Rick & Morty has changed a lot since it started, thanks to its complicated philosophy, attention to character, and shifting sense of humor.
On its surface, Rick and Morty is a gonzo animated comedy about a mad scientist and the slightly dopey grandson he drags along on his adventures through multiple dimensions. In regard to the show¡¯s earliest episodes, that¡¯s not an unfair description. Much of season 1 is filled with pop culture hot takes, toilet humor, and even a few uncomfortable gags about sex abuse. Right from the off, though, there was something genius bubbling under the surface. Early-adopting fans could see it, and some of the first episodes ¡ª for example, ¡°Lawnmower Dog¡± (season 1, episode 2) and ¡°Meeseeks and Destroy¡± (season 1, episode 5) ¡ª managed to showcase some of the themes and ideas that would make Rick and Morty great.
It was in season 1, episode 6, ¡°Rick Potion #9,¡± that the show found itself. There is a caveat here: the show¡¯s seasons aren¡¯t written in airing order, so there is room for debate on the quality of what comes before and after this episode. What makes it seminal, though, is that it¡¯s the first episode of the show to bring all of Rick and Morty¡¯s signature elements together. It gave the show a core philosophy while developing its characters in unexpected ways. There¡¯s also an astoundingly original twist¡ and plenty of sex jokes.
Nihilism And Its Effects On Rick & Morty¡¯s Characters
Rick Sanchez, the scientist of the show¡¯s title, embodies nihilism. He believes that because the cosmos is endless, filled with infinite realities and inconceivable time, the life of an individual is essentially meaningless. There is no true right or wrong, and self-preservation is the only law. When the show begins, he is the only character in the show¡¯s core family ¡ª his grandson, Morty; granddaughter, Summer; daughter, Beth; and son-in-law, Jerry ¡ª who subscribes to this reality; as a result, Rick does some terrible things to his family, while they, in turn, are all thoroughly caught-up in their mundane suburban lives.
The nihilism in Rick and Morty is key to the show for two reasons. First, it¡¯s contagious. At the end of ¡°Rick Potion #9,¡± Rick and Morty¡¯s version of Earth is overtaken by mutant beings accidentally created by Rick. Rather than fix the world, they are forced to find an alternate reality where they have both died, so that ¡°the original¡± Rick and Morty can seamlessly continue their lives with another version of their family. Not only is that a great twist, it serves as Morty¡¯s first taste of philosophical horror. His life hasn¡¯t been changed in any way, but technically, all the people around him are strangers.
Two episodes later (season 1, episode 8, ¡°Rixty Minutes”), Morty seems to have embraced nihilism. When confessing his true identity to the alternate Summer, he tells her, ¡°Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody¡¯s going to die. Come watch TV.¡± Morty has accepted meaninglessness, although his words say more than that.
Nihilism does spread to other members of the Smith family throughout the show, but there¡¯s a wrinkle. Rick and Morty isn¡¯t simply touting nihilism as the one true philosophy. It¡¯s more interested in commenting on how that belief system affects individuals. In the first scene of the show¡¯s pilot, Rick is belligerently drunk ¡ª and he stays that way through most of the episodes. He¡¯s a suicidal addict who abandoned his daughter for most of her life, and he¡¯s immune to self-reflection because of his nihilism. When Morty says, ¡°Come watch TV,¡± he¡¯s taking a totally different approach. He places value on everyday activities and his relationships precisely because they are the only things that hold meaning.
As the show progresses through its second and third seasons, some contradictions to these ideas do come up. The attention to character development, though, makes Rick and Morty even more interesting.
Rick & Morty Are Not Static Characters
It would be fair to criticize Rick and Morty¡¯s earliest episodes as having one-dimensional characters. Rick is a tortured genius, Morty is a dim-witted teen, and Jerry is an aloof fool. The female characters aren¡¯t much deeper: Beth wants nothing more than her father¡¯s approval, and Summer is a sarcastic drama queen. It¡¯s to the writers¡¯ credit that these shallow traits become much denser as the show goes on, as Beth and Summer become Rick and Morty’s unsung heroes.
There¡¯s some debate as to whether Rick learns or grows as a character. While his philosophy and abrasive exterior don¡¯t change much, spending time with Morty has an effect. In the climax of the season 2 premiere (¡°A Rickle in Time¡±), Rick nearly sacrifices his life to save Morty¡¯s. This sets him apart from any alternate Ricks, who treat their own versions of Morty as expendable.
As Rick grows softer, Morty gets tougher. In season 3, episode 6 (¡°Rest and Ricklaxation¡±), Morty¡¯s worst characteristics are stripped away ¡ª and become a sentient, toxic version of himself. Toxic Morty is almost identical to the one in the show¡¯s early episodes. He is jumpy, neurotic, and subservient. This is vastly different than the Morty who casually and skillfully defuses a neutrino bomb in the same season (season 3, episode 4, ¡°Vindicators 3: The Return of Worldender¡±).
The other family members change, too. Each finds independence in his or her own way ¡ª whether through divorce, resiliency, or pure physical strength. The dynamics of the Smith family are constantly changing in incremental ways, such as Jerry’s redemption arc in season 3.
Rick & Morty Has A Unique Comedic Voice
Rick and Morty doesn¡¯t take itself too seriously. For all its commentary on philosophy, society, and family, it is a genuinely funny show. There is plenty of frat boy, stoner comedy ¡ª though it has wisely steered away from the misogynistic, anti-PC jokes of its early days ¡ª but that isn¡¯t the only audience that can appreciate it. Rick¡¯s blunt one-liners border on shock comedy, Morty¡¯s ill-timed stutters feel improvisational, and Jerry¡¯s incompetence is almost slapstick.
Rick and Morty doesn¡¯t have a signature style because it doesn¡¯t want to. Repeating jokes about nazis in Rick and Morty are undercut with belches and nudity. Sometimes Rick talks directly to the audience in a way that acknowledges he¡¯s nothing more than a cartoon character. The show is fun to watch because it¡¯s constantly changing its approach to comedy. While its fans obsess over the nuance and depth, the show itself is refreshingly uninterested in all that.
Where Will Rick & Morty Go Now
With the recent announcement that Rick and Morty has been renewed through Season 10 (Season 4 is currently on a midseason break), there has been a lot of speculation about what will come next. That is a huge order of episodes, and for a show so irreverent, there is no telling. If the first episodes of Season 4 are any indication, Rick and Morty is ready to embrace its silly side. Its writers feel like they¡¯re teasing the fans who dig into the weeds of its philosophy. This trend of bonkers ¡ª but still clever ¡ª episodes could continue, though it surely can¡¯t sustain six-and-a-half more seasons.
Justin Roiland and co-creator Dan Harmon are smart storytellers, and they know that shows have to change and evolve. Even if they¡¯ve grown bored with all the philosophizing around Rick and Morty, its characters will undoubtedly continue their satisfying arcs. As Rick reluctantly allows himself to get more attached to his relationships, Morty will continue to come of age as a smarter, more capable teenager. The context of that growth could go anywhere; the possibilities of the Rick and Morty universe are inherently limitless. If Roiland and Harmon can keep its characters on the rails, it will remain one of the most exciting shows on television.