Look I love Rick and Morty. I do. I think it’s frequently hilarious and pretty heady sometimes (though like Inception I think maybe the show knows how smart it is while the viewers treat it like the Holy Grail of far out thinking, which it is not (though Rick and Morty is obviously smarter than Inception, which they prove as early as “Lawnmower Dog”)). But Rick and Morty is a show that is suffering. Not because there’s anything wrong with it, but because it has taken on an impossible task. It wants to tell stories in an infinite universe where nothing matters – it wants to go there every time, push each of its ideas to its logical conclusion. But it also wants to be… you know, a show. With characters, and narratives, and drama and stakes. Though it does a nice job balancing these two things they are, in their realest form, mutually exclusive.
Which is something I think Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland and their whole team understands (they speak to it frequently in interviews). They navigate the challenge expertly, but the truth of the matter is it doesn’t matter how well you navigate a challenge if the challenge itself is impossible.
What they sacrifice, logically, is the “infinite universe nothing matters” concept, because a television show can exist without infinite universes (in fact, most do) while shows can’t survive without the thing infinite universes preclude: namely, plot and characters with weight. And they play their hand pretty early, in this regard, minimizing the infinite universe as early as “Rick Potion #9”. Rick insists he and Morty can only hop universes a few more times, but this diminishes the infinite universes Rick promises exist. Yet Rick and Morty integrate into a universe that was exactly like their original universe up until a few days prior. Are there only a few like that? How many? Why that number? Or, are there truly infinite universes, so finding one that’s been similar to yours up until this second is easy?
The truly infinite answer is the one that makes most sense and works best for what the show wants to be in its attitude of “let’s push on this trope/concept and turn it up to 11”. But of course that makes storytelling impossible. In “Close Rick-counters of the Rick Kind” Rick is accused of killing 27 other Ricks, one of whom is known as “The Artist Formerly Known as Rick”. The Council of Ricks (phew, I think I’m going to type Rick a lot while writing this article) are incensed about it. But why? We already know there are Ricks floating around who are living pretty much the same life as our Rick, because in “Rick Potion #9” he stepped into one of their lives seamlessly. So why isn’t there a “very close Rick” to “The Artist Formerly Known as Rick” – one who has lived the same life up until the point of the murder. There, their paths diverge: one lives and one dies. That is what “Rick Potion #9” suggests but it would make murder inconsequential, and then there’d be no impetus for anyone to care about or find the murderer.
The issue with the show then becomes it wants it both ways: it wants the existential experiment where nothing matters (that is, after all, Rick’s whole ethos and the show seems to agree with him – more on that later) but also wants to have moments that land. There are examples all over. Take, for example, one of my favorite episodes: “The Wedding Squanchers”. Rick’s whole gang of friends is murdered and the Galactic Federation hunts him down, and he tells the family there are only three planets they can live on, none of which are ideal. Which… okay? Why not just go to some universe where the wedding didn’t happen? Or a universe with more planets you could live on? One without a Galactic Federation at all? And, for that matter, when the Galactic Federation falls in “The Rickshank Redemption”… is that just one Galactic Federation? Do they still exist in other universes? Rick rams it into the Citadel of Ricks – which universe does the Citadel exist in? It’s a physical place, so assumedly they picked a universe to actually build it in. Is it in the universe our Rick and Morty live in? Why would they choose to build their Citadel in a universe with a Rick who is hostile to the idea of the Citadel?
Yes, yes, nit-picking, which I’ve said before I think is a bad way to assess a movie or show, except in this case the show invites it. It’s like when people discuss Christopher Nolan movies and are like “that’s a real mind bender” and then you say “well, actually it falls apart here, here, and here” and they’re like “you’re overthinking it”. It can’t be a mindbender if and only if you don’t think about it.
The polarizing ethoses of the show radiate out everywhere. Dan Harmon recently berated sexist fans, and people often defend the show by saying people who look up to Rick “don’t get it”. His nihilism, they (and Harmon) insist is not good, even if it’s correct. But that’s a tough thing to argue, because the universe of the show continuously affirms Rick’s point of view. It’d be like if Vince Gilligan kept insisting Walter White was a bad dude but everyone in Breaking Bad was always really complimentary to him and he never got punished and things always went his way. I believe that Harmon thinks he (Harmon) isn’t nihilistic, and I believe he believes Jerry should be exemplary in some ways, but the show never bares him out: Jerry always loses and always fails and seems equally miserable, he just has less liscence over it.
In the finale, as Beth and her family stare down Rick, he insists “this is nothing special. This is happening infinite times over infinite realities.” Again (and again and again) Rick is right. But he still, as always, chooses to stay with his family even though they aren’t special. As Harmon says in the above video link: “We have this fleeting chance to participate in this illusion called I love my girlfriend and I love my dog. How is that not better?” Harmon’s word choice isn’t accidental. It’s still an illusion. If, as Rick claims, the reunion is playing out over infinite timelines then his choice to stay isn’t heroic or even unique. Infinite Ricks stuck by their family because they want to buy into the illusion, and an equally infinite number left. But how can you write a show like that?
At the end of the day I am sometimes exhausted by Rick and Morty’s nihilism. Regardless of Harmon’s protests, it wallows in it and relishes it. But it does try to break free, and it’s that tension that makes it interesting. It’s an earnest tension, born out in interviews with the creators who are probably grappling with the same thing: they know nothing matters but they want to believe that something does. Its something the show finally reverses course on in the final two episodes of Season 3. A lot of people thought the show ended this season with an anti-climax, but I’d argue it doesn’t: Season 3’s finale two-parter are about Beth, and how she deals with the bridge between Rick (nothing matters) and Jerry (ignorant bliss), and she gives the best example of what the show looks like when it adheres to its two poles. Beth is smart enough to recognize nothing matters, and she is offered the chance to abandon her family in “The ABCs of Beth”. When, at the end of the episode, she is finally happy I read a lot of fan discussion that insisted it was obvious she chose the clone route. “How would she be happy???” they all clamored. But I didn’t buy it. Getting tricked isn’t our only route to happiness; we find happiness when we begin to assign value to things in a valueless universe. Rick offers Beth the chance to jump ship, but she decides to stay, and I think it’s okay to take him at face value in the finale when he tells her she chose to stay too. At the end of the day, he stays too. She knows she could be a clone, he knows he could ditch, she knows she could have ditched (hell, still can) but they’ve made a choice and that has weight.
I wrote the two halfs of this article about two weeks apart and didn’t realize I had already bashed Inception while I was writing the part making fun of Christopher Nolan fans. I only noticed that through line upon re-reading it. So, you know, my ridicule is at least earnest.