One of the many things that we can usually expect from Rick and Morty is that the more basic its premise is, the more divergent the actual plot ends up being. “The Vat of Acid Episode,” when announced, didn’t give much away, with even the synopsis of the episode simply stating it’s “the one with the acid vat, broh.” Indeed, the eponymous vat of acid is less a focal point for the plot and more of a way to kick off a reminder of Rick’s vindictiveness as well as another interesting look at narrative construction.
One thing to point out is that for the first time, the Rick and Morty title card features the subtitle calling out the episode’s title. I’m not entirely sure what it means, but as little in this show is unintentional, I definitely noticed.
The first part of “The Vat of Acid Episode” (and even the title and description) hint that this will be a “bottle episode”—a term used to refer to an episode of a television show that takes place in one location and is often used as a way to conserve a limited budget. My favorite example of this is Breaking Bad’s S3E10 “Fly,” which finds Walt and Jesse suspending meth production to catch a fly in the lab. That’s it. The episode, which cemented director Rian Johnson as a household name, came at a time in the show’s run when the producers were far over budget and needed to conserve money. “Fly” is a slowly-paced episode offering little overarching plot development whilst leaning heavily on the development of the relationship between the characters and the themes that drive the show. Bottle episodes, when used correctly, are an economical way to either develop its characters without a ticking clock, or a fun diversion from the overarching plot that lets the writers get more creative under pressure.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Rick and Morty if “The Vat of Acid Episode” didn’t immediately turn its nose up at such an obvious structure. The episode opens with Rick and Morty attending a handoff of crystals to a mafia-style group of aliens. Before entering the heavily ACE Chemicals-inspired warehouse, Rick says, “if anything goes wrong, which it won’t, just jump into the same vat of acid as I do.” Rick has prepared a fake vat of acid with breathing tubes at the bottom as well as some bones to be released to float to the surface to convince the gangsters that they’ve died in the acid. Morty is not impressed. Predictably, things do go south, so they jump into the fake vat of acid and release the bones as planned. However, the gangsters do not immediately leave—instead, they begin to ponder how Rick could have subjected himself and his grandson to “unparalleled torture,” question their own morality, and decide to stick around so the boss can recover from the shock.
This is where a traditional bottle episode would begin, and would probably keep the pair at the bottom of the fake acid for the following 20 minutes. However, when the gangsters decide to test the efficacy of the vat of acid for corpse disposal by using a rat, Morty accidentally releases the “backup” set of human bones, and once the gangsters express doubt at who the bones belong to (and commit to calling a “bone scientist”), a frustrated Morty breaks the façade. They emerge from the fake acid and kill the gangsters.
On the flight home and in the garage, Rick and Morty have one of their most incendiary arguments yet, with Morty calling out the acid vat idea as terrible and accusing Rick of never considering any of Morty’s own ideas. Morty specifically mentions his “place saving device,” in which, like a video game, one could save their place in time, attempt something, then travel back to that “save point” and try again. We’ve all done that while playing a video game, and have probably fantasized about it in real life. Moreover, it would be a 14 year old gamer’s dream to be able to attempt that in real life. At Rick’s refusal, Morty taunts him as being unable to create it, finally calling a furious Rick’s bluff and causing Rick to begin developing the device.
“The Vat of Acid Episode” plays into the montage-focused “Interdimensional Cable”-style format, though not directly. This is the eighth episode of Season 4, and the eighth episode of Rick and Morty is traditionally reserved for the Interdimensional Cable/montage episode. While “Never Ricking Morty” appeared to fulfill that episode style in episode 6 two weeks ago, “The Vat of Acid Episode” uses its second act to graduate from the bottle episode format to the montage format. Morty gleefully uses the device ad nauseum to, among other things, pants his teacher, act cool to his crush Jessica, enter the girl’s locker room, rectify a mistake playing a video game, commit suicide by cop, and successfully toss snacks into his mouth. It’s tremendously ironic (and foreshadowing) that Eric Clapton’s “It’s In the Way That You Use It” is set to this montage.
What follows is one of the most existentially effed-up sequences of the season, an even more grim interpretation of the opening sequence of Pixar’s Up, which finds Morty inadvertently running into a girl outside a coffee shop. The ensuing montage, devoid of dialogue but featuring a genuinely engaging musical score, finds them hitting it off tremendously. They run through the milestones of a relationship, from the honeymoon stage to the trials and arguments, to Morty buying plane tickets as reconciliation. During the flight, the plane crashes and Morty loses the device. He and the crew attempt eating shoes, and then cannibalism. Morty tries and fails to kill himself. Upon looking at his girlfriend, he remembers how they met and the good times they had. Suddenly determined to save himself and his girlfriend, Morty sets off to recover his backpack, and upon doing so, neglects to utilize the device in favor of calling for help and maintaining the reality with his girlfriend. After overcoming insurmountable odds with her, pushing forward and surviving and rehabilitating, Morty and his girlfriend begin to rebuild their life.
