Rick and Morty is known for taking long breaks in between seasons, but Season 4 marks the first time the show has gone on hiatus in the middle of an episode run. We last saw the titular drunk nihilistic scientist and his hapless grandson dealing with a bunch of Nazi snakes in an alternate timeline (it was a whole-assed thing). Nearly six months later, the duo is finally back for the second half of Season 4, which kicks off with Episode 6, “Never Ricking Morty”. And as the title suggests, we’re in for some supremely meta shenanigans. EXTREME SPOILERS AHEAD.
The episode takes place entirely on a space train that is literally a narrative device – it’s fueled by a bunch of passengers telling unrelated stories about Rick, each one an extremely overused trope about doing battle in an evil fortress or saving Christmas or introducing him to your parents over an embarrassing dinner. Rick figures out that they’re trapped in an anthology and detonates a Continuity barrel, allowing them to jump anywhere on the ship. (Because continuity has been broken, get it?)
They reach a map of the train revealing that the train is essentially an ouroboros, on a neverending circular path. Meaning the stories will just keep going and going unless Rick and Morty can make it to the train’s engine and stop it. They climb outside the train in spacesuits, with Morty’s suit carrying a ticking clock that will kill them if it reaches zero, and reach the Thematic Seal on the engine car. In order to break in, Rick has Morty tell a rambling story that has nothing to do with anything that’s going on in the episode, about Summer and Beth battling a horde of lady scorpions with their “heavy special time”, which is a phrase here meaning “lasers blasting out of their vaginas,” because Morty is an idiot. The unrelated story breaks the theme, getting them inside the engine car, where they do battle with Story Lord, a super jacked bearded man who straps them into a machine to break the fifth wall. Breaking the fifth wall begins mining Rick and Morty for potential future story ideas, including the return of Abradolph Linkler and Morty’s hyper-intelligent dog Snowball. Rick ultimately frees them by praying to Jesus Christ, which destroys the machine because it is something he and Morty would never do, and traps Story Lord beyond the fifth wall. He moves to the control panel to stop the train, but all the controls are fake. The camera pans out to the final reveal – that the train is just a toy the real Morty bought for Rick at the Council of Ricks gift shop, and the entire episode was just a bunch of sentient puppets on the train acting out stories as the train ran in circles around the Smith’s living room. Rick is unexpectedly enthusiastic about the gift, and launches into a speech about the glory of capitalism and fulfilling our sacred duty to buy as many things as possible. There’s a brief post-credits scene in which Puppet Jesus uses his magic blood to short out the toy train, and real-world Rick gets pissed and demands Morty go out and buy another one.
Rick and Morty is frequently self-referential, but “Never Ricking Morty” might be the first episode that is 100% meta. The entire thing is about the process of writing a Rick and Morty episode. Rick mentions with that the anthology train consists of “linked unrelated narrative fields” that are “uptight” and “overwritten”, and mentions that “If we wanted one-offs, we’d do Interdimensional Cable.” Clearly, series co-creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon consider the anthology format to be lazy, and they blow it up immediately by having two train cops show up and shoot a Continuity tank, allowing Rick and Morty to escape. (Because they’re a series of unrelated narratives, anthologies don’t have any continuity outside of a framing device.)
The map of the train Rick discovers is actually the Story Circle, the template Dan Harmon famously uses to plot out his scripts. Rick directly references upcoming story points in the episode, pointing them out on the map in the exact spots in which they would fit in the Story Circle. He says “I’ll rig us up some spacesuits that begin failing here” and points to the section of the circle where the heroes pay a price for their goal, and when Morty protests, Rick shouts, “We don’t have to do anything, this is just a structural guide! We’re obviously gonna impart our own style!” He even slaps a ticking clock on Morty, which is a famous narrative device designed to create urgency.
Morty breaks the Thematic Seal by telling a story that has nothing to do with what’s going on, but he fails his first attempt – a man randomly shows up at another man’s house looking for cookies, and then scorpions attack. It’s an obviously improvised bit that would feel very much at home in an Interdimensional Cable episode, which is why it doesn’t work to break the Thematic Seal – it’s too close to the episode’s theme of goofy, unrelated narratives. The story about Summer and Beth works because it passes the Bechdel test, which according to Rick is something they would never do. The show is calling itself out for past storytelling oversights.
Story Lord shows up and breaks the fifth wall with a machine that is burning Rick and Morty out. Breaking the fifth wall generally means any time the characters in a show or movie make references to their real-world lives or their previous work (whereas breaking the fourth wall traditionally refers to any time a character speaks directly to the audience or references the fact that they’re aware they’re a character in a story). The idea of burning Rick and Morty out for story ideas breaks the fifth wall because it’s Roiland and Harmon speaking to us directly about burning the show Rick and Morty out by going on for too long and running out of quality story ideas. They break the machine by coming up with the worst, most out-of-character story idea that Rick and Morty could ever possibly come up with – praying to Jesus Christ for salvation. Finally, the fact that the episode takes place on a train is itself a fifth-wall-breaking reference, in that the popular phrase “going off the rails” is interchangeable with “jumping the shark” in describing a show that has spiraled way off course.
“Never Ricking Morty” has some incredibly funny bits, my absolute favorite being the harrowing journey of the Tickets Please Guy and the implementation of the phrase “cum gutters.” Rick spews hilariously caustic observations as always, and the show’s trademark bizarreness is able to stretch its legs in several different directions thanks to the nonsensical anthologies through which Rick and Morty have to wade. However, “Never Ricking Morty” feels almost too meta to leave a completely satisfying impression. Piling reference atop reference about professional script-writing is some serious inside baseball, and while Rick frequently calls out the frustrating lack of narrative cohesion, his comments don’t actually negate the fact that the episode doesn’t have a coherent storyline. That said, I’m so happy to be watching Rick and Morty again that the episode’s high points were enough to carry me through the end credits, after which we’re treated to a commercial for the Council of Ricks Story Train that made me laugh out loud. Welcome back, you magnificent bastards.
Rick and Morty Season 4 airs on Adult Swim on Sundays.