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Have The Jokes In ‘Rick And Morty’ Season 5 Been Neutered By Wokeness?


Spoilers ahead. 

Thanksgiving in July? Sure, why not. The latest installment of “Rick and Morty” may have been out of season, but no one should complain: it was the strongest episode yet of Season 5 of the show, the first that felt close to matching with the vibe of season past.

The episode begins with Morty accidentally lasering the Constitution, the Liberty Bell, and the Statue of Liberty. A robot hidden inside Lady Liberty all these years emerges to Morty’s surprise — but not Rick’s: “Never trust the French,” he sighs. Already, we’re off to a crazy start. Rick had been trying to steal the Constitution for the treasure map on the back, an homage to the 2004 Nicholas Cage classic, “National Treasure,” but when the French robot begins to rampage across New York, a new plotline is born.

President Curtis (voiced once again by Keith David and rapidly becoming the show’s best recurring character) knows Rick is behind this and sends the army to capture him. They surround the family home with an anti-portal shield and a load of troops, all while the rest of the Smith/Sanchez family try to enjoy Thanksgiving. Rick figures he’ll get a presidential pardon by disguising himself as a Thanksgiving turkey, a trick he says he has pulled off many times (this has never been shown on-screen but does explain how Rick has managed to stay out of jail). Unfortunately, Curtis is wise to his game, and incredible security measures are in place to prevent any infiltration of the flock of turkeys then on its way to the White House.

The episode turns into a technological heist mission, with Rick and Morty transformed into turkeys, trying to get past Marines, who are themselves turned into turkeys to prevent this from happening. They succeed, but Curtis is determined to stop them, demanding that he also be transformed into a turkey to seek out Rick. The whole series of events is absurd and captures some of the zaniness of the “Pickle Rick” episode from season three in which, as the title suggests, Rick turned himself into a pickle.

But there’s more going on here than the crazy shapeshifting. The scientists and Marines try to extract the president but grab the wrong turkey, rebuilding it into a Curtis-turkey chimera that they all have come to believe is the actual president. Meanwhile, the rest of the turkeys are shunted into the underground caverns beneath the White House where they can be hunted by Franklin Roosevelt (in this tale, the 32nd president did not die but was transformed into a half-spider, half-man by an early, flawed version of the polio vaccine. As with their adventures under the White House in years past (hunting an alien in the “Kennedy Sex Tunnels”), it all hints at some of the in-depth, very weird worldbuilding for which the series is known.

Rick, Morty, and Curtis escape, and eat Thanksgiving dinner together with the rest of the family while plotting how to restore the real president to office. This will prove difficult: Turkey-Curtis has Congress on his side and is raising an army of turkey-man super-soldiers — perhaps the human-animal hybrids that George W. Bush warned us about back in 2006. Rick and Curtis put aside their rivalry for the time being and travel to the Crypt of the New World, yet another part of the federal district’s hidden architecture.

There they discover that America’s original inhabitants were enormous turkey dinosaurs. The Pilgrims and Indians, in this telling, were spacefaring races at war with each other who crashed here and united in a fight against the giant turkeys. This is the real basis for the Thanksgiving story, hidden away until now, when these — robots? Aliens? Alien robots? — reemerge and join humanity in a new Global War on Turkeys. There are battle sequences, and so on, riffing on the best sort of action movie tropes.

Safe Comedy isn’t Comedy

This episode was good, maybe the best of the current season. But in it, we still see the same evidence of caution that has plagued the writing throughout season 5. All shows change as they go on, and one-dimensional characters become multifaceted as writers have the time and space to explore their depths. That sort of change is good and makes for a better show.

But also changed is the no-sacred-cows approach to humor. The first time I watched this show, I was laughing out loud constantly, mostly because the humor was so fresh, so unexpected, and so cutting. No person or institution was immune from parody, which combined with Rick’s nihilism made for a series of brutally funny takes on life.

The current batch of writers are all veterans of past seasons, but it is a slimmed-down group. Many of those who wrote the delightfully over-the-top early seasons have left and gone with them is the courage to attack anything and everything in service of the plot and a good laugh. It is difficult not to see the hardening of the culture war lines in all of this, the ascendancy of a woke elite that will punish those that ridicule them.

There have been some good belly laughs this season, but they only gently rib the new standards of society’s elite. When an obviously Arab-looking rich guy is going to buy Planetina in episode 3, the plan goes wrong and his last words are “I am an individual character I represent no group” before being killed by seals (the animal, not Navy SEALS). It’s a solid line, a meta-joke over the fact that having an Arab as the bad guy will be seen as “problematic” by online scolds. But acknowledging that is, itself, fairly safe.

Maybe there is no way around this. Ignoring the new rules issued by the “that’s not funny” school of comedy would be brave and refreshing, but it would also ignore reality, something a topical show can never do. Poking fun at it too hard, though, would not only invite action by the outrage mob, but would also make the show way more about something than it was ever meant to be.

Rick’s whole thing is that he doesn’t care. Not caring is becoming less of an option in real life, but a mad scientist with a portal gun is going to do what he pleases. So, it seems, are the people who write him. It’s their loss, and ours.