Article: Nobody Exists on Purpose: The Scant Optimism Hidden Beneath the Existential Nihilism in Rick and Morty

"No one is accountable for existing at all, or for being constituted as he is, or for living in the circumstances and surroundings in which he lives. The fatality of his nature cannot be disentangled from the fatality of all that which has been and will be. He is not the result of a special design, a will, a purpose; he is not the subject of an attempt to attain an ‘ideal of man’ or an ‘ideal of happiness’ or an ‘ideal of morality’—it is absurd to want to hand over his nature to some purpose or other.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

“Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. We’re all gonna die.” – Morty Smith, Rick and Morty

Existential nihilism isn’t something one expects to find rife in an animated sitcom about an ordinary family dealing with its unusual, dimension-hopping scientist figurehead. But Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon’s Rick and Morty, undoubtedly one of the most popular shows on [adult swim], is a trove of pessimistic philosophy that cuts through its dark comedy in swaths of smart, if depressing, callbacks to exactly this.

Essentially, the tenets of existential nihilism can be boiled down to the quotes at the beginning of this article. Life, says the existential nihilist, has no inherent significance. There is no purpose to our suffering as human beings, and there is no ultimate Meaning of Life to be sought after, much less found. A bleak outlook, to be sure – but Rick and Morty uniquely takes such views and, somehow, makes them beautiful within the webs of its chaotic two seasons (a third is currently in development, with a season premiere possibly confirmed for late this year).

Fourteen-year-old Morty Smith is a typical American teenager, not particularly intelligent or special, who is co-opted into inter-dimensional adventures with his grandfather, Rick Sanchez. Rick is jaded, an elderly scientist and pragmatist who has literally seen and done everything he has ever desired and now finds that the more he travels between dimensions and through our own and alternate universes, the less thrilling he finds reality. For Rick, there is no sense of wonder. There is no vastness to the experience of living – he sees that there are infinite possibilities and infinite versions of himself, and therefore sees no point in attempting to find value in his own life. Morty, beginning the series as a wide-eyed and terrified kid surrounded by things he cannot comprehend, is presented as a possible key to Rick’s deeply hidden humanity and hopes – but as the series progresses, the messages of nihilism and emptiness become more and more prominent. Even Morty’s youthful idealism is no match for Rick’s deadpan, matter-of-fact harshness.

And yet….Rick and Morty posits the importance of small things. It suggests that there is a glimmer of hope, even for a character like Rick Sanchez.

It can be argued that the reason most people want to accept that life has meaning is because they want to assert that their deaths will have meaning; that there must be a reason to live and struggle, so that when they have died there can be said to have been some kind of importance in their having existed. A reason for everything that has happened to them. A purpose.

But Rick, having long ago realized that the entity considered himself as an individual is one and the same with an infinite number of other entities known as “Rick Sanchez”, despairs at finding meaning in the life he’s living in his own dimension – and so he sees no meaning in his eventual death, either. If he dies in one version of reality, another version of himself can simply step in and take over where the deceased left off, the rest of the world none the wiser for it. Rick finds no meaning even in his own death, then, because he recognizes that, within infinite universes, he dies somewhere every single minute of every single day.

“For man to be able to live he must either not see the infinite, or have such an explanation of the meaning of life as will connect the finite with the infinite.” – Leo Tolstoy

And here, summed up neatly by Tolstoy, is where Rick and Morty reveals its hidden germ of optimism: While Rick does, indeed, seem to see no real value in his own existence, dissociating himself from any sense of real subjective individuality, he finds worth in the people he pretends not to love. Even as he holds others at arm’s length, he quietly finds meaning in Morty’s life, and in the life of his daughter, Beth, in particular. And as the mask begins to slip across two seasons of character development, the secret to Rick’s sadness seems to be that he is intelligent enough that his self-awareness gives him a genuine understanding of his own disconnect –  from his emotions, from his reality, and most of all, from his family. Denial of his own individual humanity breeds a dark nihilistic streak in Rick, a trait he shields in acerbic sarcasm and cold science.

But Rick, as much a mad genius as he is, is stifled by his refusal to look inward. The series doesn’t explain much of his past – glimpses are given for the audience to piece together, but Rick’s pain is largely an internal weight he carries around with him, even as he mocks his son-in-law and grandchildren for their mercurial, hypersensitive reactions to what happens around them. This is a character who is deeply hurting, but who rebuffs that hurt because to put a name to it would be to admit culpability for the direction his life has heretofore taken. His only real hope, then, is to secretly put his faith in Morty – notice, in little ways, that even Rick seems abashed at the changes taking place in his grandson’s character over time. Seeds of guilt and regret coat small facets in his personality, building up to the second season finale and the decisions he ultimately makes. But as long as Rick holds belief, however small, that he can ‘save’ Morty, even if he sees the relationship between himself and his daughter as irreparable in the end – there is a tiny light at the end of the tunnel for the Smith family, and even, the series suggests, for Rick himself.

There is room in the realities of Rick and Morty for even the seemingly purposeless life to find value – even, the show seems to suggest, if there is no inherent meaning or purpose to be gleaned in survival or, indeed, in sacrifice. We root for Rick Sanchez because, despite his world-weary cynicism and distant, petulant demeanor, he represents the art of a patchwork conscience, which we are able to watch begin to unfurl and start to discover itself. Even if reason eludes us in a literal sense, there is still some kind of strange significance in experience – in all the myriad realities of possibility, Rick and Morty isn’t so much concerned with the journey, or even the final destination. Instead, it is content to tell the story of a man who has all but abandoned himself in every reality, and attempts to prove that even when life is completely pointless, there’s still a bright side to existence.

“Be good, Morty. Be better than me.” – Rick Sanchez, Rick and Morty

-Dana Culling