So it turns out that all of the Rick and Morty fans that were upset that “Never Ricking Morty” seemingly discarded the majority of canon setup for future episodes had nothing to fear, because this week’s action-packed and eventful Season 4 finale, “Star Mort: Rickturn of the Jerri,” not only builds off of some promising plot material from earlier episodes, but caps the season with more powerful character development for Rick and the rest of the family. We’ve got Tammy and the Federation, we’ve got Phoenixperson, and a ton of payoff. No Evil Morty yet, but if this episode is any indication, that little one-eyed bastard is still out there biding his time.
We open on a planet being liberated, perpetrated by…Beth Smith. Although this Beth is (probably) not our Beth—the side of her head is shaved and she’s part cyborg. The MacGuffin Beth was after is a Death Star-style weapon called the NX-5, and through a partnership with Wrangler Jeans, has new and improved features such as “no more fatal flaws like a small hole that blows the whole thing up when you shoot it.” The Wrangler Jeans reference is one of a number of silly, meta instances of product placement (“Let’s go to Wendy’s! I think they gave us money once!” Rick says in reference to the R&M-themed Wendy’s Breakfast commercial) and a fantastic running joke that gets way more mileage (and laughs) than it has any right to.
As Cyborg Beth’s doctor works on repairing her arm, Beth mentions the clone that Rick made of her to remain on Earth while she took to the stars. The doctor then casually asks were she ever to return to Earth, would a tiny explosive device in the clone’s neck detonate—and then points out that just such a device exists in Cyborg Beth’s neck as well. A furious Cyborg Beth, believing that she is the clone, sets off for Earth to confront Rick.
Down on Earth, Beth suggests that the family visit Dr. Wong as Morty and Summer scuffle over Rick’s invisibility belt. Rick once again avoids therapy, attempting to use both the belt and blast shields in his garage to escape a session with Dr. Wong. Cyborg Beth is waiting for him, and they scuffle using various gadgets and abilities before Rick reveals that Cyborg Beth is in fact the real Beth, and the device in her neck was just a means of merging memories with Clone Beth in case the “real” Beth decides to return home. They grab a drink, and Cyborg Beth reveals that she is essentially the most wanted person in the galaxy after drawing the New Improved Galactic Federation’s ire. Rick is understandably a bit hurt by this. It seems he’s grown fond of being Public Enemy #1 in the multiverse. With the Federation after Beth, Rick accidentally names Clone Beth as just “Beth.” Apparently it’s not clear which is which.
After a series of confrontations, Summer wrestles the invisibility belt from Morty, just in time for the New Improved Galactic Federation to show up demanding to know where Beth is. The siblings set aside their anger and team up, with Summer manipulating objects as Morty pretends to have psychic powers. Once again, it’s nice to see Morty and Summer not only work together, but also have some strong comedic chemistry.
As Cyborg Beth and the Federation (lead by Tammy) pursue Rick, Beth and Jerry following a confrontation at Dr. Wong’s office, Rick clumsily and sheepishly tries to explain the clone situation to Beth, and bickers with Jerry over who is the worse father. After a scuffle, the ship crash lands and Tammy has them cornered.
Tammy then drops the bomb: If Rick is left alone, he’s considered a non-threat. His claim to fame, being the most wanted man in the multiverse, is rendered toothless as long as he’s ignored. Rick is obviously deeply offended by this and spends most of the remainder of the episode vindictively utilizing some of his most creative and deadly abilities to dispatch Gromflomites. Morty and Summer save them, and Rick executes Tammy for making him attend a wedding (and for killing Birdperson, something Rick in hindsight wishes he had mentioned first).
At that point, the NX-5 appears: “Congratulations, Earth, on being destroyed by the NX-5, brought to you by Wrangler!” Rick, a card-carrying opponent of easy references, is extremely pissed that he has to go rescue his daughter(s). “Come on kids, we have to go do a f***ing piece of s*** Star Wars.” Rick’s extreme disdain for some pop culture references and intense reverence for others (McDonald’s promotional Mulan Schezwan sauce, anyone?) is one of his most consistently unpredictable and hilarious traits.
The family breaks into the NX-5 and split apart to rescue the Beths. Rick finds himself in an obvious fight chamber, and suddenly, Birdperson, who died back in Season 2, has returned as a cyborg who calls himself Phoenixperson. Upon learning that Rick killed Tammy, Phoenixperson engages in a spectacular fight with his former best friend. The elaborate and colorful action sequences in this season really show off how far Rick and Morty has come in terms of its visual fidelity, and everything from the animation to the backgrounds really pop. There’s also a thread of emotion through the fight, as the two exchange hurtful verbal jabs between violent attacks. It’s hard to see Rick being physically savaged to within an inch of his life, but it’s almost harder to watch such a formerly delightful pair exchange hateful lines of dialogue.
Morty and Summer sneak through the NX-5, arriving at the control room. Two Gromflomites are noting that as the NX-5 cuts a swath of destruction across Earth, vaporizing humans, some pairs of jeans are left unscathed. This leads to an extended joke about how Wrangler Brand Jeans are so strong, that not even a planet-vaporizing laser can destroy them. It’s suggested that this is merely a marketing ploy and talking point instead of a statement of fact, but it doesn’t change the outcome when Morty’s Wrangler jeans are stuffed into NX-5’s core, causing it to cease firing and catastrophically overload. This is just a fantastic joke, equal parts riff on product placement and on the tired Star Wars trope of exploiting a superweapon’s weak point, and it completely works.
