A Review of Rick and Morty
Cartoon Network Adult Swim, 2013 to Present
Created by Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon
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In America nothing seems to validate pop-culture success and permeation more than a Super Bowl commercial. When the animated television program Rick and Morty accomplished this feat in February 2020 in a commercial for Pringles chips, it reached more than 100 million viewers. Currently in its fourth season, Rick and Morty first aired on the Cartoon Network in 2013 and was renewed in 2018 for 70 more episodes, guaranteeing it will be on TV for years to come.1 It’s a fast-paced series that packs a lot of content into an average air time of 22 minutes. Although animation is often pigeonholed as entertainment for kids, Rick and Morty is decidedly adult oriented. Featured on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block, Rick and Morty garners its most viewers in the 18–34 year old range.2
Plots and Portals
The plot of Rick and Morty is science fiction-oriented. Rick, a 70-year-old scientist, lives with his seemingly average suburban family — his daughter Beth, son-in-law Jerry, and high-school-aged grandchildren Morty and Summer. Episodes center around adventures in other universes, most-commonly involving Rick and Morty, reached by using Rick’s portal gun — a device he invented that allows easy travel to and from alternate universes within the multiverse (multiverse theory proposes that there are infinite possible universes, of which our universe is merely one). Although many episodes are vulgar and violent — sometimes gratuitously so — the underlying and recurring ideas in Rick and Morty communicate a variety of worldview perspectives that warrant a Christian evaluation, most notably nihilism, ethical egoism, hedonism, and scientism.
“Nothing You Think Matters”
Nihilism is the view that life has no meaning and, as such, moral principles or obligations have no grounding and are to be rejected. Some nihilists see the despair and pointlessness in their outlook and are terrified by its implications. Other nihilists view their ideology as liberating, granting freedom from societal and traditional structures, as well as from objective truth and morality. It is the latter nihilist that is most commonly represented by Rick in Rick and Morty.
A professed alcoholic, Rick repeatedly supports nihilism by his words and his behavior. In the final episode of season three, “The Rickchurian Mortydate,” Rick proclaims: “Nobody gets it. Nothing you think matters. This isn’t special. This is happening infinite times across infinite realities.”3 In the season one episode, “Rixty Minutes,” Rick states, “Nobody belongs anywhere. Everyone’s gonna’ die. Come watch TV.”4 In “Something Ricked This Way Comes,” Rick invents a robot to fetch him his butter at the breakfast table. When the robot asks its purpose and is told it is just to get butter, Rick makes a flippant comment, “Yeah, welcome to the club,” suggesting that there is no ultimate meaning or purpose to what anyone does.5
As a nihilist living a meaningless life in an ultimately pointless universe, Rick simply chooses to amuse himself until he dies. With infinite Ricks supposedly existing in infinite universes, combined with the explicit rejection of God, Rick’s behavior is at least consistent within his nihilism, though this is not always the case. In the episode, “Ricksy Business,” a friend of Rick’s observes that Rick is crying out, “I am in great pain, please help me,” adding that he believes this is why Rick must “numb himself” with drugs and alcohol.6 It seems Rick cannot escape the logical outcomes of his own brand of nihilism, wherein meaninglessness leads to despair.
What’s in It for Me?
When it comes to morality, nihilists reject traditional moral codes, whether they derive from society, religion, or other sources. But the curious contradiction common in those who claim to reject moral codes or whose worldview denies moral possibilities, is that they indeed have some sort of morality in which they function — moral parameters they maintain or follow. For Rick this is most commonly revealed as ethical egoism. A somewhat self-explanatory moral view, ethical egoism is based on self-interest. “Right” and “wrong” are based on whether or not a moral action or choice is in the best interest of the person making the moral action or choice, unlike Christian ethics that includes, for instance, elements of divine commands and the importance of developing a virtuous character.
Although in the episode “Something Ricked This Way Comes” Rick states that evil can be detected and measured, for the most part he behaves as though right and wrong and good and evil are relative or based on how perceived “right” and “wrong” will result in benefits or detriments to himself. This self-centered approach of ethical egoism suits Rick well, as he and others repeatedly point out that he is indeed focused on himself.
In “Close Rick-counters of the Rick Kind,” Rick responds to a moral action by stating that it “wouldn’t profit him,” thus overtly supporting ethical egoism.7 This “what’s in it for me?” attitude is an underlying ethical motivator for Rick. In the episode, “Mortynight Run,” Rick knowingly sells a weapon to an assassin for profit so Rick can go play games at an arcade with Morty. The assassin, for his part, openly declares, “I have no code of ethics. I just love killing.”8 Despite Morty’s protestations, Rick doesn’t seem to care that he has sold a weapon to an assassin, making it clear that he just wanted money to play video games and adding that the assassin would have found another way to get a weapon no matter what. In essence, Rick’s logic asks why shouldn’t he profit from selling the weapon to an assassin since someone else would profit regardless.
