Rachael has had an intense love for science fiction and fantasy games, TV shows, movies, and books since childhood.
Rick Sanchez is a complicated character, and understanding him may take multiple viewings of certain episodes. I've done that, with focused attention on his character growth over the course of four seasons of the show. When he breaks the fourth wall, Rick often voices disdain for the concept of character arcs, change, and learning a lesson at the end of an episode. In one episode, Morty says he learned a lesson, and Rick says, what is this, Full House? In other words, the writers of the show want us to get that they're too clever for the conventions of typical TV storytelling.
But the thing is, you can't make a TV show, especially not one that resonates emotionally with many people (i.e. a successful one), without using tropes (commonly used storytelling devices) and the basic elements of narrative structure.
And indeed, Dan Harmon has extensively studied story structure, and uses a map of a story's underlying structure known as the story circle. So, for all that the writers want the show to feel new and original, everyone who writes successfully bases their work off of some structures and elements of things that were successful in the past. They're simply used in a new way, with a new style. It's kind of like how house architecture can vary a lot, but a house still requires certain specific components: walls, electrical wiring, windows, a roof, doors, etc.
And one of the most important parts of any story is the main character undergoing a character arc. So, even though Rick constantly puts down the idea of "doing arcs", that's an absurdity, because as a fictional character, he has an "arc" no matter what he does. A character arc refers to how a character changes over the course of a story. The main character's personal arc is a major load-bearing pillar of a good story. Even if Rick never changed throughout the four seasons (all that is out as of writing this), that would be called a "flat arc", but that's technically still an arc. Just like every arrow loosed has an arc, even if it falls flat before hitting its target.
But does Rick Sanchez have a flat arc? Does he experience change or growth? If so, how do we know, when he does something selfless, that it's actually not for some hidden selfish motivation? Indeed, Rick tends to rationalize everything he does, no matter how emotionally motivated, as logical and tied to his own desires. Even when those rationalizations are clearly flimsy. And what is Rick's philosophy? What, if anything, motivates him to do what he does?
Many fans might speculate about Rick's behavior by attaching labels to him like nihilist, absurdist, selfish, or lacking in empathy. And he does possess many of those qualities, and in fact might even be narcissistic, and it wouldn't be out of line to call him someone who thinks himself to be some kind of Nietzschean Übermensch, above the moral rules that govern other people. And I would say Nietzsche's philosophy also has a place when considering Rick Sanchez. You can analyze the extent to which Rick is a true Übermensch, or if the show points to the idea that aspiring to be one is a pipe dream. Also, it is likely that Jerry is based on Nietzsche's antithesis to the Übermensch, the "last man", which is why Jerry and Rick are foils, and so often at odds. But other people have already talked about this stuff.
So, instead of rehashing things other people may have already said, and better, this article is going to have two areas of focus that I think haven't been discussed as much:
- Rick's morality, values, and character growth or improvement. I will be going through specific, detailed examples that showcase where Rick starts out in season 1 vs. what he has learned and how he has changed by the end of season 4.
- Rick's resemblance to the ancient Cynic philosopher Diogenes, and how he appears motivated by the same beliefs as the Cynics. This is what I meant by he's not a nihilist, in the pop cultural sense of not caring about anything, but a Cynic.
Not in the pop cultural sense of being pessimistic, sarcastic, and mocking (though he is those things as well), but in the original, forgotten sense of the philosophy. There were many things Cynics believed in, but the main characteristic they shared with Rick is the idea of being living satire; living your life in a way that challenges all authority and questions the necessity of social norms and taboos. If Rick didn't care about anything, he wouldn't do anything, and he certainly wouldn't constantly get involved in things that put himself and his family in danger. But, he does what he does because he cares about at least one thing; bringing down "the man".
Challenging authority is his primary motivation. In a meta humor sense, this also explains why he seems to hate story structure, clichés, and tropes. He's written to be not just aware that he is a fictional character, but he wants his stories to rebel against the conventions of storytelling, as much as he wants to rebel with his actions against authorities. He wants this so badly that he values it above his own health, safety, and happiness.
How Rick Changes and Learns
I'll spoil it for you: Rick does not have a flat character arc. But, his improvement is often not obvious, lied about/ denied by Rick himself, or he slides back towards his old ways from time to time. It creates an interesting tug-o-war, where he does learn lessons, question his values, and improve himself, but he also has moments where he gives in to his worst character traits. This shows how change is not always easy or linear, and I like that because it's a more realistic way of portraying change.
