What if life was like a video game, and you could restart from a checkpoint whenever you died or hit the reset button? It's a concept that's crossed every gamer's mind at least once, and Rick and Morty was able to take the premise to its bonkers breaking point in "The Vat of Acid Episode." Beyond just that, however, the way Morty and Rick's relationship evolves while the story riffs on the well-worn simulation premise of Roy: A Life Well Lived feels expertly crafted, especially when the episode starts to resemble Us and Groundhog Day.
There's a lot going on; Season 4 just keeps getting better. This might be the darkest episode ever, and that's because it goes so much deeper to deliver a magnificent prestige moment even better than the big twist from The Prestige.
Rick brings Morty to trade some crystals to some alien buyers in an "acid factory," but the whole thing's a double-cross. Rick's contingency plan — which is somehow even dumber than turning himself into a pickle — is for he and Morty to jump into a fake vat of acid and stage their deaths. (There's even little compartments for fake bones!) Early in the episode, you can sort of tell Rick and Morty's about to get weird. Rick could very easily shoot his way out of this situation or cook up a more fanciful solution to this problem, so why all the theatrics? His tendency to commit to the bit, which always feels like the show's writers issuing themselves a challenge.
After Morty and Rick get in a huge fight over how stupid the "vat of acid" thing was, Morty challenges Rick to build a machine that can function like a video game checkpoint. By the technological standards of the show, even this feels a bit too far-fetched. Yet sure enough, Rick can pull it off, ranting that it's not technically time travel. Morty gets a little remote that lets him save a checkpoint, so he does predictably pervy things, like flirt with Jessica or sneak into the girls' locker room. For awhile, it's just Groundhog Day: Morty gradually begins to appreciate the utter meaninglessness of existence, and he learns that all of his random urgers were petty and pointless.
Until he finds true love.
After a random meet-cute with a girl at a coffee shop, Morty embarks on a heartwarming Us-style montage. There's no dialogue, but he and a cute girl have a touching, adorable, and totally realistic relationship that ends in utter disaster. There are so many ways it can end badly, but perhaps the single worst is for their plane to crash and for them to come even closer together through the struggle for survival, all for Jerry to accidentally hit the reset button on the remote, erasing that timeline from existence.
It's dark, but the whole thing gets even darker — and meaner — when you consider the deeper context.
Like the mid-season premiere, Rick and Morty's "The Vat of Acid Episode" veers into Roy: A Life Well Lived territory with this bit, spending months and years spent with Morty's new relationship. What if you lived an entire life in a fraction of a moment? What would it feel like to snap back to reality and lose everything you thought you knew? What's really real at that point?
Roy: A Life Well Lived puts an entire life within a video game, but "The Vat of Acid Episode" applies a video game concept to Morty's life. It's a strange inversion of a similar premise Rick and Morty keeps coming back to, because just like last week's 9/11 and Pearl Harbor jokes, the show is preoccupied with exploring what "living in the freefall of the 21st century" is like. Rick and Morty sees the universe as a chaotic and violent place, recognizes the meaninglessness in it all, and yet it can't help but explore the depth of lively emotion that are infused into our experiences.
Morty's learned a lot of hard lessons this season, whether it's the heist episode where he realizes pitching Netflix is a waste, or buying that story train that breaks. But this is perhaps the hardest of all. He issued the challenge just to spite Rick. He thinks building a device like this is genuinely impossible, and the worst-case scenario is that he'll get a cool new toy out of it. But Rick being Rick, rather than mess around with time travel to solve this problem, instead shunted Morty into different alternate realities every time he used the device, effectively causing the death of every preceding Morty.
"It's The Prestige!" Rick cries, like he's a magician whose grand secret has just been revealed.
Morty has to then suffer with the guilt of a million deaths and murders once Rick merges together all the realities, and perhaps most heartbreaking of all is the fact that Morty's nameless girlfriend exists in this new merged reality — and that it's not their home reality.
So they'll probably never see each other again ... or will they?
Rick and Morty Season 4 airs Sunday nights on Adult Swim at 11:30 p.m. Eastern.