By Sarey Martin Concepcíon
A comedy sketch on the Inside Amy Schumer show presents two white women in their 20s discussing an epiphany over fro-yo. The redhead says to the brunette, “So I was texting while I was driving the other day, and I ended up making a wrong turn that took me directly past a vitamin shop, and I was just like, this is totally the Universetelling me I should be taking calcium!” The bit is mocking the fad among millennials to interpret happenstance as personal cosmic messaging. Does the Universe have something to tell us? This scene is framed by a reminder from Bill Nye that scientists know the universe to be a “chaotic collection of matter.” The point is how humorous it is that ignorant young people would seek to reanimate the Universe into something purposeful.
In 2013, co-creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon purposed to humorously animate something too; their animated sitcom, Rick and Morty, debuted to critical acclaim on Cartoon Network’s alter ego for grown-ups, Adult Swim. The tone of the show is able to land in a spectrum of the absurd, poignant, stirring, and bawdy. The pilot introduces us to Rick Sanchez: a genius, an alcoholic, and a mad scientist. After years of estrangement, he’s now living with his adult daughter’s family, and recruits his 14-year-old grandson to be his primary sidekick. That grandson, Morty, is a naïve, socially awkward, and hormonal teenager. Each episode finds Rick corralling Morty into an outrageous sci-fi adventure with ridiculously high stakes. The show plays the exhibition of outlandish, multidimensional and intergalactic wonders, against the anguish of the Smith family’s precarious family dynamics. Rick and Morty reflects our own mundane pursuit of happiness back at us, and sets it against the backdrop of the Universe – an infinitely vast, chaotic, and bleak place that, frankly, doesn’t give a sh*t about you (at least, from a Harmonian point-of-view).
The Smith family reflects our own desperation back at us. The quotidian surname “Smith” signifies that this family is the “every family.” Like many of us, they’re constantly questioning their own happiness (or lack thereof) and the lack of agency they seem to possess within their circumstances. Parents Jerry and Beth Smith were set on a trajectory when they got pregnant in high school and had a shotgun wedding before having Morty’s older sister, Summer. Jerry is hopelessly “simple,” and unemployed, but seems to care about keeping his family intact. Beth is an equine surgeon, and always dreaming about another life where she never married Jerry and perhaps would have become a “real” surgeon (for humans rather than horses.) Jerry and Beth’s troubled marriage is the theme of many subplots of the series, and it’s hard to tell whether they love each other, or are inescapably entangled in codependence. Their eldest, Summer, is the most typical of teen girls, whose main desire seems to be popularity at school, although she sometimes seems jealous of the special connection shared by Rick and Morty. Morty is a 14-year-old boy with no friends, and a streak of altruism that gets him into trouble more often than it actually helps anybody. His desire to do the right thing is usually foiled by larger complexities that he was unaware of.
The Universe is the setting for Rick and Morty’s adventures. Travelling interdimensionally or intergalactically, the pair finds themselves encountering strange creatures, with strange customs and bizarre ethics. They never stumble upon a utopian society, and usually there’s a horrifying trait that’s normative on the alien worlds they visit, but is deeply troubling to Morty. The realities they’re introduced to are often violent, but any judgment of the others’ normal is met with the question of, “Are we Earthlings really any better?” To Rick, the universe is a cold, chaotic, impersonal collection of matter and energy, and he is the embodiment of the nihilistic reaction to that empty vastness. In the episode “Big Trouble in Little Sanchez,” Rick transfers his mind into a teenage clone of himself. His granddaughter Summer starts to notice something is wrong and calls out Rick’s core beliefs, saying,
“When you put your mind into this body’s young brain, it did what young brains do. It shoved the bad thoughts into the back and put a wall around them, but those bad thoughts are the real Rick! The fact that you’re old, the fact that we’re all gonna die one day, the fact that the universe is so big that nothing in it matters… those facts are who you are!”
