Rick and Morty season 3 officially kicks off with a post-apocalyptic therapy session that's as dark and funny as anything the series has offered.
The post-apocalyptic hellscape of George Miller's Mad Max movies isn't a place one might think to go in order to seek respite from the emotional agony of divorce. As far as its therapeutic benefits are concerned, the barren, vehicle-worshipping wasteland is far more likely to leave a person scarred – emotionally and physically – than it is to offer clarity on a complex and confusing situation like your parents' divorce. And that's why it's the perfect place for Rick and Morty to go in the official season 3 premiere, 'Rickmancing the Stone'.
The episode has been a long time coming, as the Adult Swim series experienced a longer-than-anticipated hiatus between seasons 2 and 3, leading to some clever marketing stunts in order to reassure fans that the series was indeed planning new episodes and that there wasn't some sort of behind-the-scenes rift between co-creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon. The first maneuver meant dropping the first episode, 'The Rickshank Rickdemption', on April Fools' Day, effectively turning an unbearably obnoxious day of the year into one with something worthwhile to offer other than fake news posts.
But releasing the season 3 premiere so far in advance (the actual season premiere date hadn't even been announced yet) worked as more than just a clever marketing maneuver to keep Rick and Morty part of a non-conspiratorial conversation; the gap between 'Rickshank' and 'Rickmancing' put enough distance between the resolution of the cliffhanger season 2 ended on and the actual start of the season 3 storyline that the latter now feels much more like a proper premiere and the former a one-off special intended to tie up loose ends. Any concern over it feeling disconnected – there having been months between the two episodes – is more or less squanched since 'Rickmancing the Stone' is less about Rick's latest interdimensional adventure and more about the effects of Beth and Jerry's separation and pending divorce.
Rick and Morty has been laying the groundwork for the latest chapter in the Smith family's dysfunction for two seasons. Beth's choice to end her marriage, after Jerry's ultimatum forces her to choose between him and her formerly absentee father, felt inevitable and earned – which is kind of a remarkable thing to say in regard to an animated series that's partially a riff on Back to the Future. It also affords the series a chance to refocus its attention on the supporting characters, after a Rick-centric second season, to ground a show where anything can and does happen by anchoring the season's through-line to something far more relatable.
There is an evolution of the series happening in 'Rickmancing the Stone'. The tenor of Rick and Morty has largely been defined by Rick's outward indifference and flippant approach to all things domestic and familial. That seeming emotional detachment allowed for humor to be found in some truly awful circumstances. The show's no stranger to delivering the worst possible outcome and forcing the characters to simply deal with it by suppressing it. Morty's experience when a love potion "Cronenberged" the Earth, forcing him and his grandpa to abandon that dimension and set up shop in a nearly identical one (replacing their now-dead counterparts after burying them in the backyard) is one of the best examples of how Rick and Morty finds laughs (existentially uncomfortable ones, but laughs nonetheless) by essentially Don Draper-ing what is a psychologically devastating event. "It will shock you how much it never happened," Rick may as well have said to his grandson.
That approach allows Rick and Morty to take big creatively destructive swings without having to reconcile them in any sort of typical way – mostly because it's funnier for them to linger in the background as constant reminders that nothing is off limits on this show. There's also no resolution to the distress caused by destroying humanity and burying an alternate version of yourself in the backyard because who's going to relate to that? What 'Rickmancing the Stone' does, then, is steer into the skid that is Beth and Jerry's divorce by showing its characters' failed attempts at remaining indifferent to what's going on.
The reversal, the idea that Summer is using interdimensional adventures with Rick to avoid confronting her feelings about her parents' divorce, makes for a surprising change of pace that's underlined by her acceptance of all things ultra-violent. It's an abrupt about-face for the character, but a necessary one given Morty's past objections to Rick's way of dealing with things and the lack of involvement Summer's had in her grandpa's adventures over the first two seasons. Often incredulously along for the ride or obliviously affected by the outcome of Rick's interdimensional tinkering, Summer is repositioned here as the driving force of the episode, as she and Morty violently take their emotional baggage out on the mutated denizens of the Miller-esque hellscape.
As the official start to season 3, 'Rickmancing the Stone' is a solid and welcome return for Rick and Morty that also gives a better idea of where things are headed. Oddly, after Summer's quick, failed marriage to the bucket-wearing Hemorrhage, and Morty's role in helping Armathy resolve his own painful past, the show has a development of sorts it must now deal with by following through on a previous breakthrough that all the nasty stuff happening to these characters can't be ignored forever. These changes are weirdly rewarding from a viewer's standpoint and it speaks to how unexpectedly easy it is to be invested in a way that goes far beyond the outlandishness of the show's narrative exploits. Rick, Morty, Summer, and Beth are not the same characters from when the show first started. As whispered on the wind, Jerry's still a loser, but everyone else seems to be taking small but meaningful steps forward.
Rick and Morty continues next Sunday with 'Pickle Rick' @11:30pm on Adult Swim.