Reflections on Rick and Morty: Finding Meaning in Chaotic, Purposeless Times
This has been a challenging year for me. Relationship difficulties, stressful grad school applications, and unceasing political turmoil have all forced me to ask a lot of difficult existential questions. Why am I here? What is my purpose? And so on. One of my favorite ways to approach these questions (and get a good laugh at the same time) has been by watching Adult Swim’s animated TV show Rick and Morty. The show began as a spoof of the popular 1980’s trilogy, Back to the Future. Standing in for Doc Brown is Rick Sanchez, a super-intelligent scientist. Standing in for Marty McFly is Morty Smith, Rick’s naive and good-hearted grandson. Together, they go on adventures that transport them to different dimensions, alternate realities, and across the multiverse.
The show is full of wacky characters, hilarious plot twists, and enough poop jokes to make your mom roll her eyes. But behind the show’s youthful vulgarity lies a dark and depressing undertone. The show embodies what is known as “absurdism”; it portrays an infinitely horrifying universe that couldn’t care less about the purposelessness of human beings. As the most intelligent human being in the multiverse, Rick Sanchez has designed technology that allows him to transport to any existing reality. In those alternate realities, there are monsters, aliens, and all manner of ridiculous and unspeakable things. But there are also other Ricks and other Mortys living their own lives. The sheer vastness of a multiverse where there are infinite timelines and infinite versions of yourself makes one’s existence in one’s own reality seem pointless and devoid of meaning.
Thus, Rick spends much of the show drinking and belching out chaotic monologues to his worried grandson—events played up for comedic effect that also highlight the show’s deep-seated inability to cope with its own lack of meaning.
In one episode, Rick accidentally destroys the Earth, so he takes Morty to another version of earth where he and Morty had just died. The two bury their own bodies and then pretend to have been there the whole time. In another episode, Rick’s annoying father-in-law Jerry stows away on his spaceship, so Rick drops him off in an intergalactic “Jerry Daycare” where hundreds of other Jerrys were dropped off by their own Ricks. In that same episode, Morty plays an intergalactic video game called Roy: A Life Well-Lived in which he enters a simulation of Roy’s life and gets a “Game Over” when Roy dies. Moments like these explain why Rick is depressed: for him, life is pointless; a simulation of feelings and emotions that serve no greater purpose.
But while the show seems bent on defying any aspect of a meaningless existence, it can’t help but produce an exit from these feelings. Rick won’t go on any adventures without Morty. Rick sacrifices his life for Morty, tears up when he sees pictures of Morty as a baby, and even goes to jail in exchange for his family’s freedom. In one episode, Morty is faced with a decision that could potentially stop Rick from taking him on anymore taxing adventures. But, when he finds out that Rick’s goofy (See improvised) catchphrase, “Wubba Lubba Dub Dub,” is a phrase in an alien dialect that means, “I am in great pain. Please help me,” he realizes that Rick needs his companionship. Rick’s family holds meaning to him. It’s these relationships that give him purpose. And it’s those relationships that bring us purpose as well.
I have found so much hope in the relationships I have had this year. When you are swamped by uncertainties left and right, it is easy to feel lonely, floating in a universe that couldn’t care less about you. As a result, I’ve relied more on my parents for emotional support. I’ve spent more time conversing about thoughts, fears, failures, and aspirations with friends, and I’ve been more honest about what is going on in my life. Just like Rick and Morty, these experiences have left me feeling more confident as I navigate this time of uncertainty. Because, despite all the fears and uncertainties that surround us, there is purpose and meaning in sharing life with people around you.