With the conclusion of the second season of Rick & Morty, I think we all need to take a minute and mull over what we’ve experienced.
There’s plenty of resources to get caught up on the series and Adult Swim makes it relatively easy to watch several past episodes online. Unlike the first season, this second season felt less centered around Rick and Morty exploring more of the other core characters (Summer, Jerry, and Beth). I’m hoping that season three fills out Beth’s character as I still feel she is the least developed out of the five. In order to do more than buttress Rick and Morty with B-plot every week, filling out the character of Summer, Jerry, and Beth means that the whole of the series can tell better, funnier, and more fucked up stories. I’m glad that the second season slowed a bit to let this happen. In doing so, all of the characters have become more complex and interesting. I think we need to look at Summer, Jerry, and Beth individually before we can really assess the group’s changing dynamic.
First, I want to focus on Jerry.
The spineless Everyman isn’t merely a tangential add-on or foil for contempt. Although, yes, absolutely that is exactly how we’ve come to see Jerry. This season revealed Jerry to be a multidimensional character with depth and complex motivations even though he lacks will.
Chris Parnell voices Jerry Smith as a hauntingly desperate imbecile. Season One portrayed Jerry as little more than an annoyance. Although, he does get to utter the phrase that sums up the entire series–“high concept sci-fi rigmarole.”
Jerry is a loser. He stumbled into marrying a brilliant woman in Beth (earning the eternal ire of Rick). He is acutely aware of his inferiority never missing an opportunity to gaslight Beth (constantly reminding her that she’s not a ‘real’ surgeon but a horse surgeon), no doubt this exacerbates Beth’s genetic predisposition to alcoholism (she is most certainly an alcoholic like her father).
From the first, he is engaged in a power struggle with Rick for if not the affection of his family then certainly their respect. It’s a struggle that he will not win, at least not any time soon. Inept, belittled, and extraneous, Jerry is easily the most contemptible character of the series because he lacks agency. But we shouldn’t ignore the fact that Jerry is the most human and realistic character in the show.
Unlike Rick or Beth, who have serious specialized skills, Jerry lacks any aptitude. His most successful multiverse self is an A-list Hollywood actor who eventually collapses under the weight of his own shallowness. One could speculate that what makes a truly successful actor is the capacity to be anyone and that is something requiring one’s real self be of utterly zero significance. But the twist here is that even this version of Jerry is ultimately repelled by his own being and comes running (actually, slow chase on a Rascal) to Beth Sanchez to grant his existence meaning.
Unlike his children, Morty and Summer, Jerry lacks a moral compass and any situational awareness. Morty is more than a bit of idiot but he has a superb moral center for a kid his age. Similarly, Summer may be a self-involved teenage girl, but she has a biting critical eye that goes beyond mere irony or young adult cynicism. Jerry floats along merely reacting to what goes on around him and never becoming a prime mover.
Jerry’s confusion in the face of Ricky’s dumbfounding super-science, his paranoia at being emasculated by Beth as breadwinner, and his inability to rise to the moral and social awareness of his children make it easy to hate Jerry. So fucking easy…
To understand just how Jerry’s character has changed in season two, I would like to focus on three episodes: ‘Mortynight Run,’ ‘Total Rickall,’ and ‘Interdimensional Cable 2: Tempting Fate.’ These are by no means the only or best Jerry episodes. In fact, there are others that fill out his character better. But these episodes give us scenes of Jerry that are almost entirely Jerry-centric; he’s not opposite Beth, he’s not mucking up things for Rick and Morty, he’s not nagging Summer, and he’s not trying to weasel control of the family. Rather, in these episodes, Jerry is just being Jerry and we see exactly what that means. Each of these episodes augment Jerry’s character so that when he later interacts with the rest of the family we can best understand his growth.
To begin with, ‘Mortynight Run’ introduces us to an alternate multiverse Rick’s daycare for Jerrys. Jerryboree is a painfully insulting and sensible. Jerry like all viewers want “to be Rick on these adventures” but “no doubt we all fear we’d end up being Jerry” because we all know that Jerry is “too hapless to survive literally five minutes outside of the daycare.”
When asked to check off the reason for depositing his Jerry here, Rick is presented with four choices
- Earth under siege
- Threatened to tell Beth
- Unwanted stowaway
- Annoying me
This is just one more glimpse into how Rick views Jerry and, by proxy, others outside his family. By equating planetary siege with being a pest, we see just how burdened, bothered, and bored Rick feels across the multiverse. There is but one drop of genuine care here, that Rick doesn’t want to get in trouble with Beth. It is from this single, poorly tended seed that Rick will come to not merely tolerate Jerry but accept him (and, again, by proxy others).
Jerry is at first confused, then indignant, then discovers that Jerryboree has everything he truly likes doing, resists the allure of the moment, ‘escapes’ into an alien world on his own, is utterly overwhelmed, returns to Jerryboree, and accepts his lot. This formula is quintessential Jerry. But seeing all the multiverse versions of himself, our Jerry is confronting the myriad truths about himself. He is, superficially at least, picking and choosing what aspects of himself he wants to embrace and what aspects he feels most ashamed by. A later episode will see Jerry confront how he is seen by others (specifically Beth), but before that can happen Jerry has to literally take a personal inventory.
