Rick and Morty is finally returning on Sunday, but in the two years since season three wrapped up, we’ve had lots of time to revisit the 31 episodes that are out in the world already. Truly, we love them all—but these 10 entries, in particular, all have something extra that’s helped shape the series in fundamental ways.
Ten episodes is actually double the amount we’ll be getting from season four when it kicks off November 10—because season four’s going to be be divided in half. (Check out the episode titles, which do nothing but reaffirm the creators’ abiding love of pop culture puns, right here.) But considering how long we’ve been waiting for some popping fresh Rick and Morty, a smaller portion sure feels better than nothing at all. While you wait, read below for our essentials list.
The second-ever Rick and Morty episode first aired December 9, 2013, and if you revisit the sorta shaky series pilot and then dive right into “Lawnmower Dog,” you can really see how the show found its footing remarkably quickly. This episode’s set-up would come to be used multiple times throughout the show (with slight variations, of course): one of Rick’s genius inventions is thrust upon other members of the Smith family, followed by his hasty departure, after which things soon spiral way out of their tenuous-to-begin-with control. Here, it’s a device that enhances the intelligence of the family dog so much that little Snuffles—sorry, Snowball—soon spearheads a canine effort to take over the world.
Meanwhile, Rick and Morty are off using another of Rick’s genius inventions, a gadget that allows them to enter other peoples’ dreams. Their intention—to “incept” Morty’s math teacher into giving him better grades—is soon derailed when they get tangled in a series of dream worlds, where they have a nightmarish encounter with “some sort of a legally safe knock-off of an ‘80s horror character” named Scary Terry, who chases them until they sneak into the sword-fingered villain’s own nightmare and turn him into an ally.
Ultimately the two plots connect, and the episode culminates with a happy, if bittersweet, ending as Snowball decides to depart Earth rather than make all of humankind bend the knee. There’s also some inside-baseball snark about “board-driven” animation, and one last look at Scary Terry—a character so likably weird it’s amazing he’s never returned, though as future episodes ably demonstrated, Rick and Morty has never had a problem cooking up memorable side characters any time it needs a new one...bitch.
Season one’s sixth episode sees Morty’s crush on pretty classmate Jessica—a recurring plot point—take an apocalyptic turn when Rick gives him a love potion that reacts very badly when it mixes with the flu. The infection spreads around the globe in minutes, rendering Earth first overrun with zombies who thirst for Morty, then (after Rick tries to mend things) praying-mantis mutants, and finally, hulking monsters dubbed “Cronenbergs.”
This episode is important for several reasons. It shows Rick making a huge blunder that he’s not able to quickly fix, though he does eventually come up with a solution. More importantly, as we—and a dumbfounded Morty—really realize for the first time, Rick and Morty takes place in just one of many, many identical multiverses filled with Ricks and Mortys, as well as versions of their friends and families. With their own reality ravaged beyond repair, Rick teleports with Morty into a reality where the outbreak was averted, but also where that reality’s Rick and Morty accidentally blew themselves up seconds prior. A couple of buried bodies later, and the pair assume their same roles in a new (but identical) world.
The sneaky switch has a hand in a few more plots down the line, notably when the Smith siblings really need a portal gun and dig up Dead Grandpa’s grave to find one. But mostly, “Rick Potion #9” accomplishes showing us how enormous a canvas the show is working from. It’s literally infinite.
Season one’s 10th episode propels Rick and Morty’s larger mythology forward in a way that feels like a low-key finale, though there was one more episode to go in the season (the somewhat more lighthearted house-party tale “Ricksy Business,” which ended up being a two-parter with season two’s first episode). “Close Rick-counters of the Rick Kind” is important because it introduces us to the Citadel of Ricks, the secret intergalactic hub for Ricks—they don’t get along with authority, but also tend to fight with each other, too—and their attendant Mortys. “This place is a real who’s who of who’s you and me,” Rick explains, as he and Morty are dragged before the Council of Ricks and their various hairstyles when Rick’s accused of murdering other Ricks across various timelines.
It’s a frame-up, of course, and the pair escapes; after an amazing cross-portal chase scene that introduces us to a variety of intensely bizarre dimensions, like the various combinations of phones/chairs/pizzas that they pass through, they find the real Rick behind all the murders. (Meanwhile, a gang of Ricks awaits their return at the Smith house, fawning over Beth and gleefully punking Jerry, who ends up befriending “Doofus Rick,” because of course he does.) The big reveal, of course, is that the evil Rick is actually being controlled remotely, and—in a detail only the audience is privy to—the puppeteer is his Morty, who’s got a transmitter hidden behind an eye patch. Though the murderous Rick is defeated, and our Rick’s name is cleared (for now), the eye-patch Morty is an important character that’ll pop up again, in a much more powerful capacity.
