Another strong Rick and Morty episode continues the season's deep dive into its characters and comes away with something surprisingly effecting.
'Rest and Ricklaxation' is the sort of Rick and Morty episode that feels like a response to the conceit of the show itself. The episode begins as Rick cajoles Morty into a quick, 20-minute adventure in which the recovery of a plasma shard will confirm his awesomeness. Six days later, the two are left strung out and recovering from the trauma of narrowly escaping a mostly unmanageable situation with their lives intact. It's one of the few times the show has ever presented its nigh-invincible mad scientist as someone not wholly in control of the situation, and it does so with a noticeably worse for wear Rick actually pointing that fact out to his grandson in the closing moments of the episode's cold open. To cope, they head to an intergalactic spa where an intense detox literally pulls their worst selves from their bodies, resulting in a nice, pleasant Rick Sanchez and an impossibly confident Morty who later goes on to become a soulless stock broker a la Patrick Bateman.
As you might expect with an episode of Rick and Morty, the toxins manifest as the worst possible versions – or "booger versions" of the characters. Toxic Morty is a barely functioning ball of insecurity and self-loathing while Rick is, well, still pretty much the Rick everyone knows, but booger-ier. The real change is seen in the detoxified characters, as they are so wildly different as to be a little unsettling. But the separation of the toxic elements within Rick and Morty, and the explicit understanding of just how fundamentally changed both characters are following their detox speaks to the recurring notion that Rick is in fact his own worst enemy.
Rick and Morty season 3 has been diving deep into the interior lives of its characters all season long. That has provided the series with some especially strong work revolving mostly around secondary characters like Summer, Beth, and Jerry. It's also allowed the writers to pivot away from any sort of pre-established formula. That's incredibly difficult, especially when the formula works so well and has a proven track record, having mined quality content for two full seasons. The downside, of course, is that, in the process of following its creative bliss, and setting zero limits for its main character, Rick and Morty has wound up with a protagonist capable of doing anything. That's a big part of Rick's appeal, but when you have a character that can murder someone who goes by the name Wordender while blackout drunk, you face a problem in terms of ever having a challenge that feels narratively important.
In 'Vindicators 3: The Return of Worldender', Rick and Morty positioned Rick as the villain in his own story, subsequently making him the villain for the Vindicators too, which didn't turn out so well for them. The result simultaneously reiterated what a near omnipotent character Rick is, as even when in complete "hack" mode, his Saw-inspired traps laid waste to the cheap Guardians of the Galaxy rip-offs that were the Vindicators. But it also continued to pave the road season 3 has been traveling down since the April Fools' Day premiere episode. The only thing Rick Sanchez really needs to worry about is Rick Sanchez. Thankfully, this series has an infinite number of them, but what 'Rest and Ricklaxation' demonstrates is, the one our Rick needs worry about the most is himself.
The same is true of Morty (as it is for all of us), but whereas a detoxified Rick is pleasant and patient Morty becomes something of a completely different mess of a human being, albeit a financially and (presumably) romantically successful one when freed from the burden of his conscience. It's necessary because, as the show suggests, neither Rick nor Morty are necessarily healthier individuals after having the toxic parts of their personalities stripped away. As he's usually just paired with Rick, Morty is often positioned as the only reasonable person in any given situation, but that's not exactly a proof of his competency at understanding himself. Morty's insecurity and self-loathing are what makes him who he is. Although he can't see it at the time – because he's a teenager and teenagers are pretty stupid sometimes when it comes to imagining their best selves – a confident, conscience-free self isn't the ideal person Morty should strive to become.
In the closing conflict with Toxic Rick and Morty, Cleansed Rick reveals something telling about his character and the ongoing struggle with his more contaminated side: his love for his grandson (and family, presumably) is all caught up in the muck that is Booger Rick. Rick's ideal self is far more rational than the one we've been following for two-and-a-half seasons. And like Conscience-Free Morty, Rational Rick comes up lacking in the emotion department. In this case his familial affection is determined to be irrational and becomes the tool by which he forces Booger Rick to merge with his other half.
Rather than completely reiterate that Rick is his own worst enemy or, at the very least, oftentimes the villain of his (and his loved ones') own story, 'Rest and Ricklaxation' subverts the idea of Rick's better self by making one of his more endearing qualities a product of what he thinks is toxic about him. Cleansed Rick tells his booger-y counterpart he's never let his toxic side take the wheel. That kind of self-awareness is rare in fictional characters, but it's to be expected in one as all knowing as Rick, and it becomes a fascinating way of challenging a character for whom no challenge is too great.
Rick and Morty continues in two weeks with 'The Ricklantis Mixup' @11:30pm on Adult Swim.