Content Warning: Discussion of sexual assault and attempted suicide
You’d be hard pressed to find a comedy as dividing as Rick and Morty. It’s one of Adult Swim’s biggest hits, a show both adored and also found disgusting or simply far too morally repugnant, and both reactions are perfectly acceptable. While Community’s Dan Harmon is a major player, Rick and Morty is mostly the creative vision of one Justin Roiland, going so far as to voice both title characters. For all intents and purposes, Rick and Morty is Roiland’s portrayal of “truth.” It is how he sees the world and himself, and it is both hilarious and soul crushing at the same time. It’s the most nihilist work I have ever seen, a work filled so much with the creator’s ego and id that your enjoyment of it depends entirely on how much of the man behind it you can take. But that’s the key to Rick and Morty’s success. To put it simply, Rick and Morty is an absurd work that uses ridiculous elements to speak surprisingly true words.
The premise of the series is that Rick Sanchez, a brilliant scientist and all around horrible human being, takes his grandson Morty on adventures in space and in other dimensions and time-lines, where in usually pretty fucked up things occur. The pilot episode sets the stage quite well, showing Morty breaking his legs, having to smuggle alien fruit up his bum in an alien airport, and killing a bug alien guard because his grandpa did not properly explain that he did not mean robot literally, but rather that he sees them as robots because they are bureaucrats and he does not respect them. Also, Rick freezes and accidentally kills a school bully, and we can see people grieving in a few scenes with Morty’s parents and sister. The episode ends with Morty on the ground with his motor functions damaged temporarily by the alien fruit, as Rick goes on a wild rant about how there’s going to be so many adventures with them, slightly breaking the forth wall as Roiland is clearly improvising at this point.
If this level of chaotic, mean spirited lunacy was all the show had to offer, it wouldn’t be the phenomenon it has become. It didn’t take long after this for the series to start expanding its scope, building mythology, multiple season arcs, and most importantly, substantial character development. Without these elements, the show would be unwatchable to most. Rick and Morty’s major weakness is the abrasive sense of humor and use of unnecessarily cruel or realistic violence or imagery. Thankfully, season two goes more into absurdity to its benefit, though Roiland inserts a rant in a second TV improv episode about his frustration with people being offended by his comedy, making a very strange and weak point about survival that is divorced so hard from reality that I have no idea what form of logic came to reach it.
The rant mainly refers to backlash from a few season one episodes that include rape imagery. The episodes “Meeseeks and Destroy” and “Raising Gazorpazorp” each contain scenes where either Morty or his sister Summer are nearly assaulted by aliens. The scene in “Raising Gazorpazorp” is quickly ended, but the episode suffers overall from its confused commentary on gender politics, mainly because it’s not clear if Roiland is using Rick as a negative example or to lecture to the audience as he plays out like a straw-man misogynist. “Meeseeks and Destroy,” on the other hand, despite introducing the fan favorite Meeseeks, also includes a far longer, far too realistic sequence that pops out of nowhere revolving around a child molester bean man. It was described as being drawn as realistically as possible, including the violence Morty has to use to escape before anything can happen, and shows Morty’s trauma afterwards. The bean gets killed at the end by Rick, but that doesn’t really excuse the inclusion of that scene, and it seems the staff took the backlash to it seriously in the second season.
It’s frustrating because that episode shows one of the first concrete examples of Rick’s humanity. You can see him piece together what happened, his clear rage, and then see him try to get Morty’s mind off what happened with some genuine humanity that’s mostly been absent until this episode. Thankfully, the following episode, “Rick Potion #9,” is where the series really cements itself as something incredible. It sets itself up as another wacky messed up adventure where Rick makes Morty a love potion, but a mixture of the flu and allergies results in the potion spreading to everyone. Every time Rick tries fixing it, things only get worse, and Morty’s family end up having to survive in an apocalyptic world populated by Cronenbergs (the show’s wording).
