“Rick and Morty” truly hit its stride in Season 4 for showrunners Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon, which is ironic since Season 3’s ingeniously character-driven and hilarious “Pickle Rick” earned them their first Emmy. But this was the year the duo signed a 70-episode renewal deal with Adult Swim — and became much more efficient and collaborative. It all came together in their favorite episode of the season, “The Vat of Acid,” about a crucial confrontation between the eccentric scientist and his frustrated grandson, who finally achieves scientific satisfaction but with a sadistic twist.
“The thing that I find really interesting about this episode,” said Roiland, “is that it’s a character-driven, [with] Rick teaching Morty a lesson with his vast superiority and brilliance, and Morty not seeing where things are going, I love this abuse dynamic between Rick and Morty that’s just so fun to write.”
In “The Vat of Acid” (the season’s only title that isn’t a pop cultural shout out), Rick and Morty jump into a vat of fake acid to avoid certain death from alien gangsters, which leads to Morty’s complaint that Rick never takes his own scientific ideas seriously. So Rick then actually makes Morty’s dream come true by building his place saving remote, allowing him to loop continuously through the same moment in time to avoid death or any of his blunders. And to Morty’s astonishment, the device turns into a love magnet with his first romantic relationship — until he gets himself into a tough pickle.
The premise proved daunting going all the way back to Season 1. They just couldn’t crack the idea of what to do with a place saving device (inspired by video games). “If you play fast and loose with the pause button, you get caught in this death spiral and that’s where the story crumbled,” Roiland added. “It wasn’t until we eschewed the very thing that inspired the idea — being caught in that death spiral — that we were free to look at this from a new perspective.”
Still, they had to define the parameters for Morty to use the device, what could go wrong, and how he could be punished for using it. “The difficult thing was how do you tell a story that would last 20 minutes and what thresholds would be crossed?” Harmon asked. “But if you just show the use of the device in a [romantic] montage…then there’s a larger story wrapped around that about a creative dispute between two longtime collaborators.”
Roiland reveled in the romantic subplot and the writing of the episode came together, much like “Pickle Rick,” without any sweeping changes. “He’s using it the way we always imagined, where he’s got it in him to be confident and sort of a ladies man, and it’s pretty funny to see that happen here and there throughout the course of the show,” Roiland said.
But it was only after they realized the error of their normal process during Season 3 that the co-creators were able to make a necessary course correction in Season 4. “In animation, a lot of times you’re either story-driven or board-driven,” added Harmon. “If you’re story-driven, they’re eating the short end of the sick because the writers are either holding up the show or making you do a ton of changes. If it’s board-driven, it’s basically flipped. The writers are scrambling to find the way some geniuses thought was the best way to tell a story. But what we start to have in ‘Rick and Morty’ for Season 4 and forward is a beautiful understanding of how everyone can collaborate across different departments. And artists can do whatever they want and add visual cues that inspire the writers.”
And how did the vat of acid idea fit in to all of this? It stemmed from a conversation about vats of acid in movies of the ’80s with writer/actor Brandon Johnson, who voices Morty’s math teacher, Mr. Goldenfold. “You just drop a guy into a big tub of colored water, wait for five seconds, and float up them bones,” Harmon said “We all started laughing. What if Rick also recognized that as an effective way of doing something — which kind of reminds me of the show ‘Nathan For You’ and how sometimes the smarter you are in finding solutions to simple problems can become larger problems.”
But while the episode stresses the importance of consequences, it’s a life lesson still couched within Rick’s usual narcissism. “Rick is being entirely petty,” added Harmon. “Rick is teaching the right lesson for the wrong reason. He just wants to be appreciated more.”