Imagine if “Back to the Future” featured Marty McFly as a dense, south-of-80-IQ type and Dr. Emmett Brown as a sociopathic alcoholic. This is “Rick and Morty.”
Show creator Dan Harmon (creator of “Community”) and Justin Roiland showcase their acerbic wit in this sci-fi comedy. Every episode veers into absurd, often bleak territory. What started as an attempt to troll a major studio quickly became the one of the most critically acclaimed shows on Adult Swim after only two seasons. How could this dark, cynical, and nihilistic show become so beloved?
It is tempting to dismiss the show as an over-hyped product of post-modern nihilism that caters to the proclivities of a post-modern, post-truth, post-meaning, post-everything audience. Yet beneath the veneer of cynical humor lies a thread of hope. The show is built upon a dramatic tension between meaninglessness and love. In a cruel universe—rather, multi-verse—that has no ultimate meaning, the seemingly sociopathic Rick finds himself gradually expressing deeply human love.
To What End All This Despair?
The meaninglessness of life is one of the central themes of “Rick and Morty.” Throughout the show, the writers remind the viewer how much life seems purposeless. In the episode “Meeseeks and Destroy,” the titular character explains that, unlike humans, Meeseeks “are not born into this world fumbling for meaning…Existence is pain for a Meeseeks.”
Often, rather than simply skirting the issue, the writers choose to address the meaninglessness of the universe directly. When a love potion gone wrong begins creating mutant freaks in “Rick Potion No. 9,” Rick and Morty quickly abandon their reality and teleport to another dimension to replace recently deceased versions of themselves. An appalled Morty asks, “What about the reality we left behind?” To which Rick dismissively answers “Don’t think about it…now pick up your dead self and come on.”
While Morty only feels shock at first, he seems to embrace Rick’s philosophy only two episodes later when he tells his sister Summer, “Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody is going to die…. Come watch TV?”
A Critique of Meaninglessness, Not a Celebration
As other writers have noted, the show draws heavily on the work of French philosopher Albert Camus. Unlike existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre, who seek to invent their own meaning in life, Camus suggests we cannot find transcendent meaning in life because the unknown will always overwhelm us. As he declared in “The Myth of Sisyphus,” “I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it.” Instead of fumbling for meaning, it is best for men to “open [themselves] to the gentle indifference of the world” as Camus terms it in “The Stranger.”
While the writers of “Rick and Morty” regularly draw upon Camus’ absurdism, it would be remiss to suggest the writers want the viewers to agree with Rick. Regularly, the writers remind us that Rick is not a happy man. Rick’s seemingly gibberish catchphrase “wub a lub a dub dub” actually means, “I am in great pain. Please help me,” reveals episode 11 of season one.
One poignant moment demonstrates the extent of Rick’s existential pain. In one season two episode, Rick returns home from a raucous bender with an ex-lover who says she is moving on for good. Upon his return, the perpetually indifferent Rick seems morose, to the point of actively contemplating suicide (by death ray, of course).
The song “Do You Feel it?” by Chaos Chaos plays during this sequence to drive home the utter despair Rick feels when he faces the seemingly purposelessness of his existence. “Do you feel it? / Do you feel that I can see your soul?” the singer asks as Rick passes out next to his lab equipment, overcome with grief. The writers evidently do not want to encourage the audience to celebrate Rick’s sociopathic tendencies.
Rick Is Suffering Into Truth
If it’s not Rick’s nihilistic propensities, why have audiences found him so endearing? The answer lies in his compelling story arc. Even though Rick seems to be a sociopath, he is gradually discovering how to love and care for people.
After a season of Rick’s truly bizarre antics, the show opens the second season with a key character moment. When faced with the choice of saving himself or Morty, Rick chooses to save Morty. In coming to terms with his decision, Rick states, “I am okay with this. Be good, Morty. Be better than me.” Of course the writers pull the rug out from under the audience only five seconds later and Rick is able to return to back to reality, quickly dismissing the significance of his actions.
However, Rick’s moment of altruism is not merely a humorous exception to his sociopathic behavior. At the end of the second season, Rick sacrifices himself again. This time he surrenders the Galactic Federation, which is hunting him and his family for acts of terrorism. Rick negotiates his surrender by ensuring his “family [can] have a normal life,” while Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt” plays in the background of the scene.
While the season three premiere brings Rick back to his crazed, mad scientist self, the sacrifice he made illustrates two key elements of his character. First, Rick feels as if “Everyone I know / Goes away in the end” as Trent Raznor puts it in “Hurt.” Rick knows that he hurts the people he loves and that’s not something he wants to do.
Second, Rick’s sacrifice demonstrates that he genuinely wants those he cares about to be happy. Such compassion belies his statement in season two, episode ten that “being nice is something stupid people do to hedge their bets.” Every time Rick defies his own cynical reductionism, he expresses a sense of humanity that undercuts the universe’s meaninglessness. Despite his decades of spouting dark, multi-dimensional absurdist dogma, Rick would gladly give up his empire of dirt if he could save his family.
Our Own Instincts Tell Us Meaning Exists
“Rick and Morty” targets an audience that sees itself as smarter than the average idiot. We are the post-everything generation that, despite all of our enlightened musings, has found ourselves adrift in a sea of meaninglessness. Rather than co-opting the nihilism of this age, “Rick and Morty” cleverly disguises its rather potent criticism of our philosophy by cloaking itself in the veneer of absurdism.
The writers are challenging our comfortably jaundiced view of the world. Camus be d-mned. We want Rick to violate his core beliefs about the gentle indifference of the world. We want him to feel it. We want him to hurt—because in doing so, he can love his grandkids and be more fully human.
It might take nine more back-and-forth, Szechuan-sauce-fueled seasons of madness to get a fully human Rick. The writers might never give us a fully human Rick. But in the meantime, we can learn from Rick’s moments of humanity. Herein lies the essence of the show. Life might make no sense, but we can still demonstrate love by sacrificing to protect our loved ones. And that means something real.