Is Rick and Morty outgrowing Rick? Has the show, and our culture, reached their limit with the “lovable jerk” character type? Rick Sanchez is the mad genius anti-hero at the heart of Dan Harmon’s and Justin Roiland’s Adult Swim show. But over the course of the Rick and Morty’s fourth season, the allure of Rick’s heartless nihilism has started to fade, and it seems like everyone in his life is leaving him behind. Morty pushes back against Rick’s cruelty before finding a new adventuring partner in Summer, and Beth teams up with her clone and realizes that she doesn’t need to live in her father’s shadow to have value. Rick’s former best friend, the planet he used to date, and a whole “story train” of fictional people all want to kill him, and he ends the season without a friend in the world. Here’s our Take on why Rick and Morty is outgrowing Rick, and what this means for the future of the show.
Like a shoddily animated Walter White, Rick Sanchez is the mad genius anti-hero at the heart of Rick and Morty’s success. But over the course of the show’s fourth season, the allure of Rick’s heartless nihilism has started to fade, and it seems like everyone in his life is starting to outgrow him.
Morty: “I’m constantly pitching you ideas, Rick, and you act like they aren’t even worth thinking about.” — Rick and Morty, 4x8
Morty pushes back against Rick’s cruelty before finding a new adventuring partner in Summer. Beth teams up with her clone and realizes that she doesn’t need to live in her father’s shadow to have value. Rick’s former best friend, the planet he used to date, and a whole “story train” of fictional people all want to kill him, and he ends the season without a friend in the world. Even Rick is sick of Rick.
So has the show—and our culture as a whole—reached their limit with the “loveable asshole” character type? And are we as an audience at risk of leaving Rick behind, just like his family? Here’s our take on why Rick and Morty is outgrowing Rick, and what this means for the future of the show.
Morty: “Big man, big genius, big lonely drunk.” — Rick and Morty, 4x8
A Change in Rick-spective
While Rick has never been a particularly good father, or grandfather, or lover, or friend, or person, up until this point he’s mostly gotten away with it.
Dr. Wong: “The only connection between your unquestionable intelligence and the sickness destroying your family is that everyone in your family, you included, use intelligence to justify sickness.” — Rick and Morty, 3x3
Those he’s hurt have maintained a need for his approval, acceptance, and guidance, often making excuses for him.
Beth: “Well, maybe he drinks because it isn’t easy to be more powerful than God.” — Rick and Morty, 4x9
So what’s different now? Why are people suddenly turning against Rick? Rick’s closest relationships deteriorate largely because, as the same toxic patterns repeat over time, it finally becomes clear to his family members that—far from acting in their best interests—Rick is addicted to feeling control over them. This season, his relatives start to find liberation and self-empowerment by denying him that control.
Rick: “What’s next, Morty? What if I want you to jump off the empire state building? I have to ask?” — Rick and Morty, 4x1
Until now, Beth’s relationship with her father has been defined by the tension between (on the one hand) knowing that he’s a pretty terrible dad and person and (on the other) desperately craving the love and approval of this person who once abandoned her. She’s long wanted Rick to affirm her intelligence, to prove to herself that she’s like her father in all of the “good” ways and distinguish herself from her sweet-natured but admittedly stupid husband, Jerry. In the episode “Childrick of Mort,” Beth gets what she’s always wanted. Rick at last treats her as his intellectual equal.
Beth: “I know things haven’t always been great with us, but we do make a pretty good team.” — Rick and Morty, 4x9
But because old dogs rarely learn new tricks (especially when they are high-IQ sociopaths with drinking problems), Rick inevitably lets Beth down, and she’s once again reminded that there is a good reason she married someone who is nothing like her father.
In the Season 4 finale, when Beth is brought face to face with her clone (or possibly the other way around), the Beths help each other realize how horrible Rick really is. More importantly, meeting Space Beth allows Earth Beth to see her potential fully actualized in another person.
