Reduced to an emotionless husk after Game of Thrones’ “Rains of Castamere,” I embarked on a quest to discover and consume my soul animal, a goat with cataracts high atop the Pidurutalagala in Sri Lanka. After being granted shelter by a chapter of Buddhist monks, I underwent months of “legit” Buddhist hazing rituals, which included drinking whatever mixture Pat made at lunch (mostly hot dog water), cock fights, and much more opium than I’d been accustomed to (some opium).
Turns out I took a bad nap after ingesting some expired baby carrots that I’d found under the couch sitting out on 42nd street. That’s called a K-hole. I read about it in a book that also said it’s a common problem for intelligent people.
Firmly on the mend, I cast off the Snuggie, put the Snuggie back on, and swallowed a Denny’s Grand Slam like I always do when feeling less than fresh. Then I wrote a regrettable, come-to-Jesus personal essay.
However, when it’s not busy apologizing, single/hand/clap is a “blog” (byte level onanism fer gadssakes) where I write about things. Sometimes those things are TV shows. This is one about a TV show called Rick and Morty, specifically an episode called “Meeseeks and Destroy” which you can either watch or live vicariously through me.
I thought the episode was especially neat. I don’t get around to touching the B-story, which is a clever inversion of the A-story: Rick’s family chooses to embrace their chaotic lives while, in the A-story, Morty learns to value the safely-contained thrills of a story rather than experience the terror of choosing his own adventure.
Anyway, here’s a review or something?
It’s not often that a stinger on a TV show, let alone a stinger on an Adult Swim animation, resonates with its episode’s theme. Even “theme” is a tall order for a programming block born of absurd classics such as Aqua Teen Hunger Force (although there is Venture Bros.). Further, that it happens on Rick and Morty, a show which began as a copyright-infringing YouTube short largely concerned with scrotal-lingus, is particularly surprising.
Or maybe it’s only natural.
After all, co-creator Dan Harmon has culled a lunar cult around the thematically rich Community. Harmon and Justin Roiland, Rick and Morty’s other half, immediately established their new series as an interstellar action-comedy based in cruelty and triteness that is distinctly Earthling in origin. Every week, Morty and his family are trapped within sci-fi, late-night sushi caliber nightmares that either play on their weaknesses and uncertainties, or it’s an episode about cybernetically-enhanced dogs. Even super-scientist Rick’s cunning has been called into question. Harmon and Roiland’s ensemble isn’t as thoroughly (or bluntly) treated as, say, that Halloween episode of Buffy, but it might just beat Angel most weeks.
We’ve located the program on the Whedon Scale. Great.
Despite heavy promise, Rick and Morty simply hasn’t had the time to mature into a showpiece of character growth. In five episodes, however, it has demonstrated a knack for explosive, imaginative stories to which Morty and his kin feel satisfyingly essential. Those familiar with Community’s stranger side know that Harmon and his writers love to toy with fiction tropes. Harmon’s oft-mentioned “story circle” is a method of story-breaking honed from Joseph Campbell’s tropes-a-poppin’ hero journey (which I used to justify my disproportionate affection for a Nintendo game). The creator’s loftier experiments in rearranging the building blocks of story have resulted in many of Community’s best episodes, and Rick and Morty’s latest episode, “Meeseeks and Destroy,” shares the same Lego Freestyle Bucket. The episode has an easy joke in its title, but it poses a difficult question. Specifically, amid all the fairy tale merriment, Morty attempts to answer the episode’s most prominent query: is it possible to mold life into narrative? What is a “good” story, if you’re the one living it?
Perhaps it’s due to his limited mental capacity or any of the various injuries he’s suffered in the name of his grandfather’s science, but Morty, granted passage by Rick to any location in time and space, hazards a classic guess: he and Rick enter a “fantasy-type” world where giants hoard gold up in the clouds and peasants treat to their ye olde blemishes down below. After a quest-giver turns the duo on to treasure and the opportunity for heroism, Morty is convinced: outsmarting a giant, absconding with his gold (which, in this universe’s sick logic, probably turns out to be crucial funds for a lifesaving operation or tuition for Giant State University), and spreading the wealth to an impoverished kingdom are, in his opinion, three easy story beats for crafting his own, living epic.
