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Rick & Morty’s Heartbreakingly Honest Take on Therapy Was the Most Painful Thing on Television This Week

"I'm Pickle Rick!"

Spoiler note: This article discusses the plot of Rick and Morty season 3, episode 3, “Pickle Rick” in some detail.

This weekend, we finally met Pickle Rick, whom Rick and Morty fans have been anticipating since he appeared in an early, rough clip shown at Comic-Con last summer. And he did not disappoint.

The majority of this episode followed Rick after he turns himself into a pickle to get out of going to family counseling. When his plan goes awry, his plot quickly turns into a survival/action story, committing so fully and immediately to action tropes, it was reminiscent of the very best genre-homage episodes of Community. We watch Rick create a Cronenbergian warrior body, battle killer rats and unspecified foreign operatives, and live through a full emotional arc with an adversary-turned-partner named Jaguar. The entire thing is pitch-perfect satirical homage, as emotionally gripping as it was hysterical.

But that’s not the part of the episode that cut my heart wide open.

Rick’s adventures are interspersed with scenes of the rest of the family at counseling. The last episodes of season two put Beth’s relationship with her often-absent father front and center, and “Pickle Rick” doubles down on her need for closeness, her admiration of Rick and her desire to emulate him, or at least earn his respect. But the dynamic between Rick and Beth is one that, as Dr. Wong points out, does not reward emotion and vulnerability, but rather punishes it. The line between self-sufficiency and emotional withholding is murky. But Beth craves her father’s respect so badly that she’s forced herself to view all his traits as positive ones, and that “independence” she admires is also what guarantees that distance between them remains intact.

This episode was written by Jessica Gao, but there’s so much in it that will sound familiar to anyone who has ever listened to Dan Harmon’s Harmontown podcast, or followed his interviews or more personal writings. He’s spoken before about his struggles with therapy, telling Vice a few years back that he “had an irrational phobia of therapists for a while.” This isn’t unusual for exceptionally intelligent people, especially the type who tend to live inside their own mind. It’s easy to use one’s own shortcomings as reasons why we can’t seek help. He gave some solid examples in that interview, saying “I think the Midwestern kicks in and you go ‘I don’t deserve certain things’ or ‘I have to go to a dark place when I write, so I’m not getting rid of this dumbass part of my personality.'”

In counseling in “Pickle Rick,” Beth and the kids are forced to struggle through some awkward “I” statements before Rick finally makes it to therapy. He’s only there to get the anti-pickle serum, maybe, but Dr. Wong takes a moment to crack him open and lay him bare. Anyone who’s ever used their intelligence or darkness or some other part of themselves to justify not going to therapy or otherwise work on themselves might relate to what she saw in Rick and laid out in one painful monologue:

“Rick, the only connection between your unquestionable intelligence and the sickness destroying your family is that everyone in your family, you included, use intelligence to justify sickness. You seem to alternate between viewing your own mind as an unstoppable force and as an inescapable curse, and I think it’s because the only truly unapproachable concept for you is that it’s your mind within your control. You chose to come here, you chose to talk, to belittle my vocation, just as you chose to become a pickle. You are the master of your universe, and yet you are dripping with rat blood and feces, your enormous mind literally vegetating by your own hand. I have no doubt that you would be bored senseless by therapy, the same way I’m bored when I brush my teeth and wipe my ass. Because the thing about repairing, maintaining, and cleaning is it’s not an adventure. There’s no way to do it so wrong you might die. It’s just work. And the bottom line is some people are okay going to work, and some people, well, some people would rather die. Each of us gets to choose.”

And then her watch dings and they’re out of time. And I’m left on my sofa, devastated. Between this show and Bojack Horseman, animation is leading the charge in tackling issues of mental health. Both of these shows are, at times, painful to watch, because they have no reservations about cutting straight to the quick of the human condition. (Even when that human is a horse.)

Being a human is hard work, and but so often the work only feels valid when it feels hard. Therapy, self-analysis, all the minutiae—all of this is usually met with resistance, and it can be easy to write it off as unimportant when it’s not exciting. But that can also be an excuse to avoid looking too closely at ourselves.

The moment when Beth lights up after Rick suggests they get a drink (presumably for the first time ever) is beautiful. It’s truly a breakthrough for them. But as big of a first step as it is, it’s only that. Their relationship isn’t fixed. Without the work, the boring tooth-brushing metaphor work, it’s not going to change anything. And it never would have happened in the first place if these two hadn’t taken just the briefest of glances inward.

It says a lot of about the brilliant, weird state of television today that one of the most psychologically astute pieces of modern entertainment centered around a man who turned himself into a pickle.

(image: Adult Swim)

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