There’s a point in this week’s midseason finale of “Rick and Morty” when Rick is (unsurprisingly) berating his grandson. In the midst of a paragraph-long rant about what kind of trouble they’re in, he snaps a snake over his knee like a slumping outfielder taking out his frustration on a baseball bat. Against the web of serpentine mayhem the pair have unleashed across dimensions, it’s entirely insignificant. (Any time you lose track of the number of snakes in a room, that’s a bad sign.) But “Rick and Morty” is at its best when it’s juggling all its visual component parts, teetering on the edge of a fatal overload just like its central pair.
Like most of the show’s standout episodes, the origins of that planet-engulfing mess are simple enough. A routine pit stop in the middle of the void of space finds Morty wandering outside the ship, against Rick’s explicit directions. When, what to his wondering eyes should appear, but a miniature spacesuit housing an astronaut snake from an advanced snake society looking for forms of extraterrestrial life. (Oh yeah, forgot to mention that this is a Christmas episode.) Morty takes a bite to the ankle, setting off a chain reaction of guilt and near death and misguided apologies. Looking to make up for the brave snake explorer he murdered, Morty returns to the distant planet and parachutes down a pet store python as a corrective.
All it does is set off a masterful wordless sequence that follows the rhythms of first contact stories, Only This Time Starring Snakes. As they hiss through a media frenzy and a military lockdown of who they perceive as a strange alien visitor (complete with a holding cell designed like a carpeted ‘70s-era terrarium), they kick off a timeline that ends up locking the planet in its own Terminator-style fight for survival. Those ripple effects lead the now-more-advanced-than-ever advanced snake civilization to bring the fight to Earth, prompting Rick and Morty to go make things right.
One of the real acrobatic feats of the episode is not just in the hyper-condensed building out of this far-off snake civilization (that, the more we see of it, looks a lot like our own). It’s in weaving in yet another story of Jerry trying to come to grips with his own feelings of inadequacy. Dealing with the aftereffects of a Christmas light mishap that leaves him resistant to the effects of gravity, Jerry’s determination to not pull the Rick ripcord and ask for rescue from the troposphere is another example of the show being able to pull off character growth at absurd speeds.
At this point, it’s more notable when a “Rick and Morty” episode goes by without some sort of elaborate bit of body horror. If the rapidly mutating space snake venom sending Morty’s skin into disrepair wasn’t enough for you, how about that synthetic Jerry that Rick uses to appease Beth’s anxiety while the real Jerry is off fending for himself? What an intricate piece of grotesquery, one that’s usually a pretty solid indicator the show is firing on all cylinders.
Even more notable than Rick’s ethically dubious cultivation of his son-in-law’s DNA is the latter chunk of this episode that alters the fabric of Snake Civilization history via a number of time-travel hypotheticals. Rick’s plan to undo Morty’s meddling is to introduce a time machine into the proceedings, to help stop the planet-wide insurrection before it starts. When the Linda Hamilton-esque voiceover comes in, there’s a moment in the episode that makes it seem like we’re getting a simple “T2: Judgment Day” riff for the rest of the runtime. But rather than do a one-for-one redux of that story (featuring SnakeNet, presumably?), the show rockets through all the standard time-travel benchmarks. There’s a stop in 1985 to show neon-clad students at Snake MIT. Time travelers prevent the assassination of Snakebraham Lincoln. (The warning note that just says “SSSSS” is by far the best joke of the season and a worthy heir to the Joke of the Decade from “MacGruber,” the crumpled piece of paper that just says “I’m at the Pentogon.”) By the time it gets to Snake Hitler, a literal den of vipers all descend on his living quarters as seemingly every sidewinder on the planet tries to do the first thing you’re supposed to when you get a time machine.
The hasty resolution, of prehistoric Snake Planet snakes being punished for advancing too quickly, almost ends up beside the point. What matters more is that the latest incarnation of an episode-ending bit of recursion finds Rick and Morty getting the time loop handoff from their future selves to help their own past selves implement that snake planet time machine fix. Yes, that’s a ridiculous sentence and yes, if we wanted to we could spend the whole offseason making diagrams with straws. But by the end, we have that much more understanding of the consequences of one Morty misstep, not to mention how far Jerry is willing to go to prove his own worth. That’s the beauty of “Rick and Morty”: At its best, it can manage to do both at the same time.
Guest Star Recon: It’s not like there’s a whole lot of spare room for more of them, but the two raisin-y time cops that help bring order to the snake world timeline are voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Eddie Pepitone. (Ah, to imagine any live-action series, police-themed or otherwise, with the two of them as the stars.) Key also voices the aggressive dive bar patron that helps send Jerry back out on the street. Oh, and by the way, Jerry heartily ordering a “diet Sprite Remix” is the most on-brand, soda-themed punchline this side of Lenny Belardo. May the run on remaining reserves of that stuff on eBay be done orderly and without online invective. See you next year for the second half of Season 4.
“Rick and Morty” Season 4 will resume in 2020.