The Ricks Must Be Crazy is not quite my favourite episode of Rick & Morty, but I do think it’s the most Rick & Mortyiest episode of the whole show. What I mean by that is episodes like The Ricklantis Mixup or Total Rickall are brilliant high concepts which reinvent the tropes of the show, but don’t tell a typical, straightforward Rick & Morty adventure. The Ricks Must Be Crazy does, and in doing so highlights the real magic of the show, even stripped down to its basics.
The story revolves around Rick & Morty delving into the multiverse inside Rick’s car battery, and exploring the mini reality Rick has created, including a being with a genius to rival his own, Zeep. While that’s rightly praised as one of the show’s best a-plots – and has been memorialised in meme format through ‘slavery with extra steps’ – the b-polt, which sees Summer staying in the car, is vastly underrated.
Rick asks the car to keep Summer safe, which initially results in the car murdering a vaguely threatening passerby, before psychologically torturing a police officer with a melting vision of his dead son, and finally brokering a peace treaty in the spider war. It’s overshadowed by how much the miniverse story commits to the chaos, but in most other episodes it would be strong enough to oust the a-plot.
Examining the show’s a-plot first, it’s a bit of a shame that the episode has been memefied, as that takes some of the gloss over the issues it presents. Rick has created an entire civilisation, and offers them complete freedom, as long as they generate electricity for him. The ‘slavery with extra steps’ line is worth a much closer look than impact font affords; has Rick essentially created slaves by forcing living people with hopes and dreams and free will to live a life dedicated to powering his car? Or, when he could easily have just bought and charged a regular battery, does Rick deserve some praise for creating sentient life forms and allowing them a peaceful, prosperous life?
Aside from having to generate electricity, there does not seem to be much of a downside to life in the miniverse. There’s no war, no crime, and the task of generation isn’t any harder than several jobs in our – or Rick’s – reality. Rick & Morty is at its best when it raises these questions without answering them, trusting the audience to ponder them on their own. This trust is often misplaced (see: the Szechuan sauce incident), especially with such a wide, vocal and irritating fanbase, but that doesn’t change the fact that Rick & Morty examines questions other mainstream cartoons do not.
By far the most interesting thing about this miniverse though is the presence of Zeep, played by the always wonderful Stephen Colbert. Zeep has an intellect to rival Rick’s own, and so reveals another aspect of Rick’s genius. It’s not too difficult to imagine Rick could create rudimentary life forces capable of simple electricity generation – we all had sea monkeys as a kid, after all – but in creating Zeep, he’s able not only to create basic life forms, but life forms so advanced they rival his own genius; something very few life forms anywhere are capable of.
Zeep is the one who truly makes this a-plot special. Most of the enemies Rick encounters in his travels outnumber and outgun him, and/or try to beat him with brute force. On the rare occasions where he’s outsmarted, it’s because of others working together, a betrayal, or because someone got the drop on him. Zeep is essentially the only time Rick meets his match on a level playing field, and since Rick created Zeep and his universe, if anything Rick actually has the upper hand. Zeep not only matches Rick, their battle of wits is only over when Rick manages to escape from the miniverse back to his own reality, where he finds his car battery working again.
This raises another interesting thought about Zeep; he’s not only as smart as Rick, he also appears to have more humility, and is able to think more laterally. Zeep concedes that if their miniverse does not produce Rick’s electricity, he will no longer need the battery and thus will destroy it. Rick, by testing the battery, shows that he understands Zeep’s thinking; he expected Zeep to do this, and so allows Zeep and the rest to live in exchange for his continued supply of electricity. The only question is, if the shoe was on the other foot, would Rick have so openly admitted defeat to save the lives of everyone around him? Or would he rather die than let someone else get the best of him?
One final note on the a-plot is needed to address Morty himself. He’s a bit part player for most of episode, which usually means marking the episode down. Here though, it helps show how Rick is above everyone – apart from Zeep – and keeping Morty on the backburner for so long only makes his eventual explosion about masturbating to an extra curvy piece of driftwood all the more dramatic.
Speaking of being on the backburner, the episode checks in with Summer infrequently, but always manages to raise the stakes. What makes this such a strong storyline is a that a lot of shows would escalate from killing one person to killing three people, then to five, then ten, et cetera. For all Rick & Morty isn’t afraid of bloodshed, it decides to go in a more creative direction here and is all the more powerful.
After the car kills one person, Summer is distraught and begs the car not to hurt anyone. This is when the car moves on from simply shooting people to perhaps the most brutal image the show has ever concocted. As police circle the car, a small boy emerges – this turns out to be the recently deceased child of one of the officers, brought back to life for just long enough to hug his father before melting into sludge in his arms. Say what you like about Rick & Morty, but you can’t accuse it of not thinking outside the box. The escalation from this stage proves that further, as the car’s next step is to broker a peace treaty between the humans and the spiders in order to ensure Summer’s continued safety.
Finally, tribute has to be paid to the animation itself, particularly of the backgrounds. The dark and moody world of the ‘main’ universe is in complete contrast to the cartoonish, vibrant tones of the miniverse. From here, they disappear into a lighter, more washed out, sun soaked stone palette, and once they slip a level further into the microverse, this aesthetic changes again to become a lush, naturalistic green world, peppered with browns and reds to offer a more forest vibe. The characters in all four worlds don’t particularly differ all that much in personality until the bottom, so it’s really on the design and the artwork to sell the idea that these aren’t just three different places, they’re three entirely different realities.
Rick & Morty has certainly gained more plaudits when it’s broken their typical storytelling mould. Of the more regular episodes though, you’ll be hard pushed to find one better than The Ricks Must Be Crazy.