This leads to an interesting ethical observation. In the world of Rick and Morty, it is often the children — Morty and his sister Summer — who make the case for morality, either to Rick or to their own parents. Morty cares about life, even altruistically so, and in one instance when an alien life form remarks, “You put the value of all life above your own,” Morty affirms, “It’s how things should be.”9 Something has gone very wrong with a society where children are the moral conscience and moral redeemers of adults who have run rampant with immoral behavior.
In “Get Schwifty,” Morty observes of his grandfather: “Rick doesn’t care about anyone but himself…he doesn’t think about the consequences of anything he does.”10 Morty is right, for the most part. When Rick is consistent with his nihilism and ethical egoism, his needs and desires take priority over everything and everyone else. This is exemplified in “The Ricks Must Be Crazy,” wherein Rick creates an entire microcivilization merely to dupe them into serving as generators to power the battery that runs his spacecraft. At one point he even tells a creature in this world, “Nothing matters. Your existence is a lie.”11 Rick seeks to get what he wants, without regard for other creatures.
But Rick’s ethical egoism collapses when it encounters the ethics of others. In “Mortynight Run,” when a supposed friend of Rick betrays him, stating, “Like you [Rick] always say, you gotta’ look out for number one,” Rick is ironically outraged and replies, “Number one is me!”12 One key problem with ethical egoism is that there are other egos in the universe — other moral beings who will at times behave in ways that clash with the ethical egoism of others. When this occurs, what is the deciding moral factor? Within ethical egoism, there is no winner, only a moral standoff.
Hedonism also appears in Rick and Morty. Hedonism popularly perceived is all about self-indulgence no matter what. Philosophically, hedonism seeks to maximize pleasure, but also to minimize pain. Ethical hedonism, moreover, is focused on the moral correctness of seeking pleasure. In Rick and Morty, Rick’s ethical egoism seems to go hand-in-hand with his hedonism. This is most clear in the episode, “Auto Erotic Assimilation,” where Rick reconnects with a being he used to date, leading Rick to involve himself in prolonged drunken debauchery, commenting, “Best weekend ever. Let’s see how long we can go.”13 But hedonism will not soothe Rick. By the end of the episode, he is a depressed mess, having been dumped by his former girlfriend. He experiments in his garage by bringing a creature to life then killing it. Music plays over the sad scene of Rick, alone, with lyrics pleading, “I wanna feel.”
The hedonist paradox points out a critical flaw in hedonism: “Many of the deepest and best pleasures of life (of love, of child rearing, of work) seem to come most often to those who are engaging in an activity for reasons other than pleasure seeking. Hence, not only is it dubious that we always in fact seek (or value only) pleasure, but also dubious that the best way to achieve pleasure is to seek it.”14 Significant pleasures in life involve pain, but we do not avoid these pains. Rather, we pursue them, not for their own sake but because the results are worthwhile.
In Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig define scientism as: “the view that science is the very paradigm of truth and rationality. If something does not square with currently well-established scientific beliefs, if it is not within the domain of entities appropriate for scientific investigation, or if it is not amenable to scientific methodology, then it is not true or rational. Everything outside of science is a matter of mere belief and subjective opinion, of which rational assessment is impossible. Science, exclusively and ideally, is our model of intellectual excellence.”15 Consequently, scientism rejects religion and philosophy.
Not every scientist adheres to scientism, of course. Historically, key figures in science were in fact Christians, often driven by a desire to better understand and appreciate God’s creation. Rick, however, is clearly portrayed as a scientist who adheres to strong scientism. If something is not scientific, Rick is apt to belittle it or outright reject it. Scientism is the foundation of Rick’s rejection of God and morality.
His scientism, in particular his view of the multiverse, also leads Rick to conclude that no one is special, which in turn results in his devaluing life. After all, if God does not exist and the universe (multiverse), as a result, is not the product of an intelligence, then it follows that an impersonal undirected process happened to form the universe and everything in it. This reality by definition has no real or lasting purpose. If these statements are accepted, it’s hard to care about anything, which of course fits with Rick’s nihilism.
In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis stated, “Supposing science ever became complete so that it knew every single thing in the whole universe. Is it not plain that the questions, ‘Why is there a universe?’ ‘Why does it go on as it does?’ ‘Has it any meaning?’ would remain just as they were?”16 Lewis is pointing out the limits of science. Scientism, in fact, in its strong forms as presented in Rick and Morty is self-refuting because scientism itself is a philosophy about understanding reality that cannot be proven scientifically.
The Paradox of Love
It is not an exaggeration to say that love is the foundation of Christianity and, as a result, love is also the foundation of Christian ethics. God’s love for His creatures moved him to send His Son, Jesus Christ, into the world as a redemptive sacrifice. Moreover, as the Lord Jesus communicated, love of God and love of neighbor are the greatest commandments (Matt. 22:36–40).
But in the world of Rick and Morty, there is no supportable basis or foundation for love. The paradox of love in Rick and Morty is that in a nihilistic world where meaningful relationships have no real meaning, again and again we see these characters caring for one another and expressing love for one another, especially within the family unit. While this is not as much of a stretch for Rick’s daughter, son-in-law, and his two grandchildren, it is a stretch for nihilistic Rick to show that he cares and, in fact, loves his family, especially his grandson Morty.
In “The Rickshank Rickdemption,”17 Rick is imprisoned for numerous crimes against the galactic federation. During this time he is interrogated in a virtual world, where memories are forced from him. In one memory, which we later learn may have been fabricated by Rick, the alien interrogator notes that Rick loved his daughter’s mother and the episode conveys this sense of love and loss on Rick’s part. In several other episodes, Rick’s actions indicate that he does indeed care for his grandchildren, often making choices that would place him in danger or require a sacrifice of some sort on his part in order to rescue his grandchildren.
This loving and sacrificial behavior occurs, despite Rick’s insistence in the episode “Pickle Rick,” where he states: “To the extent that love is an expression of familiarity over time, my access to infinite timelines precludes the necessity of attachment.”18 However, his explanation of “love” contradicts his own actions repeatedly.
Moreover, in a multiverse derived from the impersonal, how could the personal even arise, much less love? And yet the universe is teeming with what is undoubtedly personal, meaningful, loving relationships between people, as well as moral imperatives that require the personal not the impersonal. An impersonally-derived universe has an extremely difficult time explaining the realities of personality, much less the development of consciousness.
A Meaningful Foundation
Rick is often mean-spirited, caustically berating others, including his own grandchildren. He is an intelligent man with incredible potential, realized in his many scientific inventions, but he is lacking a worldview foundation that would allow him to truly flourish and find joy in life. In this sense, he is a tragic character. This is in stark contrast to the Christian worldview that spurs people to do good, to make meaningful contributions, to care for one another without seeking personal gain, and to flourish because life does have meaning in a universe created by a personal God who not only loves His creation and creatures, but continues to be active in what He has made.
While Rick and Morty is a popular program containing moments of hilarity, the recurring ideas underpinning it are severely lacking. The Christian worldview, on the other hand, provides value and meaning to life and to all of existence. It offers a solid foundation for love, as well as foundations for the value of life and the sanctity and value of every person reflecting God’s image. It also happens to correspond to reality. Worldviews such as nihilism, so prevalent throughout Rick and Morty, offer no such value or meaning to life or to individuals. Instead, nihilists shake their fists in bitter, angry despair at a meaningless universe. —Robert Velarde
Robert Velarde, MA, is author of several books including A Visual Defense (Kregel, 2013)), Conversations with C. S. Lewis (InterVarsity Press, 2008), and The Wisdom of Pixar (InterVarsity Press, 2010).
- Martin Belam, “Rick and Morty Renewed for 70 More Episodes,” The Guardian, May 11, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/may/11/rick-and-morty-renewed-for-70-more-episodes-adult-swim.
- Anthony Crupi, “Space Case: ‘Rick and Morty’ Reigns Supreme over the 18–34 Demo,” AdAge, October 3, 2017, https://adage.com/article/media/rick-m/310745.
- Rick and Morty, “The Rickchurian Mortydate,” season 3, episode 10, written by Dan Harmon, Cartoon Network [adult swim], aired October 1, 2017.
- Rick and Morty, “Rixty Minutes,” season 1, episode 8, written by Tom Kauffman and Justin Roiland, Cartoon Network [adult swim], aired March 17, 2014.
- Rick and Morty, “Something Ricked This Way Comes,” season 1, episode 9, written by Mike McMahan, Cartoon Network [adult swim], aired March 24, 2014.
- Rick and Morty, “Ricksy Business,” season 1, episode 11, written by Ryan Ridley and Tom Kauffman, Cartoon Network [adult swim], aired April 14, 2014.
- Rick and Morty, “Close Rick-counters of the Rick Kind,” season 1, episode 10, written by Ryan Ridley, Cartoon Network [adult swim], aired April 7, 2014.
- Rick and Morty, “Mortynight Run,” season 2, episode 2, written by David Phillips, Cartoon Network [adult swim], aired August 2, 2015.
- Rick and Morty, “Mortynight Run.”
- Rick and Morty, “Get Schwifty,” season 2, episode 5, written by Tom Kauffman, Cartoon Network [adult swim], aired August 23, 2015.
- Rick and Morty, “The Ricks Must Be Crazy,” season 2, episode 6, written by Dan Guterman, Cartoon Network [adult swim], aired August 30, 2015.
- Rick and Morty, “Mortynight Run,” season 2, episode 2, written by David Phillips, Cartoon Network [adult swim], aired August 2, 2015.
- Rick and Morty, “Auto Erotic Assimilation,” season 2, episode 3, written by Ryan Ridley, Cartoon Network [adult swim], aired August 9, 2015.
- James A. Montmarquet, in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, second edition, gen. ed. Robert Audi (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), s.v. “hedonism.”
- J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 346–347.
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952), in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 29.
- Rick and Morty, “The Rickshank Rickdemption,” season 3, episode 1, written by Mike McMahan, Cartoon Network [adult swim], aired April 1, 2017.
- Rick and Morty, “Pickle Rick,” season 3, episode 3, written by Jessica Gao, Cartoon Network [adult swim], aired August 6, 2017.