The biggest advantage of an animated TV show is often the biggest disadvantage—limitless scope. Rick and Morty, Adult Swim’s latest cult hit, which wrapped up its second season on Sunday, is a sci-fi show that embraces the creative freedom granted by its format, breezily traveling to alien planets and other dimensions every week and visualizing the most bizarre settings imaginable. But what it managed in its season finale was an emotional gut-punch that felt both unexpected and well-earned. The ending offered a reminder of the show’s less-heralded skill with character development, a quality most of Rick and Morty’s whacked-out cartoon contemporaries lack.
The show was initially pitched as a skewed take on the Back to the Future dynamic: Rick is an eccentric scientist, Morty his plucky grandson who adventures with him. But Rick’s motivations for spending time with his grandson are often darkly opportunistic, as he takes advantage of Morty’s pliability and can-do attitude. The show holds onto that thread while expanding its universe as far out as possible, making Rick no regular mad scientist, but literally the smartest being alive, equipped with every invention and burdened with next to no morality. The success of Rick and Morty’s second season wasn’t just its broad imagination, but also how it let Rick incrementally grow a conscience without spoiling the madcap, pitch-black humor at the show’s core.
In the finale, Rick’s decades of interplanetary bad behavior catch up to him, meaning Morty and the rest of his family have to go on the run from galactic cops. They eventually settle on a remote planet so small that it takes five minutes to circumnavigate. Rick and Morty has always excelled at strange sci-fi locations: One episode took place inside a universe that Rick had created in a battery so that its tiny inhabitants could generate power for his car. Another was set inside the minds of Rick’s family as they battled alien parasites that spread through false memories. The bite-sized planet of Sunday’s finale allowed Rick to walk to its South Pole and still overhear his daughter and grandkids refuse to turn him in to the authorities, prompting him to finally make the selfless choice to turn himself in.
Rick and Morty was co-created by Dan Harmon (with the animator and voice actor Justin Roiland) and like his long-running cult hit Community, it manages to be both innovative and classical in its storytelling. The defining pattern of Rick and Morty is that Rick always ends every episode on top through a combination of brilliance and cynicism, so the idea of him as a self-sacrificing hero should seem maudlin and inauthentic. Harmon and Roiland could have easily aired a new wacky sci-fi adventure with their ornery hero and his sidekick for years. Instead, they let Rick’s bitter amorality, and Morty’s ongoing protests at the trail of destruction they often left behind, build up slowly over the season.
Harmon’s legacy in television will be that of the creator who’s never satisfied, to bountiful, creative effect. As Community kept getting miracle revivals from NBC (and later Yahoo) despite low ratings, Harmon constantly had its characters explore the diminished purpose that came with having to tell more stories in the same setting, and the depressing reality of a group of people who’ve been attending community college for six years. That kind of meta-narrative frustrated some viewers and critics, but partly because it’s tethered to the relatable disappointment of working hard to go nowhere. Rick and Morty has the opposite approach—it’s about characters who take multi-dimensional leaps and bounds with every episode—but also confronts relatable human truths about the intangible pull of family and loyalty.
Community’s protagonist is Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), a genius of sorts frustrated by how his small-pond existence contradicts his arrogance. Rick and Morty’s Rick Sanchez is a genius who comfortably thinks of himself as the universe’s cleverest man and is grounded only by his empathy toward other people, which he tries to suppress as much as possible. In the season two finale, the Sanchez family attends an intergalactic wedding, throughout which Rick loudly decries the pointlessness of such a gooey event. But by the end of the episode, he’s making an even more gargantuan, and human, demonstration of love. For a show this fantastically dark, it was the most surprising twist possible.