Flawed Faith: Rick and Morty, Existential Angst, and Millennials

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” —Romans 8:28

This weekend brings us the highly anticipated premiere of the fourth season of Rick and Morty. Even amongst Christians, I imagine tonight is going to be exciting, as the show will likely become the talk of every water cooler discussion for the next few weeks in geek circles. 

If you haven’t seen the show, it’s a spoof on the Back to the Future movies that retells the basic scenario of an older genius and his young male sidekick in a much darker and philosophically grotesque way than it’s predecessor. In this version, the elderly Rick is a genius scientist who has invented the ability to travel between different universes and dimensions but can’t undo any of his mistakes with time travel. His grandson Morty is the essential normal person in this scenario and spends his time getting dragged along on life threatening and disturbing adventures with existentially horrifying consequences.

Because the series gets as dark as it does, and because Rick is generally portrayed as an amoral atheistic genius, the show is most often held up as a series that romantically exemplifies the absurdity of life. As a result, it’s become immensely popular amongst young people. The show is funny, intelligently written, and deeply unsettling; as such, it’s become something of a bell for millennial nihilists who hold up Rick as a modernistic aspirational standard for life in an meaningless universe.

From the outside looking in, this is fairly revealing. The depths to which many people seem to bond philosophically and emotionally with the show are quite astonishing at times. We’ve seen  this in some very embarrassing public expressions of love for the series that can take extremely emotional forms. In the fall of 2017, McDonalds released a limited edition Szechuan sauce as part of a promotional campaign in reference to a joke from the season premiere of the third season about the 1998 Disney movie Mulan. When they quickly sold out, fans started complaining en masse, but the situation escalated to the point where one fan publicly started jumping on counters and screaming at a cashier. It’s understandable to feel disappointed by not getting to participate in something you care about, but such a public show of rage and dissatisfaction suggests a much deeper level of connection to the material than is healthy. 

So what exactly is going on here? Rick and Morty certainly is a very well written and emotionally impactful cartoon, but why has it cut so deeply into the core of so many young people who seem to believe it exemplifies some sort of life philosophy that needs to be acted out? You don’t see this kind of extreme reaction behind similarly cynical and well written shows like The Simpsons. Maybe there’s a similar reaction with something like South Park, but as I’m aware, no South Park fan has ever screamed at a cashier over a promotional food item before. What does my generation’s attachment to Rick and Morty say about the state of things? 

I happen to be a member of the tail tend of the Millennial generation having been born in 1995. What I can tell you having grown up around them is we’re a rare and strange generation in the history of humanity. We were the first generation in human history to grow up with the internet and watch it encroach and profoundly affect our day-to-day lives to the point where we can’t imagine a world without it. We’re more connected to one another than ever before through the internet and through websites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Our lives have been posted online since we were young. We live in relative prosperity, most of us have gone to college, and most of us have a solid day job. In many ways, we’re the inheritors of a great societal prosperity created by the generations before us.

Despite the prosperity though, we are profoundly unhappy. Ours is a generation of moral degeneracy, hopelessness, nihilism, and coping mechanisms. Most of my generation cast off the religion and austerity our parents and grandparent’s generations gave to us so we could write our own destiny and live by new morals and standards. Now, many of us are discovering too late that we’re massively in debt to college loans we can’t pay off, we can’t afford homes, and we carry the emotional burdens of failure, broken promises, and a lifetime of tumultuous casual relationships. Even the few life-long Christians like myself don’t escape the chaos unscathed. I know all too many Christians and non-Christians alike who need therapy and daily selfcare just to function minimally. My generation is buried — both by their self-inflicted mistakes and the mistakes of their parents. It’s likely most of us will never truly get out of the pit we’ve found ourselves in.

You can see this hopelessness reflected in our entertainment choices. The internet is replete with an infinite supply of memes casually joking about life being meaningless and that death would be a preferable alternative to what we have to deal with. Dark humor is the air my generation breathes. Just as much as it’s a coping mechanism, it tells us what emotions are bubbling under the surface in a fairly honest way. 

There’s an essential banality to life in my generation because of our relative prosperity that makes the challenges we struggle with more difficult. Banality is dangerous because it teaches us to be used to extreme comfort and doesn’t give us the tools to handle the immense pain and difficulty of life. As a result, the real problems life throws at us become devastating trials. That’s likely why issues like anxiety are so prevalent amongst the young. 

