Though Rick and Morty’s resident supergenius misanthrope was introduced as the kind of edgy cynic who would openly mock people for going to therapy, the show’s new seventh season has seen Rick Sanchez come around on the idea of talking about his feelings in a big way. Rick’s still an asshole who copes with his most difficult feelings by drowning them in booze and / or zapping them away with super science.
But as hard as Rick works to keep his friends, enemies, and loved ones at arm’s length, he also knows there’s a lot of baggage to unpack in that dynamic — the sort best worked through by a professional and with a deep understanding of the science of human relationships.
Like the recasting of Rick and Morty’s titular leads, this season’s focus on Rick’s giving therapy an earnest shot has felt like one of its more explicit ways of acknowledging the dismissal of co-creator Justin Roiland and Adult Swim’s plan to keep the show going without him. Roiland was a key part of Rick and Morty’s creation, but he didn’t do it alone, and much like his disgraced collaborator, Dan Harmon has similarly been the centerpiece of a high-profile sexual harassment scandal that almost seemed poised to jeopardize his career.
Rick and Morty hasn’t quite gone meta enough to turn its co-creators’ behind-the-scenes troubles into part of its own text (yet). But in Rick’s turn to therapy, you can see the show grappling with what it means to be known for both brilliance and self-destruction but wanting to be in a better place emotionally.
When I spoke with Harmon and executive producer Scott Marder recently, they explained that, more than taking Rick and Morty in a new direction, they wanted season 7 to speak to how both of them — and by extension, the rest of the show’s creative team — are striving to have healthier relationships with work. All the reflective, introspective work we see Rick doing this season was inspired by Harmon getting into therapy himself, he told me. And while it might seem like Rick and Morty’s setting up a big joke about people working on their mental wellness, Harmon insists that’s not the case.
Aside from getting Rick and Morty’s audience on board with two new lead stars, what were some of your bigger creative goals with this season from a storytelling perspective?
Scott Marder: I think we were just trying to keep with the tradition of season 6, which felt like a more confident, well-built season from top to bottom. We wanted to show people that that was almost like a template for what we plan to keep doing moving forward, with a sort of sprinkling of all the little things that I think make a great season of Rick and Morty.
And what about in terms of how you wanted to… I guess “evolve” the series? Was that even really a priority for either of you, because one of the more impressive things about the episodes that have dropped so far is how much like classic Rick and Morty they all feel.
Dan Harmon: I don’t think we ever had time for those conversations because, behind the scenes, the show has always been kind of adjusting to and coping with one unexpected bout of turbulence to another. Scott came on this show late in season 4. He was hired to start running things for season 5, and the first sign that he had bit off more than his therapist could chew was that he had to help us finish season 4, which just wasn’t what he was hired to do, you know?
SM: Then our line producer [J. Michael Mendel] passed away. Just so many things happened.
DH: Right, the pandemic, the loss of our patriarch Mike Mendell, the WGA strike, the recent events with the replacement of the voices in the show. And before that, the show was its own problem. Before Scott came on board, the show itself was a turbulence to the network because we were always over budget and over schedule.
To bring it back to your question, I don’t think we ever — even in our wildest dreams — had that kind of clarity and sure-footedness between seasons 6 and 7 to say, “Let’s have a conversation about the tone we’re going to strike with season 7. Ever since Scott came on board, there’s been this drive to create a healthy work environment that’s making a show that is reliable, both creatively and productively, to try to shift to a world where, low and behold, 10 episodes of the thing can come out on a reasonably predictable schedule. And we can have everybody working on it feel secure and happy enough that we can keep making the show and promote people from within without losing them to Netflix shows or losing them to Marvel.
SM: I feel like a lot of success that we’ve had with all that has been due to holding onto a staff that just gets stronger every season. They’re just so well versed in the continuity that we’re all striving for, and they’re all such rabid fans themselves that that elective joy just keeps sort of feeding into the new seasons and the new episodes.
Would you say season 8 is going to feel more distinctly like the product of the changes Rick and Morty has gone through?
DH: Season 7 just represents one more brick in that road, and it’s season 8, which is already written, when that comes out, I think it’ll be even more so. It’ll feel like a return to form and kind of like a “we’re back, baby” kind of feeling, and hopefully, season 9 will be that but, you know, even more so. But it’ll be because it’s been a gradual process of just trying to get our wind in our sails again.
Dan, you’ve been really open about getting into therapy, reassessing your relationship with work, and just trying to move through the world differently. How has that personal process of getting into a healthier emotional space shifted how you go about creating this world that’s always had, you know, a kind of nihilistic streak to it and a morbid sense of humor?
DH: It’s funny, the most terrifying thing in the world to me when I started therapy was the idea that I would go home at 5PM from work; that I would have a hard out. Because that would be like saying, “We’re going to make the greatest movie ever, but it’s going to have to be cast with all our ostriches.” Like how are those two things going to sync up? What are the odds?
But it turns out, when you work backward from a goal like that, it starts extending itself to your collaborators. You find out that darkness, while still a storytelling tool and all-important, it still fills the human heart, and it’s fine.
And what does your “fine” look and feel like now having gone through therapy?
DH: I can go home at 5PM, and what that requires is trust and delegation and acquiescence. I’m not able to pull the breaks on the show. I’m still the reason why the show isn’t as on schedule as it could be, but I no longer get to be the reason why it literally stops down while I finish a pass on a script or something like that.
Therapy taught me: start with this one simple step: set your hours. Because if you don’t, this city will suck your life dry, and when it results in your divorce, or your suicide, or you’re drinking yourself to death, this city will say, “Who’s the next workaholic? Get him over here.”
And how do you guard against that?
DH: If you set boundaries for yourself, it actually starts to benefit the people around you because it means that you have to trust them, you have to communicate with them, and you have to accept leadership from them. Scott is my boss, and at the end of the day, we rely on people like Heather Anne Campbell for our darkness; she’s got enough for everybody.
How much of that reality and your experience, Dan, did you want to be reflected in characters like Dr. Wong and through the emotional low we find Mr. Poopybutthole in at the beginning of this season?
DH: Initially, it was honestly for an ironic, kind of edgy, comedic reason because I think it’s hack comedy to punch down at therapy. It’s like what doing mime jokes became in the ’80s. We got it in the ’70s; mimes were irritating us, and then the ‘80s was filled with just hack jokes about mimes and wanting to shoot them, and it’s like “everyone hates mimes.”
But I was starting therapy in earnest at that time, and so, just in wanting to be original, I wanted to portray therapy as valuable. At the end of “Pickle Rick,” it’s like, “Sure, let’s let Rick do his whole monologue that you’d expect and respect from this edgelord, but then let’s give her the last word.” And writing from her perspective toward him was an incredibly therapeutic experience for me because I certainly had to inhabit the shoes of a shrink calling me out on my bullshit without negating it. Just saying, “Look, man, I think you need to come back. I want to make you happy. You’re paying me. You could pay me to make you happy. I’m not your mom. I’m not your guidance counselor.” That’s the deal my therapist struck with me.
In your mind, has Dr. Wong struck the same kind of deal with Rick?
DH: I think a character like Rick being in therapy could be fun and cool the more he comes around to taking it seriously and coming around to using it. I love that he goes to her to deal with his Pissmaster problem, and he’s still treating her like she’s a vendor. He can’t cross that threshold where he truly respects her. But he has acknowledged that therapy is a science that he has not himself dominated.