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Rick and Morty - Why Rick is Actually an Adolescent

Far from reflecting the age group he appears to belong to, Rick Sanchez’s attitude is actually a mirror of the late adolescent mindset of Rick and Morty’s core demographic. The “Rick stage” around your late teens and early 20s is when your brain is at the peak of its power, life feels full of adventure, and you might sometimes think you’re the smartest person in the multiverse. Most people eventually trade in this late-adolescent “Rick stage” of arrogant independence for grown-up responsibility and commitment, but that does require sacrifice. Rick (and viewers who relate to him) may not know, or want to know, who they are behind their grandiose sense of self. Here’s our Take on how Rick Sanchez, the oldest adolescent in the galaxy, personifies this particular moment of life right before we cave to adulthood.

TRANSCRIPT

Rick: “Nobody gets me.” - Rick and Morty, 3x10

Rick Sanchez doesn’t feel like an old man. Despite all his experiences (and his looks), Rick comes off like an immature college student, making jokes about Adderall and porn, spending hours watching interdimensional cable, and abandoning his son-in-law, Jerry, at a daycare center so he can play arcade games.

Far from reflecting the age group, he appears to belong to, Rick’s attitude is actually a mirror of the late adolescent mindset of Rick and Morty’s core demographic. The “Rick stage” around your late teens and early 20s is when your brain is at the peak of its powers, life feels full of adventure and you might sometimes think you’re the smartest person in the multiverse.

Rick: “I’ve got a lot of enemies in the universe that consider my genius a threat.” - Rick and Morty, 1x10

You’re fixated on uncovering the deep existential truths of the universe, and it can be empowering to reject societal norms and expand your world views — but your lack of long-term planning can lead to very bad decisions, and the cynicism that makes you feel wise may sometimes come off as immature. Most people eventually trade in this late-adolescent “Rick stage” of arrogant independence for grown-up responsibility and commitment, but that does require sacrifice. Rick and the viewers who relate to him may not know or want to know, who they are behind their grandiose sense of self.

Here’s our take on how Rick Sanchez, the oldest adolescent in the galaxy, personifies this particular moment of life right before we cave to adulthood.

The Comrickment to Non-Committment

One of Rick’s defining personality traits is his commitment to non-commitment, or his refusal to plan for the long term. We see this when he clones his daughter, Beth, so she can have the option to leave her family and responsibilities behind, and then he immediately erases his own memory of which Beth is the original.

Beth: “You literally don’t even know which of your daughters is real? Of course you don’t. Why am I surprised?” - Rick and Morty, 4x10

This avoidance of the long-term effects of his actions is a hallmark of the “Rick stage” of life mindset. Inverse’s Eleanor Cummins explains that it’s not until the age of 25 that long term planning abilities kick into gear, as this is the age when the brain’s prefrontal cortex is fully developed; quote: “By quarter-life, most of us have figured out how to control our impulses, plan and prioritize well, and organize our lives in a way that gets us to our end goals. We have, in short, grown up.”

In Rick’s mind, this commitment to non-commitment is indicative of his freedom and independence. Whereas all the other Ricks in the multiverse band together to create the Trans-Dimensional Council of Ricks - and relatedly treat Beth with far more maturity and respect - Rick C-137 shuns this collective enterprise.

Rick: “You wanted to be safe from the government so you became a stupid government. That makes every Rick here less Rick than me.” - Rick and Morty, 1x10

That desire for unbridled freedom is attractive when you’re young and the idea of giving it up can be scary. The show often paints Rick as bold and powerful while middle-aged Jerry is weak and insecure, so it is easy for viewers to associate Rick’s attitude with freedom and Jerry’s commitments with mediocrity, but ultimately, Rick isn’t a happy person. He’s addicted to alcohol,

Rick: “If drinks are on you, you’re gonna need a second mortgage on that tower - I’m an alcoholic.” - Rick and Morty, 2x06

clinically depressed, and has no strong relationships in his life. By rejecting all forms of responsibility he has also rejected any chance at feeling fulfilled. The show proves this through Beth and Jerry, who realize that their commitment to each other was worth their hardships after they are confronted with an alternate reality in which they didn’t get together.

