THIS DISCUSSION IS SPOILER HEAVY
You can watch the episode in question at AdultSwim.com until August 6th
Since Rick and Morty had a Mad-Max style episode, I think it’s time to step beyond our normal comfort zone of Mad-Max and terrible B-movies and talk about it. This episode had some serious hype behind it following the April 1st season premier. After flushing three years of world building down the drain and alienating a member of the main cast in a series of increasingly intense action scenes, the second episode of Rick and Morty’s third season, “Rickmancing the Stone,” had a lot to live up to. Adult Swim published a behind the scenes preview of this particular episode portraying exactly what you’d expect from a Mad-Max parody: Cars, rusty shotguns, and lots of BDSM gear. Did “Rickmancing the Stone” live up to the hype?
In my opinion…not really.
Before we get into why I think this episode fell short, I’ll give credit where it’s due. The art direction in this episode is fantastic. A lot of post-apocalyptic artwork falls into what I call “Apocalyptia Generica,” a style that never quite becomes its own, but rather falls between Mad-Max and realistic urban warfare. For a perfect example of this, see Wasteland Angel.
“Rickmancing the Stone” certainly avoids being generic. Everything has a uniquely 80’s sci-fi style with brilliant and vibrant color schemes. Every single wastelander has a unique character design, even when there are dozens of them on screen at time. I would seriously take any establishing shot in this episode as a desktop wallpaper.
Additionally, the episode pokes fun at a few deeply ingrained post-apocalyptic tropes, particularly wasteland language, BDSM gear, and literally rebuilding society through the wasteland motif. The writers (and especially the artists) make some good points about each of these aspects which have become so familiar to fans of the post-apocalyptic genre. From movies to novels, many writers of the genre still use The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome as a crutch for world building and character design. On the other hand, “Rickmancing the Stone” seems to criticize these tropes while simultaneously indulging all of them.
Rick and Morty began as a parody of other sci-fi properties, yet they were always varied. The first season’s “Anatomy Park” was a cross between Fantastic Voyage and Jurassic Park. The brilliance was that it pushed the premise to its logical extreme rather than just dropping characters into the setting. However, “Rickmancing the Stone” really is just dropping characters into a setting and letting them react, without pushing an overarching plot or goal. The characters are just hanging out for a while.
Now we claw at the festering surface of why I thought this episode was weak.
Again, only my opinion, but I found the writing to be intensely off its normal cadence in this episode. While the season premier set the stakes about as high as they could possibly go, this episode cools things down, maybe too much. It’s been a few weeks since Rick broke out of space prison, destroyed the Citadel of Ricks, and crashed the intergalactic space economy. Morty’s parents, Jerry and Beth, have gone through with the divorce. Struggling to cope, Morty and Summer have become bloodthirsty and indifferent to danger, respectively. Rick takes the two to a post-apocalyptic dimension to harvest a glowing green McGuffin and that’s about it as far as plot.
The rest of the episode is all about Morty and Summer’s response to the divorce. Despite being the central focus, I found this to be some of the weakest writing in the entire series. While Summer’s arc was pretty unremarkable, Morty’s character arc in this episode has all the subtly of, well, a giant murderous mutant arm attached to an otherwise perfectly healthy boy. There are two moments where Morty essentially says, “Killing people helps me relax after spending weeks stressing about the divorce.” That’s not nuance, that’s just bad writing.
The craft of writing a character is all about saying something without really saying it; character intrigue is realized through inference based on action. If, in Fury Road, Furiosa turned to the camera and said “I’m taking you Five Wives to the Green Place because I might have been in your position once and also I want to repent for the bad things I’ve done,” and then did it again 20 minutes later, nobody would call that self-awareness, clever writing, or nuance. We’d call it what it is: bad writing.
Obviously, Rick and Morty isn’t exactly known for its subtly, but it has handled complex issues well in the past, such as when Rick and Morty permanently moved dimensions and assumed the lives of their alternate selves. Morty revealing this switch to his sister was a powerful moment that conveyed emotional weight without directly stating the bigger implications, implications that would be revisited (but again, not directly stated) in the episode The Ricklantis Mixup. Good writing is all about show, don’t tell. When a normally stupid character can perfectly express himself to the audience in one line of dialogue and then does so twice, it comes off as bland or even lazy, rather than having an essence of self-awareness.
Aside from Morty’s plot being a bit too on the nose for my tastes, I also found it to be nonsensical even within the setting. Without Rick’s help, Morty leaves the wastelands outside Seattle and somehow ends up at a grassy medieval village where he confronts a slave owner who was “born into it.” This really doesn’t make any sense, even within the context of the episode. Let’s count all the reasons why this scene doesn’t work.
- Why is there a medieval village when everything else is Mad-Max themed?
- Why is there a grassy region of the wasteland when everything else is desert?
- A character mentions that he was a child when the “boom boom” happened. Since he is now a middle-aged adult, how could the adult slave owner be “born into it”?
- If the slave owners hired viking raiders from the thunderdome, why didn’t the raiders take the murderous mutant arm’s family as slaves?
- Why was Rick in the castle? Did he know Morty would be there?
- Why did the wastelanders live in the desert and loot Seattle when there was a grassy village within walking distance?
- Why did the wastelanders eat people and hunt mutants? Why didn’t they work for the slave owner?
The point is that nothing in this scene makes any sense or has logical consistency with the rest of the episode. It’s like it belongs in an entirely different episode. It has no connection to the Mad-Max or apocalyptic motifs at all and primarily serves as another opportunity for Morty to monologue about the divorce, the actual details of which the audience has hardly seen. It’s a lot of telling without much showing. Again, I don’t expect Rick and Morty to be the pinnacle of drama, but I would at least expect the episode to keep a consistent setting and parody theme. When the setting dramatically shifts from post-apocalyptic wasteland to middle-ages castle without any transition, it’s difficult to maintain suspension of disbelief and stay immersed. I find it worth noting that there wasn’t even a hint of all this medieval castle business in the promotional preview.
Finally, I think this episode suffered from the Star Wars prequel problem of having too many plotlines going on at once. After establishing the setting, the focus shifts to a different and mostly unconnected story about every three minutes. Most Rick and Morty episodes have the A-plot of Rick, Morty, and sometimes Summer and the B-plot of Summer, Beth, and Jerry. In this one episode we, the audience, are constantly shifting focus between…
- A-Plot: Summer romancing the bandit king
- B-Plot: Morty, a giant arm, and divorce
- C-Plot: Beth and the divorce
- Connected with: Rick bouncing between plotlines
Whatever the intention was, it comes across as unbalanced. The heart of the show is in interactions between the main characters, but this episode introduces a host of side characters who will (probably) never be seen again.
Was “Rickmancing the Stone” bad? No, not really. Was it one of the weakest Rick and Morty episodes? I think so and when you look at the trend of Rick and Morty’s IMDB scores for all three seasons, you can see that many people agree. “Rickmancing the Stone” is in the bottom three of Rick and Morty episodes along with the pilot and “Interdimensional Cable: Part 2.” It was a straight up Mad-Max parody with an out of place touch of Conan the Barbarian. The writers took jabs at post-apocalyptic tropes while the art department directly reinforced those tropes, going so far as to put Summer in a not really a parody, more of a copy, of Tina Turner’s outfit from Beyond Thunderdome.
This episode wasn’t about car chases or cannibalism as the promotional material would have you believe. This episode was about the main cast overcoming the fallout of Beth and Jerry’s divorce with all the subtly of a nuclear bomb. This episode had a lot to live up to after the bombastic season premier and in my opinion, it missed the mark.