In contrast to Rick’s spirit of adventure for adventure’s sake, Space Beth is actually working to save the galaxy and fight for justice. Whereas Beth used to think that she needed her father to become the best version of herself, she now realizes that, all this time, Rick has been an impediment to her self-actualization, and she is all that she’s ever needed.
Beth: “The truth is we have more important sh*t to do, like raise our kids and stamp out the federation, neither of which seem like they want anything to do with you.” — Rick and Morty, 4x10
Meanwhile, in season 4, Morty is trying to mature into a young adult and build some independence from Rick. But unlike any even mildly loving grandfather whom you’d expect to be happy about his grandson’s progress, Rick behaves like a possessive spurned lover, manipulating Morty through elaborate schemes to prevent the boy from having any life outside of him.
Rick: “Morty’s still working on that stupid heist script… skipped out on the last three adventures.” — Rick and Morty, 4x3
And when Morty late criticizes both Rick’s ideas and Rick’s continued lack of interest in all of Morty’s own ideas, again Rick goes to ridiculous lengths to teach the kid a “lesson” about the consequences of criticizing him, at the expense of Morty having to murder himself countless times. Rick repeatedly proves that he’s willing to dismantle Morty’s belief in himself so that his grandson remains insecure and thus dependent on Rick.
By the end of the season, Morty, at last, achieves some independence from Rick by forming a new bond with Summer. The siblings prove they can have adventures and save the day all on their own, and that it can even be more fun without Rick telling them how stupid they are each step of the way.
Morty: “Dream team rides again!”
Summer: “Oh yeah, we’re like Luke and Leia.” — Rick and Morty, 4x10
Meanwhile, Jerry, the person Rick detests most, finds some validation in raising what he believes to be Rick’s rejected children. And in the Snowpiercer-inspired episode with a train full of people out to kill Rick, the fact that it’s a “Story Train” can be interpreted as a message that Rick’s own narrative is taking him down. When the series wraps up, Rick is once again alone in his garage laboratory, having alienated everyone in his life.
Rick: “Holy sh*t I’m a terrible father.” — Rick and Morty, 4x10
Rickspicable Me: The Problem of Consequences
So why is this all happening? And why does Rick seem to be slowly losing his mind? The central problem with Rick’s life is that it lacks real consequences.
Morty: “Living without consequences is great, but then I started wondering, what am I living for? What am I building?” — Rick and Morty, 4x8
While he’s not technically immortal, if things go wrong, he can always clone himself, or one of his family members, or jump into a different dimension. On an existential level, Rick is actually hampered by the fact that (for all intents and purposes) he doesn’t have to die, an inevitability that colors the experience of every other human being. Counterintuitively, feeling like he’s more-than-human ends up making Rick less-than-human in his emotional life.
Rick: “I am the god of death!” — Rick and Morty, 4x7
Let’s start with the issue of general consequences. Just like mice in a lab experiment, humans learn to avoid unhealthy behavior by experiencing negative consequences and to pursue healthy things by experiencing positive consequences.
There is a whole school of ethics built around this idea called Consequentialism, which argues that human beings can evaluate the goodness of their actions based on the consequences which these actions produce. For example, if you let happy hour turn into an all-night affair on a weeknight, the consequence can be suffering through an HR training session the next morning with a vicious hangover. This negative consequence subsequently teaches you that getting hammered on a Tuesday is not a smart way to live. If, say, your job is being a school bus driver, then showing up to work hungover the next morning has serious ethical consequences, too, as it could increase the chances of hurting not only yourself but one of the children you’re responsible for.
But let’s say you develop a serum to automatically cure a hangover. In that case, you won’t have to deal with the negative consequences for your binge drinking, and will never learn a practical or ethical lesson about making good choices. Rick knows that, no matter what he does, he can avoid the most important consequence of them all: death. Rick’s ability to cheat death leaves him without the imperative to become a better person. And even more importantly, it allows him to evade any reckoning with what the meaning and purpose of his life really is.
