Every season of “Rick and Morty” seems to contain a Thanksgiving episode and an episode based on weird sex stuff. In this week’s episode, “Bethic Twinstinct,” we have both at once.
The episode begins at the Thanksgiving table with “Space Beth” joining the Smith family for the holiday. Longtime viewers will remember her backstory: At some point in the past, Rick cloned his daughter, Beth, and then mixed up the two so that even he did not know which was the original and which was the clone.
This bizarre and callous act of scientific misconduct (and bad parenting) had so far worked out fine for Rick. There had even been some benefits, as in episode 1 this season when Space Beth and Regular Beth had teamed up to save Rick and Morty from the ruins of the Citadel of Ricks.
But this season, again, turns once again on the idea of consequences. The two Beths connect over Thanksgiving and understand each other as no one else can — that makes sense, they are the same person, essentially. They go off to space and have deep conversations about themselves and the shared reality of being Beth.
Since this is “Rick and Morty,” that also means they have sex with each other.
The initial gross-out aspect hits first. Is it incest? Is it masturbation? There is no real analog in the real world for fornicating with your own clone. Science fiction often provides the setting for pondering philosophical questions like this. It also gives us a new forum to gross ourselves out.
But, gross as it is, “Bethic Twinstinct” works on a level that last season’s weird sex episode, “Rickdependence Spray,” really didn’t. Maybe that’s because the actual relationship between original and clone is not familiar enough to trigger the same level of disgust. But more than that, it may be because it leads to larger themes that are worth contemplating, no matter how we get there.
In post-episode commentary, creator Dan Harmon and the episode’s writer, Anne Lane, discussed the Beth-Beth relationship through the lens of narcissism. And that is, without a doubt, a theme that is at work here. Literally, the myth of Narcissus was of a young man falling in love with his own reflection in a pool of water and staring at it until he died.
There is another layer of symbolism, too, of Rick’s daughter — brilliant like him — now also becoming as self-centered as he is. (Indeed, Rick is the first to catch on to the self-tryst and mentions that he has run into alternate dimensional versions of himself and … things happened.) Beth, the dutiful wife, mother, and professional, indulges that desire for selfishness that Rick gives into on a daily basis — even when doing so could cost her her marriage and the entire life she has built.
Zoom out a level further, and we see a parody of the inherent narcissism of modern Western society. Self-indulgence is seen as a vice in traditional society, but in ours, it is seen as liberation. Duties to family, to community, and to nation are the ties that bind a society together. Individual liberty has a place in that world, but without the world to set boundaries for it, liberty falls into licentiousness and hedonism.
That is where Beth and Space Beth are heading until Rick, of all people, convinces them to think about it for a minute first. Space Beth is unimpressed — she’s used to radical individualism, flying around space, getting into adventures. But Earth Beth still feels the ties of family and society.
They solve the problem as only this show can: a weird polygynous “throupling” with Jerry that leaves everyone happy as their reciprocal neuroses and perversions all balance each other out. Well, “everyone,” that is, except Rick and the kids, who reconvene at the Thanksgiving table to attempt to finish dinner while ignoring the weird sex play sounds emanating from the second floor.
Normally, this is just the kind of awkwardness Rick would avoid, pulling out the portal gun and blinking away to another dimension — any dimension, just not this all-too-real one. But, again, there are consequences. The portals are broken, so the three just sit and cry in their supper, living with the mess that they (well, Rick) have made.