Does it seem to anyone else like the writers of “Rick and Morty” have taken things up a notch this season? In season five, results were mixed and the franchise’s famously particular fans were often displeased. This year, though, the first four episodes seem by most accounts to have been better written than anything we’ve seen lately.
That is certainly a trend that continued with the most recent episode, “Night Family.” For a series that dips in and out of different genres of fiction all the time (all the while staying within the broader sci-fi universe it has built), a horror-themed episode is not too surprising. But blending horror and comedy can be tough. Here, though, the mix worked.
“Night Family” begins with the familiar concept of a wife being driven out of bed by her husband’s snoring. When Beth seeks refuge on the living room couch, though, she finds her father, Rick, in a zombie-like trance, doing crunches on the floor. When she confronts him about his weird behavior the next day, we get the explanation from which the entire episode unfolds: Rick bought a “somnambulator” from an alien planet, a device that lets him assign tasks for his unconscious body to perform while he is asleep.
Rick has been using the tool to get rock-hard abs, which he happily shows off (as most people with rock-hard abs are wont to do). The rest of the family, naturally, wants in on the action. The old Rick might have said no and stormed off, but the new, involved Rick relents — eventually.
Morty follows his grandpa’s example and uses the time to work out (they two would later host an abs-focused podcast). Summer decided to learn Spanish and Beth learned to play the trumpet, while Jerry decided to use his night-self as a pen pal. The family mocks Jerry for missing the point, but his decision also establishes for the audience that the day-selves and night-selves do not share a consciousness — sort of like how you hear of people doing weird sleep-walking stuff while on Ambien.
The Night Family also gets a lot of chores done. This whole concept is one of those that, I think, we would all enjoy if it were possible. Being productive without effort, and using the “wasted” time of sleep to get things done, it’s the perfect embodiment of those “one weird trick” headlines of clickbait sites. People click them because they hope for an easy fix to their problems. That’s generally not possible in real life, but here in science fiction, it looks — at first — like the Sanchez/Smith family has found the one weird trick to being fitter, happier, and more productive.
Of course, it is not to be, and this is where the horror element comes in. The night-selves may not share a consciousness with the day-selves, but they are not devoid of all consciousness. The night people seemingly don’t mind their lives of drudgery, but they have a minor request, one familiar to many households: would the day people mind rinsing their dishes before leaving them in the sink?
Rick absolutely refuses any concession to the night folk, leading to an all-out war between the day and night. Night Summer leads the night family in the conflict as unrelentingly as Rick does in normal circumstances, the somnambulance seemingly awakening some hidden trait for Rick-style intransigence.
The battle between day and night, fought by two sides sharing the same bodies, is fascinating and well-choreographed, combining ordinary fight scenes with horror tropes (“don’t go to sleep!”) along with the usual laugh-out-loud humor to make the last part of the episode seem to fly by. In the end, Day Jerry’s weird friendship with Night Jerry saves the day, not the first time this season that we see his character rehabilitated again from the low point he was in a few seasons ago.
The episode is also remarkably self-contained. The family hardly leaves the house until the final chase sequence and most of their interactions are with their alternate selves. As in last week’s episode, this is the kind of thing the Rick of early seasons might have avoided, just hopping through a portal to a dimension where he doesn’t have to deal with the consequences of his actions.
Portal travel was a big part of the show before — Rick’s killer app. Yet since the first episode, Rick has not seemed to find the problem terribly urgent. Does he not want to fix it because he is secretly enjoying time with his family? Is he keeping it non-functional to stop Rick Prime, his archnemesis, from using it?
Maybe the limitations of the destruction of portal travel have helped keep the plots of this season tighter. Writing in a world without limits is hard, but a few constraints focus the mind, and lead to actually solving problems in interesting — and hilarious — ways.