The two Beths decide to set aside their anger with each other and refocus on their father, agreeing to kill him together for how much of a self-centered and neglectful prick he’s been. Ironically, they end up saving Rick from Phoenixperson (given that he’d originally and reluctantly set off to do the same for them). Phoenixperson still manages to overpower all three. Who should save them but Jerry: having borrowed the invisibility belt to pee unseen, he’s now manipulated the corpse of Tammy to distract Phoenixperson from murdering Rick and the Beths. Phoenixperson begins to furiously overload, but Beth uses the distraction to switch him off—conveniently, Phoenixperson has a conspicuous on/off switch easily accessible on his back.
Things mostly return to normal, with both Beths now living at the Smith house. A somehow completely recovered Rick invites the family to learn the answer as to which Beth is the original. Rick mind-blew himself (transported a memory into a vial) and actually doesn’t know which Beth is real, but invites them to watch with him and find out. Both Beths decline, not caring what’s actually in that vial, and stating that it’s more important to destroy the Federation and raise the kids. They make it clear that neither of these issues concern Rick anymore. Rick invites his grandchildren to learn the truth with him, and they both decline as well. “Don’t drag us into you’re bulls*** just because you’re losing control,” Summer says. Rick shrugs it off as normal, but he (and we) are not ready for the gut punch of a revelation that his mind-blower reveals.
It turns out that following the cliffhanger at the end of Season 3, in which Beth was given the choice to remain on Earth or leave for the stars, Beth’s response was that she wanted Rick to decide: does he want her to be a part of his life, or not?
Rick then made a clone of Beth—one for Earth and one for outer space—and then shuffled the two without looking, absolving himself of making a decision. It’s one of the most heartbreaking Rick moments in the series: for all of his power and intelligence, not even Rick himself knows which version of his daughter is the real one—an intended consequence of a conscious decision. He couldn’t face the prospect of making that sort of decision. He wanted to have his daughter on Earth, and wanted to be proud of a space Beth following in his footsteps. I want to call out that this montage was set to an excellent and emotional song written by Rick and Morty composer Ryan Elder and Kotomi, and performed by Kotomi. I didn’t quite cry during the sequence, but I came damn close.
We may never learn which Beth is the “original,” but it doesn’t matter either way: Rick failed his daughter. “Holy s*** I’m a bad father,” Rick says out loud. “…but at least I’m a good friend.” He presses a button and his shelving unit rotates to reveal an unconscious and dismantled Phoenixperson attached to the wall. He switches his best friend back on, who immediately tries to attack him again before Rick turns him off again. This is probably a combination of Rick’s attempt to retain control over some factor in his life as well as rehabilitate his best friend, but the outlook for this to resolve favorably is grim.
Rick doesn’t drink his problems away this time: he’s about to leave the garage and go back into the house with his family, but instead turns around, slowly walks back to his chair and hangs his head in sorrow. He’s come to the realization that he is not needed. Part of Rick’s toxicity is his constant need for validation, for his ego to be fed, and for someone to react to him so he can clap back. Rick is an unquestionable genius and he’s often harnessed that genius to find quick solutions, get out of hairy situations, and otherwise avoid consequence altogether, but this is something he can’t solve with an invention.
This time feels different for Rick’s development. There’s always been some sense of self-hatred in Rick, despite his ferocious (and frequently successful) efforts to quell it. And most instances of him showing humanity have either been impulsive, private, or quickly redacted. Here, Rick makes a conscious decision to not go back to his family right away, and just sit and think. It’s testament to how complex Rick is as a character that despite him being such a massive POS, it’s painful to see him so hurt, and to want him to sort himself out be a functioning part of what so far seems an irredeemably toxic family.
Despite that, nearly every character has grown a lot through Season 4, and has matured in several different ways since Rick and Morty’s first adventure. Morty in particular has gone from being a timid and terrified young boy to having seen some sh*t—slowly becoming more jaded and cynical. Summer in turn has started to turn into more of a sociopath, and Beth is also growing in confidence and autonomy, which should only continue to increase should the show keep Cyborg Beth in the family. Hell, even Jerry gets an arc—maligned by Dr. Wong for his therapy puppets, Jerry ends up saving his family by donning the invisibility belt and puppeteering Tammy’s corpse to distract Phoenixperson (and, if you catch the way it’s animated, this reveals that Jerry is actually an extremely skilled ventriloquist).
I’d actually cautiously predicted that Jerry would once again be ejected from the Smith family at the end of this season, but was surprised that it was Rick who ended up the loser. For someone who always has the answer and always has an escape plan, Rick is facing increasingly more often situations in which he is confronted with his shortcomings. Realizing that he’s unwanted and without the right answers may be the most important next step to him becoming a better person—and being okay with that. It could also send Rick lower than ever. He loves his daughter, but he has a massive amount of ground to cover in order to win her love back. Four seasons of Beth’s codependence on her father’s approval have been fractured, and now he has literally nothing.
“Star Mort: Rickturn of the Jerri” is an outstanding season finale and a brilliant episode in its own right. It’s got all of the ingredients that make the show work so well: great meta humor, interlocking character arcs, action, a taste of overarching serialization, and genuine emotion and character work. I remember when my college roommate first insisted I watch the pilot episode back when it first premiered, and mostly enjoying it. It’s since ascended to one of my favorite shows for all of the reasons listed above, as well as its cynical manipulation of its audience expectations. There’s a lot of heart and soul poured into a show that started out as a short webisode involving Doc Brown soliciting sexual favors from Marty McFly. To think that we’ve gone from that to such a creatively unhinged and emotionally rich show is wonderful indeed.