A zig-zag arc is not a flat arc. A flat arc would imply that Rick already possessed ultimate truth/s and was perfect at the start of the series, and that the only conflict arises from others refusing to listen to his truth/s. A non-flat arc is about the character overcoming a Big Lie that they believe. Rick's Big Lie is that he is perfect because of his technological mastery, and therefore does not need to change anything about his personality. Some of the more toxic fans of the series believe that this is the type of story Rick & Morty is. They idealize Rick, in a way that the show almost says directly to the camera not to. When Morty tells Summer that Rick shouldn't be her hero in season 3, episode 1, entitled “Rickshank Redemption”, this is also clearly a message to the fandom from the writers.
Toxic aspects of Rick's personality, and his defects, also cause his family to be dysfunctional. Summer idealizing Rick means she ends up with some of his personality flaws. Beth will do anything to appease Rick due to her fear of being abandoned by him, and so she doesn't stand up for herself. She also exhibits sociopathic tendencies and a drive to dominate, in a way that even Rick sometimes finds extreme. So, she has a couple of his worst traits, amplified.
And because he hates Jerry so much, especially initially, he drives a wedge between Jerry and Beth. The ensuing divorce is emotionally difficult on the children, even though they often act rude or indifferent to Jerry, and he reconciles with Beth eventually, which also causes Rick to grudgingly respect him more. So, as Rick overcomes his own character defects, he also gets closer to his family, sees them more like people and less like things, and helps keep the family together, rather than driving them apart.
Season 01: Bad Rick
In the first episode of season 1, Rick's worst character traits are fully displayed. This gives us an idea of the target his arc will be aiming at. He is alcoholic and irresponsible. He uses Morty as a tool, without any consideration for him as a person, causing him horrible physical pain and embarrassment. He also shows a complete lack of regard for Beth and Jerry's concerns about Morty's safety when going on adventures, a topic that will continue to come up in later episodes.
In the second episode, "Lawnmower Dog", he helps Morty get an A in math, by invading his teacher's dreams, but it's not to help Morty for Morty's sake; it's to get Morty artificial good grades so he can go on adventures, without his parents worrying about his academics suffering.
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The third episode, "Anatomy Park" is one of the more shocking displays of Rick seeing people as objects, not beings. Nothing says that a character views people as objects for his own pleasure than literally building an amusement park inside a person!
He doesn't learn or change in the next episode, "M. Night Shaym-Aliens!", which is about contrasting his brilliance with Jerry's lack thereof. It also shows Jerry's willingness to believe comforting lies, because he doesn't like facing the harshness of reality.
But in the fifth episode of the first season, "Meeseeks and Destroy", Morty asserts himself by getting Rick to allow him to lead an adventure. Morty made some mistakes, but Rick learned to be more open-minded about trying other people's ideas, instead of always insisting that only his own ideas are worthy. He also kills a creature who tries to rape Morty, which is more than the awful Rick in the pilot episode may have done. This episode also sets up a conflict between Jerry and Rick; in order to get the Meeseeks to disappear, Jerry needs to be told what to do by Beth. This is in contrast to Rick and Morty's adventure, where Rick finds a middle ground between being controlling like Beth and being a doormat like Jerry.
Perhaps the most significant episode of the whole show is the next one, episode six, "Rick Potion No. 9". In it, Rick attempts to create a love potion for Morty to make Jessica fall for him (creepy, but whatever). It backfires, causing a plague, and his attempts to fix it spiral out of control, each "fix" making the plague worse and worse. Eventually, everyone in the world but the Smith family gets transformed into a hideous blob monsters, which Rick calls Cronenbergs (after David Cronenberg, famous for using body horror in his films).
Rick actually can't sci-fi magic his way out of this situation. Instead, Rick and Morty hop to another dimension, where an alternate Rick and Morty fix the Cronenberg problem and then die soon afterwards, and replace themselves. This also leaves Beth, Jerry, and Summer on "Cronenberg Earth", where they are later revisited by Morty and (normal) Summer. They are stronger, but more brutish, versions of themselves, having adapted to the difficult conditions of survival in such a world.
This is the first time in the show that Rick has to handle a real failure, admit that he made mistakes, and come to terms with the fact that he is not as god-like as he wants to think he is. He also starts out by trivializing love, perhaps suggesting that it is not as reducible to chemicals and simple biological drives as he thought. Perhaps this shows that his judgment was impacted by his inability to get over his own divorce with Beth's mother, who is never shown in the show. It's an episode that really challenges the viewer's expectations of Rick as always in control, always outthinking his problems and enemies.
The following episode, "Raising Gazorpazorp", is mainly a lesson for Morty, but Rick also learns to work with Summer, and hopefully, to be a little less misogynistic. This is the first episode where Rick and Summer do anything together, but their bond develops over time in later episodes.
