Rick and Morty creator Dan Harmon has been admittedly obsessed with story structure for years. Out of that obsession came his Story Circle, which is basically a simplified version of Joseph Campbell’s theory of the archetypal hero’s journey. Here’s what he says, and here’s a youtube video that does a bang-up job of explaining it. Since Rick and Morty is my new obsession, I thought I’d see if I could take Harmon’s Story Circle and apply it to an episode of Rick and Morty. I chose Pickle Rick (episode 3, season 3) because not only is it one of my favorites but a woman wrote it (Jessica Gao).
First, the Story Circle. I’m not going to break it down to its bits and pieces because Harmon and Will Schoder do it way better than I ever could (see the above links). But, in a nutshell, here it is:
Now I’ll run through Rick and Morty and show you how you can apply those 8 items to something even as short as 22 minutes.
First, take a character and show him in his comfort zone, his normal, everyday life. In Pickle Rick we start out with the super normal activity of Morty brushing his hair. We follow him into Rick’s garage where Rick reveals that he’s turned himself into a pickle. While this may seem out of the ordinary, for Rick and Morty, this isthe ordinary.
The character wants something. In this case, it’s pickle serum (though Rick does not admit this, and in fact lies about it). His daughter Beth snips the cord and tosses the syringe into her purse before they leave for family therapy (minus Rick).
And it’s interesting to note here that Beth insists that “No one needs anything.” This plays into her storyline’s circle.
This is the step in which the character enters an unfamiliar situation. Rick is flushed into the sewer, while Beth is scrutinized by the therapist.
This is the “road of trails” step during which the character adapts to the unfamiliar situation. Pickle Rick bites himself and with the pickle juice, lures a cockroach close enough to overpower it and take over its body. Beth, on the other hand, is still fighting back against the therapist but admits that she admires her father for not needing anything from anyone.
In this step, the character gets what they wanted. Rick gets a body made of rat pieces and is able to get out of the sewer. I think this is the “Yes/But” step. YES, Rick gets what he wanted (out of the sewer), BUT he ends up in a more dangerous situation when he emerges into the headquarters of some kind of Russian mob. Meanwhile Beth is adapting to the therapy. She and the kids admit their “I Statements” to one another. (“I am afraid my kids will get expelled).
The character pays a heavy price for getting what he wanted. Rick is forced to fight a nemesis with as much skill (if not brains) as he, and is hurt really badly in the process. When he and Jaguar join forces, Rick must confront the fact that he might lose Beth if he doesn’t change. Beth, too, begins to recognize the problems in her relationship with her Rick.
This is the step in which our hero returns to their everyday world, to where they started. Rick joins the family at therapy, half-dead, still a pickle. He’s forced to admit to Beth that he lied to get out of going to therapy. In a brilliant monologue, the therapist delivers her final report on the state of the dysfunction inherent in their family.
The characters have returned to their world having changed. Rick and Beth admit that they do in fact need something from each other, and Rick apologizes for lying. Beth gives him the pickle serum so he can go back to being a human (thus literally completing the circle). Even though they make amends and seem to have grown as a result of the therapy session (and Jaguar’s admonition of Rick’s relationship with Beth), they still make fun of the therapist and pretend it was useless.
So, yes, even in the condensed time of a television show, Harmon’s Story Circle works—or, really, it’s the other way around: because the episode follows the Story Circle, the episode works.
Do you like Ricky and Morty? Comment below.