[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Rick and Morty” Season 3, Episode 9, “The ABCs of Beth.”]
Season 3 of “Rick and Morty” has been a true family affair, giving every member of the Smith clan the chance to join in on (mis)adventures across dimensions. Summer and Jerry each had their time to shine in their respective stories, and with one episode to spare before the show heads back into the offseason, Beth got the chance to join in on the fun.
Of course, this being “Rick and Morty,” “fun” has the most elastic definition imaginable, especially considering this week’s episode, “The ABCs of Beth,” kicks off with a news bulletin about a death row sentence. Realizing that the key to sparing an impending execution is by finding her childhood friend Tommy inside the reaches of Froopyland — a Rick-created fantasy rainbowverse, naturally — Beth follows her dad’s lead on the search.
With plenty of neon colors and tiny in-world touches like rubber-bouncy ground and a breathable technicolor river, Froopyland is another magical “Rick and Morty” realm with a sinister underbelly. Established with a lush wide shot and repeatedly undercut by each new detail, “The ABCs of Beth” slowly transforms this imaginative childhood playground into a land of unsettling (and, dare we say, Cronenberg-adjacent) horrors.
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Like a fatalist, craven twist on “Jumanji,” Tommy has grown out his beard and learned to sustain himself, trapped inside the Froopyland boundaries. (And yes, he’s soiled the DNA pool as a means of fathering his own food. The less thought or spoken about the logistics of his survival, the better.)
Coming off back-to-back format-bucking episodes, “The ABCs of Beth” was a strong reminder that this show can still do solid A- and B-plot stories with the best of them. In the scope of the season, this is probably the clearest, most balanced back-and-forth of Season 3 (“Pickle Rick” included).
For on the other side of the Smith family issues, Morty and Summer’s custody time with Jerry devolves into a weekend-long species extermination trek. Jerry’s new girlfriend Kiara, an imposing blue alien being on a perpetual quest to stamp out stealth Earth invaders, has seemingly made him happy. Even when his newfound telekinetic powers lead to a smoothie-making kitchen mess, he seems to be finding an unseen level of contentment in his new relationship (or soul bond, depending on which home planet you hail from).
“The Whirly Dirly Conspiracy” aside, one big drawback of the season has been the distinct lack of Jerry. Chris Parnell has settled into this character so well that even his pronunciation of the word “Krutabulon” tells you everything you need to know about the self-delusion that’s going to color the rest of the episode.
Through Jerry, the show hammers home the idea of personal responsibility as the episode’s dominant theme. It’s popped up before in previous Jerry-centric sequences, the idea that Beth getting pregnant locked in the next decade and a half of his life, preoccupations and all. But Jerry’s misadventures in various corners of the multiverse are starting to poke holes in that theory, solidifying the idea that he’s used his marital situation as an excuse not to deal with his own insecurities. When his extreme people-pleasing indecisiveness endangers his children, it’s one more way that intergalactic travelers have forced Jerry to reevaluate his place in the universe of his own family.
Survival in Froopyland, meanwhile, means another thing entirely for Beth, who uses Chekov’s Box of Horrifically Inappropriate Children’s Toys to liberate (OK, annihilate) the inbred hordes bringing dread to her childhood paradise. (What a great chance for the “Rick and Morty” writers room alts to come to life. Rick could have named another 20 things from that box and it wouldn’t have been overkill. Watching the list range from the tame to the scarring was definitely an episode highlight, especially as it left it up the viewer to conjure the image of a teddy bear kidney.)
“Morty’s Mind Blowers” really leaned into the “Isn’t it funny to point out all the ways that Rick is basically making his own episode of TV?” gags, complete with “Simpsons” references and a convenient plothole explainer to boot. One setback in “The ABCs of Beth” is that is has a lot of that residue, right through Rick’s casual mention that the Froopyland youngster’s play essentially gave the show a flashback workaround. Coupled with the “ex machina” nod, Rick being “ahead of the reveal,” and the answering machine tag, the show’s self-referential streak is getting less satisfying the more it folds in on itself. Maybe it’s Season 3 fatigue from a writing standpoint, but as these fourth-wall breaks get more blatant, they hardly feel subversive anymore.
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One of the more surprising and heartening developments of this episode is finding Rick once again fighting through his rough exterior and begrudgingly admitting to care about someone. This time, there was no ulterior motive. There wasn’t an “I love you” immediately followed by a “Psych! My new catchphrase is I don’t give a fuuuuuuu–” to deaden the emotional commitment.
Recognizing that their love for each other is based on a mutual understanding does have some darker shades to it. (Beth did mercilessly slaughter those Froopians, after all.) But whether it’s Rick’s latest allusion to his late wife or that heartfelt hug the two share at the episode’s close, it’s another example of Season 3 keeping its adventure-as-therapy idea alive throughout Season 3. Against all odds, after a season of immeasurable family torment, Rick and the scattered Smiths are finally finding some peace.
Guest Star Recon: That’s Thomas Middleditch as the horribly unsettling King Tommy. After watching him play a subdued, beaten-down-by life character in places like “Silicon Valley” and “Joshy,” it’s entertaining to hear him as someone with supreme confidence and blind to the consequence of his own demented actions. Much like Parnell’s performance underlines Jerry’s willingness to avoid the true nature of his own predicaments, Middleditch really sells Tommy’s wide-eyed, delusional reign. Bringing in a Tommy clone in the nick of time to save his father was a strong, silent-montage touch, but it would have been interesting to hear how Middleditch would have handled the switch if the writers hadn’t gone with the (still very funny) “My Father Didn’t Eat Me” t-shirt reveal.
“Rick and Morty” Season 3 airs Sunday nights at 11:30 p.m. ET on Adult Swim.