Adult Swim had never really had a big hit show before Justin Rolland and Dan Harmon came along with their weird little sci-fi animated comedy Rick and Morty. The show was a ratings success from the off, but its fan base has continued to grow rapidly so that by the time its third season premiered last year, it was one of the most popular shows on television! This has actually been detrimental, since some people have been put off the show purely based on how arrogant the newer fans are. But if you put all of that aside, you can see that this is just an incredibly clever, hysterically funny, and particularly mind-bending TV show. There’s something to be enjoyed in every single episode, but here are the 10 absolute best.
10. Rest and Ricklaxation
After their latest adventure goes terribly wrong and what should’ve been a simple mission took days and almost got them killed, Rick and Morty decided it was about time they had a vacation – and they had the most Rick and Morty-ish vacation imaginable. They went to an alien spa that has the kind of spa treatments we have here in Earth, but times a thousand. The writers do a great job of taking something we know from Earth, like a roller coaster (or a spa), and showing us what they would look like if they were designed by aliens with much more advanced technologies. Specifically, they took the idea of detoxifying the system in a sauna to its literal conclusion to explore the two sides that make up Rick and Morty’s characterizations. The toxic Rick is a horrible asshole, while the detoxified Rick is a kind, ambitious, hard-working scientist. The toxic Morty is a self-conscious, neurotic wimp who hates himself, while the detoxified Morty is suddenly cool and confident and ends up embodying Patrick Bateman. This episode doesn’t have the most engaging plot, and the third act kind of loses us, but it works brilliantly as a character study of the show’s two leads.
9. M. Night Shaym-Aliens!
This episode is titled after the movie director M. Night Shyamalan, who is known for ending his movies with big twists: The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, The Village, The Happening, Split, the list goes on. But the director should watch this episode and take note, because this is how you pull off plot twists effectively. This is how you shock your audience with a sudden left turn (and then another left turn and another left turn and, just for good measure, another left turn – oh, and another one after that). The whole subplot with Jerry not realizing he’s in a poorly constructed computer simulation full of glitches and then getting a big promotion at work and winning an award and satisfying his wife, only to have it all dragged out from under him as he realizes none of it was real, is hilarious. And also tragic. It’s tragic and heartbreaking and sad in the most hilarious way possible. Plus, David Cross guest stars as the head of the aliens and he always brings something brilliant to the table. Whether it’s in Arrested Development or Alvin and the Chipmunks, having David Cross around is never a bad idea. The ending of this episode was an early season 1 signal that Rick Sanchez was a true diabolical genius to be reckoned with.
8. Total Rickall
In Dan Harmon’s previous show Community, he did a clip show episode with a twist – all of the clips that are introduced and come without context have been shot specifically for that episode and have never been seen before. In the second season of Rick and Morty, he did essentially the same thing with “Total Rickall,” except he took it one step further. This time, all the fake clips were memories being implanted in the Smith family’s brains by an alien parasite, so they didn’t know which ones to believe. The living room was packed with characters we’d never seen before who the family all remembered fondly. Jerry had a gay lover who he’d been with for years and the family had a butler who had saved their lives a bunch of times – and none of it was real, but the family didn’t know what to believe. It’s a riotous episode that just keeps escalating and escalating throughout until Morty finally realizes that the real people are the ones who they have unpleasant memories of. They can only remember the parasites in a positive light. This opened us up to even more hilarious clips that exposed the really dark side of the Smith family, with Rick pantsing Morty in front of some pretty girls and then pushing him down a flight of stairs and laughing at him or Beth being blackout drunk in the middle of the day and accidentally giving Summer a black eye.
7. Interdimensional Cable 2: Tempting Fate
The interdimensional cable episodes work because they aren’t just a string of random clips from TV shows from different realities. There’s always a subplot going on with the family. They put Rick and Morty out of commission, as they just sit and watch TV, but that just means the writers have to up the ante with Jerry, Beth, and Summer’s subplots. In the first one, it was the story of how seeing their lives in alternate timelines tore them apart in this one. But in the second one, they managed to top that with the Jerry’s penis storyline. He has to weigh up the decision of whether or not to sacrifice it in order to save an intergalactic MLK’s life. The highlight of the episode – and one of the highlights of the entire show – is Werner Herzog’s monologue about human culture’s obsession with penises. “It’s funny to say they are small. It’s funny to say they are big.” How did they get him to do that? Plus, with the “sequel,” as Rick calls it, the writers had refined their ability to write great interdimensional stuff. They were going in blind with the first one – it was an entirely new concept. But this time, they thought of even more mind-bending stuff, like the show that takes the person from the coffee machine right in front of them and puts them on the TV where they die. It’s really demented stuff, but it’s so funny.
6. Mortynight Run
This episode is actually quite an interesting take on the gun issue. It’s not very nuanced or contemplative or subtle, but it does examine both the liberal side and the conservative side of the argument. In this episode, Morty catches Rick selling a gun to an alien assassin and automatically decides that he is dead against it, so he goes and saves the life of the assassin’s target. But saving his life only causes more loss of life as the cops and agents chasing them die horrifically. And then Morty discovers that the target’s whole reason for being there is to wipe out all life in the universe, so in the end, he is the one who has to pull the trigger. It just goes to show that sometimes one bad deed can prevent a much worse deed, and that you need to have all the facts about a situation before immediately deciding your opinion on it. Oh, and this is also the one where they go to that space arcade Blips and Chitz and play the video game where you live out a man’s entire life. It’s a classic episode with some really great sci-fi ideas in it. And the punchline of the whole episode is a fart. It’s brilliant.
