A Cartoon to Ease Your Existential Dread

I first realized how good we are at pushing away the insignificance of our existence while creating a PowerPoint at 2:30 a.m. in a second-floor office in New York City with my colleague. I paused and mentioned to her then: “Is this what you want to be doing?” hinting, vaguely, at some grand philosophical questions. In a delirium of coffees and Turkish food and half a day of screen time, she smiled at me — and turned back to her computer. Why are you thinking about this stuff? her face had conveyed.

But I do think about it. When I zoom out, lifting my attention away from that project I’m completing, or that person I’m entertaining, or that thing I’m supposed to be doing, my mind, like yours, I’m sure, begins to wander. Cliché questions surface. Longings to know which have probably scrawled their queries through the minds of our species appear. And, along with it all is a sheer awe at being alive — at being cognizant.

Dealing with these feelings is not easy. My thoughts flip between an astonishment at life in its exponential possibilities and a consternation about the insignificance of our existence. As Carl Sagan famously once said of the kaleidoscope of human experience and our history; it all occurs “on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Lately, though, entertaining these questions has become a lot more fun. Thanks to Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland’s Rick and Morty. The TV show, a wildly successful hit which sits on 100% at RottenTomatoes.com, subtly contemplates many of these themes. On its surface it is a light, pop-culture oriented, sci-fi flavored comedy about the adventures of Rick Sanchez, an alcoholic constantly-burping scientist who careens around the universe and multi-verses with his timid grandson, Morty Smith, in tow. It is filled with an amalgamation of wacky, outlandish characters along with Morty’s parents, Beth and Jerry, and his sister, Summer. But watch an episode in a shroud of existential dread and Rick and Morty suddenly becomes not a slapstick cartoon but the tale of characters struggling with their quests for meaning.

The main cast, each with their peculiar ticks and tendencies, are, to an extent, commentary on the human condition. And in this regard, Rick is my favorite. He is consumed with nihilism. He is so aware of the banality of his existence, so understanding of the pointlessness of it all, that his beliefs often manifest themselves in an utter disregard and contempt for anyone he deems unworthy — which is nearly everyone.

As Clay Routledge, a professor of psychology who researches how human beings cope with existential questions on death and meaning notes about what we do when facing our insignificance and the burden of our short existence:

“We seek transcendent meaning. We look to religion for guidance about the purpose of life and the possibility of death-transcendence. We seek the security and comfort of close social bonds, which are already important for our survival. We pursue genetic continuity by having children. We attach ourselves to social and cultural structures that make us feel like we are part of something larger and longer lasting than our brief mortal lives. We make personal contributions to science, technology, the arts, and civic life. These efforts help us survive and thrive, but they also make us feel meaningful. We hope to not be forgotten, to live on in the memories of others.”

Yet consider how Rick tries to cope with his life. It is the opposite of what Routledge tells us: he’s not religious (he tells Summer in the pilot: “There is no God, Summer, gotta rip that band-aid off now you’ll thank me later.”); he has no need for social bonds; he abandoned his genetic continuity (Beth, his daughter) for decades before finally returning; and he sees no need for social or cultural structures or their ideas. His personal contributions to science are just that — personal. They fuel his own wants and needs.

He is so conscious about the triviality of his existence that he behaves antithetically to how regular people usually might. Many a times Morty is duped into an “adventure” by Rick with supposedly moral goals only to realize that their outing had been something highly personal to Rick. Off to save a dying colony? No, more likely that Rick needed his next dose of space drugs. Think you’re on an adventure to fix the power supply to Rick’s workshop? Yes, but when you’ve shrunk down to the atomic level you find that Rick has created an entire world whose inhabitants he enslaves to create his electricity. In Rick we see a character who has come to terms with the absurdity of his existence, cast aside any questions of conventionality — and has elected to use it for a vice ridden life.