Rick is constantly de-enchanting everything with science, reminding everyone of their mortality, and highlighting the subjective nature of existence. But there’s a tension to the Nietzschean nihilism at play in Rick. He’s often passively acquiescent to life’s meaninglessness, but he also seems to care about actively forging some new way of being. The show even alludes to the fact that Rick is wanted for some intergalactic terrorist crimes, so we’re left to wonder whether there might be something more to “the real Rick.”
Many critics have filed this program under “cosmic horror” or “Lovecraftian horror.” The genre, defined by the work of author H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) highlights the breathtaking awfulness of the unknown, unknowable, and incomprehensible. Young Morty often exhibits trauma symptoms and horror at these experiences, while Rick brushes them off. When Lovecraft was articulating these horrors, turn-of-the-century scientific advancement was learning about the universe in ways that revealed how much we didn’t know. The door had been cracked and on the other side was an infinite chasm of strangeness, which inspired fear, perhaps because we were no longer of central importance in the universe because of the relative expanse. Darwin had paved a way for a godless creation narrative, which challenged our sense of specialness among other creatures on earth. Did we even matter at all anymore? Early 20th-century science was beginning to understand the enormity of the universe, and a relative dwarfishness about earth that cannot be exaggerated. In his famous work “The Call of Cthulhu,” Lovecraft writes,
The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
It’s no wonder you see Rick and Morty fleeing from Lovecraft’s famous beast, Cthulhu, in the opening credits of the show.
But the show strays from Lovecraft, in that it isn’t recommending terror at the mouth of this infinite void of meaning; the show is suggesting we laugh about it. Rick isn’t horrified. His character presupposes that a scientific understanding can and does demystify and quantify the “mysteries” of the universe. And he does it all from the garage of his painfully mediocre suburban family home, which perhaps reflects the other side of the Lovecraftian coin that, “No new horror can be more terrible than the daily torture of the commonplace.” Lovecraft sensed that quotidian reality could simply be a fragile thin shell draped over the depths of unknown—but quite probably terrifying—cosmic reality. The painful tension is that even though this cosmicism finds it probable that the unknown will lead us to the realization that we are unimaginably insignificant, our minds still tend to weave together systems of meaning through natural interpretation of daily life.
Rick and Morty is always encouraging us not to engage in this “pathetic” hunt for meaning. Rick tells his granddaughter at the breakfast table one morning, “There is no God, Summer. Gotta rip that Band-Aid off now. You’ll thank me later.” The implication is that if you let go of God as the source of meaning in your life, it will save you the disappointment later on, when you inevitably find it’s not true. Another time, when Morty is looking to find hope in the idea of romantic love, Rick instructs him with,
I hate to break it to you, but what people call “love” is just a chemical reaction that compels animals to breed. It hits hard, Morty, then it slowly fades, leaving you stranded in a failing marriage. I did it. Your parents are going to do it. Break the cycle, Morty, rise above, focus on science.
When Summer learns that her parents had seriously considered aborting her, she spirals into rage. Morty reveals to her that recently, he and Rick had gotten involved in a debacle that had destroyed their whole planet. When they couldn’t find a way to fix things, instead of solving the problem, they located an alternate reality in which they’d solved the problem and then died immediately after. They showed up in that reality just in time to bury their own corpses and take their own place. How was this supposed to cheer up Summer? Morty concludes with his point that, “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die… Come watch TV.”
What about the most disturbing aspects of the universe? In the scenario described above, Morty questions Rick’s decision to simply leave behind the universe they’ve ruined. Rick replies, “What about the universe where Hitler cured cancer, Morty? The answer is: Don’t think about it.” Rick thinks the greatest purpose one can hope for in life is just the task at hand, and it’s better to just accept that. Similarly, when a small robot he’s just built asks Rick, “What is my purpose?” Rick replies, “You pass butter.” The robot says “Oh my god…” to which Rick says “Yeah, welcome to the club, pal.” In Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus, the eponymous character is sentenced to pushing a boulder up a large hill, only to have it roll back down every time. But Camus balanced pessimism with optimism saying, “This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile… The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Is having a task-at-hand, albeit fruitless, a sufficient alternative in light of the apparently arbitrary nature of existence?
