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Rick Sanchez: An Extremely Detailed Character Analysis

Rachael has had an intense love for science fiction and fantasy games, TV shows, movies, and books since childhood.

Rick Sanchez

Rick Sanchez

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

rick-sanchez-character-analysis-not-a-nihilist-but-a-cynic

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.

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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

"Rick and Morty"

"Rick and Morty"

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.

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 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 afterward, 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 "superpower" 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 catchphrase, "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

"Rick and Morty"

"Rick and Morty"

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

"Rick and Morty"

"Rick and Morty"

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.