Rick’s story, however, is not so simple. Below a few layers, his mind is set in a constant state of struggle, dulled by the flask he keeps in his lab coat, while he attempts to stem the urges (the ones that Routledge mentions) which are spurred on by virtue of him being human. The crux of his character vacillates between two mindsets. He is hyper-aware of the insignificance of his life in the grand scheme. He feels too smart not to know this. But a battle is ongoing in his mind in trying to repress the feelings that maybe some of his family does matter, that perhaps his friends do mean something to him, that maybe he should try to open himself to others. Though the series is filled with many pop-culture references, jokes, and gags, Rick’s internal conflict is what draws me in — and what makes this series fascinating. I once took a screenwriting class where the instructor (complete with David Lynch styled hair) pounded it into us that it is conflict which drives a scene. Well, every moment with Rick on screen exudes struggle — only that his is the existential kind. Watching him wrangle these two competing forces, those of his nihilism versus his repressed urge to care, is as entertaining as it is alluring.

smith family.jpg
From left to right: Rick, Summer, Jerry, Morty, and Beth.

Beth, Jerry, and Summer, however, hold totally different world views. They are caught up in the everyday occurrences of their lives — focused on the micro-level interactions, concerned about who might think what of whom. Morty’s father, Jerry, is a representation of Routledge’s statements taken to parody. Unable to see the shallowness of life, his frustrations lie in Rick coming home to ruin his familial situation and the loss of his job. Beth is much the same — dealing with an incompetent husband, a uninspired career, and her unstable relationship with her father. Summer is in conflict with similar issues; Morty, amongst other things, is obsessed with a girl.

These two contrasting mindsets — that of Rick’s versus those of his family — constitute a key dynamic of why I find the show so attractive. The magnetism of Rick and Morty is that we are given a window through which to view our own lives. Let me explain: we laugh at Jerry’s obsession with finding work in the advertising field and reclaiming his mantle as man of the house; we pity Beth’s passive aggressive hate towards her husband, profession, and her sometimes lackluster affection towards her children; we smirk at Summer’s obsession with attaining popularity; and we humor Morty, hopelessly lost most of the time, furtive and unsure, willing for meaning in every interaction with Rick. Yet, when we switch off our TVs or turn off our computers to return to our own lives, commute to work, engage in a social interaction, take care of that chore or problem, how different are we from them? We all struggle, to a degree, with the collection of issues the main characters possess.

And in this way Rick operates as a contrast to highlight our own struggles with everyday banalities. His prescense in the Rick and Morty universe helps us to coalesce the existential questions we might hold in the shadows of our minds. There is a hidden Rick inside all of us, screaming: “What’s the point of it all? Should I really be doing this! Is it better not to give a fuck?” Because Rick serves as the contradiction to his family’s worldly concerns; when he waves them off with a swig of his flask or dismisses their stupidity for worrying about inconsequential things, we begin to see the vapidity of our own concerns. As Rick would probably argue, what does it all matter in the end?

But this is the great part: even Rick succumbs to his humanity. The feelings he tries so hard to keep repressed occasionally leak out. In season 2, episode 3 Rick and Morty encounter an uni-mind-world-conquering entity named Unity who’s had a romantic past with Rick. After a rekindling of the relationship — one that falls apart — we’re greeted by a scene that shows us that perhaps Rick isn’t an unthinking, unfeeling automaton — no matter how hard he tries to be.

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Rick before his suicide attempt

Rigging up one of his contraptions, he attempts to annihilate his brain. It’s one of the most memorable scenes for me from the entire series. Not because of Chaos Chaos’ great track which follows, but because we are able to see that although Rick may try his hardest to be a cold, calculating, egomaniacal jack-ass, on the inside he competes with his emotions just like we do. Even though he sprinkles Morty with sage advice such as “It’s your choice to take this personally,” or “What people call ‘love’ is just a chemical reaction that compels animals to breed,” Rick is just as vulnerable to these chemical reactions as we are. He is a man aware of human nature and one attempting to escape it — but is still bogged down by it.

This struggle of competing paradigms — that of his nihilistic worldview versus his buried urge to care and seek connection in relationships — is at the essence of Rick’s character. Take for example when a character named Birdperson translates Rick’s oft used catch-phrase of “Wubba Lubba Dub Dub” for Morty in season 1, episode 11. Birdperson tells Morty of Rick’s frequent repetition:

“In my people’s tongue, it means, ‘I am in great pain. Please help me.'”