The tension remains within the human tendency to render meaning where there is none. Humankind continues ordering significance at the drive-thru window, only to be handed nonsense at the pick-up window. Rick says, “Just get over it and get used to it.”
It sometimes seems like, in Rick and Morty’s world, the problem isn’t merely that the universe is silent, but that it’s actively cruel. It’s not that the universe won’t answer; it’s that it has answered, and it doesn’t care about you and your pointless life. It has no moral absolutes either, so everything you feel sure of is stripped away from you. We see different responses from the men of the Smith house to this dilemma. For Rick, the ability of science to observe and measure all things delivers a comforting brand of truth. For Jerry, he knows nothing, and he’s okay with that—his ignorance is bliss.
Theologians have worked overtime to preserve the orthodoxy of the book of Ecclesiastes. It seems problematic that within the overarching redemption narrative of the Bible, there would be a book that literally begins with the phrase, “Perfectly pointless… perfectly pointless. Everything is pointless,” or the more known traditional phrasing, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” The book is describing a real human experience. Regardless of what kind of –theist you are, we all experience the tension of wanting our lives to matter, and wanting to be happy, but coming up against apparent absurdities. The book acknowledges the sometimes laughable “obsession” with understanding the world and how things work. Yet when we apply reason to human experience, it becomes increasingly difficult to unearth any timeless truths or sense of purpose. Rick and Morty affirms this experience, as did Lovecraft and Camus.
Obviously, the teacher of Ecclesiastes assumes God’s existence but also laments that God does not clue us in on what God’s up to. It almost seems like a cruel joke since humans are wired with “eternity in their hearts,” yet God has not “enabled them to discover what [God] has done from beginning to end.” “No one can grasp what happens under the sun. Those who strive to know can’t grasp it. Even the wise who are set on knowing are unable to grasp it.” So we see how the teacher comes around a few times to “eat, drink, and be merry” when faced with difficulty establishing more permanent forms of meaning and happiness. This is the sentiment Morty echoes when telling his sister, “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die… Come watch TV.”
This is the “call to worship” that the culture is uttering to itself. “Come watch TV” because it does actually seem to be a reasonable sacrament in response to the existential dilemma we’re talking about. It’s a meaningless numbing of the nagging fear we may have that the universe doesn’t care about you, and you’re not special. The prophet Rick Sanchez empathizes with the tension that people sense in their day-to-day experience, and the empathy feels good. In the meantime, people of Christian faith are quick to skip over this lament, and move quickly to their affirmation of trust. The Psalmist knows, sometimes the night lasts much longer than you want: “My God, I cry out during the day, but you don’t answer; even at nighttime I don’t stop.” Perhaps if Christians were more open to affirming the absurdism of human experience in an empathetic way, the culture would be more open to hearing about the experience of faith, because it wouldn’t seem as blind.
Part of the church’s lack of skill at empathizing with the world’s sense of angst comes from a general lack of resources toward a theology of emotion. Our brainy, Western church has inherited Greco-Roman emphases on logic and reason. The Bible excludes no part of the human person created in the image of God, which in fact implies that even our emotions mirror something of God’s emotions. Theologians are sometimes fearful of discourse about God’s emotions (because perhaps it threatens God’s immutability), and in the meantime, we’ve blocked an artery of empathetic connection with the culture.