People in their late teens and early 20s are envied by older generations for their youth and independence. However, the “Rick stage” also comes with “purpose anxiety,” a term defined by Researcher Larissa Rainey as “the negative ramifications of the struggle for purpose in life.”

Butter Passing Robot: “What is my purpose?”

Rick: “You pass butter.”

Butter Passing Robot: “Oh my God.”

Rick: “Yeah, welcome to the club pal.” - Rick and Morty, 1x09

This age is commonly full of career switches, uncertainty about the future, and a struggle to define one’s identity. The only way to ease that uncertainty is by committing to something, otherwise, you may have trouble forming genuine relationships or finding meaning.

Ricksy Business

The other major thing that doesn’t fully develop until the brain’s prefrontal cortex has fully matured is our risk management abilities. A report from the NCBI notes that while impulse control steadily improves from childhood to adulthood, risk-taking increases during late adolescence.

The same is true for Rick, who believes risk is a necessary part of life.

Rick: “To live is to risk it all, otherwise you’re just an inert chunk of randomly assembled molecules drifting wherever the universe blows you.” - Rick and Morty, 3x02

Psychology professor Nina Mounts defines risk adolescent behavior as “dangerous driving, drug use, binge drinking, and risky sexual behavior.”

Often, Rick’s risky behavior is another avoidance strategy for any kind of adult responsibility he may need to undertake. When Rick turns himself into a pickle — and nearly kills himself in doing so — it’s all a way to get out of family counseling. This also speaks to Rick’s tendency, and the tendency of people in the “Rick stage” of life, to be so confident in their intelligence that they take dumb risks.

Rick: “You’re not going to believe this because it usually never happens but I made a mistake.” - Rick and Morty, 1x06

In fact, for all his genius, Rick often doesn’t exhibit very smart behaviors because he’s so often reacting in the short-term and not bothering to plan far ahead. As a scientist, he could foresee many of the problems that eventually end up blindsiding him, but he instinctively ignores this more mundane, painstaking work and prefers to wait until he’s in a difficult spot; he’s hooked on the adrenaline of proving his genius under serious life-or-death pressure as if this is the only way it really counts.

According to Nina Mounts, one of the biggest stimuli for teen risk-taking is peer influence. She explains that adolescents are more sensitive to being included or excluded by peers and more likely to engage in risky driving when peers are present.

Rick would fiercely deny that he has any peers, but he does have an infinite number of other Ricks around the multiverse. And as much as he pretends he could care less what they think, a lot of his behavior can be explained by his eagerness to distinguish himself in their eyes as the most superior — to prove to the other Ricks that he’s the best.

Council of Ricks Rick: “Of all the Ricks in the central finite curve, you’re the malcontent. The rogue.”

Rick C-137: “I’m the Rick.” - Rick and Morty, 1x10

For a man who’s wanted across the galaxy, joining The Council of Ricks would be a shrewd move, providing him with protection, but Rick cares more about his image as the rebel. He therefore misses out on what we can gain by outgrowing our risky rebellious years: a reliable support group of people who will be there for us when we need it.

The (Muddled) Philosophy of Rick

Rick presents his strong beliefs about existence as fact, with no respect for what anyone else has to say. But it’s striking that Rick’s philosophical musings are often full of contradictions and inconsistencies. He’s cynical about love, yet he clearly loves his grandkids and will endanger himself to save them.

Rick: “If we come back to earth, can my family have a normal life?”

Special Agent Gribbles: “We only want Sanchez sir, your family will be fine.”

Rick: “Nice.” - Rick and Morty, 2x10

For all his talk about the meaninglessness of existence and his ambivalence toward death, when confronted with death, he fights furiously to live.

Critics have observed that Rick holds views that reflect absurdism, neuroexistentialism, and nihilism at various points of the show — all of which contain ideas that undercut each other in some way.

This behavior reflects how young adulthood is the time when we try out many complex philosophies and versions of ourselves before deciding what fits best. Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan write: “the central phenomenon of adolescence is the discovery of the self as something unique, uncertain, and questioning in its position of life.”

