Rick and Morty was recommended to me by multiple friends on multiple occasions until finally I gave in and watched it. At first, I described it as “improv episodes of American Dad with Aqua Teen Hunger Force randomness and none of the overbearing personality of Seth McFarlane.” I’ve since revised my position on that, but at first glance that seemed apt. You can also read the wikipedia article with rapt attention, but you’ll find that it’s basically a parody of Back to the Future that grew into something worthwhile. The essential “plot” is that an estranged mad-scientist grandfather, Rick, reunites with his daughter’s family, lives in their house, and goes on wacky trans-dimensional adventures through space and time and reality with his grandson, Morty. A lot of this is just joke-fodder, but there are a few consistent themes in the cartoon that haven’t been touched on very much in any television series, much less an animated comedy.
Before getting too far into it – one of the major conceits of the series is that there are multiple worlds. In a sense, this is the manifestation of a popular level acceptance of Hugh Everett’s “Many Worlds” theory. I’m not particularly smart, but what I understand of it I gathered from a documentary on the man who came up with it. Essentially, this is one way of explaining the discrepancy between quantum mechanics and macro-mechanics. When experiments suggest that quantum particles must exist in more than one place at one time, the Copenhagen Interpretation has been that by observing these particles forces them to resolve into fixed reality – macro-mechanics measured results. The famous Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment was designed to show that if anything larger were made to be dependent on quantum states, it results in something absurd. That is, by tying a poison mechanism to a trigger set off by radioactive particles (i.e. something governed by quantum physics) it results in an unobserved cat being both dead and alive – itself in a quantum superposition. This is explicitly addressed in Rick and Morty Season 2, Episode 1 where the characters find themselves stuck in a state of uncertainty. To resolve this kind of problem, Hugh Everett denied the Copenhagen Interpretation (i.e. quantum states resolve into fixed reality) by claiming that the existence of quantum particles in multiple states at once actually extended into macro-mechanics. This would mean that in his mathematically consistent system, a situation like that of Schrodinger’s cat actually doesn’t resolve into one reality, but branches into multiple real worlds existing simultaneously. This is whence Rick and Morty in Season 1 Episode 6 find that their reality has been effectively reduced to chaos and can simply jettison it for another branched world. That does, of course, mean that in these two episodes (s02e01 and s01e06) there are different interpretations of quantum mechanics in the same fictional world.
What is the consequence of the multiple dimensions? Thematically, it adds to the dimension of scale. There is not only an enormous universe to explore, but that universe itself has infinite dimensions of branching realities. The result is that anything with a mind ought to realize how utterly insignificantly small, short, common, and fragile it is. Furthermore, that very sense of nauseating scale makes existence seem utterly pointless. Not only does the nature of reality make us insignificant and result in a kind of ironic nihilism, but the creatures that inhabit it wherever they seem big or powerful enough to transcend that insignificance results in something more like Lovecraft’s cosmicism.
I wanted to make a short survey of some of the jokes on that subject:
Season 1 Episode 1 (clip)
In the pilot, Rick very early points out in passing that there is no God. Now, depending on what you’re about that may or may not mean nihilism, cosmicism or whatever.
Season 1 Episode 5
“Meseeks are not born into this world fumbling for meaning, Jerry – we are created to serve a singular purpose for which we will go to any lengths to fulfill. Existence is pain to a Meseeks, Jerry – and we will do anything to alleviate that pain.”
Season 1 Episode 6 (clip)
Morty’s parents are fighting about their marriage, and Rick interjects: “Listen Morty, I hate to break it to you, but what people calls ‘love’ is just a chemical reaction that compels animals to breed. It hits hard, Morty, then it slowly fades, leaving you stranded in a failing marriage. I did it. Your parents are gonna do it. Break the cycle, Morty. Rise above. Focus on science.”
Season 1 Episode 8 (clip)
In a scene where Morty is explaining to his sister how they they utterly botched their own world and retreated to replace themselves in another one, he tries to console about her own frustration with feeling unwanted by saying, “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die. …Come watch TV?”
Butter Robot: What is my purpose?
Rick: Pass the butter. [The robot does] Thank you.
Butter Robot: What is my purpose?
Rick: You pass butter.
Butter Robot: [looks at his hands; his shoulders sag] Oh my god.
Rick: Yeah, welcome to the club, pal.
Season 2 Episode 6
Rick’s car battery turns out to be powered by an entire world of sentient creatures. The creatures find a new way to generate power by creating their own
“miniverse” – and inside that another scientist is making a “tinyverse” in an infinite recursion. The scientist in the miniverse begins to unravel the situation saying, “So he made a universe, and that guy is from that universe, and that guy made a universe, and that’s the universe where I was born? Where my father died – where I couldn’t make time for his funeral because I was working on … my universe.” That scientist realizes his purpose, his existence is solely to function as a battery for a slightly larger “miniverse” and promptly commits suicide.
Season 2 Episode 7
“Grandpa, I think that when you put your mind into this body’s young brain, it did what young brains do—it shoved the bad thoughts into the back and put a large wall around them. But those bad thoughts are the real Rick. The fact that you’re old, the fact that we’re all going to die one day, the fact that the universe is so big, nothing in it matters—those facts are who you are!”
I’m sure there’s other examples of this, but that’s a few prominent ones just to establish the theme. The next part will deal with how Rick copes with his perception of reality, and offer some responses or alternatives to that view.