Speaking of "mutual parasitic relationships", Adult Swim's Rick and Morty is doing something this season that wasn't quite there to this extent in the previous three: a thematic series of episodes. Probably the best way to explain it is that while other shows are concerned about storylines between characters and keeping canon, Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland's righteously popular animated series feels more concerned with evolving and growing the episodes thematic foundations. Director Jacob Hair, and writers Jeff Loveness and Albro Lundy, were able to take two important thematic aspects from last week's episode and expand upon them. But for "The Vat of Acid Episode", they were able to grow our dimension-hopping duo's parasitic relationship and ability to be a wanton force for mass destruction by personalizing it.
Rick and Morty find themselves in the middle of another of Rick's shady business deals with the less-than-reputable in the galaxy. As expected, the deal goes bad but that's okay: Rick's rigged a fake vat of acid with oxygen tanks and fake bones to fool the alien mobsters into thinking they were burned alive. Except they don't leave as quickly as they should, and they start asking questions. A dead rat and an unexpected ladle later, Morty's had enough and kills the gangsters with Rick's gun. With all of that playing out, we still didn't get to the heart of the episode: that was all window dressing.
Our animated anti-heroes are suffering from "relationship boredom", it's been growing all season, and this was the episode where it all came to a head. Aside from being a teenager (which is definitely becoming a factor), Morty's confidence /cockiness in many ways is well-earned: he's paid a pretty hefty price over the seasons, so we can respect him wanting his ideas heard more. But if you're Rick, you can't help but feel like you're being taken for granted. A "mortal god" with a limitless brain and portal gun, he finds himself having to ask permission to go on adventures with his grandson and having to be respectful to someone (Jerry) he can barely acknowledge as breathing. So when Morty trashed his fake acid vat plan, it was as if Morty was flipping off every amazing thing he's seen up to this point. Was it a great plan? No, but Rick believed his "beautiful disaster" was deserving of respect.
So what's one of the first things a dysfunctional couple like this does? They look to hurt the other where it hurts the most. For Morty, it's about humiliating Rick with an invention idea that Rick can't create: a video game-inspired "save point" that would allow Morty to return to a set point in time so he can escape death and correct past mistakes. Morty's deprived his victory when Rick actually creates the device, but there's no time to dwell on that as Morty speeds off to commit crimes, pull pranks, try new experiences, and even fall in love. There's even a sequence with a plane crash and survivors eating the dead that leads to a rescue, Jerry being Jerry, and Morty learning that a life without consequences isn't really a life at all.
Happy ending. Everyone goes home smiling, right? Yeah, no. See, Rick said all along that he's not big on time travel so what Morty was doing each and every time he pressed that button was jump to another dimension for another chance at whatever he was doing. Small problem? The native Morty of that dimension dies each time our Morty jumps there to change his dinner order or jump a manhole. That's a lot of dead Mortys on our Morty's conscience, but Rick has a way out: merging all of the alternate dimensions will prevent the deaths. Bad news? Everyone in their dimension remembers all of the messed-up things Morty did and his only way out? Yup, Morty has to learn to stop worrying and love the fake vat of acid. Which he does, and that's when Rick drops the biggest punchline of the episode: it's not really their dimension. There was no way Rick was going to risk Morty messing up the one where he keeps his stuff, do you?
For Rick, it wasn't about proving Morty wrong by creating the device. That was always going to happen. No, this was about "reminding" Morty of his place in their dynamic and not-so-gentle reminder that when he says he's the smartest living thing in the multi-dimensional universe he has the resume to back it up. But as much as Morty needs to be "The Angry Young Man" and Rick needs to keep raging, raging against the dying of the light, they lose sight of how much they need each other. For Morty, Rick represents a life of endless possibilities, unlimited potential, and a universe of experiences still to come. In return, Morty continues to challenge Rick in ways that keeps him from becoming bored and stale. Was Rick insulted by Morty beating up on the acid vat? Definitely, but he was angry at himself for giving Morty a legit point to make.
As for how both Rick and Morty went about trying to "teach the other a lesson", that's something that seems to be getting addressed more this season. If you thought the body count in "Promortyus" was pretty profound, then you're probably needing smelling salts by the end of this one. Yes, the alternate dimensions were all (supposedly) eliminated by the time the credits rolled but seriously? Between Morty's do-overs, the opening sequence, and that poor sap who offered his ass to Johnny Carson only to find out he's not invulnerable to acid, that number has to be in the thousands. Do I think there's going to be some "Afterschool Special" addressing their body count? No, but I do think it's important that we pause for a second to "appreciate" their destructive skills. We thought we were seeing a glimmer of that when Rick forced Morty to deal with the consequences of his actions. Morty's life lesson: insult the most "Rick" of all the "Ricks" at your (and a whole lot of others') own peril.