When I decided to major in English, my parents thought I might use this highly versatile degree to pursue law or medicine. Little did they know that I’d end up applying that (much too) expensive education to analyzing a television show about a drunken, sociopathic mad scientist with a flying space car. Rick and Morty, created by Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon, is pretty much an instant cult classic. Kayla Cobb calls it “a never-ending fart joke wrapped around a studied look into nihilism,” and personally I think she hits the nail on the head with that description. There are probably a thousand different philosophical lenses through which you could study this show and never get bored. And probably someone who is better versed in philosophy should do just that (because yes please!)
The best I can do is follow my own layman’s curiosity down the rabbit hole. What exactly is it about this show’s gleeful nihilism that appeals to so many fans, the vast majority of which would not consider themselves nihilists in any sense of the word? The draw of the show is strong for Millennials in particular, which is odd, since we’re the ones who obsess over Queer Eye’s unbridled optimism, Marie Kondo’s blissful joy, and Steven Universe’s wide-eyed hopefulness in equal measure. In a society enamored by the concept of self (self-care, self-responsibility, self-love), what is so fascinating about a fantasy world that revolves around the destruction of any sense of individual importance? As Morty so succinctly tells his sister, “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die…Come watch TV.”
Rick Sanchez, the aforementioned mad scientist, is the lynchpin of the show in that all of the zany plots and fart jokes are his doing, directly or indirectly. Rick is an anarchist of the highest degree, vocally disgusted by any sort of rules or law, including those of decency and familial obligation. So I think it’s fair that a dive into the show’s nihilistic philosophy should center on him. I’m sure he wouldn’t have it any other way.
In Rick there’s no doubt an element of the (toxic) masculine archetype: Tortured Genius Who Is Lonely and Doesn’t Care Because Feelings Are Overrated. He’s a character of frustrating paradoxes. Every act of debauchery or callousness is tempered by a glimpse of grudging generosity or heroism. He relentlessly mocks his grandchildren, using every possible opportunity to convince them how little they matter to him, but anytime someone else tries to take advantage of Morty or Summer, he’s quick to avenge. In season one, after a chaotic nightmare of an adventure, Morty leads Rick on an ill-fated quest, determined to prove that adventures should be simple and fun. Morty’s fantastical adventure takes a nightmarish turn when he’s assaulted in a bathroom by an alien named Mr. Jellybean. Traumatized, Morty is ready to bail, but Rick, clearly intuiting what’s happened, helps Morty to bring their adventure to a satisfying conclusion—and then hops back through the portal to execute the alien pervert, for good measure.
In a later episode, Summer starts her first job in a shop run by Mr. Needful, aka the actual Devil (voiced by Alfred Molina) selling cursed artifacts—you know, typical high school job. Jealous of his granddaughter’s admiration for Mr. Needful, though he refuses to admit it, Rick starts a successful campaign to run the shop out of business, much to Summer’s dismay. But when the Devil pulls a Zuckerberg and screws Summer out of her share of the business empire she helped him build from the ground up, Rick joins her in a plot to get ripped and beat the shit out of her former boss during a TED Talk. Sweet revenge.
In “Auto Erotic Assimilation,” which is arguably one of the most emotionally fraught episodes of the series, Rick’s oscillating character arc reveals a poignant, unexpected moment of the ordinary humanity he despises so much. After a run-in with an ex, a hive mind named Unity (voiced mainly by Christina Hendrix) who has plans to assimilate the entire universe, Rick goes on a debauched, sex- and drug-fueled bender that eventually causes Unity’s control over the planet to falter. When Morty and Summer express concern, Rick dismisses them out of hand, explaining to Unity, “They’re no different from any of the aimless chumps that you occupy. They just put you at the center of their lives because you’re powerful, and then because they put you there, they expect you to be less powerful.”
Rick remains oblivious to the full impact of his words (His next order of business is: “I’m not looking for judgement, just a yes or no: Can you assimilate a giraffe?”), but shortly thereafter Unity dumps him, leaving behind a series of breakup notes telling Rick that it’s too easy for Unity to lose itself in him, “because in a strange way, you’re better at what I do without even trying.”
Rick pretends to be nonchalant and indifferent, but that night he attempts suicide with a death ray that only narrowly misses the mark. It is without doubt one of the darkest moments—if not the darkest moment—of the series thus far, and in my opinion lays bare the crux of Rick’s character. With infinite intelligence comes an infinite loneliness that makes you wonder if his borderline sociopathy is cause or effect. Maybe a little of both. The show certainly gives no clear answer.