5. Morty’s Mind-Blowers
When the third season of Rick and Morty came around, the fans were wondering whether or not they would attempt another episode where the characters just sit around and watch interdimensional television together. Those episodes worked well in the previous two seasons as essentially a string of sketches in which anything could happen because they were from any one of the infinite alternate realities in our universe. But with those episodes, you lose the focus on the character that the show usually has. And the snippets of interdimensional TV that we see don’t tell a full story. They’re just random clips of absurdity. In season 3’s alternative to the interdimensional cable episodes, “Morty’s Mind-Blowers,” we get a string of sketches that focus on our beloved characters and tell full stories and also tell a story in the framing device of Rick showing Morty all the memories he’s had erased. It works as both a dark anthology episode and a regular episode. The plot keeps taking unexpected turns – first, we see that Rick has erased some of Morty’s memories that Morty asked him to; then, we see that Rick has actually erased some of Morty’s memories that he erased; then, they get into a fight and lose their memories entirely, so they have to figure out who they are from scratch; then, Morty realizes how toxic his relationship with Rick is for him. All in all, it’s a terrific episode.
4. Pickle Rick
The trailer for season 3 set this episode up perfectly. From that trailer, we knew that Rick would, at some point, for some reason, turn himself into a pickle. Before the season even aired, there were Pickle Rick t-shirts and memes and stuff getting circulated around the fan base. It had already become a point of obsession among the show’s viewers, but it wasn’t clear exactly why Rick turned himself into a pickle or where it would follow on from there. All we were going in expecting was an episode where Rick turned himself into a pickle. We hadn’t the slightest clue where it was going to go from there. And that’s exactly what they wanted. That was the goal. That feeling sets up the episode perfectly, because right off the bat, Rick turns himself into a pickle – and it just gets crazier and crazier from there. At first, he’s only doing it to get out of family therapy with a syringe rigged up to turn him back into a human as soon as the rest of the family have gone, but then Beth notices this and takes it away. So, he’s stuck as a pickle for the rest of the day. He ends up fighting rats in the sewers, fashioning weapons out of their bones, taking on a whole crime syndicate etc. It’s basically everything you wanted this episode to be and more.
3. Rick Potion #9
The season 1 episode “Rick Potion #9” is the first time that we really get a sense of the dire consequences that Rick and Morty’s actions can have. Something as simple as a potion that Rick creates to make Jessica fall in love with Morty becomes a widespread virus that turns everyone into ravenous animals that would kill to have sex with Morty, and then the antidote that they try just turns them all into bloodthirsty monsters. As they realize they’ve really screwed the pooch bad and there’s no way out, Rick takes them to an alternate reality that’s very similar to theirs except it’s one where Rick and Morty die. So, they just show up, dispose of their own corpses, and then assume their roles in the new universe with the slightly different family in the slightly different house. The whole ending scene as Rick and Morty bury themselves and then Morty has to reckon with destroying a universe and stealing the identity of his dead self is one of the most harrowing moments in television history. Rick is totally unfazed by it, but you can tell that this is going to stick with Morty for the rest of his life. He even tells Summer about it in “Rixty Minutes” when he shows her their graves in the backyard. Point is, this is a really heavy episode, and it all started out as such a delightful caper.
2. The Wedding Squanchers
In television, the season finale carries a lot of weight. It has to be a strong enough episode that it gets the audience excited enough about the next season to wait a whole year for it and still come back. The best season finales are the ones that screw things up in such a major way that you don’t think there’s any way they’ll ever be able to resolve it. You want the writers to write themselves into a corner. You want it to become a different show entirely and then end. You want to be taken out of your comfort zone. In other words, you want the whole show to be FUBAR (which is military slang meaning “Fucked Up Beyond All Repair”). Brooklyn Nine-Nine always does a great job of this. And so did the second season finale of Rick and Morty, in which the Earth is taken over by an alien race and humankind is enslaved, Rick turns himself in to the government and gets locked up in an intergalactic prison, and there seems to be no way out. As it turned out in the end, they wrapped everything up very neatly and it was back to normal (albeit with Beth and Jerry getting a divorce) in a single episode once season 3 started. But still, for like two whole years, we had to reckon with that shocking ending, set to the harrowing tones of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.”
1. The Rick-lantis Mixup
This episode should’ve been made the season 3 finale, because it simply could not be topped by the couple of others that followed. It is just the greatest episode that the show has ever done – and that’s saying a lot, since there have been some great episodes. It starts off with our Rick and Morty avoiding the Citadel in favor of a trip to Atlantis, but then we delve into the seedy underbelly of the Citadel instead. The plot is like Training Day and The Parallax View and Stand By Me and The Manchurian Candidate all rolled into one. It’s as sprawling and epic as something like Boogie Nights or Magnolia, except those movies are two and a half hours long and this episode is a 22-minute cartoon. It also has as much social commentary and gritty examination of the American city as something like The Wire, except everyone in the entire city is either a Rick or a Morty. It touches on political corruption and police corruption and greedy, heartless corporations and suicide and depression and the class system and the education system, all in such a short space of time, and all with different Ricks and Mortys. It’s also amazing that the animators and the writers could make all of the characters featured in this episode Ricks and Mortys and still make them feel like distinct characters. Note to Max Landis: this is what you were trying to do with Bright. At the end, our Rick and Morty come back from Atlantis with stories to tell, but we don’t feel like we missed out – we clearly backed the right horse.