[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Rick and Morty” Season 4, Episode 9, “Childrick of Mort.”]
The midseason, post-hiatus premiere of “Rick and Morty” was a pretty concise summation of the show’s strengths, a trip through some of the show’s proven story bait. If it was intended as a sign of things to come, “Childrick of Mort” might just be the kind of episode it foretold. Riffing on a few ideas in the greater “Rick and Morty” universe, this spring break series of misadventures reworks them in a more satisfying family framework.
One of the short stops on the string of train cars leading to Story Lord back in that midseason return hinted at Rick’s wide array of past lovers. “Childrick of Mort” sends the entire Smith family to Gaia, a planet that itself is on that expansive list of dalliances. The result is a font of beige, clay, Bart Simpson-looking beings that bear enough resemblance to Rick that Beth shames him into taking care of them. Together, the two construct a giant factory that analyzes each hybrid clay being and sorts them into a social tapestry of any number of different professions.
Meanwhile, incensed that this diversion has kept the family from the spring break camping trip he’d been so richly anticipating, Jerry huffs off toward the forested part of the planet. After a series of accidents lands him among a group of clay-being rejects deemed undesirable for Rick and Beth’s fledgling utopia, Jerry becomes their unwitting resistance leader.
The Unproductives’ need for a hero grows when a great cloud descends from the sky to reveal that the clay children are not Rick’s offspring but his. This would-be Space Zeus casts a literal and figurative pall over what Beth and Rick have created, leading to a war between Beth and Jerry’s factions while Rick and the great bearded being in the sky duke it out in Gaia’s orbit.
If there’s a slight bummer in “Childrick of Mort,” it’s that it doesn’t have enough room for a bit more of the Morty and Summer thread. In search of something to appease their desire for video games and party drugs, they stumble on a contaminated crashed spaceship. Summer’s gravitational pull towards something to inhale leads her to a pink mist that she’s convinced will help unlock the ship’s secrets (and give Morty some video game controls in the process).
But all of those onboard steps lead to an unsuccessful takeoff. In turn, it makes for a satisfying convergence when their vehicle careens right through a suddenly enormous Space Zeus’ cerebral cortex, freeing Rick up to whisk the entire family away from a volcanically angry Gaia.
“Childrick of Mort” is a sharp reminder that the entire Smith family is a canvas that the show has made for itself whenever it wants to dig past the two characters in the show’s title. And it can do it without having to sacrifice what’s worked best in other episodes. Jerry can find his own version of the Sideshow Bob rakes by falling down a waterfall of rapids and thwacking up against every rock sticking above the surface. Beth can still feel resentful of her father’s behavior and exasperated with her husband’s interests.
Here, the space to follow those traits past a punchline toward the consequences of those recurring ideas leads to the episode’s most fertile storytelling ground. As the family heads back to Earth in the modified station wagon, there won’t be a clean reset here. As much as “The ABCs of Beth” gave the chance to deepen that relationship, Rick and Beth get to have a shared moment here that isn’t overshadowed by a giant episode-capping twist. “Rick and Morty” can find plenty of gags in the feebler side of Jerry, but flipping expectations and having him be of use to creatures outside of his family makes for the kind of tension it doesn’t explore as often. Even the acknowledgment that Summer’s increasingly hostile rebellious streak might be a side effect of living with Rick for too long is an acknowledgment that the spiky-haired scientist working in the garage is leaving a caustic trail on other worlds besides Gaia.
It’s all an extension of one of the strongest ideas that runs through this season, much less the entire series. Whether it’s knowing your future, insisting that you don’t need any friends, or being five steps ahead of your heist nemesis, getting what you want rarely turns out cleanly. It’s underlined pretty explicitly in Morty and Summer’s post-crash/post-trip reaction and Jerry being forced to admit why he didn’t question becoming the leader of an evolving species. Still, watching each of them reckon with the differences between expectations and reality is exponentially more compelling than when this show created a whole society from scratch two weeks ago.
The elements of the episode that could either veer into throwaway territory or crowd out the interweaving developments of the Smiths make for some nice layering. The camping song is another catchy “Rick and Morty” ditty. The clay hybrids have just enough sentience to drive home the “Bad! Bad! Bad!” bit. And Rick ordering a choir of harmonies to toast the christening of their new simulated settlement is the perfect tiny touch to bookend their journey from trampoline-bouncing rock monsters.
So yes, “Rick and Morty” is also going back to the “destruction via giant object from the sky” well (this time, sans Pirates of the Pancreas). “Childrick of Mort” also has all the hallmarks of an ambitious, sweeping “Rick and Morty” adventure without having to sacrifice other tools at its disposal. It may not have the same degree of high-concept trickery as other chapters this season, but having the entire Smith family to fill in the gaps around the edges is a much more rewarding recipe.
“Rick and Morty” airs Sunday nights at 11:30 p.m. on Adult Swim.