Rick and Morty’s “Total Rickall” Understood an Uncomfortable Truth About Human Relationships

So what was your decision this past holiday? Did you say, “Omicron be damned,” and make your way back home? Was the trip uneventful, the family reunion joyous? And finally, were the medical repercussions non-existent? I sincerely hope so. As for the rest of you—the ones who got up to the wire, saw the infection rate spike, and said, “Naw, not this year”—I have a few more questions…

How did you feel, making that decision? Was there disappointment, frustration, anger even? Was there a voice in the back of your head saying, “Shit, not again?” Did you feel trapped in a continuum where the traditions you’ve known since childhood were once more ripped away from you, thwarted by threats that were at best ambiguous but that you could not ignore?

And then, think about this: Was there a part of you, a teeny-tiny fraction of your soul, that was just a little bit relieved? Maybe even happy?

Happy that the stress was off; that you didn’t have to face parents who couldn’t quite conceal their disappointment in your choice of career; that you wouldn’t be sharing space with the sibling for whom you harbored an almost alchemical animosity; that you wouldn’t have to listen to the in-law hell-bent on turning every conversation into a symposium on the absolute, God-given truth as revealed to him by certain, obscure, YouTube channels? Upon reflection, were you relieved that, for one more year, you were off the hook?

Don’t blame yourself. It’s only natural. Getting along with others is tricky in even the best of circumstances. And when it isn’t tricky, it sometimes means that something is wrong. Sometimes very, very wrong.

In “Total Rickall” (2015), the season two episode of the Adult Swim series Rick and Morty, Rick Sanchez, aka The Smartest Man in the Universe (voiced by co-creator Justin Roiland), discovers that his family—grandson and reluctant co-adventurer Morty Smith (Roiland again), married daughter Beth (Sarah Chalke), son-in-law Jerry (Chris Parnell), and teenage granddaughter Summer (Spencer Grammar)—has been infected with a malignant parasite that reproduces by implanting false memories in its hosts. The invasion starts off simply enough with the family sharing a meal with a fictional Uncle Steve (Tony Barbieri), but escalates rapidly, prompting Rick to quarantine the family’s suburban home behind blast shields as it becomes infested with such increasingly whimsical creatures as Photography Raptor, Reverse Giraffe, Hamurai (a Japanese warrior armored in pork products), and Amish Cyborg. (“What is this, ’90’s Conan?” Rick grouses after encountering the latter two.) And for each manifestation, there’s a flashback, cutaways that whisk the Smith family off to memories of wonderful adventures that they’ve had with these creatures.

And regular viewers of co-creator Dan Harmon’s Community will recognize “Total Rickall’s” premise immediately: It’s a fake clip show, a send-up of a very unfortunate TV trope in which a series, having either run over budget or fallen behind schedule or both, tries to catch up by cobbling together an episode from previously aired footage, tied together with quickly shot segments of the cast members turning to each other and saying, “Do you remember when…?” (Star Trek was responsible both for the form’s pinnacle with the original series’ two-part “The Menagerie,” and its nadir, with Next Gen’s unfortunate “Shades of Gray.”) The twist in the Community renderings, though, was that all of the clips were brand-new and shot specifically for the episode, negating the cost-cutting nature of the exercise and making these chapters magnificent, meta take-downs of series television.

“Total Rickall” doubles- and triples-down on the concept. Re-contextualizing the whole notion of a clip show so that the format functions as a Trojan Horse for an alien invasion manages to highlight the pure survival motives behind the birth of such episodes. And while the flashbacks start off invoking such sitcom staples as a trapped-in-the-elevator scenario to introduce the catchphrase-dropping (“I’m walkin’ heah!”) Cousin Nicky (Ryan Ridley), or a Morty-needs-a-date-to-the-dance set-up to conjure the benevolent, cross-dressing butler Mr. Beauregard (Tony Barbieri again, prompting coos from a laugh-track audience), they don’t stay that way. There’s a flashback that manages to cross-breed Scooby-Doo with Indiana Jones, with maybe a dash of The Venture Bros. thrown in; and another in which it turns out that Rick improbably served in Vietnam alongside Frankenstein’s monster (Kevin Michael Richardson). More than a few of the characters’ anxieties come to the fore: Jerry’s sense of emasculation manifests as he finds himself demoted to best friend and secret lover of Beth’s new husband, Sleepy Gary (Matt Walsh)—their relationship is revealed in a nerdy, Notebook-esque flashback to a romantic getaway set on Gary’s boat, complete with random Chewbacca reference—and Summer gets a conflicted-teen flashback that includes a magical ballerina lamb, a chore- and kid brother-free enchanted kingdom, rave culture, and gangsta rap. Character exposé nests within genre satires nest within format satire; this is about as dense as comedy can get, and that’s before we get to a singularly unsettling reveal.

That reveal comes as Morty volunteers to execute Rick in order to free the house from its blast shields. As Rick hurls abuse at the boy, declaring that all the scientist’s memories of Morty are awful ones (if there’s anything that Roiland is great at, it’s capturing the mix of anger and anguish that roils under Rick’s misanthropic façade), Morty comes to a sudden realization: All the memories the parasites have implanted are fun, happy ones; when the creatures try to invoke something negative, the best they can do is an image of the Smith family on a roller coaster. (“Roller coasters aren’t bad,” an angered Beth sneers, “they’re thrilling.”) Turns out the only way to know if your relationship to another person is real is if you have memories of the times when they’ve been absolute shits… How’s that for upbeat, kids?

