How do you pin down Rick and Morty? No, reader, I’m asking you, specifically — when you think of the breakout Adult Swim animated comedy, what comes to mind? There’s probably the Szechuan sauce and its associated debacle; Pickle Rick; the wacky multiverse hijinks the show was doing before it was cool; maybe a stray, inescapable Justin Roiland voice that plays on loop.
In my own experience, Rick and Morty is like working out: The longer it’s been since I’ve engaged with it, the bigger the mental block is to going back. I genuinely like them both, but I don’t really want to listen to anyone who’s made either their whole life. Ultimately, they always feel good to return to, even (or maybe, especially) when it feels hard; there’s more depth to it than just the routine, everyday stuff, but that everyday stuff also gets the job done.
Part of that is the fact Rick and Morty dissects its sci-fi influences at a breakneck pace, running through whole concepts in a 22-minute run time. Then there are the many layers of this particular onion: Almost as belabored as Pickle Rick is the fact a lot of people are missing the point of Pickle Rick. And as we saw in season 5, Rick C-137 (the show’s main Rick) has a much darker backstory than the Rick of the timeline he finds himself in. C-137 Rick watched his wife get killed by another Rick, and — after some time spent trying to hunt him down, killing various Ricks, and generally getting fucked up — eventually crash-landed himself into a timeline where a Rick had abandoned his grown-up daughter, settling in bitterly.
It was a sort of confirmation of the story Rick told his Galactic Federation captors in season 3 — a slow reveal on a man whose true dark depths have been mostly hinted at throughout five seasons of the show. But to those concerned about season 6 picking up the mantle from there, co-creator Dan Harmon would just like to say: Calm down.
“It might be a return to a season 3 ratio of canon to one-off energy,” Harmon tells Polygon of season 6’s entries into the canon. “And more importantly, the relationship between [that and the other seasons].
“Maybe if season 5 might have felt a little bit more like almost a compulsive aversion to canon, and then a big episode at the end that promised all of it. And then season 6 is like, Yeah, moving forward, we’re going to continue to try to hit that ratio the right way, as opposed to like, either compulsively avoiding it or indulging in it.”
If you ask Harmon what that perfect ratio is, he will jokingly say “a nice solid 20%,” if he’s going to be “joylessly mathematical about it.” He cites their recent episode schedule shift as providing room to “relax about servicing canon,” and instead sprinkle it in where it feels worthy. And the two episodes provided for critics seem like a good example of how Rick and Morty might balance itself moving forward: The first picks up after the fall of the Citadel of Ricks and Evil Morty’s destruction of Portal Fluid left our Rick and Morty’s fate uncertain. The second is your classic madcap, action-packed Rick and Morty episode with a killer guest star.
“We’ve always seen the show being able to live in both [worlds] if we’re careful,” Justin Roiland, co-creator and star, says. “We could say, Fuck it, let’s go full serialized, fuck it. [...] But I just feel like it would — I don’t know if it would be good. It’s almost like an Oreo cookie. And you’re just eating the shit in the middle and then you’re throwing away [the rest]. You kind of need both things.”
That sort of promise about the balance of season 6 is coming at a time when multiverses are more popular than ever. It’s a reminder that Rick and Morty has been doing that shit for a while — so long, in fact, that it’s sort of superseded the usual discussion about how to grow their characters. Like many animated casts, the Smith-Sanchez family isn’t aging up, even after a few years of adventures.
“You want to have the consequences and the realism that we have with our characters. But then, because it’s animated, you want to keep them the same,” Roiland says. He notes that it’s not a new problem for cartoons: The Simpsons has retconned its own story plenty of times to keep itself modern, while the comic strip For Better or For Worse had the characters age in real time. For Rick and Morty, Roiland notes that the multiverse allows them to conjure up a specific take on a character for as long as they need it. “With sci-fi, and also multiverse, you can get away with almost anything.”
Still, that doesn’t mean season 6 doesn’t promise big changes. After the season 5 finale blew up the foundation of Rick’s world as we know it, Roiland and Harmon are focusing on setting up new challenges for the titular duo and their loved ones. While Morty isn’t going to hit his 15th birthday (at least not without the usual time hijinks to get him right back to where he started), he’ll still be growing as a character.
“What Morty needs to do — and this is actually really difficult — Morty needs to continually have his relationship with Rick become respected,” Harmon says. “We can’t really write that Morty’s mind is blown by the insinuation that nothing matters in episode 80; he has to have gotten used to that by now. So it’s like he’s growing, he’s aging in terms of his exposure to the universe. But at the same time, even though there’s been multiple Thanksgiving and Christmases, apparently this is just less than a year in the life of this poor kid (that’s spanned multiple presidential administrations).”
And so, six seasons and counting in, you can certainly expect to see more of Rick and Morty’s “lore,” the poignancy and depth that has been haunting Rick Sanchez’s every move. But you’ll also see some more film homages, Cronenberg monsters, immature squabbles, fart jokes and meta humor, sci-fi shenanigans, and potshots at things like Avengers: Endgame. Rick and Morty face a new Big Bad, but you might not get resolution with him any time soon. There’s an interactive “episode” of the show called “Wormageddon.” Meanwhile there’s an anime spinoff in the works, and the duo is popping up in MultiVersus. You can’t easily pin down a show like this — every audience member has a different relationship with it. Whatever reputation Rick and Morty has in your heart, it’ll probably deliver on that in the sixth season, with laughs and alien guts galore.
Rick and Morty season 6 premieres on Adult Swim on Sunday, Sept. 4, at 11 p.m.