Rick, unsurprisingly, takes a more cynical stance. Morty’s insistence on vapid setting and saccharine altruism, as well as the lack of potential for any real scientific discovery, leaves him nonplussed and irritated. He’s probably read it before in Hero with a Thousand Faces. For starters, we have the strange land, the crossing of the threshold, and the encounter with the guardian. “Meeseeks and Destroy” plays a familiar song, but it’s “Sk8r Boi,” slowed, reversed, and layered with Sylvia Plath from inside a basement wall, delivering a muffled one-woman performance of the Satan scene from The Adventures of Mark Twain. As Morty’s story continues, Campbell’s hero tropes are warped into moments of disappointment, terror, and repulsion.
Even after the adventure stops “going so smoothly and adventurously”– meaning after the giant suffers a fatal head injury and seizes to death, after the two are charged with giantslaughter by giant Serpico-style dics, after their case is thrown out by a giant Atticus-esque defense attorney who literally speaks up for little guys, and after they are left to descend the courthouse’s gargantuan steps– Morty stalwartly defends his adventure. Rick repeatedly states that Morty need only “say the word” and his portal gun will instantly deliver them from danger. Morty declines, asserting that “adventures have conflict,” but forgetting that conflict is rarely under the hero’s control.
The thematic kernel of “Meeseeks and Destroy” is how very little reality shares with the dramatic arcs of fiction. Morty has access to Aesop’s entire suite of fables, plus staircase-shaped people to boot. Unfortunately, the classic fairy tale strokes are muddled by the chaos and consequence of real life. When Morty realizes that he cannot be both author and protagonist of this realm, he’s sent tumbling down a very dark slope.
In the episode’s most potent encapsulation of theme, Morty is nearly raped by a jellybean man– and thankfully, despite the inherent silliness in those last few words, the situation is not played off as a joke. The jellybean’s sexual assault is captured in jarringly fluid animation. Moments after the attack, Morty trembles, shudders, and attempts to conceal his trauma from Rick out of shame. The tone of this scene and the details of Morty’s PTSD are real enough to mirror scenes of sexual assault captured on film such as Stoker or TV shows like that other episode of Buffy. The only differences here are the medium of animation and, of course, that the aggressor is made of candy. Jellybean people are comically absurd to imagine, but assuredly would not be as satisfying when fully realized and standing before you, a universal fact. To find amusement in reality, a layer of separation between the observer and the observed is necessary. A zoo gorilla is fascinating until it shatters its glass; a Velociraptor is rad until it opens a door.
That’s what Harmon and Roiland are attempting to convey in “Meeseeks and Destroy.” If jellybean people existed, some of them would be rapists. The inherent sadism in fiction, that protagonists suffer for the entertainment of the audience, doesn’t translate to lived experience. Real adventures, what Morty seeks, are either tragedies or near-tragedies and never glorious. Even the stair-shaped people know that. So, after Morty and Rick reach the foot of the steps via the magical flight of a mucus man, and after bequeathing cash unto the villagers, and after the king of the grateful peasants is revealed to be none other than the jellybean rapist, and after Rick and Morty escape, but not before Rick fires a laser through the sex offender’s jelly-filled skull– after all that and the credits– we’re left with a stinger:
A man we can only assume to be some kind of police chief (a Commissioner Gordon, given this scene’s similarities to The Dark Knight) is presented with a box of explicit photos. He is told the photos belonged to the freshly deceased King Jellybean; we can imagine their subject. The commissioner winces and delivers an order to his subordinate.
“Destroy it. Our people will get more from the idea he represented than from the jellybean he actually was.”
The morals, motifs, and themes we attach to stories are literary fabrications, lies told with optimism. When the truth is devoid of meaning, teaches nothing, and comforts no one, what’s wrong with a bit of artful embellishment?
The camera zooms out. Behind the two officers looms the stone effigy of Jellybean, his fingers curling over the shoulders of a beaming child.
American Dad comes on.