Season two’s second episode takes place entirely off-world. First, Morty—who’s learning to fly Rick’s spacecraft—and Rick jettison a stowaway Jerry at a “Jerryboree,” a daycare filled with Jerrys who spend their time fiddling with TV cables and exclaiming “I know, right?” at each other. Then we get to the meat of the episode: Morty’s determined attempts to stick to a moral code without really understanding the complexities of intergalactic life. He frees a marked-for-death prisoner—a gaseous, telepathic blob nicknamed “Fart” (voiced, delightfully, by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement)—and determinedly holds firm even as many, many lives are lost along the way (and Rick gives him tons of shit about it). Eventually, Morty ends up having to blast his new buddy—negating the massive body count left in his do-gooding wake—when it’s revealed Fart’s aim is to “cleanse” the galaxy of carbon-based life forms...including humans. Oops!
There are so many hilarious ideas stuffed into “Mortynight Run” from start to finish: the Blips and Chitz casino that’s home to Rick’s favorite VR game, the deliberately mundane Roy; the unbelievably cheerful attitude of hired killer Krompoulos Michael; the up-close peek at the home system of Revolio Clockberg Jr., who’d really prefer Rick didn’t call him “Gearhead;” the nuances of the Jerryboree (as well as the fact that Rick and Morty aren’t entirely sure if they leave with the same Jerry they dropped off); the dreamy, psychedelic mini-music videos that unfurl across the screen whenever Fart breaks into song.
The worldbuilding alone is incredible in “Mortynight Run,” but its ultimate takeaway is that Morty’s determined optimism will always clash with Rick’s cynical attitude and laser-focus on self-preservation—a theme that returns throughout the series, but is particularly potently rendered here.
Season two has so many killer examples of how wide the Rick and Morty world really is—the intergalactic, live-music game show-obsessed giant heads of “Get Schwifty” being a particular fan favorite. But “Total Rickall” makes this list because it takes place entirely within the Smith home. It’s the show’s version of a “trapped in an elevator” sketch (and they actually do get trapped in an elevator during a flashback), as the family does battle against an alien parasite with the ability to create false memories—making all the humans, even the generally infallible Rick, believe these strange creatures are their beloved, lifelong friends.
The episode has a pretty simple story, all things considered; once Morty figures out that you can identify who’s real if you have a bad memory of them, the house turns into an alien parasite bloodbath. But the build-up is a gleeful, rapid-fire infestation of lovable, self-consciously “wacky” characters that everyone assumes are real based on their fake flashbacks: Mr. Beauregard, the butler, who dressed in drag to accompany Morty to a school dance; Mrs. Refrigerator, a giant living refrigerator who loves roller coasters; Sleepy Gary, a guy in a stocking cap who loves...Jerry; plus a bunch of surreal incarnations like “Reverse Giraffe,” “Photography Raptor,” “Baby Wizard,” and so many more.
If the purpose of the episode is to show that negativity can sometimes bring people together, especially the Smith family, “Total Rickall” also winks at its own ridiculousness by introducing Mr. Poopybutthole, a brand-new character at the opening—he’s even added into the opening credits. The twist, which makes meta-fun of itself by not being a twist, is that he was real all along. Unlike Scary Terry—but similar to other offbeat Rick associates, like Bird Person—Mr. Poopybutthole (another fan favorite) does make return appearances later in the series, having survived his near-death experience after Beth mistakenly shoots him. Oo-wee!
Season one had “Rixty Minutes,” which saw Rick rig the Smiths’ TV set to receive cable from every imaginable dimension—including one where Jerry is, however improbably, a famous actor, and another where the top show is, very much believably, an action extravaganza called Ball Fondlers. Season two brought back the gimmick (with a knowing wink; just look at that episode title) when the family finds themselves stuck in the waiting room of an alien hospital while Jerry gets emergency surgery.
“Rixty Minutes” is delightful (as is season three’s similar-but-not-quite-the-same “Morty’s Mindblowers”), but “Interdimensional Cable 2” has the most fun with the idea, with Rick and Morty co-creator Justin Roiland (who does the voices of Rick, Morty, and pretty much everyone on interdimensional TV) having a blast approximating the genuinely bizarre experience of flipping through dozens of alien channels. The “B” plot involves Jerry’s reluctance to donate his penis to save an intergalactic civil rights hero—with a somber Werner Herzog doing one of the greatest all-time Rick and Morty voice cameos—but the alien TV programming and commercials (surreal, yet strangely recognizable) are the real stars of the episode...not to mention the reason I have re-watched this episode dozens of times and mutter random things like “Let’s get some stepped-up personal space up in this place” to myself any time I’m in a crowd.
Yes, this is the episode that’s responsible for that whole McDonald’s Szechuan sauce debacle. But it’s still an important one, for other reasons!
Season three’s first episode begins with Rick stuck in prison, having his brain picked by a Galactic Federation agent (voiced by Nathan Fillion) who’s very eager to figure out how Rick invented interdimensional travel. The Galactic Federation has also assumed control of Earth—a grim situation that somehow makes Jerry, who finally has a job, happier than we’ve ever seen him.