The Bible is very straightforward about the ways prosperity and comfort damage the soul and its ability to seek transcendent truth. 

“Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” -Matthew 19:23-24

More than likely if you’re reading this, you live in a relatively rich society. Because it’s so immensely difficult to take up our crosses and die to ourselves in this culture where most everyone has everything they need to survive, most of us have no frame of reference for how we ought to live sacrificial lives as Christians. Most of us can barely live without suffering from anxiety and depression. Maybe this is why you see such life and zeal in the church in countries suffering under poverty and religious oppression. A Christian in China has something tangible to lose. In decadent societies, we create decadent churches. This is why you see so many Christians getting criticized by atheist activists for being rip-off artists. If your only frame of reference for Christianity comes from Joel Osteen-style megachurches, Christianity will look like a fake scam too you. 

Rick and Morty frequently depicts this perception of the church head on. Much of its base level of criticism against the notion of God and religion comes from textbook modernist complaints about religion. Right off the bat, one of the first lines of the entire series is in the first episode where Rick offhandedly mentions to his granddaughter Summer that God doesn’t exist and she should resign herself to that fact. In the subsequent seasons, several episodes have been dedicated to the notion of religion. In the season two episode Get Schwifty, an entire religion is formed when an alien being mistaken for God appears in the sky and they start performing parodies of religious rituals, up to and including human sacrifice. In the season three episode Rest and Ricklaxation, a toxic clone of Rick blasts a wave of toxic energy over the town which causes a local pastor to scream mid-service that he doesn’t actually believe in God and just does it for the money.

These themes emphasize the notion that religion, namely American Christianity, is brutal, superstitious, medieval, and greedy. Most of these are all too common jabs against religion that don’t offer much real insight. Anyone who’s worked with a church before can tell you it’s not a business most people go into to make bank.  To the young and frustrated, though, they are quite appealing arguments if you are deeply alienated from faith. 

Maybe the show’s most famous quote on the meaning of life comes in the show’s first season when Morty tells his sister, “Nobody belongs anywhere, nobody exists on purpose, everyone’s gonna die. Come watch TV?” which seems to represent the series’ more humanist intentions. It’s a sentiment that ties into the shows general belief that love and friendship are the best cures to existential angst.

To be fair to the show, it’s not entirely anti-theistic. There are some moments when the show’s brutally nihilistic façade comes off and we see the more desperate anxious heart of the show hiding underneath. The best example of this comes in the season two premiere A Rickle in Time, where Rick actually prays out to God to save him in a moment of weakness only to succeed in saving himself and yelling out “f*** you God!” It’s a fairly revealing moment of angst followed by a hollow moment of bravado coming from a character who is otherwise convinced he’s the most powerful being in the universe. It’s a rare moment of brilliant artistic tension that the series as a whole exemplifies when it’s at it’s best. 

Rick isn’t the hero of Rick and Morty; he’s essentially the villain of the story. He’s responsibile for unleashing most of the horrific and cosmically destructive forces in the series in spite of the romantic image that surrounds the character in pop culture. Remove him from the show, and it remains a mostly somber, depressing show about normal people struggling with anxiety, meaninglessness, and depression in a way that’s exceptionally relatable. When Rick isn’t around, you see the show for what it really is as an examination of the painful nature of life. 

When Nietchse famously wrote the “God is Dead” quote, it was in response to his realization society was learning to move past the notion of God. While it’s been disabused as a statement for over a century, what’s often loss is that it was just as much a lament for the cultural loss of divine morality and transcendent meaning. 

“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent?”

There’s a sadness and loss to the post-Christian world he captured beautifully in those words. If God is dead, the world isn’t far behind it. Similarly, Rick and Morty is a lament for the loss of morality and meaning in the post-Christian world. I doubt its creators feel anything positive about God, but the degree to which they seem to castigate modernity’s  laxness is present throughout the show. At its worst, the show is merely juvenile and gross, but at its best, it’s a warning about the state of the soul of society. 

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

1 Comment

  1. Philip Adams on May 4, 2020 at 3:08 pm

    Very interesting take.

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