Ever since the unexpected debut of the 3rd season of Adult Swim’s “Rick and Morty”, which not-so-jokingly took place on April 1st 2017, a whole new wave of debates has begun, and this time they concern social and political ideas much more than concepts belonging to the sphere of theoretical physics and sci-fi science. The series, which used to be known for its compressed format of having Rick Sanchez, a sociopathic mad scientist, go on various adventures through the space and time continuum alongside with his light-headed nephew Morty Smith, is finally becoming more mature and meaningful, as even the most absurd moments come together and get connected as consequences to the status-quo.
One might say that the whole paradigm of lack of meaning and existentialism, which was masterfully explained by Wisecrack through the philosophy of Albert Camus, is being replaced by a more wholistic approach which shows that every small action and choice, despite its apparent lack of meaning and consequences, shows its effects at some point. Needless to say, all of these consequences are social and political, as it’s being shown that Rick Sanchez’s recklessness doesn’t simply go unnoticed on the larger scheme of things.
If you haven’t watched the last couple of episodes from the show, then it’s highly advised that you stop reading here and return whenever you have accomplished the 40-minute task. It’s very important that you understand the succession of events and establish your own opinion on the matter before you read a commentary that you might agree with or wish to argue against.
First of all, let’s talk about Rick Sanchez’s many illegal deeds which seemed to be cancelled and forgotten at the end of every episode (at least in the first season), as soon as he returned home to his earthly dwelling. At some point there is a poor scientific explanation about having to travel with his idiot nephew just so his intelligence cannot be tracked by brainwave radars. However, Rick is quite an anti-hero with questionable intentions: In the very first episode of the series, he is portrayed as a petty and self-interested resource thief who does his best to bypass the authorities from the world he’s visiting, and who also makes his underage nephew commit murder when some of the creatures try to catch them (the argument is that they’re not real beings, but mere robots that get destroyed by the laser blast).
As the series progresses, we notice how the mad scientist is a clear sociopath whose intelligence, brutal honesty, and wit are the only qualities which make him remotely likeable: he has no remorse in terms of participating in the mass-murder events from a purging planet, and in the season 3 premiere he even kills some of his incarnations from other parallel dimensions (on the basis that he is the Rickest of all Ricks, a terminology that’s meant to establish his superior intellect and prevailing moral intentions).
Yes, we see some traces of a moral compass when he becomes concerned about his girlfriend Unity’s ways of having fun with disasters, and he does care for the life of his nephew, his niece, the daughter he left for longer than 20 years, and Jerry Smith, the individual whose lack of intelligence and understanding of universal matters make him become mocked by the scientist (as well as him many incarnations from other dimensions). At the same time, we can’t deny that Rick is an outlaw who meddles with alien worlds without remorse, defies the space-time continuum authority, and opposes the biggest factor of political order in the known world, the Galactic Federation.
And this leads us to the second part of the argument: the Rick Sanchezes from all the known parallel universes have used their intellect in order to establish a political organization of their own, and one that fights the hegemony of the Galactic Federation. It’s called the Council of Ricks and, even though it didn’t seem to have much of a purpose for the series when it was first introduced, the first episode of season 3 presents it as a factor of self-preservation of Ricks, as well as a liberty fighter against the Federation. The Ricks of the universe, despite being very intelligent lone wolves, have decided to counter political homogeneity and uniformization through their chaos and freedom-loving secret society.
And the fact that we already have two opposing political entities brings about a more or less intentional parallel with the first Star Wars Trilogy (whose episodes are conveniently numbered IV, V, and VI): we have an authoritarian political entity which seeks to gain control over every planet within their reach, and an inter-dimensional organization whose purpose revolves around the idea of maintaining the (chaotic) individual freedom and keeping uniformity away from their worlds.
But just as always, you can identify the devil in the details, successfully distance yourself from the Star Wars parallel, and think about the pros and cons of each side in a critical way. In the case of George Lucas’ films, it’s clear that one side uses the dark side and wants to build a gigantic structure that destroys planets with a laser beam, so it’s much more clearer who the good guys are.
But in the case of “Rick and Morty”, it’s a lot more complicated: we learn from the first episode of the 3rd season that diseases are abolished by virtue of the Federation’s more advanced technology, famine is abolished through the use of tasteless food that serves its nutrimental purposes, and order is kept through convenient robotic butlers who also safeguard the application of the law (as seen when Summer tries to run with the portal gun). Furthermore, the Galactic Federation is a factor which brings diversity and cosmopolitanism, as Earth is inhabited by other creatures from different worlds. The merits of this inter-galactic political organization can be summed up in a trade-off between fundamental rights and scientific advancements: you give up on some of your rights, but in exchange you get material luxury and well-being.