Morty: “And then it hit me, we are who we are because of consequences. You can’t live without consequences, you know?” — Rick and Morty, 4x8
Without death, our life would be infinite, and this limitless time would mean we could do whatever we wanted, for eternity. But this leads to an existence where everything we do feels pointless, as The Good Place recently explored with its portrayal of a very unsatisfying heaven:
Chidi Anagonye: “If you live forever, then ethics don’t matter to you because basically there’s no consequences for your actions.” — The Good Place, 2x4
The more our days are numbered, the more our actions matter—because we only have this one shot at life—and this means we’re forced to think about the meaning of these actions.
Michael: “You said that every human is a little bit sad all the time, because you know you’re gonna die. But that knowledge is what gives life meaning.” — The Good Place, 4x12
According to philosopher Martin Heidegger, our finitude is what makes us human. So if Rick isn’t necessarily finite, he’s not really human. To be human is to give up control, which is exactly what Rick won’t do—as his friend Tony gets at when breaking down the psychology of Rick’s practice of “shy pooping”:
Tony: “It’s a pointless bid for control. You wanna take the one part of life that you truly think is yours and you wanna protect it from a universe that takes whatever it wants. We can spend our lives fighting that, or we can choose to be free.” — Rick and Morty, 4x2
Heidegger agrees with Tony here, as he thinks that it’s by accepting our own mortality that we’re able to be free, whereas the guise of false control ends up controlling us. This is why Rick is envious of Tony—even though Tony loses his life, when he dies he’s given up his fear and embraced his freedom. The reality of death made Tony’s life meaningful, while Rick’s ability to avoid death makes his life increasingly meaningless.
The result of all this is that—of all the people outgrowing Rick—perhaps no one is more fed up with this guy than Rick himself. While we’ve seen Rick deal with depression before, this season intensifies his loneliness and self-loathing, forcing him to contend with the fact that he’s to blame for his perpetually dissatisfied emotional state. Rick seems to be able to do anything except for maintain a healthy friendship with another human being.
Rick: “Enjoy using it all by yourself while you sit and think about how nobody wants to be around you, and how you ruined it for yourself because you’re a huge piece of shit, look at you, sitting there, King Shit on his throne of loneliness.” — Rick and Morty, 4x2
No Country for Old Ricks
All this has been going on for four seasons, so why did the show decide that now was the time for Rick to be outgrown? Why couldn’t he keep carrying the mantle of the loveable asshole character, who’s for so long got a free pass for his bad behavior thanks to his intelligence or charm? Rick’s narrative turning on him has much to do with our own changing culture, which has dwindling patience for the antics of misbehaving men.
Meanwhile, it’s impossible to ignore that popular culture has a direct effect on our actual culture. The glorification of “lovable asshole” behaviors can inspire young men to imitate those behaviors in their own lives, demonstrating that there are moral implications to the choice of which characters we deem worthy of screentime, redemption, or adoration in our narratives.
But if Rick and Morty and all its characters have truly lost patience with Rick, apart from continuing to bash him for many seasons to come, where does the show have to go from here?
Rick: “You idiots, our potential isn’t limitless, you’ll never break the fifth wall before you burn us out.” — Rick and Morty, 4x6
Reviews of season four have been mixed, with some critics praising the second half of the season, while many fans on Reddit largely focused on why they thought it sucked.
Fascist Morty: “I wanna have fun, classic Rick and Morty adventures like in the good old days.” — Rick and Morty, 4x1
The crowd that loves the show because of Rick’s privileging of logic over emotion is unlikely to be won over by the show’s criticism of his behavior. However, those viewers could very well be replaced by a new fanbase interested in seeing how the show’s increasingly diverse writing staff explores how the Smith family might flourish when allowed to escape Rick’s dark shadow.
Rick’s arc shows that in the end being the smartest man in the universe won’t make you master of it—but being kind, loving, and honest can at least help you find your place in it.