Rick and Morty is arguably one of the best adult cartoon shows on air right now. Each episode blends the philosophical depth of Black Mirror, the futuristic themes of Futurama and the comments about the real world of South Park. Rick and Morty is the story of the mad scientist Rick Sanchez and his slow-learning grandson Morty Smith. Thanks to an inter-dimensional portal gun, the pair live crazy adventures, often accompanied by some more reluctant members of the Sanchez family.
This article intends to look at Rick and Morty’s political leanings and the ideas that are explored throughout the show. After all, the show’s popularity is partly due to the underlying political commentary it provides.
Season 1, episode 2: Lawnmower Dog
Rick, in a moment of clairvoyant brilliance (and to get Jerry off his back) decided to make the family dog Snuffles smarter. Unintentionally, Snuffles was capable of powering the device to become more cognizant than Rick intended.
Snuffles is initially treated in an equivalent fashion to the average owner exercising their rights to dictate their pet’s actions. Once the tables have turned, however, Snuffles becomes conscious of this state of affairs and questions the status quo. This train of thought leads him to consider why he shouldn't treat humans as they had been treating him. For those who are in any way partial to CGI monkeys, you could quite easily draw parallel between Snuffles’ episode of self-awareness and the Planet of Apes’ Caesar during his insurrection against the humans.
As more ethicists come around to the ethically problematic stance of keeping pets, this episode seems to address the moral hazard of exerting such explicit dominance over one’s own pets with light comedic relief (Snuffles’ self-awareness is piqued as he ponders the location of his missing testicles, resorting to question Morty’s sister on their whereabouts). The episode is befitting of political attention for asking questions about whether we are suitably poised to define the divide between consideration of animals as persons, objects or something in between. The episode of compos mentis leads Snuffles to declare himself ‘Snowball’ – rather than the name bestowed to him by his slave-owners resonates as more human in action than we would feel comfortable admitting. This raises the further dilemma of whether intellect alone determines personhood or “possessionhood”. Were all animals capable of expressing their desires by the lingua franca English, would we all turn vegan overnight?
Season 2, episode 5: Get Schwifty
A giant alien head visits earth and demands the humans to "show [me] what you got". The magnitude of the alien’s head, naturally, disrupts gravity on Earth and ushers in an apocalypse. Known only to Rick, Morty, and the US government, the giant head is, in fact, expecting humans to show it their best musical talent.
Rick and Morty swiftly proceed to write a song, and the giant head proceeds to enroll Earth into an inter-planetary song competition. With the chaos of the interplanetary X-factor going unnoticed by the majority of Earth’s population, a religious cult forms around the Head and gains traction on earth. The movement goes as far as forming its own rudimentary judicial processing, consisting of tying misbehaving individuals to balloons and releasing them up to the mercy of the floating head – ‘Up!’ style.
The religious cult is based on the humans’ interpretations of the Head’s actions and emotions. When the head was displeased by the musical performance, the cult mistakes causation for correlation that the Head is displeased because of their own actions. What appears to be a simple mistaken causation/correlation, is instead a deeper criticism of religious belief structures and their (re)formation in US society today.
What appears to be a simple mistake, is instead a deeper criticism of religious belief structures and their (re)formation in US society today.
The first reflex of many people after the head visits Earth is to go to church to pray. Beth, Morty's mother, questions those praying on their reasons for going to church, with Morty's math teacher sniping back: "Ma’am, a giant head in the sky is controlling the weather. Did you wanna play checkers? Let’s be rational! I’ll see you at God’s house! "
It seems to some people that because an event is beyond their comprehension, the only "rational" thing to do is to pray. This is a metaphor for the "raison d'être" of religions – the giving of a simple answer and meaning to complex ideas or events, such as apparitions, works of God or the meaning of life. Cults offer the answer to this ingrained human need, and in turn are offered authority for their wisdoms. Large cult followings who believe in creationism "rationalise" scientific progression to suit their Christian-creationist perspective. Arguing in favour of these views, then, presents difficulties to overcome. However, the overall development of their defense makes sense. As soon as one can accept the premise that everything on earth was created that way already by God only 6000 years ago, we are able to “rationally” deny any other information that may be given to us.
While the holding of extreme religious belief may not be intrinsically bad, religious views are a complicated view to hold when governing a large number of people. How do we account for science and belief in the political system when people could have conflicting views over the most rational and truthful world-view to hold? Take multicultural English society, with significantly higher proportions of Islam and Sikhs within the population. To enforce one doctrine through the medium of political economy needs little further elaboration.
