[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Rick and Morty” Season 4, Episode 4, “Claw and Hoarder: Special Ricktim’s Morty.”]
Rick Sanchez is so often a character with seemingly superhuman abilities that “Rick and Morty” frequently feels like a magic show. His arsenal is endless, his plans so impossibly far-reaching that they feel like the product of a wand flick and not merely an advanced mind.
So when this week’s episode of the show finds itself in a showdown with an actual mage, it’s hard to see where one ends and the other begins. By the end, it almost becomes a pointless distinction, but as with so many “Rick and Morty” impasses, it’s up to the next order of story to make up the difference. “Claw and Hoarder: Special Ricktim’s Morty” probably Season 4’s most directionless episode — there’s still a nagging feeling that this chapter is a boundless premise gradually working its way to something more pedestrian (all relative when it comes to this show, of course).
After the whole thing kicks off with yet another trademark “Rick and Morty” death of a character we only experienced for mere seconds — yet still feel emotionally attached to — Rick somehow promises Morty that his reward for escaping the clutches of a malevolent alien race is to be the proud owner of a new dragon. There’s a ship mishap (ah, those pesky, gas-based shiphaps), and suddenly Rick is in a hospital bed, forced to make good on his pledge.
When that dragon finally arrives outside the Smiths’ unassuming suburban abode — voiced by “Game of Thrones” alum Liam Cunningham, no less! — it’s hard not to brace yourself for an easy, reflexive “GoT” parody. While there are some pointed swings at the baked-in expectations of nerd culture, this episode becomes more of a jaunt through high fantasy than a medieval epic that happens to have massive flying creatures.
Bless that giant Balthrama: All that Morty’s new big guy companion wants to do is sleep. When Rick manages to take him out for a spin, they end up bonding souls, prompting anger from Morty and the wizard who facilitated Balthrama’s acquisition in the first place. A shouting match quickly devolves into a battle to free Balthrama’s sexually liberated dragon pals from the threat of the mage’s potential clutches. (Ever noticed how things tend to get out of hand fast for these characters?)
Meanwhile, Jerry finds a new companion of his own with the arrival of a talking cat. In positively no hurry to figure out why he’s been presented with a talking cat or why he’s the target of friendship of a talking cat or why he would need to follow the high-status travel impulses of a talking cat, the two are on a trip to Florida.
There’s a certain kind of minimalist beauty in this B-plot. A lot of it comes from the battle of unaffected approaches between Chris Parnell and guest voice Matthew Broderick. It’s effectively a standoff between a man and a cat, both determined to enjoy an experience without asking too many questions. Much like Snowball in “Lawnmower Dog,” the decision to not move the animal’s mouth and to keep all other movements basic and unassuming only adds to the initial, persistent question: Is this all in Jerry’s head?
A very empathic no comes at the end of the episode, in another case of “Rick and Morty” letting the unseen do some heavy work. Following a Voltron-like teamup of Balthrama and its fellow soul-bonded dragons — during which Summer is also an active, bow-and-arrow’d participant — Rick flies to pick up Jerry and the cat from their pre-empted vacation. Sensing a possible trap, Rick scans the cat’s mind, only to find the most horrific memories within. (Much like seeing an elderly loved one cry for the first time, seeing Rick frightened by the inexplicable is not something you really plan on experiencing.) Heading off more potential disaster, Rick banishes the cat and wipes Jerry’s own brain of the vision, sending him back to his blissful, neutral state.
Appropriately enough in an episode prominently featuring a dragon, “Rick and Morty” is once again playing with fire. Bound to be a companion piece to last season’s Szechuan sauce debacle, expect an eBay run on three-decade old Hi-C Ecto Cooler. On one hand, this is the show openly winking at its ability to push a collective internet freakout over a short-lived promotional tie-in food product. Though, to put it in an episode where one of its title characters feels obligated to get a fantasy world object for himself, agitating for it enough times until he gets it, neither of the prongs of that joke feel like a coincidental placement.
Guest Star Recon: Not merely content to be the actor behind the best “Game of Thrones” character and the guy with the best behind-the-scenes “Game of Thrones” stories, Cunningham brings some of that trusty Davos energy to his one-off dragon role with a gleeful twist. While Dan Harmon is busy delivering a beard-twirling wizard villain performance, Cunningham is turning in whatever the opposite of that is. Understated, matter-of-fact, and with an eventual surprising amount of warmth, Cunningham seems as ready to go as his new winged character.
And then there’s Broderick, who for the second time since late October has played a seemingly harmless supporting character with a sinister past. (His work on the new Netflix show “Daybreak” is some of the best of his career, in case you haven’t caught up with that yet.) The airy feline condescension, the subtle persuasion, and the promise that the benevolent veneer could melt away at any moment — hard to imagine another actor pulling off that combo with quite the same Broderickian verve. If Rick’s throwaway “season finale” joke really is a hint that The Cat could return, here’s hoping the post-credits stingers promise of a dragon/cat teamup is high on hijinks and low on unspeakable atrocities.
“Rick and Morty” airs Sunday nights at 11:30 p.m. ET on Adult Swim.