I continuously enjoy joking with my friends that – as a sign of the poor quality of The Purge franchise – the greatest Purge film remains, to date, one of the weakest episodes of Rick and Morty. By joke, I mean, I toss it flippantly but I do believe that. Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon’s animated series Rick and Morty does much much better with the concept of a Purge – a 12-hour time period when all robbery and murder is legalized on a population – than James DeMonaco did in three films of the same concept.
To contextualize, Rick and Morty is an animated series that airs on Adult Swim created by Roiland and Harmon. The series follows the continuous cosmic and dimensional adventures of Rick Sanchez, an elderly mad scientist who earns the title with his alcoholism, reckless devil-may-care attitude, and possible cornucopia of mental illness as he drags along his young and easily distressed grandson Morty Smith into different largely-dangerous scenarios (and occasionally his granddaughter and Morty’s sister Summer), to the dismay of Morty’s mother (and Rick’s daughter) Beth and Morty’s father Jerry. Both Rick and Morty are characters voiced by Roiland himself, Rick with a rough-throated husk and Morty with a nervous high-pitched shake that showcases his pre-pubescent adolescence. There are a lot of penises in this show.
The weakness in this particular episode of Rick & Morty comes from a sort of lack of inspiration in its premise and execution that a lot of season 2 happens to have (though several episodes of season 2 are also amongst the shows most daring and imaginative – the premiere and fourth episode of season 2 are my favorite in the series). It’s not new or rare for the series to completely lift its episode plots from popular movies – Jurassic Park, Inception, A Nightmare on Elm Street, hell the very animated models of Rick and Morty as characters is based on Doc Brown and Marty McFly from Back to the Future in animated stylization deliberately based off of The Simpsons. But this particular episode felt like in its plotting, it was scraping heavily from the bottom of the barrel just for incident, as Rick and Morty find themselves in a town going through its festival (which Rick immediately recognizes as a ‘Purge’). Whereas most of Rick & Morty’s episodes allow its characters to play around with its concept and turn it on its head, it’s plainly just a Purge parody this go around with no real twist such as mixing in the premise of Inception and Nightmare on Elm Street and making it lead to an army of android dogs or turning Jurassic Park into a map of the human body.
Still, I came to praise “Look Who’s Purging Now”, not to bury it and despite its lack of imagination, it remains the best of any Purge movie.
What’s its big secret? Well, for one thing, the episode actually goes and specifies the crimes available to be murder and pillaging and nothing else. Unlike the film series’ claim that “all crime is legal” somehow being lucky to avoid embezzlement and bank robbery (what’s that about economic relief, DeMonaco?), mass suicides, and drug overdoses, “Look Who’s Purging Now” opens with Rick’s excitement at the concept elaborating it as “murdering and robbing each other” (pretty classy for a show that interrupted an episode with an attempted rape to not frivolously throw that out there as a legalized crime, but I digress).
The other is how even when this is among the shallowest stories in Rick and Morty’s run thus far, writers Harmon, Roiland, and Ryan Ridley find space in it to give at least some commentary at the expense of both Rick and Morty and while Morty find himself uncomfortably prone to catharsis in his later indulgence of killing, Rick’s early eagerness to witness the event before quickly growing sick about it in a sincere and off-put manner (as opposed to Rick’s characteristic apathy) is a worthy comment on the rubbernecking attitude of people about tragic or violent events (or violent movies such as The Purge). That would of course be ignoring the final massacre that Rick takes part in and facilitates, but I digress since Rick has always been established as a brutal man (which opens the show to have fun once our characters get involved in some bloodletting to the Tony! Toni! Tone! song “Feels Good”) and you can’t exactly trust a show between the juvenile attitudes of Roiland and the depressed nihilism of Harmon to be fully consistent with its themes all the time. It’s certainly not nuanced about its attitudes about the upper-class or the lack of practicality in utopian fantasy (which I guess gives it a new advantage over the Purge series in calling its sociological premise bullshit right at the very end of the episode where we don’t have to deal with it).
The third advantage “Look Who’s Purging Now” has is how it’s very clearly a plot that has an end goal beyond “let’s just wait out the whole night hoping we don’t die”. Rick and Morty are trapped on the planet by after being shipjacked and attacked and so their main objective is to find Rick’s ship and leave, not necessarily to simply survive. This translates to an urgency in the story, though the episode doesn’t see it all the way through. the B-plot of Summer and Jerry is kind of understandable as a necessity to Rick and Morty’s dilemma, but the scene where Summer and Jerry launch the suits and have an awkward conversation afterwards really stops everything flat for a moment just for another poke at how pathetic Jerry is as a person. It’s not entirely structurally sound even without that either, I get that Morty’s scene with the screenwriting lighthouse keeper leads to his first kill and is meant to be tedious and annoying, but it holds the whole thing flat.
Even despite the morphed episode structure or the shallow plot or the fact that it doesn’t really give directors Dominic Polceno & Pete Michels and their animation team much room to be as creative and imaginative as the rest of the show loves to be (it’s a rural, practically Amish city with anthropomorphic dog-people living in it as opposed to episodes of monsters and planets with crazy shit growing out of it or different designs largely phallic in basis), it’s still an enjoyable episode. Certainly nothing I’d insist be somebody’s introduction to Rick and Morty (if not the pilot, just the second episode “Lawnmower Dog” would be my ideal introduction), but it’s just as funny as any of their other episodes and it’s hella better than anything DeMonaco has added to the Purge-iverse.