rickandmortyseason2

Rick and Morty versus the Meaning of Human Life By Berry Giezen

Rick and Morty is a popular adultswim cartoon series about the Smith family, and notably the two titular characters Morty – a nervous teenager- and his alcoholic grandfather Rick – who is also a brilliant scientist. They may remind you of the dynamic duo of Back to the Future, except that the scientist here is an alcoholic with a lack of moral boundaries. Rick believes in freedom and intellect, and cares for very little, least of all emotions or any kind of authority. He does not let ethics restrict him and this has led him to great scientific discoveries and progress. Things like the educational system and bureaucrats are just easy targets of comedy for Rick’s grumpy personality, but behind it all, spread out over the seasons, there is a sentiment, a message, that is subtle yet even more pervasive: a sense of nihilism and the belief that it is wrong to put ourselves at the centre of our galactic worldview. Rick and Morty actually seems to go against this anthropocentric worldview, and instead shows us the meaninglessness of life.

Rick’s catchphrase ‘Wubba lubba dub dub’ is a great way to start when looking at the show’s subtlety and duality. His catchphrase is silly and sounds very cheerful, and is often said when Rick is excited, but later on in the show it is revealed that it is actually a phrase in an alien language, and that it means “I am in great pain.”[1] Rick’s alcoholism too has been interpreted by some as being his coping method with the meaninglessness of life. While Rick and Morty presents itself as an absurd cartoon comedy, beneath the surface there is a sense of darkness.

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Grayson Nowak summarises the duality very accurately, stating that the programme is driven by “the binary between the optimism of scientific adventure and the pessimism brought on by the burden of knowledge gained from such endeavors […].”[2]

While the sense of scientific adventure allows for all the absurd comedy, it is the dark, pessimist side underneath the cheap jokes and absurd scenes that conveys the show’s subtle yet critical message towards the anthropocentric worldview – the worldview that puts mankind at the centre of the universe. It will not surprise you that a good part of the criticism comes from Rick. Since Rick has experienced much more of the universe and other dimensions than anyone else, he has seen more than any other human and therefore knows exactly how insignificant one little human life is. His great intellect and his many experiences have made him such a nihilist, and from his high horse of intellect he looks down on everyone and thus deals with everyone in a condescending way.

Besides these examples, there are numerous instances when Rick isn’t the voice of anti-anthropocentrism. For example, in the very first episode, Rick and Morty are being chased by alien customs officers when they try to smuggle illegal seeds off a planet. As Morty and Rick run through the interplanetary airport, one of the alien bystanders can be seen taking a drag from a hookah-like device, and he exhales a cloud of green smoke and Morty runs right through it. The green cloud of smoke turns into a creature that runs along with Morty, but we see his entire lifespan from birth to death pass by in a few seconds.

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Minutes later, Rick forces Morty to shoot at the custom officers to give him some time to work on their escape, and calms him down by saying that the aliens are ‘robots.’ When Morty wounds one and the officer falls down on the ground, bleeding and crying out for his family, Rick states that he meant this as a figure of speech because they are bureaucrats.

In Lawnmower Dog , Rick creates a machine that bestows intelligence on the family dog, Snuffles, because he’s tired of the family nagging about it peeing on the carpet. This subplot develops further and the dog meddles with the machine, gaining more intelligence than intended and creating a dog army to take over the world, enslaving humans and switching around the roles of pet and owner. The crux of this subplot lies with the very end when the show parodies people who bankrupt themselves to save their pets. In his plan to bring down dogkind and save the world, Rick makes Morty’s liver shut down and Snowball (as the dog wishes to be called instead of Snuffles, “his slave name”) bankrupts his dog kingdom to save Morty. His advisor asks him “Do you think they would’ve done this for us?” and Snowball answers with a “we are not them”, taking the high ground and declaring themselves morally superior.[3]

In Get Schwifty, the show blatantly parodies our sense of galactic self-importance. Films like Independence Day and games like Mass Effect put forward a sense that humanity is a great force to be reckoned with by the currently unknown intergalactic community. Instead, the episode brings all human life down to the role of one contestant in an intergalactic song contest show, with the losing planets being blown up.[4] This adds to the sense of dispensability and greatly reducing the sense of how important humanity is to other alien races. Shubhankar Dharmadhikari also touches upon the notion in light of the concept of cosmic horror, and states:

the cosmic horror of Rick and Morty poses obvious questions to us about the significance or rather insignificance of our being. Most scifi centers us, the mighty human race at the center of the universe, and this drives significance and meaning to human actions within the narrative. Cosmic horror inverts this premise, as Opperman goes on to say, by asking the question ‘What if the Universe doesn’t give a shit about us?’[5]

In the episode Mortynight Run, Rick and Morty visit an alien arcade, where there is a video game called ‘Roy’, in which aliens can play as a human named Roy and simulate a human life down to the gritty details like being fired, contracting and overcoming cancer, moving on into old age and dying a lousy death.[6] These are things that video games usually skip over because these are too realist to be entertaining and offer no sense of escapism for us humans, meaning that they are at the core of the human experience that we sometimes want to escape from. The fact that these are added to a video game and are expected to offer some entertainment value for aliens, not only reduces being human to the equivalent of a game of Sims, but undermines their value as a human experience.