The next episode, "Rixty Minutes", is famous for the absurd, improvised gags that make up the inter-dimensional cable Rick installs on the family's TV. He wants them all to watch it, but Beth, Jerry, and Summer become intrigued instead by a device that lets them see different possible versions of their own lives if they had made different choices, which causes them to fight. So only Morty and Rick watch the inter-dimensional cable.
The interesting thing here is that a consistent character trait of Rick's, shown in later episodes too, is that he is adamant in not caring about or wanting to see other versions of himself. He wants nothing to do with the alternate Ricks who make up their own civilization called the Citadel of Ricks, and in season 4, episode 1, he hates the idea of wanting to see one's own future death, saying anyone who knows how they're going to die is either boring, or about to be shot. Since his main "super power" is tracking and traveling between various alternate dimensions, it may be that because he knows infinite possibilities exist, he is not interested in any one of them in particular. But it also seems to show his disdain for predictability.
Hashing out anger, and talking honestly about uncomfortable truths, also allows the rest of the Smith family to confront their problems with each other. After all, you can't work out any problem that you're not willing or able to talk about honestly. This sets a rocky trajectory for the future of the family, but one that brings them closer together later.
After that is episode 9, "Something Ricked This Way Comes", which is about Rick helping Summer, Summer learning a lesson, that's pretty cut and dried. The subplot where Jerry asserts Pluto is a planet tells us that when Jerry is wrong, he doesn't want to admit it, and will adhere to a belief he knows is false just for attention and praise. He learns a lesson here, and it also contrasts with how Rick is much quicker to admit fault when he makes a mistake, or is incorrect, but is also less likely to be incorrect. This seems like a message about how science is not dogma, but about falsifiable hypotheses, and openness to being proven wrong.
Then the tenth episode of season 1, "Close Encounters of the Rick Kind", is all about Rick being forced to confront his own flaws, when taken to extremes, as shown by the actions of evil Rick. I won't describe the grim details, but evil Rick shows the horror of the logical extent of seeing Morty as a thing, not a person. It's kind of like in A Christmas Carol when Mr. Scrooge is visited by the final and most haunting spirit, who forces him to confront his future death, and what people will say about him when he dies, if he does not change.
Rick's disdain for the Citadel of Ricks just continues to show his valuation of individuality and resistance to authority.
The season 1 finale, episode 11, "Ricksy Business" is light-hearted relief from that, as Rick works to throw Morty and Summer a party while Beth and Jerry are gone. He also screws things up, as he is still reckless and irresponsible. This episode introduces Bird Person, who reveals that Rick masks inner pain by pretending to be lively and upbeat. His catch phrase, "Wubba lubba dub dub" is actually from Bird Person's language, meaning "I am in great pain. Please help me." This could also mean that when Rick brags or acts arrogant, it may sometimes be a front to mask his fears and insecurities.
Season 2: Exploring Roots of Rick's Flaws
Most episodes in season 2, and some in season 3, explore Rick's "great pain" he carries inside and what caused it. They are subtle, because Rick doesn't talk about his past. We have to infer what happened to him in the past based on what he says and does in the present. Different episodes explore different aspects of Rick's personality, but many explain more of why he acts the way that he does.
The first episode of the season, "A Rickle in Time", continues from the last season's finale, and Rick is confronted with the consequences of not only the party, but with messing with time in order to fix the house before Jerry and Beth come home. The problems he causes in this episode may make him worried about the effects his actions can have on his family. The subplot with Beth trying to do surgery on a deer Jerry hit shows her need to dominate, which is an attitude she undoubtedly got from Rick. Thus, through Beth's character, it is also showing us something about Rick's character defects.
In the second episode, "Mortynight Run", Morty learns a disillusioning lesson when he goes against Rick and rescues a gaseous alien, only to have that being, voiced by Tim Curry, turn against carbon-based life, and kill many people. This is contrasted with Rick's attitude. He was planning to sell weapons to a bounty hunter who was going after that being, so he could play at an alien arcade. He was seeking his own pleasure, indifferent to the morality of his actions, but the plot of the episode proved that to be right, counter-intuitively. Perhaps in Rick's past, he also started out idealistic, only to have his ideals crushed by reality, in similar instances of betrayal and/or disappointment.
"Auto-Erotic Assimilation", episode 3 of the season, is an interesting one when it comes to getting to know Rick's emotional baggage more. In the episode, he re-connects with a hive-mind entity that wants to assimilate planets, who Rick used to have a romantic and sexual relationship with. He parties hard with this being, called Unity. But Summer is disgusted by how Unity enslaves people, and she says Rick is a bad influence on Unity, and Summer and Morty leave the planet she's assimilated. Unity eventually realizes that Rick is in fact a bad influence on her, and she leaves him.