Rick may seem certain about his conflicting philosophies, but by taking a step back and looking at what he says as a whole we see that he’s actually motivated by curiosity and searching for meaning.

In the Rick stage, abstract existential inquiries often feel more vitally important than the banal-feeling day-to-day details that occupy middle-aged minds like Jerry’s, such as getting a job. This can also be a way of avoiding a more concrete future that we worry will limit our identity to one specific, not-so-amazing thing. In a time when we are struggling with our identity, sometimes it is easier to detach and get lost in the big questions.

Morty: “Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s gonna die.” - Rick and Morty, 1x08

Conclusion

The fact that Rick is able to trojan horse this late adolescent worldview through the body of an old man speaks to why the show is so popular with its core demographic. It may not be a literal representation of late adolescent characters, but it’s perhaps one of the best modern portrayals of what this stage of development feels like. It captures that extreme arrogance and self-assurance of being old enough to feel like you understand everything, combined with that insecurity and rootlessness of lacking a home base, not yet knowing who you are, and thirsting for deeper meaning in the universe.

At the same time, Rick and Morty presents its audience with a problem: can you grow up and mature into a responsible, functioning member of society, without losing what makes you you? Rick’s tragedy is that he seems to want to be a responsible father and grandfather, but he’s afraid he can’t do that without sacrificing his inherent Rickness. Throughout the series we do see him make slight progress and occasional steps forward,

Rick: “I um- sorry I lied to get out of the thing… I shouldn’t lie to you.” - Rick and Morty 3x03

yet he also resists committing in a sustained way to changing. The question at the show’s heart is this: is that sacrifice of growing up and maturing worth it? It’s a struggle every late adolescent beginning to “adult” goes through — and, like the oldest Peter Pan in the multiverse — Rick has made an art of delaying growing up.

Rick: “I always slay it, Queen.” - Rick and Morty, 4x04

SOURCES

Anderton, Joe. “Rick and Morty bosses tease “epic” new details about season 5.” Digital Spy, Nov. 16 2020 https://www.digitalspy.com/tv/ustv/a34685852/rick-and-morty-season-5-canon/

Cummins, Eleanor. “3 life changing things that happen to the human brain at 25.” Inverse, Jul. 6 2017. https://www.inverse.com/article/33753-brain-changes-health-25-quarter-life-crisis-neurology

Institute of Medicine and National Research Council Committee on the Science of Adolescence. The Science of Adolescent Risk-Taking: Workshop Report. National Academies Press; 2011. 3, Biobehavioral Processes. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK53414/

Kohlberg, Lawrence, and Carol Gilligan. “The Adolescent as a Philosopher: The Discovery of the Self in a Postconventional World.” Daedalus, vol. 100, no. 4, 1971, pp. 1051–1086. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20024046. Accessed 11 Feb. 2021.

Kramer, Danny. “Rick and Morty: Meaning in a meaningless universe.” AndPhilosophy.Com, Apr. 2 2020 https://andphilosophy.com/2020/04/02/rick-and-morty-meaning-in-a-meaningless-multiverse/

Magliano, Joe. “Why are teen brains designed for risk taking?” Psychology Today, Jun. 9 2015 https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/the-wide-wide-world-psychology/201506/why-are-teen-brains-designed-risk-taking

Rainey, Larissa. “The Search for Purpose in Life: An Exploration of Purpose, the Search Process, and Purpose Anxiety.” University of Pennsylvania, 2014.Rainey, Larissa. (2014). The Search for Purpose in Life: An Exploration of Purpose, the Search Process, and Purpose Anxiety. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/304087988_The_Search_for_Purpose_in_Life_An_Exploration_of_Purpose_the_Search_Process_and_Purpose_Anxiety/citation/download

Stowe, Jessica. “The philosophy of ‘absurdism’ in Rick and Morty.” Study Break, Jul. 18 2016. https://studybreaks.com/culture/the-philosophy-of-absurdism-in-rick-and-morty/