I won’t even try to hide it: I think Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty is not only one of the best shows on TV right now, I’d argue it’s one of the best sci-fi shows ever written. It has the vibrant, playful look of Adventure Time, the wit of Futurama, and the depth of True Detective (season one, of course).
Co-creators Dan Harmon (Community) and Justin Roiland (Adventure Time) have made a show that simultaneously improves on and subverts sci-fi tropes while hiding gut-punching emotion under a layer of blue and pink-hued, razor-sharp intellect.
With the show recently renewed for season three in the middle of season two’s run, there is no better time to jump into the twisted world of Rick and Morty. But while every episode has something for you, there are things missed without the context of continuity. With that in mind, I present a viewing guide outlining where to start. Of course, you could binge all of season one on AdultSwim.com in around 4 hours, but if you need the essential experience to get into the current season, this should help. Wubba-lubba-dub-dub!
The Essential Episodes
Back in his daughter’s life after years of doing science-knows-what, Rick Sanchez is taking his grandson Morty on adventures spanning all of space-time. When it’s discovered that Morty has been missing school, Rick must prove that having his little helper is worthwhile by stuffing mega-tree seeds up Morty’s butt, for science.
If you’re going to start somewhere, it might as well be at the beginning. “Pilot” is essential in that it immediately sets up each character for us. There’s Rick, the super-genius scientist, alcoholic, and all-around a**hole who shows back up in the Smith family’s lives. Morty is the clueless grandson, a barely parented, confused teen in high school who is along for the ride. Jerry plays the idiot husband. He’s an advertiser, unaware of wife Beth’s needs, insecure, and blindly assertive. Beth is a horse heart surgeon, the unwilling mother to two who is constantly rethinking marriage to Jerry. And finally there’s Summer, the teenage daughter desperate for popularity.
From “Pilot” we know that Rick and Morty (RAM) will be colorful, irreverent, and violent. It also establishes the main story mechanism of the show: Rick’s portal gun. Able to take him anywhere in the multiverse, the portal gun is the access point to almost every episode’s story.
Frustrated with how “stupid” Morty’s dog Snuffles is, Jerry demands that Rick does something. Rick amplifies Snuffles’ intelligence with a special helmet and heads off to incept the idea into Morty’s teacher that Morty should get an A in math. They return to the real world only to find it taken over by dogs.
By the end of “Lawnmower Dog”, there is a large, unexpected tonal shift. It foreshadows some deep, dark emotions to come and demonstrates RAM‘s range. The episode also shows how well RAM tackles scenarios that could bring the entire universe to a halt (the world is taken over more than once, time itself is halted for months, etc.). These momentous moments don’t just pass either — the characters are written well enough that the consequences stick both psychologically and physically. While another world-ending scenario is just par for the course for Rick, the adventures change Morty drastically by the end of season one.
“Meeseeks and Destroy”
Morty bets Rick that if he helmed an adventure, it wouldn’t be nearly so dangerous or messed up, just fun. It turns into a “Jack and the Beanstalk” courtroom drama. Meanwhile, Beth, Jerry, and Summer are gifted a “Mr. Meeseeks box,” which dispenses creatures able to help them with simple tasks before ceasing to exist.
“Meeseeks and Destroy” is the first episode of RAM to fully expose the dark undercurrent of the show, from Beth’s realization that her marriage to Jerry is a failure, to the attempted rape of Morty by a jelly bean. Morty’s assault is so disturbing that it leaves you shaking. And though Rick gets the better of the attacker in the end, the after-the-credits sequence mirrors the unfortunate reality of how rape is treated in our culture. Remember, this all started with a “Jack and the Beanstalk” parody, and there is darker material to come. But Rick and Morty‘s refusal to back down from such emotion is what makes the show so good.
“Rick Potion #9”
Jerry confronts Beth with his insecurities about her cheating on him while Morty convinces Rick to make him a love potion in time for the school dance. But Morty’s love, Jessica, has the flu, which rapidly spreads the potion around the town. Rick tries to fix it, which leads to the end of the world.