The episode ends in an unexpected way. Instead of finding a solution, Rick and Morty hop over to an alternate time-line where Rick did find a solution, but both him and Morty died in a lab accident right after. Rick makes Morty bury the bodies, and the two take the place of their alternate doppelgangers, as their family in the original time-line are shown to be happier people without Rick or Morty in their lives. The strongest moment of the episode has Morty soaking in the horrific truth of what he’s just experienced, staring into the void as life continues on as normal, despite knowing how things went so horrifically wrong. It’s at this point that the show begins to cement its thematic core.
Rick and Morty, is both existentialist and nihilistic. While some may compare it to South Park, in both make jokes on the basis of how little most things matter, Rick and Morty is working on a completely different level. South Park’s style is immaturity, throwing stones at everything and venting with little self-reflection. South Park wants to provoke, sometimes with point, sometimes just to screw around with the audience. It’s all about Matt and Trey’s personal opinions and interests more than anything, only reaching some sort of significant thematic meaning whenever the topic of religion is discussed or an obvious stance needs to be made.
Rick and Morty, on the other hand, is intensely personal and human. It’s less about Roiland’s interests than Roiland’s own views of himself and the world around him. This is what makes the show so dividing, yet so powerful or simply entertaining to so many others. While Rick and Morty has moments where it plays around with the audience, those moments have a habit of coming back around in a new context, giving unexpected new meanings. It’s basically South Park grown up, and one almost completely detached from in the moment reactions politics for personal philosophy told in the most absurdly silly or horrifically real ways possible, sometimes at the same time.
Season one episode “Rixty Minutes” is the first episode that really starts to make clear what the central themes of the show are. It’s mostly an improvised skit showcase (and a damn funny one at that), but the side plot deals with Morty’s parents, Jerry and Beth, discovering the existence of alternate realities and finding one where the two of them are successful but never married and had Morty’s sister Summer. As they start bringing their under the surface resentments to the surface, Summer decides to run away upon realizing she was an accident that caused the two to marry. Morty talks her out of it by pointing out that he’s been living next to his doppelganger’s corpse since the events of “Rick Potion #9.” He gives a speech expressing the most important thing he’s learned from his adventures with Rick, that being that we’re all going to die, nobody is brought into the world with a purpose, and ultimately we shouldn’t put so much stock in our mundane, cosmically insignificant problems.
The show dabbles a lot with this nihilistic viewpoint, and it argues this is why Rick is such a powerful person. Rick isn’t a responsible person. He cares a lot for the people in his life, and is considered an oddity compared to other Ricks in the multiverse for it. However, he almost never manages to act as a responsible adult, putting the family in dangerous situations for ridiculous reasons, like having Morty dream dive with him to cheat his math grade to an A, in where they end up 9/11ing it and get chased around by a Freddy Kruger knock-off who says “bitch” to end every sentence. He also loves to screw around with other people, even describing screwing over the devil’s plans as Bugs Bunny screwing around with the opera singer for eleven minutes. Because of this attitude and his genius, Rick is considered one of the most dangerous people in all of existence, able to create and destroy entire worlds with relative ease. A friend of his named Bird Person describes this as Rick’s real worth, the ability to cause so much good and evil in ways no other person could. It’s saved countless people, but its also endangered and killed plenty of others. As Morty says in the season three premier, Rick is like a demon or some sort of fucked up god. Everything changes when he’s around, no matter what you do, and you’re forced to see your real insignificance in the grand scheme of reality.
However, this quality also makes Rick miserable. It’s not that Rick doesn’t care, it’s that he tries to ignore his worries and remain calm and in control with a facade of dickishness and aloofness. Season one brings this up in its finale, revealing that Rick’s stupid catchphrase he made up in “Raising Gazorpazorp” is actually an alien phrase, and he’s really saying that he’s hurting deeply. He says it because almost nobody around him would catch the meaning and it lets him vent a little. Through the episode, Rick gets increasingly awful, up to the point he lies to Morty about a dangerous situation he refuses to deal with, but also see solely through Roiland’s acting and some subtle expressions that he’s clearly not enjoying these shenanigans like he normally does, nearly completely breaking his facade when he believes a creation of his, Lincler (a combination of Lincoln and Hitler because this show is complete lunacy) has died.
