Apologies for the long title; it seemed appropriate for what, as tends to be my wont, is a long post. Also, by the way, prepare yourself for spoilers. It’s unavoidable, so I’ll just get the warning out of the way now. Nothing from here on out is going to be marked, so if you don’t want endings spoiled for you, stop reading now. You’ve been warned.
Ah, “Rick and Morty”. For those who don’t know, “Rick and Morty” is an adult sci-fi cartoon about a drunk, cynical mad scientist and his young teenage grandson (fourteen?) going on adventures throughout the multiverse. It is probably the most non-Superversive show on TV right now, and quite possibly the most non-superversive show ever made. It is grim, it is nihilistic, it is mean, it takes every chance it gets to emphasize the pointlessness of existence, and it’s also absolutely, hysterically, laugh-out-loud funny. It is one of the funniest TV shows I’ve ever seen, and one of the cleverest to boot. It confirms something I’ve noted for awhile now: Nihilism can only work in the contexts of comedy or horror. You either laugh in the face of the void or you scream at it, but one thing you aren’t is happy about it.
“Rick and Morty” is what “Futurama” turns into after the writers all survive their suicide attempts. The biggest difference is in emotional emphasis: “Rick and Morty” emphasizes the cynicism and chaos of it all, while “Futurama” tends to focus on the beating heart it wears very much on its sleeve.
Both the “Futurama” episode “The Late Philip J. Fry” (itself a hysterically funny all-time classic) and “Rick Potion # 9” end in very similar ways: With our heroes living in what can technically be described as alternate universe versions of their lives, and with the versions of them originally occupying those universes now dead.
But “Futurama” ends on a note of character development, with Fry deepening his relationship with Leela and improving himself personally so he can be a better man in the future. “Rick and Morty” ends on a note of abject despair: The universe they previously lived in has just undergone what can only be described as the apocalypse, Morty is stuck with the knowledge that he’s a major part of the reason for that, Morty is brutally forced to confront his own dead body immediately after arriving in the new dimension, and Rick and Morty’s family from the Cronenberged world (“Cronenberg” is the name they came up with for the horrible monsters everybody has turned into, after body horror director David Cronenberg) have discovered that they’re happier with Rick and Morty out of their lives, even if it means the rest of the world has literally been destroyed.
That’s about as bleak as it’s possible to get, and the fact that “Futurama” isn’t willing to go there is probably the biggest difference between the two shows (the trade-off, of course, is that when “Futurama” goes for its sentimental moments it nails them much more consistently because it’s easier to buy the existence of sentiment in that universe).
Does this indicate a quality difference between “Rick and Morty” and “Futurama”? Well, sort of? Forced to choose between the two things the shows do really well, I’d rather see “Futurama”. That is: If the best ending “Futurama” has ever come up with is “Luck of the Fryrish”, where Fry learns that his long-dead brother really loved him after all and named his son after him, and the best ending “Rick and Morty” has ever come up with is that the world is a better place without their existence and nobody belongs anywhere, “Futurama’s” ending is superior: It’s a more clever twist, set up by what we’ve seen earlier in the episode, it plays off of all the character development we’ve seen so far in the show, and, let’s face it, it’s moving too. The ending of “Rick Potion # 9” is incredibly daring and even brilliant in a lot of ways, but one word you would never use to describe it is moving.
Not that “Rick and Morty” NEVER tries to hit that target. The show also confirms something else I’ve noted: It’s pretty much impossible to go full-on nihilist consistently and not have your viewers revolt. “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” had “So Long and Thanks for all the Fish” and Marvin the Paranoid Android’s last moment of happiness. “The Office” made it standard practice to give Michael a small win at the end of each episode. Even “Watchmen” had the strange nobility of Rorschach, who much to Alan Moore’s dismay was looked at as a heroic figure by many readers. In “Rick and Morty”, even at its bleakest it seems to confirm that there’s something worth fighting for out there, even if its just the simple belief that in this incredibly messed up, chaotic universe trying to improve things is still worthwhile. Maybe the world sucks, maybe the odds are that no matter how much you try you’re still going to make it worse…but maybe not, too. And maybe there are still things worth living and dying for out there. Not exactly optimistic, but its not the center of the restless heart of darkness either.
“Rixty Minutes” is a good example of the phenomenon of a show just not being able to be completely nihilistic, even as it threatens to go that way. The money line in that episode also became possibly the most famous quote from the show:
On one of our adventures, Rick and I basically destroyed the whole world, so we bailed on that reality and we came to this one, because in this one, the world wasn’t destroyed and in this one, we were dead. So we came here, a- a- and we buried ourselves and we took their place. And every morning, Summer, I eat breakfast twenty yards away from my own rotting corpse. […] Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV.
(Note Morty’s reference of the ending to “Rick Potion # 9”.)
The really interesting thing to me, though, is that that’s not the final image we get. The real last image is the alternate universe versions of Beth and Jerry, Morty’s parents, finding each other even after so many years of living out what were supposedly their dreams.
Brief background: Jerry, Beth, and Morty’s sister Summer learn that there are alternate universe versions of themselves. In Jerry’s alternate universe, he is a famous actor. In Beth’s, she’s a successful surgeon. And Summer, well…in universes where her parents are successful, she doesn’t exist. This prompts Morty to deliver the above bit of wisdom as, amazingly enough, comfort.
So when Jerry and Beth discover that even these alternate, successful versions of themselves will end up together it becomes an, admittedly tentative, confirmation that, yes, they really do love each other, and even that aborting Summer was genuinely a mistake. It’s a quiet, very subtle recognition that perhaps there is something to the idea of true love, and even Beth and Jerry’s dysfunctional romance is superior to a shallow life of fame and material success. There’s even a hint that maybe there’s destiny involved in a Jerry/Beth romance, a higher power that ultimately isn’t completely absent in the universe after all. Maybe it’s not true nobody belongs anywhere; maybe Jerry and Beth belong with each other, as messed up as that can sometimes look. It’s something, anyway.
I intentionally used “Rixty Minutes” and “Rick Potion # 9” as my examples because they’re two of the most cynical episodes of the entire show. You can actually find a few others that end with more overtly “hopeful” (for certain values of that word) endings: “A Rickle in Time” is perhaps the most notable, containing a genuinely selfless sacrifice from Rick, but “Ricksy Business,” “Meeseeks and Destroy”, “The Wedding Squanchers”, and others contain at least some indications here or there that the show hasn’t completely given up on humanity yet.
Going off of my previous points, I genuinely feel that “Rick and Morty” has done just enough that – IF the writers wanted to – they could successfully pull off a happy ending and not have it be a betrayal of what we’ve seen so far. I’m not saying that’s how things WILL end, but I do think they’ve done enough to earn that sort of ending. Not anything really sappy, but something with hope.
“Rick and Morty” is very much not superversive, but I do think, besides being absolutely-freaking-hilarious, it’s an interesting case
study in just how difficult – in fact, probably impossible – it is to make consistently entertaining and watchable truly nihilistic fiction. “Rick and Morty” takes its best shot, but in the end even it reveals a beating heart buried deep underneath it all. Very deep. Somewhere down past the corpses Morty eats breakfast next to.