Butter Robots, Szechuan Sauce And ‘Roy’: The Philosophy Of ‘Rick And Morty’

(Spoilers for Rick And Morty ahead, squanchers).

With all the talk about the golden age of television, people often forget the golden age we are actually in: The golden age of cartoons. Adult cartoons that is. The likes of The Simpsons,Family Guy, and Futurama have broken ground in the mega popular sphere in the last couple of decades, Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Ugly Americans are breaking through with the help of the internet in more cult spheres.

We now have adult cartoons that just offer crazy amounts of fun, like Archer or Bob’s Burgers, following the evolution of South Park from fart jokes to the most on-point cultural and political satire, now we are gifted with horrendous examinations of the current human condition (using animals) on Bojack Horseman, deep moments in a kid’s cartoon with Adventure Time and finally science fiction and philosophy in Rick And Morty.

There’s no denying that Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon’s genius  cartoon  is deep. If you’ve seen the show you’ve no doubt come to that realisation already, probably very quickly. Season 3 is just around the corner so let’s have a look at some of the philosophical concepts in Rick and Morty,squanchers.


Nihilism is, in its simplest terms, the belief that life has no meaning and that there is none to be found. This Nietzschean focus is pretty consistent with a number of the characters, but none better than this little butter-fetching guy above. Rick makes a robot, for some reason bestows it with intelligence and self-awareness and then gives it the one function of passing him butter. Later on the sad little robot lets Rick know that he “is not programmed for friendship” when Rick tries to watch a movie with the clever little guy.

Most of us yearn for a purpose that somehow exceeds our basic functions, so meaning alone doesn’t carry enough weight for an intelligent existence. Here, without Rick (God) having assigned the robot meaning that carries something sublime, the poor slave-bot is left only with his tiny purpose and a level of intelligence and emotion that allows him to lament it. Sound familiar?


The shows often swings between nihilism, existentialism, and absurdism, so here’s a quick (and super reductive) explanation of some key differences between the concepts: An existentialist will look to make their own meaning of life; a nihilist will simply accept that there is no meaning; and an absurdist will overcome the fact that there is no meaning in life by embracing the absurd relationship between the human mind and the rest of the Universe.

‘The Absurd’ refers to the dissonance between the human need to seek value in life, and the constant feeling that none is ever found. If we come to understand that there is no intrinsic meaning in life, then we can suggest three possible answers to this problem:

1. Existentialism – To attempt to find meaning through religion, love, nature etc. Or perhaps even your grandkids.

2. Nihilism – Suicide. Rick appears to try this on one occasion (Auto Erotic Assimilation), and seemingly turns to God at a time when he really does think he is going to die (A Rickle in Time).

3. Absurdism – To rebel and embrace the absurdity of life. To become an absurd hero.

The guys over at Wisecrack recently made a video about absurdism and Rick’s love affair with Szechuan sauce. At the end of season two there’s a touching moment when Rick hands himself into the authorities so his family can head back to earth in peace, rather than life on a strange tiny planet, or a planet where everything is on a cob. This sacrifice and genuine emotion is replaced at the beginning of season three (big spoilers for The Rickshank Rickdemption ahead) with Rick’s quest for Szechuan sauce: a dipping sauce McDonald’s released to promote Disney’s Mulan in the nineties. Rick also dangles an emotional origin story in front of our eyes and then snatches it away, almost laughing at us for daring to care.

From the excellent Jared at Wisecrack: “It’s not just that Rick and Morty evades meaning, the writers seem to get a perverse joy in playing with our desire to search for hope and meaning. As if Camus was making his point in the style of an internet troll.”

Another time, after Rick and Morty’s planet has been destroyed (by none other than Rick and Morty, of course) Rick finds them a new planet in the multiverse. Rick chooses a planet where that Earth’s Rick and Morty happen to just have died from a science experiment gone wrong, so this Rick and Morty can take their place. They both have to then bury their own dead bodies, in the garden. When Summer has had a bad day (she found out that she was nearly aborted), Morty tells her this story and vocalises the meaningless of life.

This speech, captured in the above GIF, perfectly encapsulates absurdism. There is no point to anything, there is no reason for anyone being here, we’re all going to die. So lets embrace the meaninglessness of life. And watch TV, of course.

