anything that happened in Dr. Wong’s office. Rick admits that he sabotaged Beth and Jerry’s marriage, while Jerry finally comes to terms with his assumptions that things only got worse once Rick was back in the picture.
Venturing back to Earth on a transport shuttle, Rick’s would-be killers reemerge and take the two hostage, a plan made all the easier by a neural inhibitor given to Rick while they ventured through security. Seeing Rick robbed of his powers and having it serve a story purpose was a bizarre source of relief, a reassurance that “Rick and Morty” still has ways of exploring different versions of Rick that don’t rely on merely multiplying him or transforming him into a briny vegetable.
It only takes a few seconds of screen time, but no discussion of this episode is complete without a nod to the alien child unwittingly murdering their sibling when the immortality field breaks. It’s twisted to say that this is the best indication of the show finding its footing again…but it is. Rather than building out half-hours of story to be “The [insert premise/character here] Episode,” seeing the show get back to those tiny gulps of pitch-black comedy feels like the show regaining that warped sense of humor in incremental doses.
And the wormhole vision! Jerry’s cosmic tumblers clicking into place is “Rick and Morty” at its most gorgeous non-sequitur impulses. A melding of the subconscious and the transcendental, this rainbow potpourri of impulses and realizations is the only thing that could eclipse the Jemaine Clement-sung “Moonmen” sequence for sheer, unbridled psychedelia.
Back on Earth, the “Honey, I Blew Up Summer” adventures of the remaining members of the Smith family show this group’s strengths and weaknesses with a small fraction of the screen time. Yes, the divorce is taking a toll on Beth — that garish hoof sculpture is somehow more horrific than what she inflicts on Summer.
And much like Morty still faces all the pitfalls of being a teenager, even after becoming a seasoned veteran of interdimensional adventuring, Summer’s “Mad Max” badassery still doesn’t come at the expense of body issues. Small technological gadgetry malfunction is still one of the show’s most reliable sources of hijinks, and to have that come from Summer’s instincts and not just her accidentally stumbling on it in the garage shows that she’s learning more than just how to handle a shotgun. (Plus, the engorging device sets up one of the season’s funniest gags, when the split screen tech support beings trick Beth into releasing them from customer service captivity.)
Even simply as the protective little brother, Morty’s strange new emergence as the voice of reason in a post-Jerry household gets some nice shading in his payback against Ethan. If Morty is going to have to be the man of the house, he’s going to do it his way.
After escaping the clutches of his captors (that robotic arm contraption, along with the exploding labcoat, brings up far more questions than answers in the best “Rick and Morty” way), Rick and Jerry come to a fresh sense of mutual understanding. But their final front yard farewell is telling. Whenever Rick settles back at home base, his relationships have a way of reverting back to stasis: distrust, disapproving jabs, and a general air of superiority. But even when an episode affords him the chance to make those strides, for every tiny bit of understanding, there are a thousand intergalactic enemies waiting to revisit Rick’s sins on anyone in his wake.
While that might not be heartening for the Smith family, that’s good news for the creative direction of the show. Though it’s often excelled when it widens out its scope, “Rick and Morty” hasn’t necessarily needed intricate, grand spectacles to deliver emotionally satisfying, adventure-of-the-week thrills. It built its mythology on unspooling different truths about various corners of the multiverse and reflected that new knowledge back on how we understand the characters who make up those adventures.
The Smiths aren’t a perfect family, but this is continuing the lurking arc of the season, that these five misfits might actually be better as a unit than a scattered, fractured group. After a handful of episodes that had sidelined some of that understanding in favor of some pop culture riffing and self-referential trips down memory lane, it’s refreshing to see the show going back to what it does best: playing with the infinite possibilities of the world it’s meticulously built for itself.
“Rick and Morty” Season 3 airs Sunday nights at 11:30 p.m. ET on Adult Swim.