And then Jerry, in one of the most Jerry moments of all time, mistakes the device for the TV remote and presses the button to reset Morty to the moment just before he met the girl. He’s unable to fix things, and tries multiple times to kill himself with the remote resetting him every time.
That’s dark, even for Rick and Morty.
A dejected Morty returns to Rick, admitting that he was wrong, and that he’s learned his lesson: that by always looking back, he’s ignoring what he’s living for, and that one cannot live without consequences. Rick, slurping down whatever this universe’s version of a Capri Sun is, bluntly rejects that speech: “Wow. That’s a beautiful thought Morty, but, uh, no. There were definitely consequences.”
Rick proceeds to vindictively and delightedly reveal that Morty has been “Prestige-ing” himself the entire time. In essence, the device does not transport Morty back to his “save point” to continue where he left off. Rick is a self-professed opponent of time travel. “If Ant-Man and the Wasp can do it, I’m not interested,” Rick scoffs (Although there’s a great visual gag involving a dusty box in his garage labeled “Time Travel Stuff.”) Rather, each press of the save button isolates that moment, splits Morty into to his most probable selves, and transports him into that other reality. But since there still exists a Morty in the destination reality, Morty himself replaces that Morty, causing the unfortunate counterpart to violently perish. This means that every time Morty hits the button to indulge his voyeurism or curiosity, a parallel Morty is painfully dissolved.
Morty is suddenly faced with reality: he hasn’t manipulated time; everything he’s done, he’s actually done, and death lies in his wake; thousands of Mortys unceremoniously erased at Morty’s hands as he entertained his vices, none of which were actually deleted from restoring a save point.
This is a direct reference to Chris Nolan’s fantastic 2006 thriller The Prestige (based on Christopher Priest’s novel), in which competitive magician Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) is given a machine to execute his master stroke of a trick, which teleports him from within the machine to atop the stage. A late twist reveals that instead of teleporting Angier, it actually creates a copy of him, and one of the them inevitably dies. Angier and Morty have both flown too close to the sun, their follies costing the lives of multitudes of their own counterparts. Morty is devastated at this revelation.
Rick offers Morty an alternative to his crippling moral realization: to merge all realities to Morty himself and absolve the others from their crimes. Then, a fleet of SWAT vehicles and officers descend on the house. Rick smugly points out Morty’s only means of escape is to recreate Rick’s original plan and climb into a fake vat of acid to feign his own death, fake bones and all. He even makes Morty reluctantly kiss the vat as he climbs into it. Rick’s revenge is complete.
In the novel and film The Prestige, a magic trick is presented as a three-act structure, which itself mirrors the narrative process. The first is the setup, or “The Pledge.” The audience is presented with something to examine, though this is probably a misdirect—here, the vat of acid. The second is “The Turn.” This is the centerpiece of the performance—in a narrative, the longest of the acts—in which the real meat of the performance is located. In “The Vat of Acid Episode,” this is the montage of Morty screwing around as well as his odyssey with his girlfriend. The third and final segment of the trick is “The Prestige,” in which the showstopper is presented, and in a narrative structure, things are brought full-circle. The reveal is that Rick’s device is not a time travel mechanism but rather a dimension-hopping remote control responsible for so many Morty deaths. The connection to The Pledge is Morty being forced to accept a fake vat of acid—of which he was originally so critical—as his only escape from his situation.
The big kicker of this episode is that Morty sort of learns his lesson before the “Prestige;” he rejects the reset button in favor of staying with his girlfriend, until Jerry ruined it. But at the end of it all, Rick was upset that Morty disliked his Acid Vat plan and essentially designed the do-over device to punish Morty—as episode co-writer Albro Lundy says, “an insane run-around to get another ‘I told you so.’” Rick is so incensed by Morty insulting his intelligence that he designs a device that results in thousands of Mortys dying just to stick it to his own Morty, also inadvertently granting Morty true happiness before it’s dissolved and teaching him a lesson in the cruelest way possible.
“The Vat of Acid Episode” is another season and series best, largely in part in how savagely dark it gets. To have Morty overcome his feelings for Jessica, find true love, and conquer odds that many would succumb to, only for all of that to be suddenly snatched away, and then realize that he is directly complicit in the deaths of so many of his counterparts, is just one more brick atop the Jenga tower of Morty’s eroding psyche. It’s exacerbated in how Rick triumphantly taunts Morty, painfully driving in the point that Morty was wrong to insult him. In addition, in a rare moment of Morty standing up for himself and having some degree of confidence and autonomy, he’s immediately struck down. Angier was a starry-eyed, overconfident magician with nothing but fame in his goals, and rightfully failed. Morty wanted little more than for Rick to respect some of his ideas, and he was struck down unfairly.
Last episode I noticed how uncharacteristically friendly the pair were to each other, and this week found Rick delivering one of his most savage trump cards yet to his grandson. This shifting dynamic can’t be unintentional, and it’ll be interesting to see how the two interact with each other going forward. It’s definitely starting to feel a little more antagonistic (the final dialogue exchange of the episode involves an angry disagreement over the best part of Rocky Road ice cream), and there’s a lot to look forward to in how the legendary pair progress in the coming weeks.