Rick’s narcissistic assholery was the show’s calling card, and the idea of a self-destructive genius whose ultimate assessment of the universe is that nothing matters and everything sucks propelled him to destroy everyone who even attempted to get close to him.
Instead of equating cosmic genius with the realization that nothing matters, its plot and characters curved towards a different idea: that people have the agency to choose what matters, even if life is ultimately meaningless.
This arc of choosing what matters came to a head at the end of Season 3, when Rick’s daughter and Smith family matriarch Beth confronts her dad about passing on the sociopathic, avoidant traits she’s discovered in herself. Rick offers Beth the option of leaving her life behind, saying he’ll create a perfect clone of her to take her place in the family to exist for as long as she needs to be away. Beth turns Rick down and returns to her life, formally choosing to get back together with her husband while the Smiths restructure their relationship with their grandpa.
Season 4 Episode 1 picks up with the Smiths making an effort to curb Rick’s impact on their home life, encouraging him to ask nicely before taking Morty on an adventure. Rick clearly has issues accepting his new place in the family — as someone whose presence must be earned and chosen, as opposed to feared and obeyed — and only vaguely respects Morty’s boundaries. Of course in true Rick and Morty fashion, the show immediately puts his new status to the test.
They’re not all magically transformed into better, more independent people, but over the course of the episode it’s clear that Summer, Beth, Morty, and even Jerry have realized they don’t necessarily need Rick.
Rick’s solo journey in the episode involves giant shrimp, wasp people, and getting repeatedly murdered by Nazis in a series of universes that are all improbably fascistic (“when did this shit become the default,” he gripes in one of the episode’s best quips), and his fight to get back home reminds him that he doesn’t need his family either — but he wants to be a part of them.
The central tension of Rick realizing he wants to be a Smith just as his family realizes they don’t need him is sure to inform the rest of the season, which looks to exist under a power dynamic that Rick and Morty hasn’t explored before. What is Rick like when he actually has to earn his place in a family he used to terrorize without even thinking about it? What is Morty like when he feels free to prioritize other elements of his life above Rick?
IDK bro, guess we’ll find out.