There are a number of people online who think that Rick, the titular “hero” of Rick and Morty, is cool. They either want to be him — who doesn’t want to be able to bend the universe to their will? — or they already think they already are him. Being smart gives people an excuse to disassociate, after all. They’re a genius, so they suffer, so they’re an asshole. The problem is everyone else, not them. That’s why they’re alone.
I will not be quoting these people, nor will I be calling anyone out. They exist, and you can usually find them in the seedier corners of the internet.
Rick is, if you don’t watch the show, the smartest being in what passes for reality. He can move between dimensions on a whim and has drinking buddies on every planet on which one would want drinking buddies. He lives with his daughter, and this situation is partially responsible for the death of her marriage with her loser of a husband, Jerry. Rick takes his grandson Morty on all sorts of dark and depraved adventures, and that’s the show.
Also, Rick hates himself. This aspect of the character isn’t subtle. He once only survived a suicide attempt because he blacked out while drunk.
Rick feels very little outside of contempt and pain, and there aren’t many people out there who mean anything to him. Rick’s world is empty because he is empty.
And some people really, really think that’s awesome.
This isn’t a new thing
There is a long history of characters who are allowed to be completely self-centered due to their intelligence. It started at Sherlock Holmes, or at least some interpretations of the character, and includes everyone from Don Draper to Walter White.
Characters who are clearly meant to be the villain are celebrated by some for their unwillingness to listen to anyone else in their lives or grow in any way that matters. I’m not sure many people with that Scarface poster remember the last third of the movie, nor did an entire generation of stock brokers learn the intended lesson from Wall Street.
People with nothing else to guide them begin to act like the caricatures that were written to mock them, and they’re blind to the tragedy of the situation. It would be more silly if they didn’t hurt so many people around them.
These characters do what they want, when they want, no one can stop them and by the end of the story ... well, who watches that far? I’m sure it all works out well for them.
In America, first you get the portal gun. Then you get the women. Then you get the power. Then, crippling depression.— Kyle Orland (@KyleOrl) September 24, 2017
The point is that being smart is supposed to be enough. Having things is supposed to be enough. If you are so intelligent that everyone is beneath you, why care about anyone? Why get upset if no one cares about you? That’s just proof you’re more advanced.
Which is where the whole thing falls apart. Rick and Morty, as a show, knows that Rick is a pathetic creature. That’s why he can’t connect with anyone, and why any moment of joy is so fleeting. He can do anything and has nothing. That’s a dangerous idea.
Because there is nothing wrong with people who are too smart for other people. It’s everyone else who is wrong. Rick is a character who gets it; there is never any reason to adjust your behavior to suit anyone else, because you are the only thing that’s important. If you don’t like it, toughen up. That’s how the world is.
Imagine being the smartest person in the room and also being able to do or get anything you want. That’s the dream. That’s why Rick has to be aspirational, because who wouldn’t be happy in that situation?
Rick is the ultimate alpha, a man who has achieved the goal of dominance over reality itself. Of course he’s a cool guy, the alternative is unthinkable. The universe itself is subjective, which is why the feelings of other people are worth less than nothing. They’re just not smart enough to realize it.
So when someone says they want to be Rick, or Don Draper or any of those other damaging pop culture stereotypes that seem to suggest rudeness is something other people have to worry about, they tend to leave out the fact that these characters hate themselves. They emulate people who are terrorized by loneliness and have no idea how to fight back, in an attempt to make their own lives more tolerable.
It’s an understandable impulse if you feel alone and disconnected from other people. Hell, even Don Draper wants to be Don Draper, the person in the show is some loser named Dick Whitman who thought he could become Don Draper by buying enough suits and sleeping with enough women. The show itself points out trying to become someone who has it all won’t do anything if you’re not willing to look inward.
If Rick were content and truly powerful, all the other Ricks would just kind of ... be cool. What else is there to do but enjoy life and explore the universe? Instead he’s often literally at war with himself, because no version of Rick knows what he wants or how to get it. He’s not dominant, he’s the weakest character on the show.
Hell, we know what Rick would look like were he a bit more in touch with his emotions and desires, because Dr. Who has been on the air basically forever. There’s also Morty, a character who at least tries to do the right thing through his haze of teenage horniness. Morty has seen the cold, uncaring face of oblivion and it shook him up. But the result is a character who uses that fact not as excuse to pull away, but as a reason to connect.
The men who fall for characters like Rick — and let’s be honest about the fact they’re almost exclusively men — aren’t saying they’re lacking the things that Rick has, they’re actually saying they have something Rick doesn’t. They’re saying that if they actually had those powers — if they actually were that smart — they would be happy. They have the missing piece of the puzzle. They would be the version of Don Draper who’s happy with the trophy wife he has in the first episode.
Because if that’s delusion, if it took more than omnipotence or maybe just looking like Jon Hamm to be happy, they are in real trouble. That would suggest that it’s not the world that’s causing their misery and discontent. It would mean that, if they wanted to do something about their problems, they would have to change themselves. People who understand themselves don’t want to be Rick. People who have what it takes to be that smart and find something approaching happiness don’t turn into Rick. You can’t have it both ways.
We know what happens when some loser becomes Don Draper, because that’s literally the plot of Mad Men. It didn’t end well for him. We know what happens when some scrawny kid gets to suddenly look like Chris Evans and become invincible, because that’s the plot of Captain America.
Both characters explain what happen when people are given amazing gifts, and it turns out neither changed their basic character. We don’t know how Rick got where he is, but he can create or become anything he wants, and what he chooses is pain and self-loathing. And then he begins to spread it around.
If you meet someone who thinks Rick is great, ask him the following questions: What does Rick have that they want, and what did having that get Rick himself? Why do they think they would be any different if they had those gifts?
Don’t fool yourself into thinking I’m talking about other people, I’m talking about you as well. Because if you imagined all the things that could be done with Rick’s powers if he was stable, how many of you thought about how quickly cancer would be cured, or famine wiped out?
Both of you can put your hands down.
Rick is an aspirational character because it gives people an excuse to stay where they are. To be alone, and to feel superior. If they just had a bit more ... something, they could fix it. But being smarter or better looking wouldn’t fix the thing that made them this alone to begin with. That attitude lives inside them, and could likely be fixed without any external changes. They just have to turn inward and start acknowledging that other people do matter, and changing may not be be a sign of weakness or capitulation.
But that’s too hard to think about. Which is why Rick is a really cool guy.