Mild spoilers for season 5 of Rick and Morty follow.
Rick and Morty doesn't hit it out of the park quite as frequently as it used to, if you ask me. It's not that I'm mad – its first three seasons were jam-packed with clever sci-fi storytelling, and then it disappeared for almost two years, enough time for it to feel like it disappeared from the forefront of pop culture.
When it came back for season 4, I found the classics were a bit more spread out. The show's self-awareness became a heavy weight – and given its misanthropic main character, that self-awareness can come off as smug at its worst.
Still, even so, I loved both 'Rattlestar Ricklactica' (Jerry floats away) and 'The Vat of Acid Episode' (Morty thinks he has the power to create a 'save point' in time to undo mistakes, but he's actually replacing himself in other realities when he activates it and wreaks terrible consequences).
Season 4 showed the series' form was far from gone – but it suggested that it's more of a challenge for the show to feel fresh now. There's a weird, challenging tension in having a show where its characters have been through so much, but still maintains a status quo of having a cranky inventor grandfather take his grandson on adventures.
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One brilliant idea
Season 5 doesn't necessarily seem less self-aware so far – episode 1, 'Mort Dinner Rick Andre', has a fairly extended sequence with Morty's love interest, Jessica, which directly addresses her place within the series' setup – but it is at least putting great sci-fi concepts first and foremost. That pretty much always represents the series at its best.
Episode 1 featured Rick using a parallel dimension where time moves a lot faster to age some wine over the course of a dinner party. Unfortunately, when Morty went to retrieve the wine, he accidentally ended up causing great harm to the people who live there – becoming a much-hated figure who in their reality, has been spoken of for hundreds of years. It was a fun concept, even if the episode was otherwise a little Rick and Morty-by-numbers, as Rick entertained another ludicrous guest character – Mr Nimbus, voiced by co-creator Dan Harmon – that the audience isn't supposed to care about.
This week's 'Mortiplicity', though, might be the show's greatest episode in years. In this episode, a mysterious force turns up and kills Rick and the entire family – except, this family was actually a decoy, which sets off a warning to the 'real' Rick that someone or something is out to kill him and the family. Then, that Rick and his family are killed, alerting another Rick that his decoy family has been murdered. From there, it escalates into a game of never knowing who the real Rick, Morty, Jerry, Summer and Beth are as the mystery deepens and the bloodshed continues.
It's a clever sci-fi plot that's simple to grasp, and extremely funny to see play out, especially as we encounter more and more wild decoys – most notably a version of Rick, Morty and the family made out of wood. That mix of the silly with the smart is absolutely the show at its best.
It's definitely the best 20 minutes of TV I've watched this year so far, and what I've described above only really scratches the surface of where the story ends up going. The Jerry-themed post-credits sequence might also be the funniest in the series' history.
How can Rick and Morty stay fresh for 58 more episodes?
Rick and Morty famously got a 70-episode order back in 2018, that'll ensure the show is around for a long time yet. 12 of those episodes have now aired, with a massive 58 to go.
Animated sitcoms eventually become part of the furniture, to a large extent, and like any long-running series, they face the same risks in temporary or permanent drops in quality. Something pulling in Rick and Morty's favor: the show's animation is fantastic, in an age where so many traditionally animated series (even on big streaming services) look like cheap Flash-style cartoons. Its success has no doubt helped that.
If an episode can be enjoyed by itself without the weight of hours of continuity, that's probably a good sign that an episode of Rick and Morty has hit the spot. Personally, I think the weight of the show's past exploits is both a strength and a weakness – it has the clear upside of being rewarding to long-term viewers, and people who like to discuss concepts like 'Mortiplicity's 'Asimov Cascade' on Reddit.
But I've found that after several rewatches, my relationship with the show has changed. I'm a little worn down by the throwbacks and continuity, even if I appreciate the odd cute reference (I didn't mind 'Mortiplicity' reprising Space Beth, for example). When I rewatch an episode now, I pick one where I remember liking the core idea, and I expect this to continue in future years where there are 101 to choose from.
That's why it's reassuring that five years in, the show is still putting out episodes that function as brilliant self-contained sci-fi stories – I just hope that season 5 hasn't peaked, two episodes in.