When Morty, who has become generally cynical of his grandfather’s motives offers a rebuttal, Birdperson, one of the only people Rick is willing to let into his inner circle objects with:

“No, Morty. Your grandfather is, indeed, in very deep pain. That is why he must numb himself.”

Or when a season later at Birdperson’s wedding Rick says in a supremely drunken stupor to the collected crowd:

“To friendship… to love, and to my greatest adventure yet… opening myself up to people!”

In spite of his efforts, Rick can and does succumb to his basic instincts. Beneath the outer veneer of an inconsiderate, cranky, selfish old man (things which Ricky undoubtedly is) is an individual fighting to keep his humanity and his search for meaning and connection at bay.

Till now, I have painted a fairly sordid picture of the series and its philosophy. It might be seen that I am making the case for a nihilistic worldview by using Rick and Morty as a stepping stone. That if we are fated to an inconsequential life then what is the point of caring? To cut a Christopher Hitchens’ quote in half,

“You’re expelled from your mother’s uterus as if shot from a cannon, towards a barn door studded with old nail files and rusty hooks.”

But that is not the core message of Rick and Morty! Thus far, I have refrained from commenting on Morty though he’s a main protagonist. That’s because I think his character arc is vital to understanding the motifs of the show and can only be appreciated in divergence to Rick’s. From a bumbling, naive fool at the moment of introduction, Morty transforms himself into a hardened cynic. After two seasons spent traveling with Rick and experiencing the sheer vastness of the universe and multi-verses, there’s evidence that Morty has been internalizing Rick’s mindset and attitudes to some degree. For example, Morty tells his sister Summer in the episode “Rixty Minutes” after her fight with their parents:

“Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die… come watch TV.”

This is not a bleak surrender to inevitability and a charge towards nihilism from Morty. It is rather a mature acceptance of his circumstances.

To give the other half of the Hitchens’ quote I used above:

“It’s a matter of how you use up the intervening time [between being shot out of your mother’s womb and the door studded with old nail files and rusty hooks] in an intelligent and ironic way.”

Morty, like Rick, by the end of two seasons, knows and is aware of his insignificance in the grand scale of the multi-verses. He even knows that there are infinite versions of himself and his family — versions he’s experienced thanks to tagging along for Rick’s antics. But unlike Rick, Morty has resolved to handle the existential questions this awareness draws quite differently. For him, accepting our immateriality does not mean that one must accept nihilism, push everyone away, or seek a radical freedom and behave in ways that eschew all convention. In an absurd and brutal life, Morty is aware that all you can really do is find joy in the simple things.

In this way Rick is the far more sensitive character than Morty. While Morty, it seems, has managed to cope with the knowledge of his irrelevance in a healthier manner, Rick is fixated on the meaninglessness of his existence. It serves as the fundamental filter to the majority of his actions.

Hence Rick and Morty features two titular characters handling the search for meaning and coping with their sense of personal insignificance in totally different ways. And though Morty is the newcomer, he fairs far better than Rick. Thus the show, a sci-fi and horror nerd’s paradise — with easter eggs galore — does not limit its appeal to a small niche. Don’t like the cult-classic movie references? Stay for the jokes. Don’t enjoy the sometimes crude humor? Stay for the witty commentary on existential crises. Being versed in sci-fi lore is not a prerequisite for enjoying this show. While I might be stretching to say that Rick and Morty cures existential dread, I don’t doubt that it alleviates it. It helps us to laugh and reflect — and to know that there are others out there who think like us. That there are others who entertain the same existential questions that we do. There has to be, the show is so popular. Or maybe more people love sci-fi gags than I am aware of.


  1. Philip Steele says:

    The best R&M trailer ever: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ornXZGEFcds

  2. KD33 says:

    Philip – oh my god, I should not have watched that so early in the day!

  3. Anonymous says:

    “one of his contractions” – contraptions*

    Otherwise, wonderful insight into one of the most culturally relevant pieces ever crafted in this day and age.

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