In fact, if anything, the writers spend a great deal of time building up the trope of the lonely genius, only to poke fun at it every chance they get. In the season three premiere, we get a look into Rick’s tragic and somewhat cliché backstory, in which a young Rick is visited by an alternate version of himself and doesn’t like the lonely, narcissistic future he sees. He announces to his wife that he’s giving up science, only for the alternate Rick to toss a bomb through the portal, destroying both his wife and young daughter. After losing his family, Rick throws himself back into science and discovers interdimensional travel. It’s another moment of humanity for the otherwise emotionally inscrutable Rick. Or it would be, except that it’s a “totally fabricated origin story” that Rick uses to trick Galactic Federation agent Cornvelious Daniel (voiced by Nathan Fillion) and escape the Series 9000 Brainalyzer in which he is imprisoned.
There’s never any solid footing when it comes to Rick Sanchez. He’s impossible to pin down. As Morty tells his sister, “He’s not a villain, Summer, but he shouldn’t be your hero. He’s more like a demon. Or a super fucked-up god.” The show repeatedly suggests that we shouldn’t admire Rick, but also constantly undermines itself with evidence to the contrary—he always comes out on top, he’s always one step ahead, he always manages to protect his family (except for that one time he and Morty transformed the earth into a Cronenberg-style hellscape and then bailed into a new reality, but all’s well that ends well, I suppose).
Rick’s character is distinctly problematic, which is really a nicely academic way of saying that he’s a piece of shit and if he somehow existed in real life I would hate him on principle. But in the fictional world he inhabits, he’s a reflection of the darkest part of the human psyche. A safe, harmless way to embrace the shadowy corners of our minds that we otherwise avoid. We can find escapism in the romanticizing of life, the universe, and everything (through shows like Queer Eye or Steven Universe, for example) or in the opposite—in the offhand dismissal of all we hold to be true and right. I’m no psychologist, but I do think there’s an element of cognitive dissonance that is key to our survival, if not as a species then as individuals. We need to be able to lose ourselves in nihilistic shows about demons and super fucked-up gods on occasion without losing who we are or what we believe in.
No disrespect to Nietzsche and his bros, but IRL we truly care about friends and family and cat videos and injustice and global warming. We have to. It’s what makes us human, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. There are many who would argue that all the fiction we consume must reflect the values we aspire to in our everyday lives, lest we lose sight of our own morality, and I get that. I really do. I try my best to support media that supports a better world, but I’m not going to pretend to be a hero, here. As Rick proves time and time again, the universe is a chaotic and crazy place, and sometimes I need a break from the fraught emotional tangle of reality. And for that, I find my escape in shows like Rick and Morty, which are complex enough to analyze for layers of meaning, to study the problematic tropes that get dismantled and the ones that get reinforced. But it’s also fun and simple enough to kick back with an adult beverage, too much pizza, and just not think about it. It’s less of a guilty pleasure and more of a release valve. Watching a show that cares about nothing is a way to siphon off the pressure of caring so damn much about everything.
And at the root of it all, I think it’s that pure escapism that attracts us most to Rick and Morty and their misadventures (aside from clever writing, complex emotional payoffs, and a character literally named Mr. Poopy Butthole, but I digress). The characters inhabit infinite realities where actions have virtually no consequences. Accidentally ruin this world? No problem. All you have to do is find a new reality, bury your own corpse, and you’re back in business. Easy peasy.
I will gladly lose myself (and my clutter) in Marie’s joyful world, and I love to eat candy and dream big with Steven and the Gems. But some days require an escapism of a different caliber. We are burdened with the not-so-glorious purpose of surviving in a world where even an errant tweet can bear the most devastating of fruit, where assholes who think they’re smarter than everyone else are just assholes (no genius involved), where once we destroy the planet with global warming, there is no portal gun we can use to hop neatly into a new reality.
Rick and Morty doesn’t give a shit about Twitter, or feelings, or this universe, or anything at all. And while you’re watching it, you don’t have to either. Sometimes that’s exactly what you need, at least until the next season of Queer Eye drops.
Originally published in August 2019.
Destiny Soria lives and works in the shadow of the mighty Vulcan statue in Birmingham, Alabama. Destiny’s first book, Iron Cast, was published in 2016 to critical acclaim. Her second, Beneath the Citadel, is available now.