We’ve Got to Talk About the Relentless Nihilism in “Rick and Morty”

Rick and Morty is often described as the cartoon where a drunk grandpa takes his goofy grandson on a series of insane adventures through time and space. Think Doctor Who for edgy teens. Ultimately though, Rick and Morty is essentially a show about existential nihilism.

For anyone that’s not caught up, nihilism is the complete rejection of any religion or moral principles. It’s the viewpoint that life is meaningless and skepticism ought to be adopted in lieu of dogmatism. Unsurprisingly, the lonely genius Rick Sanchez is the poster boy for nihilistic philosophy.

Think about it. Rick spends the entire series jumping through chaotic worlds and reminding his grandkids of how little they matter. On more than one occasion, Rick has ended planet Earth only to resume his life in another dimension where even his own daughter is technically another variation of the original. While Morty crumbles in horror, Rick nonchalantly digs his own grave. Everything is meaningless. Nothing matters, etc, etc.

What is hopeless about Rick’s nihilism is that even he fails fully to adopt the philosophy. This leaves him as a character that is full of painful paradoxes. On one occasion, Rick tells Morty: “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.” This is all very well only in another episode, Rick is left suicidal after his ex-girlfriend Unity breaks up with him again. Even Rick cannot live a life of absolute nihilism and this leaves him in a constant state of loneliness and bitterness. He cannot accept comforting dogmatisms nor can he fully embrace nihilism.

What is great about Rick and Morty, however, is that it often succeeds in transforming nihilism into something that’s not totally depressing. Sure, nothing “matters” in a world of unlimited dimensions, but this doesn’t have to be soul-destroying. Morty’s capacity for optimism is what ultimately prevents the show from being a total depress-fest.

The best example of this is probably when Summer has a breakdown when she discovers her parents would have been better off if she hadn’t been born. In her time of existential hopelessness, Morty tells her the disturbing story of how he now eats breakfast just yards away from his own corpse. Following this, he precedes to give Summer some oddly comforting advice. He says: “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV?”

This may sound like a case of accepting the meaningless of life and giving into nihilism, but what Morty is really doing is embracing it. Life may be meaningless, or it may not be meaningless. Either way, it makes no difference. Take joy in the small things life has to offer and spend time with the people you care about. “Everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV?” is essentially Rick and Morty‘s message to its viewers. And that’s what makes the show so irresistibly ingenious.