Rick and Morty does not shy away from incorporating such societally pressing dilemmas in its scripts. Another one is seen in the following dialogue:
Journalist: “The view here is the same as yours, Jim. A giant head has entered Earth’s gravity, triggering climate change and natural disasters we thought were impossible for at least another eight years.”
News Anchor: Let’s not make this political, Terry. Do we know what this giant head wants?”
Given the context in the USA, this dialogue can be compared to some socio-political debates, the most recent of which is the conversation surrounding gun control. By declining to talk about climate change, the anchor man shows some kind of intrinsic resistance to its very discussion as a valid theme - not because he is irrational, but because his world view assumes that climate change is either not real or simply not pressing enough to be paid lip-service at present.
Oftentimes, the rational outcome is problematic for those deontologists among us, yet highly desirable for the consequentialist audience. A moral dilemma that harkens up instances of pushing an obese individual into the path of an oncoming train to derail it before it hits a group of 5 others. As Nietzsche would phrased it: "It's not the doubt that makes people crazy, it's the certitude."
Season 3, episode 7: The Ricklantis Mixup
This episode broaches the question of time travel, warping the space-time continuum by fracturing the single universal strand into many smaller offshoots. Although not exclusively political by nature, we may observe the inequalities that arise with different political agendas these multi-dimensional realities allow. We are exposed to The Citadel that houses all the many nuanced versions of Rick and Morty. This presents us with the Butterfly Effect, a concept which predicts large consequences from small causes – for example, a butterfly flapping its wings on one part of the world might cause a typhoon on the other side of the world. The ramifications from our actions have the capacity to fundamentally alter the fabric of time. Tinkering with it even slightly, and no matter how good the intentions, may ultimately splinter into worse outcomes than non-intervention may have eventually become.
A version of Rick we follow has adopted a more simplistic life, baking "Simple Rick's" cookies. The catch for this Rick means he is attached to a virtual reality technology that forces him to relive his best memories. The chemicals of serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin were produced and siphoned into the cookies to enhance the flavour.
The protagonist Factory Rick, unable to cope with the guilt of subjecting Simple Rick to such imprisonment, rebels against the system, killing the boss and Simple Rick. Our Rick becomes alienated in rebelling. Despite dissenting against the authority of the status quo in decisive fashion, he ultimately still takes part in the system he wishes to oppose by remaining in work. The company management finally lobotomises him, and places him in the old role of Simple Rick so the consumers may sample the delights of ‘Freedom Rick’s’ cookies. An irony of being subject to the very role he tried to relieve another from.
Parallels may be drawn with another television series, Black Mirror, where in the first season (episode 3) the protagonist’s attempted escape from the system reinforces the environment around him. This phenomenon is known as co-optation. Co-optation happens when the system absorbs what once was outside of it. A simple example is the anti-slavery activist Harriet Tubman’s replacement of Jackson on the $20 bill. Even if Tubman opposed capitalism and fought the system, she is now a symbol that serves the system and makes it more inclusive. Conclusively, in absorbing its outliers and anomalous elements, the political encompassment and manipulation of the system tightens, making it harder for anybody to see past the cloak and daggers, let alone escape from its clutches.
The commentary indicates that total revolution is all but impossible. What may seem like an escape from the old system is a reinforcement of it, absorbed in closing those loopholes that allowed it to be undermined originally. The original power structures and authorities remain in power or ascend up the ladder – often hardliners that were unable to make it centre-stage before because of their extremist agendas. An analogy of this predicament on the smaller scale is buying vegan in order to feel good. This action leaves the impression you have participated actively in changing the social paradigm, whilst you are still, in fact, participating in global capitalist exchange, aiding the system, rather than opposing it outright by growing vegetables and becoming a self-sufficient individual.
The Arab Spring revolution is a further analogy of this phenomenon. What started as a revolution that could bring change to the whole region was rapidly co-opted by the international system into containment. Radical change of the regime failed to precipitate because of an international oversight that demanded swift and smooth transition to democratic rule. This is akin to teaching a puppy to pee outdoors without offering guidance and training. A society of people ruled under totalitarian authority, never left to their own devices, are suddenly made the ‘masters of their own destinies’. For them to decide their countries’ futures was never going to end well given the human precedent for greed, ambition and the co-optation of incumbent regime cronies.
Understanding subliminal messages embedded in the sub-context of many easy-watch shows may nurture an entirely different outlook toward comprehending the world. The political sphere, it seems, extends even to Rick and Morty. TMM