The fact that she had, and rekindles, a relationship with Rick is weird, and not just because it's generally considered weird to make an entire planet's population work to help you act out your fantasies. Rick hates authority, and the Galactic Federation. Unity enslaves people, enthusiastically, and hopes of assimilating many more planets, joining the Galactic Federation, and eventually becoming the universe itself. I thought when I watched this episode that Rick was secretly opposing her, getting her to drink and do drugs so he could kill her or sabotage her plans or something. But when Unity leaves Rick, he's so miserable that he actually tries to kill himself with some laser contraption, and no longer seems to care about anything. We have to ask, why?
Maybe Unity was his rebound after he divorced his wife. Maybe he just likes that Unity is capable of doing what he'd like to do, but won't: enslaving sentient beings and using them for his pleasure. We don't really know why he loved Unity, and why he broke up with her.
But I would speculate that it's not really about Unity at all. His time with her was a time when he got to indulge in unrestrained hedonism, and I think that made him someone he stopped wanting to be. He may not show it much, but I think Summer chastising him before going home with Morty got to him. In the beginning, when he first saw Unity, he said he'd changed from who he used to be, pointing out that he had reconciled with his family. Having done so was then one of Rick's greatest points of pride. So when his behavior with Unity made his grandkids disgusted with him, I think that is what actually made him sad. Also, Unity leaving him may have been a reminder that he hadn't changed that much since he last broke up, telling him he would need to change more before he was ready to have a relationship again.
In "Total Rickall", the fourth episode of season 2, we get another message about relationships: they always bring pain, but the painful memories are how we know the relationship was real. This seems to add to the theme of heartache from "Auto-Erotic Assimilation", with the plot of the episode being different. Beth wounds Mr. Poopybutthole thinking he's an alien parasite when he's actually a long-time friend. This shows that the bad memories can also be ones we create, because people are flawed, and they can unintentionally hurt people they love.
"Get Schwifty" is the next episode. In this one, Rick gets his groove back, using his quick improvisation to save Earth by helping it win an inter-planetary talent show. This shows Rick as healing from his experience with Unity. He is able to keep up his fun attitude, even in the face of Earth being potentially destroyed. Although, we have to take into consideration that this could just be masking.
The next episode, "The Ricks Must be Crazy", reveals that his car battery is fueled by a micro enslaved society, that generates electricity through manual labor for themselves, so they think, but surplus energy fuels his battery. This shows where Rick's morality and character growth is at this point: he has empathy for his family, and has reconnected with them, but he still has issues with lacking empathy for strangers, and using people to get what he wants.
In season 2, episode 7, "Tiny Rick", Rick makes a young clone of himself (with all his memories and the same mind) and goes to high school to help kill a vampire at the school. But later, he ends up desperate to go back to his natural body. He won't admit this outwardly, but it comes out subconsciously when he improvises song lyrics, and in his drawings. I think it's about how Rick, as the modern version of a Cynic philosopher, can't stand pretense, but it's also about how his upbeat, partying ways are a front, and beneath that mask, he is desperate for help.
Episode 8, "Interdimensional Cable 2: Tempting Fate", is more about Jerry learning a lesson about selfishness and being a coward. Not much about Rick here, so I'm not going to get into the details of this episode.
Then we have "Look Who's Purging Now", which is about Rick and Morty ending up on a planet where they do something similar to The Purge in the Purge movie series. Meaning, for one night of the year, crime is legalized, and, like in the Purge movies, this really just means gun battles ensue everywhere. It's mainly a lesson about naivete and trust for Morty, who befriends and helps a girl he thinks is innocent, who turns out to be just as violent and bloodthirsty as everyone else. These moments where Morty makes judgment errors because of his optimism also seem like they might be echoes of Rick's own (unseen) past, showing that Rick was maybe once a disappointed idealist who became a pessimist.
This episode shows how Morty has a repressed lust for violence, that he pretends to be non-violent because of social convention only. Because later, he gets into the purge, and relishes killing, even to an extent that it freaks Rick out.
Another noteworthy thing about the episode is that, at the end, Morty regrets this blood lust. Not wanting Morty to feel bad, Rick tells him that it was caused by something in a candy bar he ate. It's a lie. What's interesting is that I don't think a previous version of Rick, like the Rick of the pilot episode, would have bothered to think of a lie to Morty to spare his feelings. He originally saw Morty only in terms of utility, after all, and the feelings of a tool don't matter. So this shows he is at least treating Morty as more of a human than a tool.
Then we get to the last episode, "The Wedding Squanchers". Rick's vicious comments about weddings, calling them "funerals with cake" shows how he is still bitter about whatever happened between him and his ex-wife. He also shows great emotional attachment to his friend Bird Person in his reaction to his death.
