Rick and Morty’s third season did not disappoint, and that’s saying a whole hell of a lot. Long ago, at the end of season two, a post-gunshot wound Mr. Poopy Butthole teased “Rick and Morty season three in, like, a year and a half … or longer,” and over the course of the following 545 days—almost exactly a year and a half, actually—anticipation for the Adult Swim show’s triumphant return grew from a hushed buzz to a deafening roar. Fast forward your interdimensional cable boxes to today, and we find ourselves on the wrong side of season three, staring down the barrel of yet another long wait for more Rick and Morty. Such is the cycle of life.
Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon’s television show did some growing up in its stellar junior season, plumbing the depths of Rick’s twisted psyche, charting Morty’s progress from a dopey kid to a dopey young man, and breaking the Smith family apart only to mend it again. Season three reinvented interdimensional cable, turned Rick into a pickle and Morty into a Vindicator, pitted the duo against the president and blew us all away on April Fool’s Day. Season three’s ten episodes were worth waiting for, a rich array of quick-hitting humor, potent drama, high-concept sci-fi and Roiland’s deceptively excellent voice performances. But which were the best episodes—the Rick and Morty-iest Rick and Mortys, if you will—of the whole bunch?
Check out our picks, ranked from quite good to even better, below.
“The ABCs of Beth” sends Rick and Beth into Froopyland, the child-proof wonderland that Rick created for his young daughter instead of, you know, raising her. And their fraught relationship, which to this point had been defined solely by Beth’s fear of being abandoned by her wayward patriarch, is key to this half-hour’s impact. During the course of Rick and Beth’s search for a missing boy named Tommy (voiced by a perfectly berserk Thomas Middleditch), it’s made clearer than ever before that Beth is her father’s daughter: A formidable, dangerous semi-sociopath, whose aggression was the only reason Tommy ended up the incestuous cannibal king of Froopyland to begin with. This realization has a powerful effect on Beth, the shockwaves of which are sure to be felt in season four and beyond. But despite this episode’s long-term import, an A-plot that’s excessively grotesque and a fun but relatively forgettable, sitcom-esque B-plot, in which Jerry squirms his way out of a comically mismatched rebound “soul-bond” with an alien warrior priestess, combine to make “The ABCs of Beth” season three’s least-excellent entry.
“Rest and Ricklaxation” finds Rick and Morty reckoning with the mental toll that their constant adventures have taken, opening with an instant classic of a scene in which the duo have an acute and darkly hilarious reaction to their insane accumulation of near-death experiences. Rick and Morty’s ensuing attempt at a vacation takes them to an alien spa, where their toxins are removed from their bodies, only to become sentient and seek revenge. “Rest and Ricklaxation” is a fine episode—detoxified Morty (or “tiny American Psycho,” as Rick refers to him) is a treat, and the Toxic Rick and Morty premise as a whole is characteristically clever, providing us with a subtle and insightful look at the particulars of Rick and Morty’s respective self-images—but it’s relatively straightforward and self-contained, without much bearing on the rest of season three.
“Rickmancing the Stone” felt more like the season three premiere than actual premiere “The Rickshank Rickdemption” did—the episode finds the Smith clan dealing with the immediate aftermath of Beth and Jerry’s separation, with Morty and Summer finding ways to work through their parents’ divorce while gallivanting through a Mad Max-style post-apocalyptic wasteland with Grandpa Rick. Summer goes through all the paces of a failed relationship herself, falling in and out of love with brutal warlord Hemorrhage (voiced by Harmon’s longtime Community collaborator Joel McHale), while Morty’s arm is possessed by the vengeful spirit of a fallen warrior, allowing him to exorcise his frustration and resentment towards his utterly ineffectual father. “Rickmancing the Stone” functions quite effectively as Rick and Morty’s de facto return episode, balancing important emotional development with plenty of absurdist sci-fi fun.