Free Will

Badass Jerry [credit: Adult Swim]

Free will is one of the most contentious debates in philosophy and has been for centuries. It can also be very hard to discuss or think about because of the knee jerk reaction it can provoke; everybody reacts with indignation if some smug bird-person tries to tell them they don’t have control over their actions because everything they’ll ever do is pre-determined by external and internal factors.

In Rick And Morty the multiverse means that there are nearly infinite versions of Rick, Morty, every other character, as well as infinite crazy versions of Earth — check out Rixty Minutes, where the fam spend most of the episode watching inter-dimensional cable. Rick installs the inter-dimensional cable box so the family can watch all the incredible things that are going on throughout the multiverse. Jerry becomes obsessed when he spots a movie star version of himself — famous and being badass, very unlike the pathetic, snivelling Jerry we are used to.

Similarly, in the version of Earth that has been totally Cronenbergerised, Jerry become a badass, patriarchal caveman that threatens to kill Rick. So why can’t Jerry always be this impressively tenacious? He’s not presented with the circumstances in which he can evolve into the Jerry he would want to be in every Universe. Jerry, like everyone else in the Universe, is determined by the circumstances of the Universe that are hosting his Jerry-like essentialism. Jerry’s actions are determined by whichever universe he’s in — no free will. We don’t get badass Jerry, we get pathetic Jerry in our Earth. Sorry other Jerrys, but snivelling Jerry is the best.


Not just for Shia

I previously wrote about metamodernism and La La Land here. Metamodernism is possibly the cultural and philosophical movement to follow from postmodernism (prevalent since the end of the Second World War).

I previously would have, and did, say that Rick and Morty is a prime example of metamodernism. Since the season three opener (and currently the only episode from season three), The Rickshank Rickdemption, this looks a lot less likely. Rick shuns his emotions in this episode for the worthy pursuit of McDonalds’ Mulan Szechuan Sauce (although this may all change shortly when we get the rest of season three).

This is potentially completely defunct after The Rickshank Rickdemption. Metamodernism has all the irony and nihilism of postmodernism, as well as a lot of the characteristics (pastiche, being self aware, etc), but genuine emotion as well. There’s a good chance Rick has just been teasing us about the genuine emotion, but we will see.

Long description of postmodernism and metamodernism here:

Metamodernism is the name for the movement that has possibly come after postmodernism. Postmodernism is characterised by irony, self-referentiality, and cynicism. Perfect examples are shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, with the gang’s never-ending narcissistic exploits without any feeling or sincerity (e.g. the insistent of not dealing with Frank being Charlie’s father), and movies like American Psycho, a film that destroys grand concepts like truth using black humour but ending in nihilism. Nothing learned and nothing sincere. Metamodernism calls back to the sentimentality and sincerity from before postmodernism, but keeps the lessons learned from postmodernism (e.g. the destruction of meta-narratives). Metamodernism often speaks with the language of postmodernism — irony, self referencing, cynicism — but what is said is sincere and affecting. Oscillation is also a defining factor of metamodernism — think of every time you’ve seen something on the internet that would appear truthful and reputable, only to see the exact opposite of that thing a few minutes later.

The Experience Machine

Popularised by Vanilla Sky (and the much better Spanish original Open Your Eyes), Robert Nozick’s thought experiment of the Experience Machine (or the Pleasure Machine) asks the question: if there was a machine that could allow you to have any experience you desire, would this be preferable to real life?

Roy — the video game that Rick is obsessed with, is almost a perversion of an experience machine. Instead of anything you could desire, you play out the life of a carpet salesman — but the game is immersive to the point that went Morty takes off the headgear (after he has died at the pathetic age of 55) he asks where his wife is. Instead of having any experience you wish, like to Experience Machine thought experiment, you get to try and make the best life within the parameters of a normal world and all the pressures that come with it (hence football star, to husband, to carpet salesman, to dead). Rick of course manages to mix things up, taking Roy “off grid.” No surprise there.

I am in great pain, please help me.
I am in great pain, please help me.

(Source: Wisecrack (and again), Smash.com, Daniel Miessler, Tom Rowley)

Published on MoviePilot here.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *