The Philosophical Brilliance of Rick and Morty — Part One
by Samuel Mack-Poole.
“A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.” ~ As You Like It, Act 5 Scene 1, William Shakespeare.
“Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere.” ~ Morty, Rixty Minutes.
It is quite rare that you stumble upon genius. As Jonathan Swift once said, “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” Now, I don’t want to take a dangerous foray into Gulliver’s Travels and misanthropy from the start, as there will be much more of the latter later, but Swift’s biting aphorism holds true when it comes to the principal writer of Rick and Morty, Dan Harmon (born January 3, 1973). He had produced three other failed pilots for Fox TV, prior to Rick and Morty becoming that rare brand, a commercial and critical success.
Now, the question is: why is a science-fiction comedy cartoon worthy of a philosophical analysis? My response would be as so: the philosophers of the past were limited to verbal debate and, if they were lucky enough to be educated, the written word. In this world of bleeding edge technology, rising with machines, we can create art that carries extremely salient philosophical messages – messages which permeate through our moral zeitgeist. As Ernst Fischer (3 July 1899 – 31 July 1972) once stated, “In a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay.”
Rick and Morty reflects the crumbling society of the west with acerbic wit and biting insight. And, now that I have built it up with the plaudits it thoroughly deserves, I shall now get to the philosophical analysis.
In Mortynight Run, (season 2, episode 2), whilst on an escapade to an alien arcade called “Blips & Chitz”, Rick and Morty stumble across a computer game called Roy. The premise of the game is that a player’s consciousness is transported into the game, so that the life the player has in reality is forgotten (although it residually manifests itself in dreams or nightmares). In this life, you make salient choices which impacts on then value your life will hold.
In this way, of course, the game is not unlike reality.
However, the game is available for everyone and anyone (who is interested) to watch the game manifest. Thus, although the game play feels completely authentic, and with extreme value, to the player, in reality, it’s just a way to score points in the way society views success.
Most interestingly, Morty’s journey as Roy leads him away from school, which he finds dull, and to the excitement of being what appears to be a great college level player. Unfortunately for Morty/Roy, when he is middle-aged, that career has fizzled out, and with the responsibility of fatherhood, Morty/Roy acquiesces to his wife’s wishes and works in a dull, yet stable, carpet shop.
Further down this narrative, Morty/Roy is afflicted with cancer, but he overcomes it, and goes back to work in the carpet shop – however, the irony is that Morty/Roy dies in a meaningless accident, after overcoming cancer.
The game over sequence flashes on the screen, and Morty finds himself simultaneously confused about his identity and judged by is immoral grandfather, “You beat cancer and then you went back to work at the carpet store?! Boo!” Find the video here.
Now, where to start? This scene is fascinating on so many levels. Firstly, I think the trite what is reality/ am I dreaming debate rears its head once again. This line of paranoid proto-solipsism can be dismissed with the arguments exhibited in Simon Blackburn’s Think (fantasy is parasitic upon reality, and dreams are parasitic upon the experience of being conscious). In all honesty, I don’t worry that the reality we live in is synthetic, and this is due to my ability to realise that as Wittgenstein once stated, “How can I generalise the one case so irresponsibly?”. If all we have to go on is sense-data, then we should not be bogged down by unrealistic paranoia.
What I actually find more interesting is the way in which life choices are judged by our peers, and the esteem in which we hold those choices. Rick, who prides himself on his unconventional approach to life – he is, after all, a charismatic maverick of an anti-hero, bitcccccchhhhhh – seemingly sneers at Morty’s ‘dull’ choices. However, I take issue with Rick’s carefree attitude. He seems to not have the same issue of confusion as Morty whilst his consciousness is inhabited by the game, and he lives his life as Roy/Rick with a carefree abandon which others in the arcade are enamoured with.
Thus, what we as an audience judge to be of value – that which is rare: namely excitement and a rejection of society’s rules – isn’t really on the same playing field as what Morty/Roy did, as he made rational and responsible choices based on what he felt was real. Whatever a player does, it seems that Roy has responsibilities for dependents outside of his own selfish concern, and this is where I have central issues with Rick’s decadence (don’t forget that he abandoned Beth — and we all know what that led to…marrying Jerry).
Although this is merely a meta-reality (a fiction within a fiction), the attitudes and outcomes are merely manifestations of societal concerns. In the west, we live for ourselves. In fact, we are utterly self-obsessed. It’s the route of our unhappiness. It’s also what I think makes Rick so chronically depressed, (as is evidenced in episode Auto Erotic Assimilation with Rick’s flirtation with suicide and ambiguous passing out/ chickening out from it. See it here.). The juxtaposition of Morty’s more grounded and familial values with Rick’s individualistic yet ‘bad-ass’ values is fascinating, yet I err towards Morty, even if it is truly mundane, as I think family is of the highest level of primacy for a society to function.
The whole premise of the Roy game is to show society that we live in judgement of our success (or lack thereof). Unlike in real life, where the roll of the dice in our life choices slowly manifest, the Roy game shows the outcomes of this with an instantaneous affirmation (or lack thereof). In this way, I am reminded of the vulgarity of social media and our obsession as a species with instantaneous feedback. It’s not enough to make a video on social media, now we need to go live. It’s not enough that I will write this blog and show it to my friends, I will post it all over a range of intellectual discussion boards, waiting for one or two comments which will validate my choice to write this article.
If there are any conclusions from this, if I can wrestle with the abstract and find something tangible, it would be this: watch Rick and Morty, don’t venerate Rick as moral guide for your existence, and realise that living for yourself in an absolutist way is the first step towards becoming unwoke.