The end of the episode has the family running from the law, and Rick decides to turn himself in to the Galactic Federation so they can go back to Earth. He is motivated to do so by overhearing how they, particularly Jerry, talk about him. Jerry says why are they going through all this to help Rick, when he wouldn't do the same for them. Summer says they should love people unconditionally and not because of what they will do for you. I think it's that statement that gets through to Rick, finally spelling out more explicitly what he's learned; to value people for their own sake, not what he can get out of them.
Season 3: Rick Back on Top
In the first episode of the season, Rick breaks free from the Federation's prison, and hijacks their system, destroying their civilization by making their currency worthless. Since the Citadel of Ricks is also after him, he transports the whole Citadel into the Galactic Federation Prison, destroying them both. This shows that, while Rick has become a better person, he still is driven to destroy authority and mock conformity.
The next episode, "Pickle Rick" has him going to extreme lengths to avoid family therapy; he turns himself into a pickle, but when he accidentally rolls into a sewer grate, he has to find ways to survive roaches, rats, and he eventually gets out of the sewer by harnessing a rat's limbs, but gets involved in a weird Die Hard like shootout. When he finally wins this, he ends up going to therapy.
Now, what's interesting is that we see again that Rick has come to actually care about Beth's, and the rest of the family's feelings enough to stage a bizarre excuse like this, rather than simply running off to another dimension to avoid family therapy, which is the kind of thing he would have done in the past. A lot of people miss about this episode that turning himself into a pickle, and enduring the ensuing hardships that creates, is actually a kind gesture to his family, and not simply showing the extremes he will go through to avoid them — he can avoid them with the touch of a button. He admits he doesn't respect therapy, saying that because he's a scientist, when he doesn't like something, he changes it. But, the incidents that happened to him while he was a pickle show that he's not in control of everything, he just wants to believe he is. And, while he wants to do things for his family, he resents being coerced into doing things for other people.
The next episode, "Rickmancing the Stone", is more about Morty and Summer, and satirizing the Mad Max movies. But it also satirizes the concept of nihilism. As soon as electricity is brought to a wild, post-apocalyptic, violent society, modern comforts cause people to care more about upholding society. This leads that society to become not that different from the pre-COVID American suburban society Summer came from. So while she was originally enamored by the brutality and nihilism of this world, and the guy she met there, she becomes disillusioned with it when people start acting more civilized. The episode also explores the concept of Morty having repressed rage again, but his story is about the brutality of seeking revenge. This one has little to do with Rick's arc, and is, like I said, mostly about Morty and Summer.
Then there's "Vindicators 3: Return of Worldender" which is a satirical take-down of superhero teams as a concept. It's also about Rick's possessiveness of Morty. In his dogged determination to expose the hypocrisy and folly of the Vindicators, a superhero team Morty looks up to, Rick's pilot episode problems like drunkenness, recklessness, and threatening people come back. But, Rick's cynicism is proven right; though his method puts everyone in a lot of danger, he does expose the underlying foolishness of the Vindicators, and brings their buried, repressed conflicts to the fore. He causes them to fight among themselves, and it takes very little to create enough stress to make them even go as far as killing each other.
The "Whirly Dirly Conspiracy" is about Rick and Jerry's relationship. He confronts Jerry pretty harshly with his character flaws, but they do bond by the end of the episode, and Rick becomes a little more forgiving of him. The B plot of the episode is about Summer's self-esteem issues, showing that, like Jerry, she can be insecure and vulnerable to social pressure, because everyone is sometimes.
"Rest and Ricklaxation" is about Rick and Morty going to an alien spa, where all the toxic aspects of their personalities are taken from them. However, it doesn't end well, so the episode is exploring the fact that some things that we might think of as our flaws are helpful sometimes, we're not whole without our personal failings, and also that character growth cannot be a 180° turn that happens suddenly. Instead, it is an organic, gradual process.
The next episode, "Ricklantis Mixup", shows us a day of crazy things that happen in the Citadel. It's a very cool episode, but it's not that important to our Rick's character arc, other than that it shows many possibilities Rick could have chosen in life, but didn't. It also shows how organized societies always end up with inequality, cruelty, and oppression. Even though all Ricks and all Mortys are genetically the same, different ones are treated differently based on their jobs, and Mortys are second-class citizens. This reflects and magnifies to the extreme Rick's disdain for Morty. This also shows how crooked and bad the Citadel really is, when in previous episodes, they seemed a little more sympathetic and reasonable. It shows that other Ricks there really did lose their way, proving it true when Rick said he's the "Rickest Rick" there is. So now you get that if you were Rick, you wouldn't care much for the Citadel of Ricks either.
Then is episode 8 of the season, "Morty's Mind Blowers". In this episode, it is revealed that Rick erases memories from Morty to prevent Morty from hating him. Morty has also requested certain memories of his own mistakes be erased. These coming to light cause Rick and Morty to fight. Since he evidently didn't erase what he did to Morty in the pilot episode, it's likely that he created this sometime during the course of the show. In other words, now he cares about Morty's feelings more, and he's come to care about what Morty thinks of him. He's also relying on Summer's help now; she's the one who helps them fix everything when they accidentally erase all their own memories. So while it shows Rick as being sneaky and manipulative, it's a sign of some growth that he cares enough to bother with it.
The episode "The ABC's of Beth" doesn't tell us much that's new about Rick. He is trying to bond with her by showing her the world he created for her as a child, Froopyland. But, it's later revealed that he did this not out of kindness, but because Beth was sociopathic and lusted for violence, and he wanted to isolate her in a place where she couldn't hurt other children. This is again, more about Beth, with the subplot being a lesson for Jerry, not showing us much that's new or different about Rick. It doesn't even really give us that much insight into Rick's past, other than that at some point, he became afraid of his own daughter's personality. This could partially explain why he abandoned his family at some point before returning in the beginning of the show.
The last episode of the season, "The Rickchurian Mortydate" is a funny episode where Rick keeps one-upping the President of the United States with superior technology, as well as blowing him off in order to play Minecraft with Morty. This is more about that sweet anti-authoritarian ethic of Rick's. Even though the president initially seems reasonable, the episode reveals that he really is petty, obsessed with being the one in charge, and jealous of Rick. He's not a fictional version of any real US president, but since he's a black man, he may be loosely based on Barrack Obama. But it seems like what the episode is going for here is to satirize authority, and the American government, in general.
So while season 2 ended with a major defeat for Rick, season 3 ends in a major triumph.
Season 4: More Satire, More Explorations of Rick's Beliefs
If there were a central theme tying together the diverse episodes of season 4, it would be satirizing storytelling tropes and conventions. This is not just fun for the audience (it is), but it serves to illustrate more about Rick's beliefs, convictions, and values. More information about what he hates and why is also shown.
The first episode, "Edge of Tomorty: Rick Die Repeat" is about how Rick disdains the concept of predicting one's own future. He gets some crystals that let one see the possible ways they will die, but only to sell, he is not interested in them for himself. He says that the only people who know exactly how they will die are either boring, or about to get shot. Morty does not heed his disapproval of their use. He sneaks away his own death crystal, using it to follow a pattern of behavior that will lead to the one death he wants: dying of old age with Jessica saying, "I love you, Morty."
Not only does Morty cause massive destruction in pursuit of this particular death, but it turns out, that vision does not imply Morty is in a relationship with Jessica at the end of his life. Jessica, whose grandmother died recently, wants to go into hospice care, and intends to comfort people dying alone by telling all of them "I love you (plus whatever their name is)." Rick and Morty discuss the lesson here. Rick kept getting killed while just living in the moment, and Morty screwed things up by focusing too much on his desired future. This episode also shows how many alternate versions of Rick live in screwed-up fascist dystopias, including one where a fascist version of Morty forces Rick to go on an adventure with him at gunpoint. Obviously, this is again driving home the point that Rick hates or is indifferent to the concept of alternate versions of himself, and that his chief enemy is authoritarianism.
The next episode, "The Old Man and the Seat" is about Rick getting into a fight with an alien over his own private toilet with a beautiful view on another planet (yes really). The episode ends with him respecting the alien for wanting something similar to Rick. Rick wants privacy, something that's all his own, and only his own. It explains his motivation for keeping secrets from others; perhaps some of that is because he just wants to experience things other people don't know about. To have his own private space. It's also about both him and the alien man's desire for the comfort of an appearance of control in an absurd universe. Pretty deep for an episode about pooping.
"One Crew Over the Cuckoo's Morty" is like the Vindicators episode, but this time aiming a satirical gun at heist movies. Rick, like in the Vindicators episode, again goes to absurd lengths to disillusion his grandson, who expressed an interest in wanting to pitch a heist movie idea to Netflix. But, Beth told him not to make Morty feel disillusioned, that if he gives up on the movie, it has to be his own idea. So, Rick wants to manipulate Morty into giving up on heist movies as a concept, but he can't let Morty think that he doesn't support his dream of making one. So, stealing Morty's motivation to make the movie is a kind of heist in and of itself.
