The first thing I did after watching the premiere of Rick and Morty’s third season was double-check the length. Normally saying that the episode felt a lot longer than its 22 minute runtime would not augur well; but in this instance I do not in any way mean that it dragged, it is just an indication of how much action the writers packed into one short slot that I felt I couldn’t have only been watching for under half an hour. With a story that took so many sudden changes in direction it only really feels possible to start at the start and try and explain what the hell happened.

Tellingly named “The Rickshank Redemption”, this season opener begins with a surprisingly low key scene; Rick, Morty, and the rest of the family are enjoying lunch at a diner while Rick casually explains his escape from the incarceration he suffered at the end of the last season. Part of the angst of the extended wait since season two ended has been the resolution of this cliff-hanger, so glossing over it this casually should have telegraphed that something was amiss. This serene family gathering is quickly revealed to be an illusion. In a plot not dissimilar to season one’s “M. Night Shaym-Aliens,” Rick quickly displays that the diner and accompanying family members are, in fact, constructs of his mind as he is being psychically probed by the Galactic Federation who are using a “brainalyser” in order to uncover the secrets of inter-dimensional travel; that old chestnut. After a quick detour to pick up some limited edition McDonald’s sauce which only exists in Rick’s memory, we finally get the long hinted at payoff of Rick’s story before his reappearance at the beginning of the series. Except we don’t, instead this is another case of Rick being more than one step ahead of the rest of the pack and his apparent fallibility being part of an act to further his own ends. The episode continues to unfold, high stakes and even higher concepts abound, and it maintains a breakneck pace throughout without ever seeming to rush things.

The episode is pretty much a summation of everything which has made the show as a whole so successful. It cleverly references past plotlines, touching base with Morty’s original parents and sister in Cronenberg world and also returning to visit the Council of Ricks. It lampoons social constructs, in this case mocking a bureaucratic government, which endlessly promotes a clueless Jerry and completely falls apart when no one thinks to reset the value of its universal currency to something other than zero. Moreover, the most striking and ambitious theme is the use of complex and challenging plots as a means to create often very simple humour. Throughout the series, Rick has led the family on a series of bizarre adventures and turned the world (multiple worlds in fact) upside down, all seemingly without a greater purpose than going to an intergalactic arcade or throwing a house party for his trans-dimensional squad.

This high risk, low reward adventuring finally comes to a head at the end of “The Rickshank Redemption” in a garage scene which nods to the climax of the show’s pilot. Rick darkly reveals that he has brought down the government and destroyed countless lives for one simple goal: finally being reunited with the previously foreshadowed McDonald’s limited edition 1998 Mulan Szechuan sauce. This defying of expectations mirrors the work of the writers: however much they broach philosophical or social issues there is always a Hammer-Morty waiting around the corner to lighten the tension. This approach works so well because the writers always seem to know where to draw the line, even in the most surreal episodes (inter-dimensional cable deserves a shout out here) they pull back before crossing the line into adolescent aping of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

The desire to abolish any semblance of purpose in Rick’s actions reflects one of the core tenets of the show’s philosophy: nothing anyone does matters and that life is meaningless. Rick’s genius means he looks past the idols which so many hold up as important: family, religion, government are all held up as systems which humanity imposes in order to give it meaning. In Rick’s world, he has accepted these constructs as meaningless and he instead pursues more trivial pleasures. It’s yet to be seen if this nihilistic explanation for his motivations is really the explanation for his actions. On the one hand it would be surprising if the full game were given away at this point in the show’s progression, on the other it would be just like Rick and Morty to do everything in its power to confound viewers’ expectations and troll its audience by making the events which befall the characters ultimately meaningless. My hunch is that the true message of Rick and Morty will fall somewhere in between; principle showrunner Dan Harmon – as in his previous cult hit, Community – seems to expound a subjective philosophy that centres around the idea that, as we move through life, our experiences take on the meaning which we as humans ascribe to them.

Looking forward, the wider feeling is that this season will be darker in tone than those which have come before it. The aftermath of the premier leaves us with a galaxy in turmoil, Jerry and Beth finally deciding on their long-awaited divorce, and Rick having exerted his authority over pretty much every aspect of the Smith family’s lives. No doubt there will be more of the crazy space capers which have characterised the show up to this point, but it feels like the series is moving towards its middle game with more of an over-arching plot ready to emerge. This is a positive sign as most of the comedies to which Rick and Morty could be compared have benefitted from this level of direction, whether that means contemporary animated shows like the excellent Bojack Horseman, or past influences like Arrested Development, which Dan Harmon agrees, along with pretty much everyone else in comedy these days, is owed a debt for its ground-breaking approach. “The Rickshank Redemption” has successfully served two purposes: finally releasing some of the anticipatory tension for its impatient viewership, and leaving them even hungrier for more.