Rick and Morty Season 4 makes a point of tearing down the myth of Rick Sanchez, telling fans that the Smartest Guy in the Universe should not be anyone’s role model after all. In this video, we unpack everything we’ve seen in the first half of this season.
Rick and Morty Season 4 makes a point of tearing down the myth of Rick. This character has always been presented as a narcissistic, toxic person—but that hasn’t prevented a lot of viewers from seeing the Smartest Guy in the Universe as a role model. This season deliberately discourages the temptation to glorify the guy or give him credit for more noble motivations than he’s actually shown. The fourth season is an intentional return to the self-contained, reset-button-style episodes of the first season.
Beth: “In many ways, things will be like Season 1 but streamlined.” — Rick and Morty, 3x10
And if you weren’t looking too closely, you might be tempted to say overarching character or plot development has been lacking entirely. What we’re really seeing, though, is creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon doing some important re-centering—first, by bringing us back to earth in our estimations of Rick, and second, by sending some meta-messages to fans.
Talking Cat: “Maybe it’s time you stopped asking questions and started having fun.” — Rick and Morty, 4x4
Given that this show secured a 70-episode deal after Season 3, it’s important for Rick and Morty to pave the way for a sustainable future by managing unrealistic expectations and avoiding the fandom traps that can swallow up beloved TV shows in our day and age. Here’s our Take on the deeper meaning of the first half of Season 4.
The Great Rick Gression
This season consciously shuts down those fans who want to be like Rick. The second episode, “The Old Man and the Seat,” centers on Rick’s paranoid protectiveness over his secret pooping spot. And as Michael Walsh wrote for Nerdist, the episode is “an unflinching reminder Rick Sanchez is not a hero anyone should be trying to emulate.” Often it can be hard not to admire Rick’s ingenuity, even when his behavior’s obviously unhealthy.
Rick: “I’m a pickle.” Morty: “Rick, did you do this on purpose to get out of family counseling?” — Rick and Morty, 3x3
Here, though, Rick’s threatening nearly half a million fly kids as leverage to track down Tony, the guy who used his toilet, doesn’t come off as somehow cool or above everyone else’s heads. It’s just weird and sad.
Tony: “You know what shy pooping is, Rick? It’s a pointless bid for control.” — Rick and Morty, 4x2
Tony also understands what it is to suffer loss— and pushes Rick to face his inner pathologies:
Tony: “You want to take the one part of life that you truly think is yours and you want to protect it from a universe that takes whatever it wants. It took my wife. It clearly took something from you.” — Rick and Morty, 4x2
But Rick resists opening up to his new friend until it’s too late. The episode ends with Rick failing to make progress and retreating into his insular habits. As we leave him alone on his toilet, his pre-recorded message for Tony gets turned back on Rick, ironically reflecting his own secret self-hatred and low opinion of himself. The truth is that the Smartest Guy in the Universe thinks Rick is a piece of shit.
Rick: “All hail his majesty, the saddest piece of garbage in the entire cosmos.” — Rick and Morty, 4x2
After the family turns on him at the end of Season 3, Rick is facing a humbled position in the Smith Household in the Season 4 premiere, “Edge of Tomorty: Rick Die Repeat.” There’s a much greater threat to Rick’s status as patriarch, though, and that’s time—Rick is being confronted with reminders that (eventually) Morty will have to grow up. In this season we’re seeing Morty assert independence like never before. The first episode centers on Morty displaying an exaggerated version of typical teen behavior: rebelling against the instructions of his elders and putting a chance to get with the hot girl he likes over absolutely everything else.
Then, in episode 3, “One Crew Over the Crewcoo’s Morty,” Morty is devoting himself to his creative interests and professional ambitions. At times the show has emphasized genius Rick’s great cosmic perspective, but here we see he’s very much not cool with his teenage grandson having any interests outside of him.
Rick: “Morty’s still working on that stupid heist script. Skipped out on the last three adventures.” — Rick and Morty, 4x3
He responds in the most poisonous, selfish, juvenile way possible: by sabotaging his grandson. The heist-style episode ends with a big reveal, and this twist actually is shocking, because it explicitly casts Rick as a villain.
For much of the series, it’s easy to romanticize Rick’s special bond with Morty and see the old man as a generous teacher. Sure, he’s taking Morty out of school and risking his life, but this is in service of a real education. Yet in episode 3, while Rick’s been acting like the supportive mentor, he’s been actively working to undermine Morty’s goals. And since (given his demotion in family status) he lacks the power to directly take Morty’s dreams away from him, he resorts to doing something far more terrible—making a young boy feel disenchantment with what he’s most excited and passionate about.