Episode 4, "Claw and Hoarder" has Rick getting Morty a dragon, which he demands. Here, Rick is not opposed to dragons that much, and later he even bonds with Morty's dragon. But the adventures of the episode allow Morty to get disillusioned on the concept of dragons on his own. This episode introduces a mysterious talking cat. When Jerry and Rick find out why he can talk (which he's told people to just not think about), both are so disgusted that they puke. It leaves you wondering what could possibly be so disgusting that Rick would puke, given all the horrifying things he's hardly blinked at.
The next episode, "Rattlestar Ricklactica", is about Rick deconstructing another common speculative fiction trope: time travel. Now, prior to this, Rick has disdained the concept of time travel. But here we see why; apparently, species who discover it, in this case a planet of sentient snakes, go crazy with time travel. The snakes' case becomes so out of hand that the Time Police have to go back in time to destroy their first sentient ancestor, destroying their modern civilization as a whole.
Episode 6, "Never Ending Morty" is about aggressive disdain for, and satire of, storytelling tropes and plot structures. The episode shows Rick defeating the "Story Lord" by acting unpredictable and out of character. It is revealed that they are on a "Story Train" play set from their own show, and then Rick mocks the commercialism of cartoons by sarcastically praising Morty for uncritically buying a product. Another fourth wall joke is when he says no one's buying things because of this virus, referring to COVID-19. This episode felt like it should've been the season's second to last episode. It took the theme of story satire to an exciting, intriguing, and humorous climactic battle.
Then, episode 7, "Promortyus", has an interesting out-of-order plot structure, where something weird happens, then they end up finding out what happened leading up to it. This episode takes place where it is assumed the face-hugging parasite aliens are ruled by some kind of dictator. But, it turns out that Summer has helped them advance their civilization, and then tried to get Rick and Morty free from their face huggers. It's not a particularly memorable episode, with a basic lesson about challenging assumptions.
Then there's "The Vat of Acid Episode". In it, Rick and Morty argue about whether Rick's fake vat of acid gimmick is a good idea, when Morty criticizes it, and Rick refuses to admit it was a failed idea. Then, Morty demands that Rick do one of his ideas for once. He says he will do a "save point" device, like a remote, that lets Morty set a save point, like in a video game, that he can go back to, so that if he wants to change his actions, he can. He can live without consequences because he can undo anything he wants.
But as it turns out, Morty should have listened to the explanation of how the device works that he didn't stick around for. It was teleporting him to similar alternate dimensions and killing the Mortys that were there, allowing him to take their place. So let's say he saved, went and robbed a gas station, then went back to the save point. What he actually did when he saved was kill another Morty in another dimension, travel to that dimension, and take that Morty's place. Meaning, he really did do those things, and there really were consequences, he was just able to evade them. It's mostly a lesson for Morty, but it also illustrates a remaining flaw of Rick's, that he is way too sensitive to criticism of his ideas. He set up the whole thing to torture Morty as a punishment for such criticism. Even though Rick hates authority, he can, paradoxically, act authoritarian at times himself.
Episode 9 of the season, "Childrick of Mort", is mostly a few lessons for Jerry; camping is stupid, children should be allowed autonomy, and apparently, you shouldn't try to fight a system that calls you worthless. The episode also features some bonding between Rick and Beth, perhaps foreshadowing the next and final episode of season 4.
That episode, "Star Mort and the Return of the Jerr", brings back some stuff that was hinted at before. Rick confronts Tammy and Phoenixperson. "Space Beth" shows up, and it is left ambiguous by the end whether she is the clone of Beth or the original Beth. But either way, she's badass. Rick, in this episode, admits that he was a "terrible father", which is interesting because in "The ABC's of Beth", he blamed Beth more than himself for the way things turned out when she was a child.
So, some things Rick is doing better from the beginning include:
- Trusting and valuing his family more. Especially, this means learning to treat Morty more like a person and less like an object.
- Treating other life forms with more respect too (like when he comes to respect the toilet guy, instead of just killing him).
- Being more honest, though he still acts secretive and manipulates people still at times. He's especially become more honest about his feelings with his family.
- Learning to accept blame/responsibility for himself (but he's not quite where he can do it all the time).
But, throughout all this, what doesn't change are his core values. These core values can be better understood by comparing Rick to the ancient Cynic philosopher, and original shitlord, Diogenes of Sinope.
Rick: The Modern Diogenes
The Cynic philosopher Diogenes of Sinope was probably more famous for his antics than his actual philosophy, which emphasized virtuous, simple living. Diogenes took this to an extreme by living in a big clay wine storage vessel, which is depicted as a wooden barrel in later artistic representations of him.
When Plato and other philosophers argued about the definition of human, and settled on "featherless biped", Diogenes is said to have plucked a chicken and thrown it at Plato's feet, saying "I have brought you a man!". Thus illustrating that there was probably more to the definition of human than "featherless biped".
