“Rick and Morty” and the Meaning of Life

If you are one of the countless numbers of college seniors preparing to graduate and begin a new chapter of your adult life, it is difficult not to panic. Transition is tough, especially from education to employment. You are given a degree and told that your success depends on how well you assimilate to the collective economy, suffering from tales of drudgery and dreading the inevitable nine-to-five grind. You were meant to be someone, and now you stare into the abyss of your life with uncertainty and defeat. This crushing feeling of meaninglessness in an uncaring universe, the ever-familiar existential crisis, is a defining theme in the animated show “Rick and Morty.”

The show follows Rick, a genius scientist, and Morty, his dimwitted nephew, on their ridiculous adventures throughout the multiverse, made possible by Rick’s interdimensional portal gun. While “Rick and Morty” borrows from popular sci-fi films, it is deeply inspired by the cosmic horror genre. Viewers of the show will recognize Cthulhu, H.P. Lovecraft’s tentacled cosmic demon, in the opening credits. Cosmic horror centers on the unknown and unimaginable, as well as the dread of being exposed to a reality that is beyond comprehension. In the episode “Get Schwifty,” Earth is visited by giant floating heads, who demand, “Show us what you got.” Humanity, unable to fathom or make meaning out of this cosmic event, begins to worship these visitors as gods. But the floating heads, known as the Cromulons, are simply putting on an intergalactic music competition.

To the Cromulons, Earth’s significance is as a contestant in a competition, and if it doesn’t win, it will be disintegrated by a giant space laser just like every losing planet before it. “Get Schwifty” puts humanity in perspective, one that Rick understands and has accepted. In a multiverse beyond comprehension, with infinite possibilities, values and purpose start to slip away. And when that’s gone, the only option is to be a sarcastic, unapologetic asshole, as Rick is. He trivializes and demystifies everything using science, boiling even the most transcendental human experiences like love into numbers. Despite his nonchalant attitude, Rick is an alcoholic whose catchphrase, “wubbu lubba dub dub,” means “I am in great pain.” He is cursed by a struggle to find meaning, knowing that none exists.

If you are a college student, particularly a graduating senior, you too have felt this struggle. Your whole life you’ve wanted to be older than you are, to have responsibility and be seen as someone with agency. But now, as agency creeps toward you, the thought of freedom induces anxiety rather than calm. College turns out not to be the “best four years of your life” as everyone has promised, but a struggle to define yourself, to contrive passions and pursuits and to find a reason to wake up for an 8 a.m. class. When someone asks you about your plans after college, “I don’t know” is no longer an acceptable response, so you select a socially curated life plan and stick to it, blind to its future outcomes.

In the episode “Mortynight Run,” Morty gets the opportunity to play a game called “Roy,” which simulates an entire human life. In the span of a few minutes, Morty lived out the full life of Roy, an everyman who lives a long and ordinary life. What separates our struggle to find meaning, success or love from the struggle of Roy to do the same? In the end, Roy fatally injures himself falling off a ladder in his rug store, his life amounting to nothing more than a pointless game. But when Rick plays, he takes his character “off the grid,” rejecting the pursuit of arbitrary meaning. He may as well be pursuing that delicious Szechuan sauce.

In a random multiverse, indifferent to your hopes and desires, it is best to embrace the pointlessness of life and move on. Life doesn’t need to be validated, it simply exists. As Morty points out, “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody dies.” This can be a comforting thought in a moment of existential angst. Life is a cosmic raw deal, and summer is approaching fast. At least we have the third season of “Rick and Morty” to look forward to.