Man, when Rick said this was going to be the darkest season yet, he wasn’t kidding. Nothing in these past ten episodes had the same shock value of seeing a mad scientist wipe out the human race with a mistimed “love potion,” but that actually kind of made everything worse. Because the surprise is gone. There’s only so many times murder remains an effective punchline before you start to think, “Oh look, a corpse.” We’ve heard about the parallel universes and how little individual life matters and how much Rick doesn’t give a shit about any of it so often that the subversive tension of the commentary—of trying to show how an authentic Doctor Who-style genius would arguably just be a self-absorbed ass—no longer has any impact. This level of self-awareness is just nihilism with fart jokes.
And yeah, for a while, it worked. The parts of season three that were effective (and a lot of it was effective, and funny as hell) succeeded because they were honest. There was no effort to pretend that everything was fine, that this evil alien threat actually mattered even after all the other ones didn’t actually add up to anything. Evil Morty made an appearance, but he didn’t show up in the finale to break things, and that’s probably for the best. The third season dug deep into what it actually would be like to be so smart you can do pretty much anything, and to its credit, the picture wasn’t just “be awesome all the time.” Rick is still as fucked up as ever, and now Beth is in on the act. Morty and Summer seem sort of okay, but without anything like a stable family unit, who knows how long that will last.
But while that generated some good storylines, it’s not a direction you can go in forever. We need a conflict, stakes, plots that aren’t just Rick pointing out how stupid they are until they end. In previous seasons, the show managed a balance between self-mockery and honest joy in absurd scenarios. That joy is still there, more or less, but there’s a bitterness to it that’s harder and harder to ignore. “Pickle Rick” was great, but it also represents an endpoint—if Rick can literally turn himself into a pickle and still become an unstoppable killing machine, how do you up the ante? Where do you go next? At least that episode provided a rational counterpoint to Rick’s indulgences. By the time you have one of the titular protagonists of the show giving apparently sincere speeches about how hard it is to be smart, you’re in danger of getting lost in the weeds.avclub