Nihilism unleashed in Rick & Morty

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Few observers would disagree that certain worldviews (defined as a particular philosophy of life or conception of reality) has effectively saturated themselves not just in academic fields, but popular culture as well. Those observers would also agree that pop culture is often much better than academia at propagating those views. For example, the worldview of materialistic naturalism, which puts its faith in the unfailing reliability of human observation and rational objectivity, is the glue that holds together much of the underlying thrust in the sitcom Big Bang Theory.

But other contenders are starting to take the field.

Greg Cwick of The Week argues the animated show BoJack Horseman is “the most genuinely existential show on TV.” Existentialism holds that the reality itself is meaningless apart from any meaning we give it — a major departure from materialistic naturalism, except that human autonomy is still dead-center. Cwick describes the show, which stars an alcoholic anthropomorphic horse, as truly existential:

“…the show allows its characters to create meaning — if they want to. But not everyone can be saved. Some people don’t want to be. Some shouldn’t be.”

Salvation, Cwick argues, is pretty exclusive in the existential worldview. If you don’t choose to be happy, you never will be, and don’t deserve to be. But like materialistic naturalism, existentialism places the locus of salvation on one’s own efforts, though not necessarily in grasping reality, but rather in creating your own.

These ideas are hardly new, even at a popular level. Disney has been pushing existentialism for years, telling young boys who will grow up to be 5’8’’ and 140 pounds that they too can be NFL linebackers if they “follow their heart” —or taking a lyric from the recent phenomenon Frozen: “No right, no wrong, no rules for me/I’m free.” Gravity, for example, is just a social construct used to oppress others.

But popular entertainment has begun to feel the force of a new worldview (well, it could be traced back to the early 1800’s) in the successful —and crude— animated show Rick and Morty, featuring the titular characters (a spoof of Doc and Marty from Back to the Future) who go on adventures that often transcend time, space, and dimensions. Some, like Cwick, see Rick and Morty as another expression of existentialism, but this is a wrong assessment.

Rick and Morty is relentless nihilism.

The main character, Rick, is an alcoholic genius who can invent just about anything he wants, and takes his grandson Morty with him as he uses his brilliant mind to accomplish feats of philanthropy such as… going to the parallel universe that has the best ice cream. It’s a show filled with immature gags, but the darkness soon becomes apparent.

In one scene, Rick builds a little robot (think WALL-E), which upon activation, looks around and asks Rick in an aspiring voice, “What is my purpose?” “To pass butter,” burbs Rick, eating his pancakes. The robot does so, and then makes another attempt at the question: “What is my purpose?” “To pass butter,” says an annoyed Rick. The robot looks at its metal pincers and whimpers, “Oh my god…” Rick, unphased at the mental breakdown of his creation, croaks, “Welcome to the club.”

Nihilism agrees with existentialism in that there is no meaning to be found “out there” but it also challenges existentialism’s fantasy that we can create valid meaning. Instead, pursuing meaning (whether natural or self-defined) is also meaningless. Rick and Morty recognizes this and never (apparently) lets up. Rick’s personal motto: Life is absurd, so pursue comfort and pleasure, but if you even try to find meaning in that, you’re living a lie.

Yet in the climax of the third season, it truly appears Rick has begun to find meaning —in his family. In the episode, his past catches up with him and his granddaughter is captured by the intergalactic government. Rick, who has often been portrayed to quickly give up on saving family members discovered to be in mortal danger, allows himself to be captured, infiltrates the prison, and saves his granddaughter. The viewer is tempted to see a turning point of metanoia in Rick’s perspective of life; will Rick become a new man?

The conclusion, however, is cold water to the hint of hope that was teased to the viewer. Rick confesses to Morty afterward that the whole reason he saved his granddaughter was so Rick wouldn’t get kicked out of the house by his daughter, and hence he could continue to take Morty with him on trips so they could find the timeline where McDonald’s still serves a special teriyaki sauce that Rick likes. That’s it.

Don’t be fooled: Rick is not finding meaning in enjoying a promotional teriyaki sauce. The show’s creators’ point is clear: if meaning comes from within us, then making the enjoyment of a condiment your life pursuit may be absurd, and but it is just as absurd as any other pursuit (including the pursuit of love, justice, and peace).

Sarah Marshall of The Week points to one conversation in the show that summarizes its total embrace of nihilism, and with it, perfectly captures the sentiment of our age. Morty, reflecting on his adventures with Rick, tells his sister, “Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s gonna die… Come watch TV.”