This post contains spoilers for the new third-season episode of Rick and Morty.
On October 4, 2015, the Adult Swim animated sci-fi series Rick and Morty aired its second-season finale. The episode, “The Wedding Squanchers,” built to a Red Wedding-esque massacre on a planet 6,000 light-years away from Earth, and an interstellar manhunt that drove the dysfunctional central family, the Smiths, and their mad-scientist patriarch Rick Sanchez into hiding. But the episode ended with Rick, an alleged terrorist, secretly turning himself over to the Galactic Federation police to protect his daughter, Beth, and his grandkids Morty and Summer. For a comedy that could be so silly and surreal (characters often have names like “Mr. Poopybutthole” and “King Flippy Nips”), locking up a repentant Rick to the soundtrack of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” was a decidedly dispirited, yet moving, way to end the season.
Since then, fans had been clamoring for official news of when Season 3 would start; in response, they’d been getting little more than teaser clips and coy tweets from the show’s creators, Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon. But on Saturday, amid this growing impatience, Adult Swim dropped a terrific and outrageous new episode titled “The Rickshank Redemption,” effectively kicking off Season 3 on April Fool’s Day. Since there was no real advance notice, most fans didn’t see it coming, but maybe they should have: In the epilogue to the second-season finale, viewers were told to expect Season 3 “in, like, a year and a half.” Sure enough, as some keen observers noted, the new episode arrived a year and a half later, almost to the day. It was hard to tell, though, whether the episode’s release was a supreme act of trolling or a genuine gift—and whether, in fact, it had been precisely planned this way all along.
The long awaited third-season premiere—in both the style of its release and the substance of its story—is a deeply fitting return for a show that takes delight in constantly unsettling its viewers’ notions of a fixed reality. Most Rick and Morty episodes see Rick, an alcoholic genius, and his increasingly jaded teenage grandson Morty going on violent, funny, and philosophically-minded adventures that can involve virtual simulations, multiverse-exploring, and space-time manipulation.
“The Rickshank Redemption,” too, features plenty of twists and high-concept sci-fi, but what’s especially eyebrow-raising is how neatly it seems to resolve its second-season dilemma. Rick handily breaks out of intergalactic prison and, for the most part, wins back his family by the closing credits. It’s all accomplished via some exciting set pieces and moments of real emotional tension, but something seems amiss. It’s hard not to wonder: Is the new episode some kind of fever dream that takes place in Rick’s mind as he wastes away in prison? Is it just a high-octane way to kick off the new season and put old story threads quickly to bed? Is it both—or is it something else entirely?
Despite these questions, the premiere episode is perfectly enjoyable even when taken at face value. It opens in a diner with Rick miraculously freed from prison and eating breakfast with Beth, her husband Jerry, Morty, and Summer. Of course, it’s quickly revealed that Rick is still incarcerated. He and an insect-like Galactic Federation agent (Nathan Fillion) are hooked up to a brain analyzer, and their consciousnesses are chatting inside a manifestation of Rick’s cerebellum. The rest of the episode follows Rick’s inventive attempts to not only escape, but also topple the entire Galactic Federation empire, which has taken over Earth. At the same time, Morty (who’s seemingly fed up with his grandfather’s neglect) and Summer (who’s deeply loyal to him) try to track him down.
It’s an exhilarating ride filled with some of the most vivid animation and smartest writing the show has deployed so far. Still—and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing—the episode at times feels like a compressed remix of old Rick and Morty moments. There’s the Inception-like storyline (first used in Season 1, episode two, “Lawnmower Dog”); the simulation plot (used most similarly in the first season’s “M. Night Shaym-Aliens!”); Rick’s manic final soliloquy (directly mirroring the monologue at the end of the pilot); Jerry enjoying career success in a reality Rick helped engineer (also “M. Night Shaym-Aliens!”); Morty’s sudden, vicious rage (“Look Who’s Purging Now”); the return of the Council of Ricks (“Close Rick-counters of the Rick Kind”); a fatal standoff that accidentally goes well (“Total Rickall”); and a trip to Cronenberg World, the reality that Rick and Morty destroyed with an experiment gone wrong (“Rick Potion #9”). The series regularly revisits characters or moments from previous episodes, but the mash-up feel here was hard ignore.
Given how sharp the show’s writers have proven themselves to be, it’s unlikely that these echoes were simply the result of lazy storytelling. The sheer number of call-backs could support the case that “The Rickshank Redemption” is a narrative unfurling in the mind of one of the characters or, who knows, one that’s taking place in a different dimension or reality altogether. An episode timed for release on April Fool’s Day, particularly by a show with a propensity for juvenile humor, should rightly be regarded with a little suspicion. And, even if everything that happened in the premiere turns out to be “real,” fans could see Rick and Morty’s third season doing more to subvert their current understanding of the show’s core storyline.
At one point in the new episode, Morty describes what it’s like to spend time with his misanthropic, abusive, and brilliant grandfather:
Everything real turns fake, everything right is wrong. All you know is that you know nothing and he knows everything. And well, he’s not a villain, Summer, but he shouldn’t be your hero. He’s more like a demon, or a super fucked-up god. If you think [Rick’s] dead, he’s alive, and if you think you’re safe, he’s coming for you.
It’s one of the show’s best monologues so far and also an apt summary that throws Rick’s—and, at least to an extent, the writers’—true designs and motives into question. The series creators have professed skepticism of “payoff-based TV” (wherein writers try to surprise or fool the audience), so Rick and Morty probably won’t go the route of other convoluted, metaphysically minded dramas and become too clever for its own good. Rick and Morty has thus far been able to get away with its various twists and reversals because it possesses a briskness and levity that shows like The OA or Westworld lack. Its success, in other words, derives from the fact that it’s an animated science-fiction sitcom with the capacity to hit its heavier emotional beats beautifully.
Since Season 3 won’t begin in earnest until the summer, viewers will have to wait a bit longer to see whether any of the various new fan theories will bear out. Perhaps Rick really did break out of prison and bring down an empire with the push of a few buttons. Maybe Jerry and Beth really are finally getting a divorce. Maybe, as Rick raved to Morty in the episode’s final moments, the scientist’s real goal is to get his hands on McDonald’s Szechuan sauce from its 1998 promotion of Mulan. Even if it wasn’t all “just a dream,” it’s hard to imagine “The Rickshank Redemption” isn’t laying the groundwork for something bigger and deeper to come. There’s just so much about Rick and Morty that, like its protagonist’s catchphrase, isn’t quite what it seems at first.