When Alexander the Great showed up in Athens, as he was kind of a big deal, everyone was making a big fuss about him. Diogenes, however, was sunbathing. When Alexander said he'd heard of Diogenes and offered to help him get anything he wants, Diogenes famously replied, "I want you to move out of the sun." One account of this story says it was followed by Alexander laughing and saying that, "If I were not Alexander, I'd want to be Diogenes.", to which Diogenes replied, "If I were not Diogenes, I'd want to be Diogenes." Another story claims there was an incident where Alexander found Diogenes looking intently at a human skeleton on the ground. He said, "I am trying to find the bones of your father, but I cannot distinguish them from those of a slave."
He was said to break taboos from the time, like eating in the marketplace. He disdained custom, because he believed that instead of understanding good and evil, people were relying on customs and tradition, as a way of lazily getting around having to come up with their own moral philosophies.
There's also the famous anecdote that he would walk around in broad daylight with a lantern, claiming he was looking for an honest man, but finding only scoundrels and rascals.
He was cool under pressure, and remained sarcastic then, too. When captured by pirates who asked him his trade, Diogenes replied that he knew no trade but ruling men, and that he wished to be sold to a man who needed a master.
Though none of his many writings survive today, Cynic philosophy is indistinguishable from Cynic practice; the way he lived illustrates Diogenes' philosophy for us. Similarly, Rick's philosophy is expressed through his actions.
Another thing to mention? Diogenes of Sinope left his home city when his father (a banker, whose trade Diogenes was probably also learning from him) was accused of debasing the currency. He is said to have consulted the Oracle at Delphi about how to live, and got the answer: "debase the currency". He took this to mean that instead of actually debasing currency literally, he should pick apart the flaws in things people value, including money. How does Rick topple the Galactic Federation when he breaks out of their prison, to free Earth from their rule? He makes their currency worthless.
"He considered his avoidance of earthly pleasures a contrast to and commentary on contemporary Athenian behaviors. This attitude was grounded in a disdain for what he regarded as the folly, pretense, vanity, self-deception, and artificiality of human conduct."
— Wikipedea, 'Diogenes'
It shouldn't take a particularly sharp mind to notice the similarities between Diogenes and Rick. Rick also lived his life deliberately to be an obstacle to authority and tradition. Also, Cynics were known for wearing a cloak similar to that of Socrates and carrying a stick, which symbolized Heracles, symbolizing their virtues of wisdom and strength, respectively. What better way to modernize these symbols than a lab coat and a gun? Since it's a portal gun, it also represents the possibility of new kinds of thinking, and how breaking free of tradition allows us to access new worlds entirely.
Additionally, Cynic philosophers avoided seeking their own wealth, fame, reputation, and so on. They reveled in breaking social norms, especially ones they did not see as natural or based on reason. The name Cynic comes from the Greek word for dog, perhaps because they were so unconventional and irreverent that they were said to behave like dogs. But it also may refer to their hound-like mentality when it came to mocking society. Their aim was to expose pretenses and uncover lies and any irrationality underlying everyday customs and rules.
So, if you see Rick Sanchez as a contemporary version of Diogenes, his "random adventures" start to make a lot more sense. He doesn't not care, but he will not care about things society tells him to care about based solely on tradition. That's why he forms attachment to his family only organically, but will not stay with them because of the conventional standards society holds for what a father and grandfather should do. So you have someone you could mistake for a nihilist, except that he cares deeply and thoroughly about one objective: to undermine authority and expose the follies of those with power.
So, while at first glance, the show seems to be just about random nonsense, discarding concepts like character growth entirely, there are ways Rick's behavior improves over the course of the show. He values his own autonomy, resenting being told what to do by others. And he backslides from time to time. But he does improve in the way he treats Morty, the rest of the family, and even strangers. Rick is also a modern counterpart of the ancient Cynic philosopher, Diogenes of Sinope. They have many similarities, their main difference being that Diogenes was strict about living simply, while Rick doesn't have any problem trying to gain wealth. However, usually the wealth he wants is just a means to his greater end. That end is the same as that as Diogenes; to rebel, satirize, and mock authority, tradition, and social conventions. People love rebellious characters like Rick because they have the courage to do things we wish we could do, if we weren't afraid of repercussions, which the characters are able to escape.
Do you wish you could be like Rick? Do you think of him as a hero, or as too flawed to be seen as a hero? Feel free to tell me what you think.
© 2020 Naomi Starlight
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on August 07, 2020:
I have never watched this show, but from your description of it, it appears to showcase many frailties of Rick's nature.