On the other hand, Rick Sanchez and his Council of Ricks stand for a chaotic status-quo, and a state of independence in which the Galactic Federation doesn’t intervene. He (or they) advocates for personal and collective liberty, but the intentions behind these ideals seem to be egoistical: this state of freedom is the one which allows Rick to have his adventures and arbitrarily meddle with alien worlds. Yes, it’s true that Rick finally displays some feelings of care and concern in the last episode of season 2 when he gives himself to the Federation just to have the Smiths saved, but a sudden act of generosity doesn’t magically wipe out every situation in which he acted recklessly and without thinking about consequences. Furthermore, the argument that Rick Sanchez is selfish is strengthened by the fact that the Federation’s intervention was needed in order to cure diseases on Earth: and if the mad scientist is so smart, then why didn’t he share his research and discoveries with the rest of humanity and he allowed his political enemy to provide them in exchange for the freedom of billions of people? This is exactly why I strongly believe that Rick Sanchez is a selfish anarchist, whose reasons and morality are highly questionable, and whose only version of the greater good is the one in which he is free to conduct his selfish expeditions.
Clearly, there’s a lot of overthinking involved and it’s unlikely that the series creators took the elements to such lengths and depths. But the debate regarding the preference of highly-organized authoritarianism, as opposed to unpredictable and as-chaotic-as-human-nature democracies can find its roots in Aristotle’s “Politics” and was expanded upon ever since. The best way to govern human or alien communities is a subjective assessment that transcends personal preferences and has to do with economic, geographical, and political factors (for example, you can’t take over China and abruptly turn it into a liberal democracy, as the system would quickly collapse – a swift transition is always required). Furthermore, I personally know lots of highly-educated individuals who crave for authoritarianism and prefer “bread over freedom”. My views tend to be libertarian on this issue (but I tend to be highly skeptical of Rick Sanchez’s intentions in the fictional universe), but for the sake of consistency and convenience, I shall use examples from the show in order to explain the issue.
Beth and Jerry Smith, the parents of Morty and Summer, seem to be very incompatible in terms of life philosophies and aspirations, and it’s exactly this sum of differences that often leads to conflictual situations: the former is a highly-trained and qualified horse surgeon who doesn’t seem to have any problems adapting in earthly liberal capitalism, whilst the latter is a narrow-minded loser who can’t stand the presence of anyone smarter and takes pride in his insignificant accomplishments, even when he takes a post-modernist approach on truth and affirms that Pluto is a planet in vain of scientific proof. When the winds of changes shift and the Galactic Federation brings a radical change in the regime, Beth finds herself in the situation of being unemployed and miserable (due to the fact that the Federation brought higher medical technologies), whilst Jerry is rewarded for his mediocrity-induced obedience and climbs the ranks of the new political establishment.
The case is reminiscent of the post-World War II communist regimes which took control over the countries of the Eastern Bloc, as the elites of the former democratic and capitalist establishment were overthrown, and their replacements were mediocre at best, but willing to listen. Such an authoritarian political structure (which scholars called “totalitarian” for its wholistic approach) was closely following the orders that came from Moscow, and wasn’t independent in any way. Likewise, it abolished fundamental human rights, led military occupations, and rebalanced the elite structure, as well as the distribution of wealth. The extended control over formerly sovereign states has led to arbitrary purges such as the Gulag (which has made even more victims than the Holocaust), and directed intellectuals towards camps of forced labor and torture prisons.
The main difference from the show is that Stalinism didn’t bring any technological advancements, and its lasting merits can only be listed in terms of infrastructure – which was done at the cost of countless human lives. In contrast, the Galactic Federation didn’t seem to be willing to purge the human population, nor did it oppress sciences: though it has arbitrarily meddled the social order and took away fundamental freedoms, humankind has begun to benefit from unprecedented technological and medical advances. And in the views of some, this framework is more beneficial for living a good human life than crony capitalism (an assessment to which I don’t necessarily agree, but I find it useful in order to deconstruct the apparent well-meaning nature of Rick Sanchez).
In all his genius and brilliance, Rick hasn’t helped his peers evolve in technological terms, and has only used his inventions for selfish purposes. By all means, he is an inter-galactic and inter-dimensional criminal who deserves to get tried for his reckless, unlawful, and morally-dubious actions, and the newly-introduced consequentialism (which opposes the initial nihilism and absurd existentialism) will certainly open up more instances when he will pay for his deeds. At the same time, it’s hard to condemn the Galactic Federation for devious actions, and the oppression of individual freedom seems to be its only crime (and some philosophers might argue for this taming of the self-destructive human nature). Through the sum of all arguments presented, I boldly declare that Rick Sanchez (as in the Rickest of all Ricks C-137, not just every member of the Council of Ricks) is a selfish anarchist who should know better and deserves to be punished. However, for the sake of the show’s longevity, I hope that the moment doesn’t come anytime soon and, if it happens, then it must certainly precede the moment he tastes the szechuan teriyaki sauce. Wubba Lubba Dub-Dub!