American Pop Culture’s Nihilist Movement

Life has no inherent meaning. Free will is an illusion dominated by biochemical interactions. Your accomplishments will wither. Your name will fade. We’re all going to die.

To anyone that has had an existential crisis, these thoughts could be all too familiar. Staring into the void of answering, “What is the meaning of life?” with a simple “Nothing” invites terror into the soul. The utter randomness and absurdity of life flies in the face of anyone who believes he or she has a semblance of a control. This black hole of nothingness can eat away at the mind and has driven many to depression, to alcoholism, and to lack of the will to continue.

Philosophers, authors, religious leaders, and many more have all tried to solve the age-old mystery of “What’s the point?” and “Why continue?”, though none have ever reached a true consensus. For those mired in despair, a new voice has arisen to bring clarity. One of the most mature answers to concepts of existentialism, nihilism, and absurdism has come, not in the form of a dense philosophical text, but popular adult animated show, Rick and Morty.

The show’s main characters, Rick and Morty, who closely resemble Doc Brown and Marty McFly, are a grandfather-grandson duo that travel the interdimensional cosmos in pursuit of adventure, science, and trying to fix whatever mistake they probably just made. Supporting characters include Morty’s older sister, Summer, facing the unique challenges only present in the life of a teenage girl, and Morty’s parents, Beth and Jerry, whose dysfunctional dynamic pervades every interaction of their somehow lasting marriage.

While the show could have been merely a pure comedy about wacky space adventures, Rick and Morty instead sets the gold standard for nihilist entertainment. Through humor and a childish animation style, the show eases viewers into a worldview that, under normal circumstances, would be too horrifying to ever interact with. The show’s immaturity masks its true intelligence, thereby making existentialist views more palatable to resistant audiences.

Take, for example, Rick’s creation of the butter bot in “Something Ricked This Way Comes.” While having a “normal” family meal, Rick tinkers with and eventually builds a functioning robot. Upon turning it on, the robot asks “What is my purpose?” and Rick answers by telling the robot to pass the butter. The robot completes his task, once again asking, “What is my purpose?” Rick responds with the only answer he can give — “You pass butter.” Rather than accepting his fate, the robot looks into his hands and remarks “Oh my god.” Rick’s snarky response is “Welcome to the club, pal.”

Though primarily a humorous interaction, the robot’s immediate existential despair captures the despair felt by many who feel stuck with whatever lot in life they’ve been given. Faced with the prospect of working a thankless job for the rest of one’s life to return one’s debt to society, only able to regain some modicum of freedom once one is too old and weak to truly enjoy it, what else can one do but look into one’s hands and cry to the heavens? Our laughter at this scene is laughter motivated by understanding. The idea of purpose becomes less tasteful when purpose is not something we desire.

Rick and Morty does not wish to simply target mere existence, however. No concept of humanity is safe. Take morality, for instance. In “Mortynight Run,” Morty risks his own life to save a sentient space cloud (dubbed “Fart”) from his captivity by the intergalactic government and their police forces. Rick and Morty are chased across space, leaving death and destruction in their wake as they try to avoid capture and return Fart home. The death toll of their adventure could easily be estimated in the hundreds. Upon being returned to his portal home, Fart reveals that he will soon return with the rest of his kind to exterminate the corrupt human race. Rather than allow this to happen, Morty betrays Fart and blasts him with antimatter, eradicating him from existence.

Conventional morality would applaud Morty for risking his life to save another. However, viewing events with an objective eye, Morty only served to cause death. The idea of the grand cosmic scheme not rewarding seemingly good deeds is terrifying. Why do good if we will not be rewarded but could actually make things worse? Rick and Morty doesn’t provide an answer; it merely presents the idea of morality not being as concrete as we think to the audience, leaving them to chew on the true justifications of their actions.

Another favorite target of the show is the idea of romance. In “Rick Potion #9,” Rick’s advice to Morty on dealing with his crush is that “what people call ‘love’ is just a chemical reaction that compels animals to breed. It hits hard…then it slowly fades leaving you stranded in a failing marriage.” In addition, the ever present sub-plot surrounding Beth and Jerry’s marriage constantly causes the audience to question why they’re even together in the first place. The show even explores what love is for Rick when he allows himself to give romance another shot in “Auto Erotic Assimilation.” The result is that he is driven to near suicide because of the hive-minded alien he loves. To those that hold the idea of romantic love as one of life’s sweetest treasures, Rick and Morty pulls no punches.

To many, religion serves as a panacea and solution to existential issues. Rick and Morty doesn’t agree. Within seconds of the first family meal in the show’s pilot, Rick scolds Summer that “there is no god…gotta rip that band-aid off now, you’ll thank me later.” From its introduction, the show does not cater to the assumption that a divine presence is responsible for giving life meaning or purpose. The idea is further mocked in later episodes; in “Rick Potion #9,” Jerry saves Beth’s life from mutated monsters, to which she responds “Oh thank God!” Jerry responds with “God? God’s turning people into insect monsters, Beth. I’m the one beating them to death. Thank me.” Though said for comedic effect, this symbolic promotion of humanist ideals underlies the show’s dismissal of divine providence. Indeed, Rick immediately follows the success of his only prayer in the show with “Fuck you God! Not today, bitch! Yes, I did it! There is no god!”