And, yeah, that moral could be chalked up to Rick and Morty’s general, “People, they’re the worst,” ethos. Maybe that’s what Roiland, Harmon, and episode writer Mike McMahan had in mind. But whether by accident or design, they hit on one of the itchier aspects of human relationships. In the episode’s finale, the Smith family goes on a bloody rampage through the house, alternately smoking the parasites with SF weapons while checking themselves to see if they harbor bad memories of each other. Morty recalls Summer giving him a swift kick in the nuts for an infraction he did not commit; Summer thinks back to the time a drunk Beth gave her a shiner on picture day; Beth remembers when Jerry steered a rampaging homeless guy in her direction during a shopping trip. The cast’s voicing of the family’s responses—Morty confirms that, “She’s my bitch of a sister;” Summer refers to Beth as, “the lady who got pregnant with me too early and constantly makes it our problem;” and when the craven Jerry weeps, “I’m a parasite!” Beth responds, “Yeah. But you’re real”—reflects each character’s bitterness and resentment, but also something else: relief at the recognition of another, true human, and acceptance of their frailties, bordering on—brace yourselves—love.

And whether intentional or not, “Total Rickall” acknowledges something vital about how we relate to each other: That we don’t maintain our connections because we ignore the shortcomings and weaknesses in each other, but because we recognize them, and embrace them as part of being human. In a way, the parasites, with their fond, false memories, represent a kind of emotional Uncanny Valley, getting close to a sense of humanity, but lacking the flaws that we instinctually seek out to be sure that what we behold is real. Being in relationships with others is being aware that we can all, at one time or another, act like assholes, and still being okay with that.

(Just to be very clear: This philosophy only goes so far, and has definite limits. If you’re in an abusive relationship, please disregard the observations above and seek help, pronto.)

But if the producers did intend to examine our awareness of each other’s flaws as a vital part of the human contract, it’s not surprising that they would then turn right around and spotlight how this blessing may also be a curse. Which leads us to the unfortunate fate of Mr. Poopybutthole.

A character hitherto unseen in the series, Mr. Poopybutthole makes his first appearance in “Total Rickall” right after Rick warns his family to watch out for any “zany” characters. With his lozenge-shaped head, teeny top hat, and ebullient attitude, Mr. Poopybutthole certainly fits the bill, and his suspect nature is only compounded when he drops such lines as, “I’ve always been here for you guys, and I always will be.” So it isn’t all that surprising that when he turns up at the post-slaughter dining table, a now-suspicious Beth shoots him point-blank. To her dismay, the assault reveals that no, Mr. Poopybutthole is not a parasite, only a dear friend that the family has known for years. A friend Beth has just mortally wounded.

On the one hand this is a supreme bit of meta-humor, the show sending up its own joke structure—Mr. Poopybutthole’s first appearance just after Rick’s warning, and the scientist’s presumed obliviousness to the alien’s sudden advent, makes the moment a perfect, Rick and Morty-style button gag to lead into the opening credits. On the other hand, it serves as a warning that our instincts can sometimes lead us astray. In the after-end-credits sequence, it turns out Mr. Poopybutthole has survived the shooting, but not without the need for physical rehabilitation. As the family stands, watching through a therapy room window as their friend painfully relearns how to walk, his physical therapist emerges to deliver a message to Beth: “He’s sorry you didn’t have bad memories of him.”

Sometimes good people are just good people. It can be hard to make the distinction between faux niceness and the real thing—that’s why sociopaths and multi-level marketers are able to take advantage of us—but that doesn’t exempt us from according a bit of trust in our relations, and accepting decency in the rare moments it presents itself. Most times, though, even the best of us can act like righteous tools. It’s an amazing, human capacity to take those flaws into account, sometimes to the point of treasuring them. Again, there are limits—if you have doubts or questions about what constitutes abusive or otherwise problematic behavior, please don’t hesitate to reach out to others for advice and support. But for the rest of us, it’s not out of line that we should celebrate our ability to accept each other, even at our worst. Imperfect as we are, at least we know we’re real.

* * *

It would be naïve of me to pretend that a show that traffics in some of the darkest, most pessimistic humor around would suddenly find a silver lining amidst all the clouds. So, what do you think? Am I being too generous in my read of this episode? Is there an alternate interpretation that I’ve completely ignored (aside from raising our awareness of the all-purpose uses of a jar of marmalade)? The comments section is open for your thoughts, so long as you remember that you’re dealing with your fellow humans, here. Keep it sweet, peeps, and have at it!

(For the record: There is a fan theory that this entire episode takes place in an alternate universe that’s close to Rick and Morty’s regular one, except for the presence of Mr. Poopybutthole, thus explaining why Rick wasn’t surprised by the guy’s presence at the start of the episode. That doesn’t really have any impact on either the gag or my analysis, so let’s just note the argument and move on.)

Dan Persons has been knocking about the genre media beat for, oh, a good handful of years, now. He’s presently house critic for the radio show Hour of the Wolf on WBAI 99.5FM in New York, and previously was editor of Cinefantastique and Animefantastique, as well as producer of news updates for The Monster Channel. He is also founder of Anime Philadelphia, a program to encourage theatrical screenings of Japanese animation. And you should taste his One Alarm Chili! Wow!


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