This episode is a vehicle to deliver a simultaneously amazing and depressing fact: the universe does not care about you. Having caused the end of the world, Rick simply finds another reality to portal to, one where he instead saved the world…one where the other versions of Rick and Morty were killed, leaving places for them to take. Following Rick’s lead, Morty hesitantly buries his own body in the backyard while Mazzy Star’s incredibly somber and reflective “Look On Down From The Bridge” plays in the background. With a thousand-yard stare, Morty notices nothing has really changed. The universe doesn’t care. This gut punch ends the episode.
Rick is sick of the TV shows Earth has to offer, so he programs the Smith’s receiver to get an infinite number of the multi-universe’s channels. Morty loves the absurdity, but Jerry, Beth, and Summer would rather watch the channels that feature their alternate timelines. Rick builds them a viewer, and they quickly discover that maybe Could Have Been isn’t the best channel to tune in to.
Here the show demonstrates its versatility. Rick and Morty don’t always have to bend the very fabric of space to make a great episode. All they do in “Rixty Minutes” is watch bizarre television – all the shows and commercials are even funnier when you figure out it was mostly improvised, something that Rick points out. Summer, Beth, and Jerry make the emotional connection this time, as the parents admit to Summer that she was an unwanted pregnancy that came to term; Jerry idiotically makes the remark after seeing his alternate life as a famous actor. It’s this realization that sends Summer packing. But before she leaves, Morty delivers the best lines in season one, again playing on the theme of an apathetic universe while being sweet and sincere:
MORTY: On one of our adventures, Rick and I basically destroyed the whole world, so we bailed on that reality and we came to this one, because in this one, the world wasn’t destroyed and in this one, we were dead. So we came here, and we buried ourselves and we took their place. And every morning, Summer, I eat breakfast twenty yards away from my own rotting corpse.
SUMMER: So you’re not my brother?
MORTY: I’m better than your brother. I’m a version of your brother you can trust when he says “Don’t run.” Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV.
It is this acknowledgment of Cosmicism helps Summer regain control. We can find solace in the chaos, be comfortable with the uncertainty. And with Alien Invasion Tomato Monster Mexican Armada Brothers Who Are Just Regular Brothers Running In A Van From an Asteroid And All Sorts Of Things Movie.
“Close Rick-Counters of the Rick Kind”
When 27 Ricks from other dimensions are found murdered, the Trans-Dimensional Council of Ricks arrests Rick C137 (the show’s original Rick) to question him. It turns out that our Rick is one of the most evil versions of the man, a Rick so Rick that he can be tracked by his brain waves. That’s why every Rick has a Morty — the genius of the Ricks is cancelled out by the stupidity of the Mortys, making the scientists “invisible” to the sinister universe. Our Rick and Morty eventually find the true killer, and Rick declares himself the Rickest Rick. And though Morty is devastated to learn he has essentially been just a shield this whole time, he finds comfort in the fact that he must be “the Mortiest Morty.”
This episode is almost hard to watch: we want Rick and Morty to be friends, but we are constantly reminded that Rick is an uncaring, callous drunk who cares about very little in the multiverse. Here we are reminded that, even though future episodes do establish that Rick cares for Morty, Morty was a means to an end, not a friend. It establishes that this show does not do happy endings. It’s pain and loss and the absurdity of life wrapped up in brilliantly subverted sci-fi animation.
While Beth and Jerry are off on a Titanic-themed cruise, Rick, Morty, and Summer throw a party. Taking a bit of the edge off the revelations of “Close Rick-Encounters of the Rick Kind”, in this episode we learn that Rick’s catch-phrase “Wubba-lubba-dub-dub!” actually means “I am in great pain. Please help me.” Rick is a tortured soul numbing himself with drugs and alcohol, treating Morty the only way he knows how. The episode ends frozen in time, which is where season two immediately picks up.
Worth a watch just to hear John Oliver ask Morty if he’d “like to ride the Bone Train.”
“Something Ricked This Way Comes”
In an episode where Summer is working in an antique store operated by the literal Devil, some of my favorite moments of the show are when RAM flips the script on the “haunted objects” trope. Rick just needs someone to mess with, and his lackadaisical attitude towards the supernatural is hilarious. Although the episode just worth watching to see Summer and Rick get buff over a training montage to kick the crap out of a Nazi, all set to DMX.
Season two of Rick and Morty — complete with more cosmic absurdities, complicated timescales, and heart-wrenching realizations — is currently airing Sundays on Adult Swim.
Kyle Hill is the Science Editor of Nerdist Industries. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.