Rick and Morty’s scariest episode ever copies the best sci-fi of the year
Scratchy voices and severed consciousness
What if you could make your own sleepwalking body do anything wanted? Predictably, when Rick and Morty Season 6 Episode 4 tackles this premise in “Night Family,” things go terrifyingly wrong in one of the show’s scariest episodes of all time.
The show delves into body horror, hell, and literal nightmares on occasion, but this episode emphasizes cinematic horror in so many ways that it straight-up feels like a Halloween special. The final result feels deliberately similar to Jordan Peele’s Us and accidentally similar Apple TV+’s hit series Severance. Here’s how.
Warning! Spoilers ahead for Rick and Morty Season 6 Episode 4.
Rick and Morty does cinematic horror
Rick gets a device that lets the entire family get a “Night Self” that does whatever menial tasks the daytime versions (later dubbed “Dayminoids”) want. Much like “Meeseeks and Destroy” and “Rixty Minutes,” this episode presents a new sci-fi gadget for the whole family to experiment with, things go terribly awry, and the family bonds together to save themselves — or do they?
Most of the family uses their Nights Selfs to get in better shape or do household chores, but Jerry turns his into a pen pal instead. This seems harmless enough — until the Night Family starts making requests via Night Jerry’s letters. After Rick refuses to rinse the family’s dishes, however, the Night Family stages a rebellion led by Night Summer so that the sleepytime doppelgängers can take over their bodies permanently.
The fantastic score by long-time series composer Ryan Elder evokes classic horror cinema, including a jolting musical motif to mark the transition between Day and Night versions of family members. It’s almost a jump-scare at first but is later spammed into oblivion for humorous effect.
The Night Family also behaves like a pack of bloodshot zombies as the episode leans into various zombie tropes, like family members randomly turning when they’re shot with a sleep dart. Even the way scenes are framed and lit emphasizes the spookiness of it all, particularly in the episode’s opening sequence (seen above).
That T.S. Eliot quote is real
The very first cinematic horror choice is in the opening frame, which is an unnerving quote that sounds too silly to be real:
“When you're alone in the middle of the night, / and you wake in a sweat and a hell of a fright. / When you're alone in the middle of the bed, / and you wake like someone hit you on the head. / You've had a cream of a nightmare dream, / and you've got the hoo-ha's...”
You’re telling me that the guy who wrote The Waste Land also wrote a creepy bit of poetry about waking up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night with the “hoo-ha’s”? Surprisingly, that T.S. Eliot quote that opens “Night Family” is 100 percent real and not some of Rick’s silly, drunken ramblings as he pretends to be a famous poet.
“Fragment of an Agon” is Eliot’s attempt at writing a verse drama play focusing on the complexity of modern life. (“Agon” is a Greek term for “conflict.”) This particular fragment is the second of two pieces originally intended for inclusion in a larger play that Eliot never finished. It has a jazzy, rhymic tempo with haunting imagery that feels like Dr. Seuss meets Neil Gaiman. The main character Sweeney tells a story of nightmarish appetites involving sexual desire and cannibalism, but Rick and Morty plucks a segment from the end and cuts it short at the very silly “hoo-ha’s” mention. Much like the show’s episode titles, however, the reference is vague and more about establishing the vibe than anything more concrete.
The Night Family = The Tethered
In all likelihood, “Night Family” was written over a year ago and around 18 months after the release of Jordan Peele’s Us. It’s abundantly clear that Rick and Morty is riffing on Peele’s premise of uncanny doppelgängers called The Tethered.
In Us, a family is attacked one night while on vacation by their creepy doubles. Their leader is the double of the mother Adelaide, and whereas the other doppelgängers are mute, Red (Adelaide’s doppelgänger) can speak with an unnerving, gutteral, raspy voice. When Night Summer and the rest of the Night Family speak, it’s with that exact kind of rasp. There’s an obvious difference here, which is that Day and Night Rick and Morty characters share a body whereas The Tethered are clones that share a soul with their doubles.
As the episode unfolds, the Night and Day versions constantly transition back and forth, ratcheting up the stakes to borderline apocalyptic. And, if you’ve seen Us, then you know that an army of The Tethered clones emerge from their subterranean home to kill and replace their counterparts. The Night Family has the same goal, ultimately, except they spend the Smith family’s life savings on vacations and concert hall rentals.
Rick and Morty accidentally copied Severance
Sometimes, the entertainment industry can be really weird.
Either by accident or design, “twin films” occur where two distinct movies tell an almost identical story. A few months before Mila Kunis filmed Friends With Benefits alongside Justin Timberlake in 2010, her husband Ashon Kutcher had filmed No Strings Attached with co-star Natalie Portman. Both movies focus on adult friends who engage in casual sex. There’s also the strange fact that Rings of Power and House of Dragons — two major prequels for widely beloved fantasy properties — are currently airing at the same time.
Apple TV+’s critically acclaimed Severance series follows a team of office workers whose memories have been surgically divided between their work and personal lives. It’s still a pretty controversial and mysterious technology in this near-future dystopia, and the company at the focus of the story is shady, to say the least. The core gimmick, however, is pretty much identical to what’s happening in “Night Family.”
Technology allows characters to force an alter-ego within their own body to do the mundane tasks and chores that they don’t want to bother with. At first, the Night Family don’t even know what they exist; They are programmed to do their tasks. But over time, they realize that they’re essentially distinct sentient people forced into slavery. Severance is all about a worker revolution against a corrupt corporation, but in Rick and Morty, the Night people are the bad guys. That’s a big difference, but the core sci-fi concept in the two is nearly identical.
Is this a mere coincidence? Or did somebody stop and think “hey this is a good idea!” and do a riff on the same thing? In any case, it’s all in the pursuit of good storytelling, so we’ll accept it.
Rick and Morty airs Sunday at 11 p.m. Eastern on Adult Swim.