One of my favorite things about Rick and Morty’s third season is that the show, despite having a small cast of regulars, is still finding new dynamics to build up. Sometimes that’s come in the form of altering the titular relationship, but it’s also informative to see other members of the Smith family interact with the greatest and most self-destructive intellect in the universe. For example, Jerry’s persona hardly changed when he spent time with Rick in “The Whirly Dirly Conspiracy,” because Jerry has always been a milquetoast, piteous fool with a powerful self-preservation instinct. Although given what we learn about Beth in “The ABCs of Beth,” perhaps that’s not entirely Jerry’s fault.
Beth has quietly developed into more than just a trope for abandonment issues. She was the focus of the gut punch ending of “Pickle Rick,” which took her beyond merely yearning for her father’s company and into the realm of the dangerously irresponsible—for the first time, she seemed ominously like Rick’s daughter. “The ABCs of Beth” is all about expanding upon that idea, and in the process, it addresses the core philosophy of Rick and Morty—how to make meaning from the inherent meaninglessness of the universe—more directly than any episode so far this season. That’s literally what Rick did for Beth by creating Froopyland when she was a kid, and now, in her mid ‘30s, Beth has the type of nihilist epiphany that’s most common to college freshman who love smoking weed and believing they understand Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Luckily for her—or perhaps unluckily—she almost immediately recognizes that her dad shares this worldview and is able to move on to deciding what to do about it.
In theory, this development should’ve been Rick and Morty’s best moment to date. The happiest we’ve ever seen Beth isn’t even this current Beth: it’s the Beth on Cronenberg-Earth, a place that doesn’t even pretend to be coherent and allows her to carve meaning out of the dead bodies of Cronenbergs. Cronenberg-Earth is the antithesis of Froopyland, which is why destroying the imaginary world’s creatures and killing Tommy (Thomas Middleditch!) provides the catharsis this version of Beth so desperately needed. Her sudden realization that she’s becoming her father—and her immediate acceptance of this fact and subsequent slaughter of Tommy’s victims/food—is perhaps her best moment on the show, in that it happens at blazing Rick and Morty speed and runs with its new reality immediately, only providing an emotional wallop in the aftermath.
But once again, as has happened a few times this season, the show falls prey to telling instead of showing. The conversation between Beth and Rick about the cursed nature of intelligence rings true—it’s a bitingly accurate description of why so many smart people spend so much time locked inside their own heads—but it feels strange coming out of Rick’s mouth in one huge text block. Rick and Morty doesn’t do monologues well because it derives its weight from anti-sentimentality, from making fun of long-winded moralizing only to later reveal that living without any sort of code is fucking exhausting and depressing. The one exception to this general rule is Morty’s famous speech at the end of “Rixty Minutes,” which is succinct and perfectly delivered by Justin Roiland; otherwise, the show is bereft of truly memorable speeches, and Rick’s take on nihilist existence doesn’t change that status quo. What he says to Beth is almost too genuine, too straight a shot, and it doesn’t feel terribly earned. Granted, it’s possible that Beth has finally earned Rick’s respect and, through some weird confluence with his irrational attachment to his Morty, he’s become more open to opening up. And a show with no monologues would settle into too quick a pace. But this passage in particular smacks of the writers’ room putting Dan Harmon’s ideas into Rick’s mouth and leaving Beth (and the viewers) to accept them as gospel.
That said, the decision not to reveal whether Beth got Rick’s help in creating a clone of herself bodes well for the series’s future. Rick and Morty has spent Season 3 building up more continuity, and while some comedies thrive on resetting after every episode, R&M opens up so many interesting multiverse possibilities that it has a near-obligation to treat the effects of one event upon another, and that’s only possible if the events of each episode become fixed in time. The idea of a second Beth taking care of the kids and horse hearts and her own inner turmoil introduces a Chekhov’s Gun to the series—much the way that Evil Morty did last week—and creates the distinct possibility that Morty will realize something is wrong and blame Rick.
Meanwhile, the B-plot of “The ABCs of Beth” feels tight and well-executed, and in conjunction with Rick and Beth’s adventure to Froopyland, the story of Jerry and Kiara gives the episode a coherent theme: what does it mean to be a monster? We see two characters (Kiara and Tommy) who’ve become comfortable with their destructive, disgusting tendencies and live in places where hunting helpless beings or rape/murder/cannibalism are celebrated. They aren’t monsters in their own worlds, but Kiara and Tommy are monsters to ordinary humans, and interacting with them forces Jerry and Beth to reckon with—or accept—their own toxic traits. It might not be as creative a conceit as that which spawned the literally Toxic Rick and Morty a few weeks back, but it’s subtler and thus more effective. The long-winded theatrical adaptation of King Tommy’s ascent is annoying on purpose; it’s supposed to focus our energy on sympathizing with Beth, so that when she finally does go full Rick, we recognize that being a nihilistic genius isn’t always coextensive with being a total sociopath. Anyone can sympathize against a King Tommy. Ditto for Jerry and Kiara (who, it seems, could probably kick most of the Justice League’s asses). Kiara presents a nice foil to Jerry, an example of rebound taken to a lunatic extreme, so that as Jerry struggles to break up with her, we’re at least as focused on the enormity of his task as we are upon how pathetic it is that he can’t complete it. It humanizes Jerry and balances perfectly with Summer’s acerbic take on his problems. (Speaking of which, doesn’t it feel like Summer has become a proxy for the audience over the last couple episodes?)
We’ve only got one more episode of Rick and Morty this year to see what fallout there will be, if any, from the revelations Beth and Jerry experience in “The ABCs of Beth.” And more than likely, we won’t get to see too much of either character—there was something that felt a little final about each of their arcs. But most importantly, we got to see a taser shaped like a ladybug. In a world that’s inherently meaningless, that laugh at least counted for something.
Zach Blumenfeld is really looking forward to next week’s Rick and Morty, because it will mean he can stop staying up until 3am on Sunday nights and dozing off in Federal Courts class the next afternoon. Follow him on Twitter.