Season two is primarily an exploration of Rick’s attitude and how it impacts him and all those around him, for better and worse. “A Rickle in Time” starts the season off with a situation where Rick has to keep up his uncaring dick persona to keep himself in control of the situation, but his inability to control Morty and Summer makes the problem worse. It only gets worse from there where the seemingly confident and in command Rick can’t sync himself up with his other time doppelgangers to bring the timeline back to normal, causing every version of himself in that moment to try and kill the other, only causing more problems. It’s the only major instance outside “Rick Potion #9” where we’ve seen Rick isn’t as perfect as he pretends, and that only gets shown further from here.
“Auto Erotic Assimilation” shows the most honest example of Rick’s inability to connect with other people. Since he effectively sucks everyone up into his shenanigans and causes them to change for his benefit, he can’t really have a proper relationship with other people. We see this with Unity, Rick’s ex and an assimilating intelligence that wants to absorb all life into itself for the sake of order and prosperity. But when Rick and Unity meet again, Unity starts losing control of those in her power and herself, spiraling into an orgy of drugs, booze, and sex. She says in a letter that she can’t be with Rick simply because she can’t be herself with him, that it will never work because Rick simply can’t be equals with someone else. He brings out the worst in her, and she causes him to lose interest in his grandchildren. She realizes that the two are ultimately horrible for each other and leaves, as the episode ends with Rick almost killing himself in grief as “Do You Feel It?” by Chaos Chaos plays over the scene. It’s one of the most powerful moments in the entire show, the first time we truly see Rick as vulnerable and miserable, and the most shocking part is how unnervingly relatable the moment is.
This is the first episode where Rick truly feels like a human being.
Rick is constantly challenged in ways he’s never been challenged before in this season, from a person he created becoming just as intelligent and arrogant as him, to his immature self almost completely overriding his mature misery and destroying himself. By the time season three starts with him destroying the galactic government, it’s clear that Rick’s worst enemy is not an antagonist but himself, and he knows it. He’s an inherently toxic person, but not uncaring like he pretends to be. He wants to love but simply can’t, because he can’t function without defining himself by his genius and arrogance. He can’t be vulnerable, so people mistake him for something he isn’t.
Every other character is a broken mess as well, and like Rick, they all feel relatable in some fashion. Jerry is a mediocre man and a coward, but he truly does care for his family and wants to make his marriage work. Beth is incredibly insecure and has dad issues out the wazoo, but she wants to make things work with Jerry as well and reconnect with her father. Summer is someone who simply doesn’t know herself, and starts adopting Rick’s attitude as a defense mechanism, to give herself substance she doesn’t seem to think she has. As for Morty, he’s simply a kid growing up far sooner than he ever should have, but he seems to refuse becoming Rick. He sees value in Rick’s idealogy, but also doesn’t want to be a miserable, lonely, destructive person like him. He actually wants to keep Summer away from him at the start of season three simply because he’s terrified that she’ll be unable to be normal and become a screwed up person like he believes he now is. Really, he may be the most put together member of the cast.
At its heart, Rick and Morty is about the necessity of self-reflection and knowledge, but also about the inherent pain and sorrow that comes along with it. You can’t be a better person without them, but you also have to sacrifice ignorant bliss in the process and have to try recreating those feelings to have any real peace in life. The trick is to find the right balance, and nobody in the series has quite figured out that balance. This is something I’ve struggled with for a long time, as I’ve caused plenty of problems for myself and others through sheer unchecked ego and ignorance. Trying to unlearn bad thought processes, however, is incredibly difficult, and leads to a whole heaping pile of self doubt. You start to hate your past self, and start to question yourself constantly. But that quality is necessary for the world to function, for new ideas to grow and to learn more about ourselves. Rick and Morty, more than anything, understands this, and it shows it in the most comfortable joys and deepest despairs without breaking a sweat. It feels real unlike most every drama I’ve ever seen.
That’s pretty incredible when you remember an actual character in this show is a tiny yellow man named “Mr. Poopybutthole.”