It’s a shame that toxic fandoms have come to define today’s geek subcultures. These are Star Wars fans who bullied Kelly Marie Tran off the internet. These are Doctor Who fans who trolled Jodie Whittaker. These are also the entitled Rick and Morty fans who fired away at their keyboards when more women writers were hired for Season 3, barking and boohooing that representation and diversity were being forced on them. Mostly, they were bitter their beloved show was no longer dedicated solely to straight white men, and their geek subculture was no longer niche but part of the mainstream.
Thankfully, Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon do anything but flatter their vanity in the recently concluded Season 4. The very first episode “Edge of Tomorty: Rick Die Rickpeat” is an analogue for the disruptive influence of the toxic fandoms. The episode begins with Rick forcibly taking Morty on another intergalactic adventure, this time to mine death crystals which show you how you’re going to die. And then, Rick dies. But he is of course reborn as clones in different realities, which seem to share a commonality: they have all fallen into a default grip of fascism. In a key scene, a fascist Morty orders Rick to “stop asking questions” and “stop doing meta-commentary” as all he wants to do is go on “a simple, fun, classic adventure.” Fascist Morty clearly embodies the show’s toxic fandom and their own complaints. Roiland and Harmon seem to believe there’s a thin line between toxic fandom and fascism, taking a dig at fans who keep crossing it with militaristic aggression.
Throughout the series, the showrunners have shown Rick to be an egotistical alcoholic with little regard for the consequences of his actions. He even convinces himself that the adventures he goes on with Morty are not for his own benefit. But the toxic fans seem to think his misbehaviours are being justified, and validate their own. They even take his quotes as an endorsement of their own nihilistic worldview.
The new season thus showed a more introspective Rick, one who quietly scrutinises his destructive behavioural patterns. There’s less burp-talking, more soul-searching. In “The Old Man and the Seat,” Rick’s desire for privacy in his “secret pooping place” reveals deeper issues: his inability to form or maintain close relationships and the trust issues at the heart of his loneliness. In the final episode “Star Mort Rickturn of the Jerri”, he even finally accepts responsibility for being a bad father.
The season becomes the beginning of an emancipation arc for Morty. He disagrees with Rick in almost each episode, culminating in an ego clash in “The Vat of Acid Episode”, which stages Rick’s vanity against Morty’s prepubescent rebellion. It kicks off from a relatively harmless caper, where our bizarro Doc and Marty try to escape their enemies by jumping into a fake vat of acid. Morty mocks Rick’s new invention, arguing over its effectiveness before compelling Rick to invent a device akin to a save point option in a video game — so he can restart his life later from that exact same point. The device loses its novelty value as soon as Morty meets a girl, falls in love, goes travelling with her and even overcomes a near-fatal accident, before the whole sequence of events is erased by a ham-handed Jerry. But then comes the big reveal: Rick shows Morty the device was an elaborate ruse to get him to eat his words about the fake vat of acid. This and various other misadventures (including Rick turning Morty into an “Akira” in “Edge of Tomorty: Rick Die Rickpeat”) ends with a harsh realisation in the finale: Morty and Summer realise they don’t need their grandpa as much as he needs them. Rick realises it too.
Fan outrage never stops Roiland and Harmon from asking questions or doing meta-commentary of course. In fact, they add an additional layer to Rick and Morty‘s usual blend of self-reflexive and expository comedy. They even subvert the expectations of the know-it-alls, taking detours and back roads at every point the typical sci-fi film would take the road straight ahead. “Never Ricking Morty”, for example, displays a certain self-awareness, adds a meta-compartment to it by calling attention its self-awareness, and then adds another meta-meta-compartment by calling attention to the calling attention…you get it. Rick and Morty are trapped in a narrative loop aboard a literal story train. The only way out is for Morty to tell a non-canonical story to “disrupt the thematic seal” and enter the narrative engine room. This story must also pass the Bechdel Test, and Morty thinks up a scene where his mother and sister discuss their “special time” before battling a horde of scorpions by shooting rainbows out of their vaginas. The way a naive young boy beats the feminist litmus test is as absurd as most of Hollywood’s unimaginative girl power stories filtered through the male gaze.
There’s meta-commentary even in Rick and Morty’s more bizarre adventures. In “Childrick of Mort,” Rick impregnates a planet, raises his human-planetary offspring into a post-industrial civilisation, and battles a Zeus-like God in outer space. Meanwhile, Beth and Jerry war over the idea of a sustainable modern utopia: the former favouring a world of technological complexities, and the latter favouring ecological simplicities. Like a traditional sitcom, the show occasionally pairs off different characters to test the odd couple dynamics. Morty and Summer, who have usually been at odds with each other throughout the series, team up in the finale to fight the Galactic Federation, and keep drawing attention to the fact that they are on a sibling arc.
Besides, all these meta-detours never stopped Rick and Morty from having “fun, classic Rick-and-Morty adventures”. Season 4 never forgets the show’s parody roots, deconstructing the tropes of sci-fi and fantasy genres. Only, what was previously a well-oiled idea parody machine seems to have picked up some rust along the way. The appeal to some of this season’s parodies — like Alien (in “Promortyus”), Game of Thrones (in “Claw and Hoarder: Special Ricktim’s Morty”), and The Terminator (in “Rattlestar Ricklactica”) — lies less in laughter, more in irreverence.
With at least 60 more episodes to go, most of us sure wouldn’t mind Morty getting cockier, Rick continuing his soul-searching, Beth and Summer getting more moments to shine, and Jerry staying the butt of everyone’s jokes. Like BoJack Horseman, Rick and Morty is as much a comedy as it is a commentary — and it’s still as wildly inventive and hilarious now as it was back in 2013. Don’t let the keyboard warriors hiding safely behind their screens tell you otherwise.
Rick and Morty is currently streaming on Netflix.