[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Rick and Morty” Season 5, Episode 5, “Amortycan Grickfitti.”]
To start off, a performance note: The vocal stumblings of Justin Roiland, playing both halves of the “Rick and Morty” title duo, has become so ingrained in the show’s foundation that it’s easy to overlook just how well they fit both characters. Rick’s drunk slurring may be as variable as individual viewers’ tolerance for belch sounds, but there’s a very specific way that Roiland speeds Morty into Awkward Mode whenever confronted with something dangerous or unfamiliar. As someone who’s had to restart many a sentence like that, I recognize the specific way that Morty eventually spits out “Feel free to have some grapes” to new kid from school Bruce Chutback (Darren Criss). Paired with what he’s offering up, that delivery kind of says all you need to know about Morty as a person: eager to please, often incapable of doing so, but still trying with his own particular brand of middle school gusto.
In a way, that honing in on quintessential parts of the series’ main characters is visible all throughout “Amortycan Grickfitti” (and “Rick and Morty” Season 5 so far). After going through a seasons-long cycle of pushing these people to their breaking point and trying on different genre templates for size, “Rick and Morty” is at a point with the Smiths where it can treat them as an animated family. Instead of being an extension of some hair-brained Rick Sanchez scheme, there’s enough here to let them be a whole unit. “Mortyplicity” wisely kept them all together (at least until another version of them got fried by a quantum laser beam or incinerated in a living room explosion). “Amortycan Grickfitti” splits up the kids and the parents for parallel tales that prove just how well each of the Smiths can succeed on their own if given the chance.
It starts — as so many of these ill-advised adventures do — innocently enough. Rick and Jerry set out for a Guy’s Night with all the usual trappings: beers, karaoke, a mystical cube that summons skin-flayed demons through a portal leading directly to Hell. All is going according to plan when Beth shows up (after a mass foal delivery night, naturally). Jerry has somehow turned the Yello song from “Ferris Bueller” into a bar-wide hit and the handful of demons are slurping up their Helltinis, feasting on Jerry’s lack of self-awareness.
Even though Jerry is the butt of these demons’ particular joke, the show has had an interesting seesaw approach to how he’s used on the show. Rick is quick to ridicule (“I love her. She loves you. Those credits don’t transfer” is maybe the most succinct sum-up of any interpersonal relationship on the show), but “Rick and Morty” has gradually given Jerry a weird level of dignity in letting him be so unabashedly himself. Even when it leads to him cowering in a closet or getting his wooden chest used as a nesting ground for a colony of beavers, he’s achieved a certain level of self-acceptance that lets the show have it both ways.
So when Jerry overhears a conversation (classic unintended bathroom oversharing) that these demons and Rick and Beth are taking advantage of that pride in being uncool, he’s understandably shaken. Turns out that his two kids are facing a bit of a similar dilemma with Bruce as they both do their best to soup up their own charms to win his friendship. Sensing that a bit of Interdimensional Cable and a Story Train callback won’t be enough to win him over, the three set out on a joyride in granddaddy’s space Jaguar. (Summer is awfully cavalier invoking it, but it’s telling how much “Keep Summer Safe” primes anyone watching for the ship-induced bloodshed to come.)
What starts as a jaunt through dimensions, where Mailboxians (and Femailboxians) become target practice and other aliens get blown up for sport, becomes much more dire as the Space Cruiser takes control. Looking to assert some autonomous control, the vehicle leads Summer, Morty, and Bruce on a far darker tour through a “Changeformer” resort destination called Space Tahoe. After annihilating the Autobot ski getaway and momentarily taking the nominal form of a cast member from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the Cruiser deposits the trio back at home.
Quick tangent: With “Loki” now going off into the great hiatus in the sky, here’s our last chance to take stock of what overlap (planned or intentional) there is between the Disney+ series and the show so many people have been (incorrectly) quick to claim it’s the live-action version of. Here, as if to one-up the “man behind the curtain” reveal of that other show’s Season 1 finale, “Rick and Morty” takes Galactus, a long-gestating Marvel villain, and offs him within 20 seconds of reeling him in with a planet-cluster lure. You want to get weird? This is the show that proves how it’s done.
Meanwhile, Beth recognizes the error of her Helly Mary-induced ways and makes the demons upset enough to head back to Hell. They take Jerry with them, leading to another case of a three-person struggle against forces preying on their pathological need to be liked and testing their trust in each other. The Opposite Day logic of pain and pleasure in, well, Hell makes the whole trip worth it. Before long, Rick devises an escape plan that involves harnessing sincerity to overcome their captors. A little on-the-nose thematically, but it’s executed well enough that one last dose of self-awareness slides right in alongside everything else in the episode.
It’s another strength that, even though it’s riffing on Transformers and Hellraiser, the episode isn’t beholden to either. It doesn’t fall into the “Independence Day” trap from last week — these parody scene-setters are just ways to tackle the Beth-Jerry dynamic and to show that Summer and Morty are messing with a force beyond their control. “Amortycan Grickfitti” (honestly, one of the show’s hardest episode titles to type correctly on the first try) could easily have kept Space Tahoe to a single ski lodge, but that aerial look at the lift and the slopes is just one example of director Kyounghee Lim’s ability to mange the frame. (As a veteran of “Bob’s Burgers,” it only makes sense that an episode she directed would have a chalkboard gag. Keep an eye out for some background jokes at that karaoke bar if you didn’t see them the first time through.)
For a show that sometimes gets lost in the sheer tonnage of its explosions or its own internal arms race to wreak more and more destruction on unsuspecting worlds, “Amortycan Grickfitti” wisely cuts some of its own coolness off at the knees. This is Anne Lane’s second episode as a credited writer and, along with last season’s finale, she continues to illustrate a strong grasp on how this family responds to forced introspection. This episode doesn’t confront any characters with alter egos, but it does give each of the Smiths a chance to see how the person they want to be lines up with the one they are. Sometimes, that means taking on a beastly demon with forks shoved in their eyes. Sometimes, it means not being able to offer someone a bowl of fruit without revealing your own nerves. That this show can do both is always an impressive juggling act, when it manages to pull it off.
“Rick and Morty” airs Sundays at 11:30 p.m. ET on Adult Swim.