So whereas Episode 2 left us feeling that Rick was sad, Episode 3 proves that Rick is not a good person. His loneliness and desperate desire for companionship make him willing to crush the spirit of the person he loves most, just to keep him by his side.
Morty: “I’ll just hang out with you and go on adventures and do whatever you want to do, you know, forever.” Rick: “Oh, well, uh, okay. I mean, if that’s what you want.” — Rick and Morty, 4x3
Episode 4, “Claw and Hoarder: Special Ricktim’s Morty” continues this spotlight on Rick’s bad behavior when Rick soul-bonds with Morty’s dragon, an act equal to cheating with someone’s spouse. Episode 4 explicitly compares Rick’s character to a dragon. He’s a majestic yet monstrous creature, who’s both misunderstood and mythologized.
Balthromaw: “And there will be sayings about you. Your lessers will hunt you down. And you will be owned, or slain. That’s why they call it a dying breed, brother.” — Rick and Morty, 4x4
Drawing a parallel between Rick and Daenerys Targaryen is counterintuitive, but apt—both possess incredible power, they attack traditions they don’t believe in, and they feel like they know better than everyone else.
Daenerys Targaryen: “Because I know what is good.” Jon Snow: “What about everyone else?” Daenerys Targaryen: “They don’t get to choose.” — Game of Thrones, 8x6
Daenerys’ dragon nature ultimately led her down a dark path, and this again reinforces the season’s message that Rick is— though exceptional—disturbed, problematic, maybe even doomed.
In spite of all that, one especially poignant moment in this episode encapsulates why it’s difficult not to feel some affection for this sick, cruel genius. When he spares Jerry the memory of knowing whatever the talking cat’s story is, Rick takes on the burden of this terrible knowledge, so the rest of us don’t have to.
In the midseason finale, “Rattlestar Ricklactica,” Rick regains some of our respect as he’s back to cleaning up his family’s messes. Nothing good comes out of Morty’s guilt-infused good intentions or Jerry’s pitiful determination to prove his manhood. Yet, while Rick may be right (and smarter than everyone), he also let all this happen by being a characteristically hands-off neglectful mentor.
Rick: “I can tell you’re pretty upset about the whole snake encounter thing so, I’ll tell you what, I’m just gonna go ahead and avoid you for the rest of the day.” — Rick and Morty, 4x5
Rick has the insight and ego of a God (as he reminds us in an early line), but all this power seems to bring with it very little sense of responsibility.
Rick: “I wasn’t born into the god business. I f**king earned it.” — Rick and Morty, 4x5
And the less-than-inspirational “moral” Rick’s Christmas episode leaves us with is: stay out of it, don’t get involved. So Rick’s not only not a hero himself, his warning to us is also: don’t be a hero.
When you look at all these episodes together, the show is going out of its way to keep Rick’s failings front and center. This guy is not an ideal we should aspire to, and he might not even really be able to teach us anything.
Rick: “There’s a lesson here, and I’m not the one that’s gonna figure it out.” — Rick and Morty, 4x1
Rick-Trolling the Fans
The second pattern we’re seeing in this season is creators Roiland and Harmon telling viewers, essentially, to calm down. After Rick and Morty blew up to such stratospheric popularity that a Szechuan Sauce promotion wreaked havoc at McDonald’s and YouTube was overflowing with Evil Morty theories, this season seems to be trying to cool, rather than fuel, the hype. It hasn’t picked up many of the serialized story threads left hanging at the end of Season 3. So why does Rick and Morty seem to want to discourage fan mania and obsessiveness?
The dragon-centered fantasy episode alludes to one very good answer: the cautionary tale of the Game of Thrones Season 8 backlash. While there were plenty of valid reasons to criticize Game of Thrones’ final season, the overwhelming animosity directed at the show also came out of excessive fan expectations and widespread attachment to (often outlandish) fan theories. Harmon commented on the phenomenon, quote, “I’m not going to say fans are too cynical and ungrateful, but I guess I did just say that.” We get the distinct sense that the Rick and Morty creators are actively bursting the bubble of their viewers’ unrealistic expectations.
In this same Game of Thrones-esque episode, the writers troll the fan theory element of their fandom with the mysterious talking cat who manipulates Jerry. A crucial aspect of Rick and Morty’s storytelling style is not filling in all of the blanks and in-betweens—sometimes skipping from A to Z, or starting from Y.
With its countless off-screen adventures, Rick and Morty has a brilliant understanding of the jazz adage: “It’s the notes you don’t play.” The episode’s pointed refusal to answer the question of why the cat can talk sends the message: sometimes obsessively overcomplicating every detail sucks the fun out of a story.