The show holds nothing sacred. By mocking and abusing pretty much everything that humans hold dear, Rick and Morty leaves the audience left only with themselves to rely on. With each destruction of traditional human ideals, the show presents another “Now what?” to what the audience should cling to in order to find an excuse to keep living.

So far, it would seem that Rick and Morty exists only to drive humanity into despair and laugh at its pain. The beauty of the show, however, is that it strives to do the exact opposite. By leaving humanity with nothing, it sets the stage for the show to give worth to mere existence.

One of the show’s most memorable scenes occurs in “Rixty Minutes.” Though most of the episode is spent watching improvisational interdimensional commercials on TV, events taking place on the side surrounding the circumstances of Summer’s birth prompt her to attempt to run away. Summer, upon discovering that she was an accident, feels like a burden on the family and wishes to uproot life as she knows it. Morty, after a diatribe given about having to bury his own corpse in a previous episode as evidence of life’s absurdity, gives her the only advice he can give — “Don’t run. Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s going to die. Come watch TV.”

For the rest of the episode, that blasé acceptance and simple answer are enough. Existential issues don’t always have to be met with fear but can be embraced as the way life is.

This quintessentially pure and simple answer is not the only one the show provides. Despite Rick and Morty’s cynicism to the concepts of family and love, the show does provide many scenes of sentimentality. Rick, normally cynical and uncaring, risks his life multiple times to save his grandson, at one point almost dying in his place. Despite Jerry and Beth’s failing marriage, the source and reason behind their love for each other becomes reinforced during multiple events, and even in an alternate universe where they both pursued their lives independently still ends with their reunion and a rekindling of their love. Moments like this are used by the show to construct an understanding about the inevitability of some of the experiences we have.  Furthermore, through these scenes, Rick and Morty seeks to prove that common solutions to existentialism are not always perfect, but there is some truth behind their worth.

Rick and Morty’s various settings are also perfect for communication of existential ideas. Space travel has always been a fitting setting for confronting ideas of existentialism. Shows such as Cowboy Bebop and Futurama use space to convey vastness and illustrating how small and insignificant the human race really is. Rick and Morty adds another twist by introducing alternate dimensions, showing that events don’t always happen by some concept of predetermination but almost always by chance, and infinitely many possibilities could have happened instead. Things aren’t the way they are because they’re supposed to be that way; they simply just are.

One of the show’s most successful tools in promoting these ideals, however, is its humor. Though some of the quotes above sound grave, Justin Roiland’s delivery of the lines and the show’s absurd situations make almost all of them hilarious. The show itself is one of the funniest of this decade if not all of television, and has attracted a wide following. The show’s absurd nature directly parallels the idea of absurdism. In philosopher Albert Camus’s work The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus responds to the idea of inherent meaninglessness with rebellion, seeking to find joy in the absurdity of life through individualism. His book concludes with the idea that Sisyphus, forced to always try to roll a stone up a hill but never succeeding, is happy.

The show’s humor is a perfect vehicle to communicate nihilism as a possibility of life to audience members that would normally retch at the idea of meaninglessness. However, the show’s irreverence does not prevent it from taking the issue lightly. Rick’s intelligence and cynicism, promoting his nihilistic and absurdist viewpoints, drives him to alcoholism and instances of deep depression. The horrors of the empty void, though mocked, are by no means taken lightly. Rather, the normalcy with which the show presents them promotes the idea that they really can be accepted and not fled from.

Rick and Morty spearheads a recent larger trend of comedic adult animation tackling complex emotional and philosophical issues. BoJack Horseman, for example, presents arguably the best portrayal of depression to ever grace television, and it’s a show about talking animal-people in Hollywood. As discussed in a previous AMP article, Archer presents one of the best TV examples of autism. And The Venture Bros., despite its ridiculous nature, capitalizes on the idea of regret and potential.

Animation’s detachment from reality makes it the ideal way to discuss reality. Terrifying implications of life can be met head on without the despair that normally accompanies them due to interspaced laughter and ridiculous situations. And Rick and Morty is a true champion of this idea.

In a godless, meaningless, thankless world, the search for why can drive one mad. Rather, Rick and Morty looks at the absurdity of the world and laughs, inviting us to laugh with it. With existential philosophy on the rise, this may be our best bet yet for nurturing our injured souls.

One thought on “American Pop Culture’s Nihilist Movement

  1. The show is quite possibly the funniest on television (second only to South Park in terms of wit and indiscriminate mockery). You say, “So far, it would seem that Rick and Morty exists only to drive humanity into despair and laugh at its pain.” I think you’ve got it backwards: humanity throws itself into despair, while literature and other forms of entertainment help us reflect on our actions in order to find some light in this dark world. Science is our best example of finding such kinds of light – it is a fire in a world full of darkness. Therefore, Rick and Morty, as a satire, helps to show us through the imagination of its writers that although we appear very insignificant in the grand scheme of the cosmos science as a pursuit (the best method we have for it) of knowledge and understanding is a source of meaning in life.

    Also, I know the purpose of life. The purpose of life is to hydrogenate carbon dioxide, and to expel methane.
    Can’t wait for the 3rd season!

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