“The Vat of Acid Episode” puts its cleverness to good use for an emotional payoff that proves the show can still sting when it wants to.
This recap of Rick and Morty season 4, episode 8, “The Vat of Acid Episode”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
These days, Rick and Morty, for all the things it does well, has a couple of pernicious problems. The first is that it takes ages to make, and so there’s a big gap between seasons and, as it turns out, between the first and second halves of seasons, so it’s hard for the show to tell on-going stories that pay off throwaway gags or character beats since they occurred months prior and nobody remembers them. There’s probably a question to be asked about whether Rick and Morty wants to tell these kinds of stories in the first place, but whatever. The second problem is that the show’s full of itself. It’s prone to disappearing up its own behind and rigorously examining what’s ticking because the essential setup has become weirdly immutable. Rick causes a problem with his own multiversal meddling, which very often has consequences for him and Morty both, and then Rick fixes the problem with increasingly elaborate sci-fi devices. Nothing ever really changes or has lasting consequences.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this – in fact, it can be the most entertaining thing about the show. But whenever an episode like “The Vat of Acid Episode” comes along you spot the difference straight away, and, at least for me, it always prompts the questions of whether Rick and Morty would be better if it spent more time using its nihilistic imagination to unpack Morty’s feelings rather than commenting on its own circular nature.
It’s easy to forget that Morty isn’t a genius super-scientist; he’s just a kid. He idolizes Rick and has seen enough across four seasons of eccentric adventuring with him that he’s perhaps not your typical teenager anymore, but he’s still not a grown adult. He still hasn’t lived much for himself. Rick and Morty Season 4, Episode 8 returns to a conceit from earlier in the season by allowing Morty to meddle with his own life and then have to shoulder the consequences of doing so, which makes for a rare emotional impact, and also a rarer-still instance of the show using its own clever self-awareness to make that emotion really sting.
“The Vat of Acid Episode” uses its titular vat to make some ballsy storytelling choices, including a bit without dialogue in the middle that does more for Morty as a character than any single episode we’ve seen in ages. It builds to what is a relatively poignant payoff both less funny and more lasting than usual, although there are still jokes a-plenty if you’re looking for them (and if you’re not).
But here’s that question again: If Rick and Morty can do episodes like this with what seems like little effort, why isn’t it doing them all the time? If Rick is necessarily laissez faire about how his high-concept meddling has a knock-on effect for people – and often planets – other than himself, then it only makes sense for Morty to be the inverse of that; the emotional reflection of Rick’s extreme stoicism. “The Vat of Acid Episode” proves that kind of thing works, and perhaps, more importantly, it proves that Harmon and Roiland know which aspects of the show and its characters would still benefit from being unpacked. That they so often choose not to do so is Rick and Morty’s cruelest jokes – it might also be one of its best.
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