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises of the series was Jerry’s fantasy relationship with Sleepy Gary in ‘Total Rickall.’ Jerry’s presence in this episode is fleeting but profound. Once again, he is used as a sort of framing device. The episode opens with Jerry’s brother ‘Uncle Steve’ having breakfast with the family. Supposedly, he’s been living with the family for some time now and everyone at the table fails to miss a beat except for Rick who is immediately suspicious. As perhaps the most decisive (as well as divisive) character on television, Rick doesn’t hesitate to shoot Uncle Steve in the head, killing him, and revealing that Uncle Steve was actually a parasite generating false memories and personas. Jerry is shocked and crushed at his fake brother’s murder and then terrified by Rick’s reveal.
Again, Jerry’s character is the most convincing actual human response to the situation. As the parasites multiple and the family (excluding Jerry) try to figure out who and what is real, Jerry experiences perhaps the most profound subjective revelation of the series (second only to Morty’s existential speech to Summer in season one). A parasite has created the persona of Sleepy Gary, who crafts itself as Beth’s husband and Jerry’s best friend. The fact that a parasite could sense that this tactic would allow it to thrive in the Smith household is disturbing. The matter is further complicated when Jerry begins to doubt just how real he is and looks to Sleepy Gary for help. Sleepy Gary’s reassurance of Jerry is hinged on the creation of a false memory, one that is intimate and self-defining.
When Beth figures out what Sleepy Gary really is and kills it, Jerry is once again emotionally destroyed. He ham-fistedly attempts to garner some kind of succor from Beth but she is already repulsed and bored by him (here she is once again exhibiting traits of her father). There is no joke here. Whether Jerry is secretly gay or not is a meaningless question and misses the point. What we are seeing is just how much of a vulnerable and emotional wreck Jerry is desperate for any kind of affection that will provide him with even a modicum of comfort. Like the parasites, Jerry is desperate to feed off the emotions of others in order to satisfy his deepest, most existential needs. One has to laugh at Jerry in order to avoid crying, which makes Jerry a clown par excellence.
So when the rest of Smith family figure out just how to exterminate the parasites, it has to be done without Jerry.
But it was the second improv episode of the series ‘Interdimensional Cable 2: Tempting Fate’ where Jerry was not only pushed to his personal limits but also put on track to finally establish his own agency (advertising pun intended).
This is perhaps the most absurd episode of the series to date. Jerry essentially exists, once again, as a framing device so that we viewers can enjoy another version of multiverse television. It works well. Sitting in a hospital waiting room watching television to pass the time while intense life or death decisions are being made behind doors not a few feet away is funny. But in this episode, Jerry is perhaps the most assertive he has ever been because this is the climax to his character’s development. Jerry confronts his emasculation. He must decide whether or not to surrender his penis so that there can be the possibility of universal peace.
At first, Jerry is on-board to donate his organ. In fact, it’s not until the doctor is actually marking on his body where the incisions will be that Jerry has second thoughts reverting to his default whimpering, spineless self. Because he resists making decision for and by himself, Jerry pulls Beth into the process in the hopes of providing himself with some kind of out. Yet although Beth when first presented with the situation is shocked and resistant, she nearly immediately assents. This throws Jerry into a panic and when he pulls her aside “she lays out the bottom line, which is he wants to keep his penis, he has to grow the balls to say no himself instead of putting her in that position.” That is the essence of the dick joke that drives the entire episode.
The thing is, Jerry does finally act. He concocts a short-sighted scheme to get him out of having to donate his penis. When that fails incurring the contempt of the universe, it is finally too much for him. Jerry believes himself to be a good person. He knows that what he feels and experiences is real and significant but he lacks the will to translate those emotions into actuality. It’s fascinating to think that the only other time we encounter a Jerry with true agency who is an active ‘good person’ is the original Jerry of the Earth that Rick and Morty turned into bloodthirsty Cronenberg-people (our Rick and Morty abandoned that universe and the one we’ve been experiencing since then is not our original Jerry).
As someone who hardly ever makes decisions, this episode shows us just how difficult it is and how bad at it Jerry is. His tactic to humiliate Shrimply Pibbles to whom he was to donate his penis backfires horribly leading to Jerry bursting into the operating room ‘gun’ in hand to demand that his penis be taken and used. The idiocy of this is heightened when it’s revealed that Jerry doesn’t have a gun but a prosthetic penis, a dildo. He charges the doctors, dildo in hand, and is summarily shot to death by alien guards. Jerry dies being a dick.
But at least he dies actually doing something and that’s what we need to focus on. Jerry lives and from this moment on in the series he is less passive and more active (if not aggressive). But it’s not until the series finale that we really get a glimpse of what this is going to mean for the upcoming third season. With Earth now part of the empire that Rick has been fighting against since the very beginning of the series, Jerry experiences the benefit of a huge welfare state. Upon returning home, he is randomly scanned, diagnosed with depression, given the appropriate medication, put into debt, and given a job. While everyone else is the series is shock, confused, and afraid, Jerry is now comfortable, confident, and hopeful.
The turnaround is laughable. It’s painfully funny and one of the best character arcs we’ve seen.