TV review: Rick upstages Morty in ‘The Vat of Acid Episode,’ limiting character growth
(Courtesy of Adult Swim)
"The Vat of Acid Episode"
By Kaia Sherry
May 18, 2020 4:15 p.m.
“The Vat of Acid Episode” is pretty self-explanatory.
The episode, which aired Sunday night, is entirely contingent upon a fake vat of acid. Strategically placed at key plot points, the running gag suddenly becomes an effective vehicle to examine the role of consequences – particularly in a universe where slip-ups can be easily concealed by scientific contrivances. Rick’s fake vat of acid parlor trick begins as a ploy to scam a gang of alien gem-dealers, catalyzing his need to be the smartest person in the room at all times. His latest invention, built after Morty mocks his fake vat of acid scheme, reinforces the show’s habit of enabling Rick to achieve everything within the realm of scientific possibility – except fail.
And while this habit is useful for pushing the ingenuity of his inventions, Rick’s demigod status is a reflection of his tendency to “use intelligence to justify sickness,” directly echoing the words of the family psychiatrist in season three. Unlike last season, however, “The Vat of Acid Episode” is less than critical of Rick’s megalomania.
The episode opens in a nuclear plant after an illegal gem exchange goes awry, ending with Rick and Morty jumping into a fake vat of acid prepared beforehand. The vat is hilarious in its convolution, complete with compartments of human bones that float to the surface, aiding the illusion of death by acid. Moreover, when one of the aliens throws a rat in the acid to test its toxicity, Rick painstakingly carves tiny rat bones to set free – a ruse that works even when Morty accidentally releases the human-sized bones alongside them.
However, the episode makes the same mistakes of its predecessors as the actual plot that has been introduced so far has little relevance to the episode as a whole. Neither the nuclear plant nor the aliens are important. In an odd upheaval of narrative structure, the emphasis is placed instead on the perceived symbolic meaning of the vat itself, rather than any of the events the viewer has been following. As they return to their ship, Morty berates Rick for the unoriginality of his fake acid vat scheme, accusing his grandfather of never listening to his ideas.
Back in their garage, Morty becomes increasingly frustrated and insinuates Rick does not listen to his ideas because he’s incapable of creating them, citing a place-saving video game for life as an example. Rick feverishly drills away before he ostensibly admits Morty is right – then murders him on the spot and uses his newly built place-saving device to reverse it.
The idea of Rick failing, just as much as the idea of Morty succeeding at literally anything, is played for laughs. While Rick’s delicious pettiness is certainly on-brand entertainment, its ham-fisted repetition prevents further insight into his and Morty’s characters. Episodes like season three’s “Pickle Rick,” which introduces a family psychiatrist who is unfazed by Rick’s pickle put-on, demonstrate his impressive intellect while also criticizing how he uses it to validate his own toxicity.
The rest of the episode is largely dedicated to Morty’s antics with the place-saver device, which allows him to effectively redo moments in time without consequence. Some of the montage sequences are blissfully mundane, with Morty using the device to get more free samples of ice cream or to reorder a dish at a restaurant. Others are pointlessly cruel and not explained by Morty’s newfound ability to erase consequences. After all, what does he gain by pushing an old man in a wheelchair into the street?
Back in Rick’s garage, Morty learns that the device doesn’t actually prevent his consequences but displaces them into other versions of reality. Morty, torn apart with guilt, allows Rick to converge his actions into the present reality.
However, unlike his grandson, Rick is never tasked with the burden of consequence, even having committed far worse atrocities in past episodes. His holier-than-thou speech to Morty, ironic or not, disregards the power Rick holds to shape reality away from the shrapnel of his explosive path.
With masses of angry entities like AARP, the American Civil Liberties Union and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor gathered in the yard, Morty prepares for his final reckoning – only for Rick to provide a solution in the form of a fake vat of acid. The petty payoff is a satisfying full circle to the episode’s title but perhaps an unsatisfying resolution to Rick’s character as a whole.
Because while Morty wearily submerges himself in fake acid, Rick once again rises to the top – bones and all.