“The Rickchurian Mortydate” concludes season three by pitting Rick against the president, resulting in Keith David’s scene-stealing return to the show as POTUS. After Rick and Morty blow off America to play Minecraft, the president gets an attitude, leading to an ugly breakup that culminates in a climactic battle scene—the capper on Rick and the president’s battle of egos—that is a highlight of this season three finale. Between “simple, honest, simple” Jerry and Beth’s unexpectedly sweet and funny reconciliation, and Rick’s relentless efforts to prove his superiority to the president, which stretch on long after even Morty has lost interest, the Smith family power rankings are all shuffled up in this episode, with Rick becoming its “lowest-status” member and ceding defeat to Jerry, thus closing the loop on the Smith men’s season-spanning feud. Rick vs. POTUS is plenty of fun, but this episode’s real draw is its total reset of Rick and Morty’s dynamic—“In many ways, things will be like season one, but more streamlined,” says Beth, who, at episode’s end, may or may not be a clone. Mr. Poopy Butthole’s promise of “season four in, like, a really long time” is the only fitting end to season three’s strong, surprising closer.
“The Whirly Dirly Conspiracy” constitutes Jerry Smith’s nadir—the lowest point of a perpetually low man. Shunned by his beloved wife and family, Jerry is alone and asleep when Rick swoops him up for an adventure, then relieved when he mistakenly concludes that Rick plans to execute him. The ensuing “Rick and Jerry episode” is a prolonged battle of wits between father- and son-in-law, with their cold war of a relationship at its core. “The Whirly Dirly Conspiracy,” credited to Ryan Ridley, is exceedingly well-written, as each dynamic exchange between Rick and Jerry finds its own balance between total contempt and begrudging respect, utter repulsion and a surprising degree of affection. The episode’s primary setting, an amusement park covered by an immortality field, provides the perfect backdrop for this development of Rick and Jerry’s relationship, a rollercoaster of emotions highlighted by its vividly trippy cosmic apotheosis sequence. And a strong B-plot never hurts, either: Summer’s growth ray-assisted attempt to assuage her body issues catalyzes a clever series of laugh-out-loud funny misadventures that highlight Morty’s increased agency, as well as Beth’s desperation to prove that she doesn’t need her father.
“Morty’s Mind Blowers” was clearly a joy for the Rick and Morty writing team to put together, and that shines through on the screen in a big way. Much like the episode of Harmon’s Community in which, rather than repeating paintball for a third time, the show’s writers reinvented the popular premise as one big game of “Hot Lava,” this episode of Rick and Morty eschews a third “Interdimensional Cable” in favor of a new twist on those episodes’ improv-heavy clip show format. The result is one of season three’s funniest installments, in which Rick shows Morty the traumatic memories he’s had removed from his mind over the course of their many adventures. The episode finds Rick and Morty at its most self-aware—“It’s a freeform anthology,” Rick insists when Morty tries to form a unified theory of what all those memories mean—and its most honest, showing us the immense downside of Rick’s uncaring intelligence, his insatiable hunger for superiority, and the effect all that has had on his grandson. “Morty’s Mind Blowers” is not the plotless bottle episode that it pretends to be—it’s one of Rick and Morty’s most resonant examinations of suffering and change, showing that the former is no guarantee of the latter.
“Vindicators 3: The Return of Worldender” is an excellent example of the many strides that Rick and Morty took in season three, the first and foremost being Morty’s growth as a savvy, self-confident explorer of the multiverse. When Rick, Morty and the titular Vindicators (an Avengers spoof designed to take the air out of the entire concept of superheroes) hunt down a villain named Worldender and instead find themselves in a Saw-like series of traps set by a black-out drunk Rick the night before, only Morty is able to play the game like a pro, translating Rick’s callous condescension while the Vindicators die off one by one. Putting Rick’s ideas in Morty’s mouth is an exceedingly clever way of sidestepping Rick’s monologuing problem, while also illustrating how far Morty has come since he was writhing on the floor of the Smith family’s garage with mega seeds dissolving inside of him. This episode is another outstanding accomplishment for Rick and Morty’s writers, who use their Saw meets Charlie and The Chocolate Factory framework to teach Morty, the Vindicators and all of us exactly how nihilistic Rick really is, as well as to what lengths he’ll go to avoid admitting that he harbors an abiding affection for his grandson. And to that end, the episode’s big fake-out (“But you’re different, Noob Noob. You’re fuckin’ cool!”) is the loudest, most well-earned laugh in an episode full of them.
