The philosophy of Rick and Morty
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
The Adventures of Rick and Morty may just be the perfect sci-fi show. It takes a bunch of mind-bending ideas — the infinite universe theory, fractured time, alien empires, etc. — and crafts a deeply human narrative on their backs. It’s got dysfunctional family drama, high school crushes, and coming of age narratives. But it also has portal guns, Cronenberg monsters, and meditations on humanity’s place in the universe.
Rick is an old, cold, alcoholic, scientific genius. He’s set up as the smartest man in the universe. He’s essentially unstoppable and untamable. He’s also selfish and immature. In one episode, he turns himself into a pickle, infiltrates the Russian embassy, kills everyone there and liberates a captive terrorist. Why? To avoid going to therapy with his daughter Beth, and his grandchildren, Summer and Morty. He’s an unapologetic drunken a**hole. When he’s not collapsing galactic federations, he’s laying bare the family’s myriad of problems with benumbed precision. Everything Rick barks at his family in between labored belches rings sad and true, and we laugh because what else is there to do?
Morty is Rick’s impressionable 14 year-old grandson. He’s a surrogate for the audience, in that he wants what any teenager wants — to be popular at school, to be noticed by the prettiest girl in class, to finish his math homework, and for his parents to get along. Instead, he’s dragged across the multiverse on emotionally scarring adventures by his godlike grandfather. In one episode, the two of them inadvertently destroy the world via a hastily synthesized love potion that turns those infected into giant insectoid monsters. Instead of fixing the world, the two of them abandon it for an alternate reality with two unique features — an alternate Rick has successfully synthesized an antidote, and alternate Rick and Morty have been killed in an explosion. Rick and Morty bury alternate Rick and Morty in the yard, slip into a new reality as if nothing ever happened, and the show goes on. Dragging his own mangled corpse into a shallow grave of his own digging traumatizes Morty. Understandably so. But it also grants the 14 year-old rare perspective.
The duo’s fantastic experiences across various dimensions of time and space are an acknowledgment of two irreconcilable facts: we exist in a universe that is utterly indifferent to us, and our attempts to understand it will always be met with failure. Rick and Morty wastes no opportunity to remind us that there is no meaning to life. Perhaps because of the existential horror that a premise such as this establishes, the scattered displays of sincerity and kindness have extra resonance. Rick may usually be a selfish prick, but his occasional sacrifices — such as when he surrenders to the Galactic Federation so that his family can have a normal life — build him into a complex character who we relate to despite his unsavory exterior. This is sentimentality, cloaked in Lovecraftian postmodernism and delivered by one of the most sardonic characters in television history.
We have gods. We search for meaning. Rick and Morty says that God is an impersonal cosmic force. It doesn’t care about you. At one point, Morty says to his sister, “Every morning, Summer, I eat breakfast 20 yards away from my own rotting corpse. Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s going to die. Come watch TV.” Truths such as this are dreadful, and also empowering. They make life precious. They give meaning to hope.
Is Rick happy? He can do anything he wants to. In one episode, he dates a hive mind that controls an entire planet. At the end of that episode, he goes into the garage and tries to kill himself, and fails only because he’s so drunk he can’t pull it off. In the meanwhile, his simpleton son-in-law Jerry is mowing the lawn outside, blissful in his ignorance. The knowledge that nothing matters, while true, gets you nowhere. The universe itself is hurtling towards heat death, and there isn’t a thing you can do about it. The further back you pull, the more you confront the insignificance of everything you care about.
So should you stop caring? Think of this another way. Don’t pull back. Zoom in on Earth, on a family, on a human brain, and a childhood of experiences, you see all the little things that shouldn’t matter, but do. The small, simple things — going to school, falling in love, raising a child — may be fleeting illusions, but isn’t life better with them? It doesn’t matter that they are of no consequence to the universe. They matter because they just do. Every place is the center of the universe. Every moment is the most important ever. Everything is the meaning of life.