Desperate to rescue Rick and restore normalcy to her life, Summer digs up a certain backyard grave—remember, from “Rick Potion #9”?—to get that version of Grandpa’s portal gun. Morty tries to dissuade her by showing her the Earth he’s originally from, the post-apocalyptic world we also saw in “Rick Potion #9,” pointing out that she shouldn’t want to rescue a guy who’s so willing to abandon his family. But both kids prove their loyalty when they’re whisked to the Citadel (as seen in “Close Rick-counters of the Rick Kind”) to reunite with the only Rick clever enough to decimate the Council of Ricks and the Galactic Federation (and also, to get Beth to finally dump Jerry) in one fell swoop. A lot of plot happens, and so does a lot of awesome ass-kicking.
The second episode of season three has a very fun plot that sends Rick, Summer, and Morty to a Mad Max-style post-apocalyptic world, where Summer (briefly) finds romance with a “Death Stalker” and Morty sprouts a magic arm that allows him to dominate in the Thunderdome...er, Blood Dome.
But “Rickmancing the Stone” is most notable because it digs into how Summer and Morty deal with their parents’ impending divorce—at the beginning, we see Jerry, unemployed again and pathetic as always, moving into his lonely-guy apartment. Though everyone’s been anticipating this split for a while, when it actually happens it still hits the kids pretty hard. Summer’s tactic is escapism, so she transforms herself into a wasteland warrior. Morty, meanwhile, worries about his sister’s inability to face reality, but soon finds himself working through his own complicated feelings while beating mutants to a pulp. He eventually has a breakthrough—realizing he needs to help his monstrous arm (which is driven by the unfinished business of its former owner) find closure, and stop holding onto his own angst about his parents, because “sooner or later, you’ve got to let it go.”
Of course, one trip to the post-apocalypse doesn’t cure everything—as we learn in the next episode, “Pickle Rick,” both kids are still acting out by huffing pottery glaze (Summer) and peeing in class (Morty). But “Rickmancing the Stone” remains one of Rick and Morty’s best examples of showing how the Smith family tackles every day, very human problems by framing them within some rather extraordinary situations.
Season three’s seventh episode sends “our” Rick and Morty on an adventure to Atlantis, which we never see, and shifts its attention to the Citadel of Ricks—a dystopian metropolis in the post-Galactic Federation era. We get an up-close look at what Citadel life is for a wide array of Ricks and Morty—at school, on the subway, reporting the news, assembling wafer cookies, nabbing crooks in Mortytown—and while there’s crime, frequent nervous breakdowns, and civil unrest, the biggest story is that it’s the eve of newly democratic society’s first presidential election, with candidates including various Ricks and one determined Morty.
While we see Rick and Morty’s main duo butt heads in every episode, the tension between them, and their character types, obviously plays out on a much grander scale within the Citadel. While the dominant, superior Ricks often come into conflict with each other—it’s difficult when everyone’s the smartest guy in the universe—the subjugated, oft-insulted Mortys have reached a breaking point with the way they’ve always been treated. When the well-spoken Morty candidate actually gets elected, a new day dawns on the Citadel—a sinister new day, because as we (and a few characters, one of whom is quickly spaced) soon learn, President Morty is really the crazy smart Morty who was controlling his murderous Rick from beneath his eye patch...and the specifics of his nefarious endgame have yet to be revealed.
The season three finale—which aired October 1, 2017, so very long ago—reunites Rick and Morty with President Keith David. Since the pair saved Earth from plasma-ray destruction in season two’s “Get Schwifty,” he’s evidently been calling upon them to solve the administration’s more unusual problems; this time, it’s busting an alien interloper that’s taken up residence in the “Kennedy sex tunnels” beneath the White House. But they’re tired of the president’s dull errands, so they blow him off in favor of sitting around and playing Minecraft, which leads to a whole lot of chest-beating in the Brazilian rain forest over shrinking technology and a shoot-out in the Oval Office.
Political squabbles aside, the main reason “The Rickchurian Mortydate” is so important is because of what happens back at the Smith house. Beth suddenly gets the idea that she might be a clone, and goes running to Jerry for help. Somehow, she falls back in love with him and the family reunites, much to Rick’s disgust: “Nobody gets it. Nothing you think matters, matters. This isn’t special. This is happening infinite times across infinite realities!”
Rather than follow his immediate urge to ditch the timeline altogether, Rick decides to make amends with the president by pretending to be “Fly-Fishing Rick.” He glumly settles back in with a family that’s “like season one, but more streamlined,” according to Beth, who proudly announces that she’s no longer motivated by the fear that her father will leave her again.
It’s Rick’s worst nightmare: He’s booted to being “the lowest-status character in my idiot family,” and season four will be surely dealing with this shift in the status quo. That is, unless it does the exact opposite of what you might expect—which would be a totally Rick and Morty thing to do.
Which Rick and Morty episodes do you think are the most important so far—and which ones are your all-time favorites? We’ll finally have some new material to obsess over when Rick and Morty season four kicks off November 10 on Adult Swim.
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