“Pickle Rick” was perhaps the most highly anticipated entry in a season that was nothing but, and it delivered on all that hype as one of the single most entertaining Rick and Morty episodes to date. Rick’s stubborn avoidance of attending family therapy with Beth, Summer and Morty snowballs into an utterly deranged adventure in which Pickle Rick massacres sewer rats to build himself a body, invades a Russian criminal compound of some kind and, in a nod to John Wick, terrorizes its inhabitants as “Solenya,” aka “The Pickle Man.” The highlight of “Pickle Rick” is unquestionably its batshit fight scenes—whether its Rick trash-talking the biggest, baddest rat before executing it, or his cubicle shoot-out showdown with Jaguar (voiced by the always-welcome Danny Trejo), this episode certainly doesn’t lack for incredibly animated, uber-bloody and powerfully funny action sequences. And it also boasts what may be season three’s strongest B-plot, in which therapist Dr. Wong (a pitch-perfect Susan Sarandon) gets to the root of Beth’s relationship with her pickle parent, and then later, to that of Rick’s unwillingness to address or even acknowledge his deep-seated issues. All told, “Pickle Rick” lays essential groundwork for season three’s progression, and has a ton of fucked-up fun while doing so.
“The Rickshank Rickdemption” felt too good to be true when it first aired—New Rick and Morty? On April Fools’ Day? No foolin’?—and the season three premiere holds up remarkably well some six months later. Taking every opportunity to mess with our heads, the episode largely focuses on Rick as he toys with his Gromflomite captors, matching wits primarily with his head interrogator (a suave, sly Nathan Fillion), and faking both the formula behind his legendary portal gun and the backstory of how he lost his wife. It’s a blast following along with Rick as he masterminds his way to an inevitable, explosive escape from Galactic Federation prison, finally taking over the Smith family and ejecting Jerry from his orbit, all for the love of that Mulan McNuggets sauce (which McDonald’s is actually reviving in real life, bringing an early end to Rick’s self-proclaimed series arc). “The Rickshank Rickdemption” is one of season three’s very highest points because of its complex construction and its masterful execution, its staggering joke density and its lasting replay value—it’s an episode that pays back every minute that its creation kept fans waiting.
“The Ricklantis Mixup” is an absolute sucker punch of an episode, a dark and brilliant entry in the Rick and Morty multiverse that comes out of nowhere to deliver the very best half-hour of season three—one unlike any other in the series, before or since. It baits us with a whimsical-seeming Atlantis adventure before switching over to the little-seen Citadel of Ricks, pulling off an episode-length callback that unearths the tossed-off city’s fascinating inner workings. “The Ricklantis Mixup” rewards attentive viewers time and time again, dropping hints throughout its duration and thoroughly respecting the audience’s intelligence when it finally comes time for the episode’s climactic reveal: the return of Evil Morty, a Chekhov’s gun first (and last) seen way back in season one. The episode as a whole is a masterstroke that cultivates Rick and Morty’s ever-expanding mythos, redefining what kind of stories the show is capable of telling while delivering the kind of taut suspense and resonant social commentary of an all-time great TV series like The Wire. It’s ironic that season three’s finest episode is nearly devoid of “our” Rick and Morty, but in exploring the desperate lives of other Ricks and Mortys, “The Ricklantis Mixup” delivers an unforgettable 30 minutes that every viewer should experience at least twice.
Scott Russell is Paste’s news editor. He’s on Twitter, if you’re into tweets: @pscottrussell.