The worldview Rick and Morty expresses, leaves us with the question of “how should we then live?” How do these characters morally navigate in this angst-ridden, meaningless void? Rick’s ethics are usually steered by some type of personal gain (things that leverage scientific advancement), and Morty is in it for the thrill. Pretty frequently however, Morty will notice an apparently innocent victim and convince Rick to let them help. For example, when Morty learns that Rick’s ex-girlfriend is a hive-mind being (think Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Star Trek’s Borg), he sympathizes with the entire planet of people she’s conquered, all of whom have lost their individuality. When Morty has some success in saving them, he learns that most of them were pretty terrible people, who used their freedom to do awful things. On another occasion, the duo find themselves on a planet that’s in the midst of their yearly “purge” (yes, like the movie The Purge), and Morty convinces Rick they should save a young girl from a violent mob. The girl ends up hijacking their space ship and almost getting them killed. Rick tells Morty that he’s got what the intergalactic call a “very planetary mindset.” In spite of these set-backs, and the fact that Morty does affirm many aspects of Rick’s worldview, he continues to try to take some moral high ground much of the time. In the episode “Mortynight Run,” Morty decides to save the life of a gaseous being, who’s the potential next victim of an assassin to whom Rick’s just sold a gun. Morty tells Rick he believes that life is worth preserving, even through sacrifice. In the end, Morty learns the gaseous being has a plan to eradicate all carbon-based life forms, because carbon life forms threaten his people’s existence. Morty ends up killing this creature himself (whom he’s named “Fart”).
Rick generally seems guided by whatever is expedient to his own personal gain, but there are notable exceptions. On the purge planet, Rick learns that the yearly purge is being sponsored by a ruling class of wealthy people, and that the real purpose is to keep the poor people oppressed. Rick is not a fan of that, and immediately agrees to help the young girl “purge” the elite. In the finale episode of Season Two, we learn that Rick and his best friend, “Bird Person,” are considered wanted by the Galactic Empire. “They think they run the galaxy,” but Rick disagrees. We already know that Rick has no respect for bureaucrats, but he also seems to have a sense of justice when it comes to abuse of power. Just like the teacher in Ecclesiastes, he has “observed all the oppressions that take place under the sun, I saw the tears of the oppressed—and they have no one to comfort them. Their oppressors wield power—but they have no one to comfort them.” But unlike the Teacher, Rick doesn’t let anyone tell him no—not even God. He will not be limited by the “natural order of things.”
Jesus wasn’t limited to the natural order of things either. He showed preference towards the poor and marginalized, and had a real problem with abuse of authority, especially in ecclesial spheres. Exercising “god-like” power is something Rick Sanchez frequently does through science, yet unlike Jesus, he usually doesn’t use that power to help others, because he feels like there’s no point in curing someone’s illness if they’re still going to go on being an asshole, and thus causing more evil and suffering than the illness itself had caused to begin with. Jesus, on the other hand is concerned with healing both the illness and the asshole-ness. The ailments Jesus healed – blindness, vaginal bleeding, crippled limbs, etc. – are flaws that according to Levitical law would have made people ceremonially “unclean.” This physical brokenness carried with it a strong analogy for the spiritual brokenness of the heart and mind, brought on by a disparity between God and humans. Jesus is the response from the bowels of the terrifying Lovecraftian cosmos that says from infinity, “I know you don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m doing something about all the ache that you feel.” In response to the angst of quotidian life, in which not much ever seems to change, and the boulder seems to continually roll back down the hill, Jesus says,
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
We are left then asking ourselves whether we can still trust the God whose glory Jesus expresses most clearly, who is loving Lord of even that vast abyss.
Sarey Martin Concepción spent a decade working as a talent manager for filmmakers and musicians, before a surprise vocational pivot towards studying theology. Leaving Rob Zombie’s production team, and with a vision for becoming something of an edgy, modern-day C.S. Lewis, she got her M.A. in Theology from Fuller Seminary in 2017 (with a Theology and the Arts emphasis). She now works as a “creative content & editorial manager” for a department at Fuller that facilitates projects at the intersection of faith and the sciences. She continues to write and produce film art on the side—both on her own and collaboratively with her husband, with whom she produced a short film called Tortoise. She was a second round contender in Sundance’s new voices episodic lab 2018 with a pilot for a project called Homeschooled. She is a part of the Aporkalypse family of artists, and is a senior programmer for Vidlings & Tapeheads Film Fest. She works in Los Angeles, CA with her husband and a geriatric Chihuahua. You can read more from her at www.storydeacon.com.
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