“Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s gonna die.” So, in one episode of Rick and Morty, says the fourteen-year-old Morty Smith, one of the show’s titular co-protagonists. With the other, a mad scientist by the name of Rick Sanchez, who also happens to be Morty’s grandfather, he constitutes the animated team that has entertained thousands and thousands of viewers — and made insatiable fans of seemingly all of them — over the past four years. To those few who haven’t yet seen the show, it may just look like a silly cartoon, but the true fans understand that underneath all of the memorable gags and quotable lines lies an unusual philosophical depth.
“The human desire to fulfill some special existential purpose has existed throughout history,” says video essayist Will Schoder in his analysis of the philosophy of Rick and Morty. But the titular duo’s adventures through all possible realities of the “multiverse” ensure that they experience firsthand the utter meaninglessness of each individual reality.
When Morty breaks that bleak-sounding news to his sister Summer with the now oft-quoted line above, he actually delivers a “comforting message”: once you confront the randomness of the universe, as Rick and Morty constantly do, “the only option is to find importance in the stuff right in front of you,” and their adventures show that “friends, family, and doing what we enjoy are far more important than any unsolvable questions about existence.”
Schoder, also the author of a video essay on Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon’s mythological storytelling technique as well as one we’ve previously featured about David Foster Wallace’s critique of postmodernism, makes the clear philosophical connection to Albert Camus. The philosopher and author of The Stranger wrote and thought a great deal about the “contradiction between humans’ desire to find meaning in life and the meaninglessness of the universe,” and the absurdity that results, a notion the cartoon has dramatized over and over again, with an ever-heightening absurdity. We must, like Sisyphus eternally pushing his rock uphill, recognize the true nature of our situation yet defiantly continue “to explore and search for meaning.” Morty, as any fan well knows, offers Summer another solution to her despair: “Come watch TV.”
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.