Talking Cat: “Look, you’re overthinking it. The point of a talking cat is to have fun.” Rick: “I find the insinuation that I can’t ask questions and have fun condescending.” — Rick and Morty, 4x4
The showrunners are reminding us they won’t resolve all the mysteries they create and they aren’t obligated to give fans anything they demand. In fact (as countless examples have proven over the years), refusing to engage in fan service is an important aspect of creating a quality show, even under intense scrutiny and pressure.
The creators have also trolled those entitled or bigoted fans who’ve appropriated Rick and Morty for agendas that don’t represent the show’s true spirit. Referring to the harassment of female writers and complaints of too much focus on female characters, Harmon said, “These knobs, that want to protect the content they think they own—and somehow combine that with their need to be proud of something they have, which is often only their race or gender.”
The season 4 premiere explicitly registers its disapproval of some of the “message boards” the show has featured on.
Wasp Rick: “And drop the Hitler stuff. Wasp Morty’s been on some crazy message boards.” — Rick and Morty, 4x1
And it even makes a point of clarifying that Rick does not approve of Nazis (while expressing how crazy it is that this has to be clarified). Fascist Morty stands in for those worst fans the show is disowning. Characteristically, the show also comments on itself and debates how to shape its identity going forward. The premiere rejects pressures to stop being so meta or be stuck doing one particular thing.
Fascist Morty: “Stop doing meta-commentary. Just have fun. We’re going on a simple, fun, classic adventure.” — Rick and Morty, 4x1
When Rick says, “I think you have to think ahead and live in the moment,” this refers to the show’s two different versions of itself: the more dramatic, continuous arc social-commentary-laden style of “The Ricklantis Mixup,” versus the resetting, free-wheeling randomness of the episode right after that one, “Morty’s Mind-Blowers.” The show concludes that it’s going to do some of both styles without committing to anything, and reserving the right to change its mind at any moment.
Morty: “Yeah, sometimes we’ll do classic stuff. You know, other times, we’ll do whatever!” Rick: “Sometimes we won’t even do anything!” — Rick and Morty, 4x1
Rick and Morals Episode by Episode
In addition to these larger patterns we’re seeing, each episode of Season 4 riffs on a distinct genre or cultural phenomenon. Episode 1 channels Akira’s cyberpunk spirit of disaffected youth in our day and age. Episode 2 makes fun of the tech industry’s obsession with solving middle-class inconveniences, which results in a plethora of food delivery and ride-sharing services, but few people tackling the crises that threaten our very existence.
Monogatron Leader: “Had you bothered to master love, you would’ve learned by now, it is as abundant as water. You know what isn’t? Water. That sh*t runs out.” — Rick and Morty, 4x2
Episode 3 is a classic example of Rick & Morty’s love for parodying genres. And for all that it claims to hate the heist genre it’s sending up, the episode has lots of fun with the format. As Steve Greene writes for Indiewire, “Much like many other rants that fuel episodes of Rick and Morty, it’s rage that somehow morphs into an appreciation of the thing someone hates.”
Episode 4 implies that the fantasy genre—and especially the Game of Thrones obsession—is driven by sexual undertones, playing on the fact that Daenerys Targaryen is one of the biggest sex symbols of our times thanks to the symbolic steaminess of her fire and dragons. The episode also gestures at how, at its best, Game of Thrones was really about power dynamics and exploitation.
Episode 5 sets itself up like a Christmas episode—but it’s only Jerry’s plot that aspires to be a Die Hard-style holiday-movie-meets-action-flick, and the episode implies that at its core this kind of story is all about insecure manhood. Meanwhile, Rick’s disdain for the holiday is mirrored in a holiday-indifferent main plot about space snakes.
Aside from the odd throwaway joke, this is the first time Rick and Morty does time travel (we discussed why Rick and Morty puts time travel literally “on the shelf” in another recent video). The episode uses snakes to compare the circularity of time-travel plots to the ouroboros.
Rick: “We’re removing ourselves from this sloppy, f**ked up story, and letting snake time travel eat its own tail.” — Rick and Morty, 4x5
But even though the takeaway is that time-travel is dumb, just as with the heist episode, “Rattlestar Ricklactica” has lots of fun playing on Terminator, Back to the Future, 2001: A Space Odyssey, plus the clichéd desires to go back to save Lincoln and kill Hitler. And the wordless sequence of Snake-world meeting an alien python from Earth is some of the most hypnotic and gloriously weird storytelling of the season.
The first half of the season may have disappointed fans who were counting on any specific preconception of Rick and Morty—but that’s the point. The creators are taking back their show, and setting up a sustainable runway for it to become The Simpsons of a future era, doing whatever the hell it feels like for a long time to come.