Another episode, Close Encounters of the Rick Kind, shows the arbitrariness of the development of life in different dimensions. When Rick and Morty are fleeing from the council of Ricks (don’t ask), they run through various parallel universes. In one sequence, they run past pizzas ordering humans whilst sitting on chairs, phones ordering chairs whilst sitting on pizzas, etc.[7] This scene illustrates that there is no reason, no plan for the state we are currently in, but just the result of organic development and that things could be radically different in another dimension.

And of course the breaking down of human life wouldn’t be complete without the classic breakdown of emotions and love: in Rick Potion #9, Rick invents a potion to help Morty get a date for prom, but it turns out he used a recipe for disaster. A flu epidemic alters the effects of the potion and the episode ends with the whole population –except for the Smith family- having been transformed into mutants. The bottomline of the episode is that even love, humankind’s best emotion, is based on hormones and chemistry (pun intended), which adds to the sense of meaninglessness of life, or at least emotions. This coincides with a point that Thomas Evans made about Rick and Morty, namely that it criticises the pursuit of happiness and portrays it as something that is “inherently dangerous.”[8]

Whenever Rick and Morty isn’t blowing your mind with absurdities than can only be found in parallel universes in sci-fi comedy cartoon shows, the show tends to put forward a sense of nihilism and perhaps even anti-anthropocentrism. Dan Harmon himself summarises it beautifully: Science rules supreme, marriages are on the rocks, and things get so chaotic that it does boil down to the petty, emotional issues of humanity. And the moral is that we’re all pretty insignificant.”[9]

While mankind is still searching for the first contact with extraterrestrials, we already portray ourselves as galactic big shots when it comes to sci-fi films or games – but this may not be the case and shows like Rick and Morty put us back with our feet on the ground. And Rick and Morty goes even further than that: it goes on explaining away the layer of emotions and all kinds of sanctities attributed to the experience of human life. Shubhankar Dharmadhikari explains this sentiment of the show through the words of Alec Opperman – writer of, among others, the YouTube video “The Philosophy of Rick and Morty” for the Wisecrack channel – who states that “science allows us to make some sense of the universe through formulas and theorems, but we as humans are left confronting the bleak, arbitrary nature of our own existence.”[10] Dharmadhikari adds to this by saying that “the absurdity of it all for the showrunners arises then, as science can reason away any sense of sanctity or emotion and turn the human experience into something meaningless” to which she adds the question “So how does one go on living with this?”[11] It seems that Rick and Morty has an answer for this as well, as Dharmadhikari responds with a quote from Rick: “The answer is don’t think about it.”[12]

If that doesn’t work for you yet, I’ll leave you with a memorable quote from Morty:

“Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV.”[13]

Works Cited

[1] “Ricksy Business.” Rick and Morty, season 1, episode 11, Adultswim, 14 Apr. 2014. Netflix.

[2] Nowak, Grayson. “Absurd Parody for Nostalgic Night Owls: Understanding Adult Swim’s Offensive Content”

[3] “Lawnmower Dog.” Rick and Morty, season 1, episode 2, Adultswim, 9 dec. 2013. Netflix.

[4] “Get Schwifty.” Rick and Morty, season 2, episode 5, Adultswim, 23 aug. 2015. Netflix.

[5] Dharmadhikari, Shubhankar. “The Absurdist Knook: Creating a Zone of Antisemiotic Exchange Through a Postmodern Reading of Waiting for GodotAcademia.edu (n.d.): 47. Google Scholar Search. Web. 8 Nov. 2016.

[6] “Mortynight Run.” Rick and Morty, season 2, episode 2, Adultswim, 2 aug. 2015. Netflix.

[7] “Close Encounters of the Rick Kind.” Rick and Morty, season 1, episode 10, Adultswim, 7 apr. 2014. Netflix.

[8] Evans, Thomas. “Wubba Lubba Dub Dub!: The Pursuit of Happiness in Rick and Morty.” Under Construction @Keele 2.1 (2015): 16. Google Scholar Search. Web. 8 Nov. 2016.

[9] Thielman, Sam. “Dan Harmon.” Adweek 54, no. 43 (December 2, 2013): 12.

[10] “The Philosophy of Rick and Morty – 8-bit Philosophy.” Wisecrack. qtd in Dharmadhikari, Shubhankar. Idem p.49.

[11] Idem.

[12] Idem.

[13] “Rixty Minutes.” Rick and Morty, season 1, episode 8, Adultswim, 8 Sept. 2015. Netflix.