Note: This piece contains spoilers for season 3, episode 2 of Rick & Morty.
Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon’s wildly successful Adult Swim series, Rick & Morty—which follows an alcoholic mad scientist and his anxious grandson on their adventures across various dimensions and galaxies—premiered the second episode of its highly anticipated third season on July 30th. (The actual season premiere aired on Adult Swim and its website on April Fool’s Day of this year, as a reverse April Fool’s joke.)
“Rickmancing the Stone” uses a clever Mad Max franchise parody—and yes, Fury Road is included—as its framing device, but the episode itself has unexpected emotional resonance as it chronicles Morty and Summer’s reactions to their parents’ recent divorce. Rick, of course, is single-minded enough to focus on obtaining a stone from the people of the Mad Max planet, isotope 322, which contains enough magical science stuff to power their entire planet.
Meanwhile, Morty is yet again subject to Rick’s machinations, serving as his beloved grandfather’s guinea pig; appropriately enough for this episode, Morty gains one giant arm that can easily defeat other fighters in the “Blood Dome,” but the arm also has memories of being ripped from its original owner—and the appendage sends Morty on a violent quest for revenge.
Strangely, Morty finds that crushing his opponents in and out of the Blood Dome helps him work through some of the trauma of his parents’ split. In any other show, a protagonist killing the citizens of a Mad Max alternate reality/universe (in increasingly violent ways) to work through trauma might seem a little too weird, or obvious. In Rick & Morty’s twisted world, however, this conceit works in a way that is both in character for Morty and gives him more emotional depth than simply being an anxious teenager who occasionally serves as a test subject for his very unethical scientist grandfather.
Older sister Summer is the true emotional heart of this episode; her yelp of “I fucking LOVE post-apocalyptic versions of Earth!” as she and Rick fire back at an Immortan Joe-esque villain and his battle-scarred compatriots provides a glimpse of what is to come. As Rick, Morty and Summer navigate their way through this particularly gruesome post-apocalyptic version of Earth—where the occasional human bicep or tricep proves to be the only food option—Summer meets Hemorrhage, the bucket-headed gang leader of the Deathstalkers who is voiced by comedian Joel McHale.
Hemorrhage and Summer fall for each other; as the episode unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that Summer is trying to distract herself from the turmoil in her home life by both fully embracing the Deathstalker lifestyle of disposing of the gang’s enemies in gruesome ways, and by diving headlong into a relationship with Hemorrhage.
The ways in which Summer and Morty’s dealings with trauma (by taking it out on other people in this post-apocalyptic landscape) mirror each other somewhat provides unexpected depth to an episode that otherwise could have gone full-Mad Max without any of the emotional wrangling.
Beth, Rick and Summer’s mom, is not dealing with her and dad Jerry’s divorce in a healthy way, either—she’s been drinking more and, on some level, expecting her kids to tell her what she wants to hear regarding her split from Jerry. Combined with Morty and Summer’s disappearance into a post-apocalyptic alternate universe, this dependency on her children for emotional support lends unexpected profundity to a hilarious, bizarre sequence where Rick—in order to make Beth feel that nothing is out of the ordinary, even though her children are fighting for survival in another dimension—rigs up robot replacements for Morty and Summer, each of whom tell Beth exactly what she wants to hear regarding the divorce (namely, that they are fine and everything is great).
When Hemorrhage and Summer’s life together starts to mirror Jerry and Beth’s—complete with constant arguing and unending sarcastic barbs directed at each other—Summer realizes that she actually has to work through the issues that her parents’ divorce is bringing up instead of just running from those issues. All three characters come to the realization that hiding out and killing in an alternate world is perhaps not the best way to work through the very real-world issue of parental divorce, and leave to go back to their “new normal” on Earth. The world building, too, in Rick & Morty continues to be spectacular, and if the creators and writers can continue to balance some of their weirder sci-fi impulses with brilliant character development, season 3 will most likely fulfill—and hopefully go beyond—fan expectations.