If you’re smarter than the majority of people, does that allow you to be a douchebag?
[Warning: The following contains light spoilers for Rick and Morty season 3, episode 9.]
This is the question that has haunted television writers rooms for decades. ‘Help,’ the writers on House cried during their first meeting, ‘How do we make our brilliant doctor more interesting?’ In the case of House, the answer came in a physical disability and being an asshole. In Sherlock, the abnormally intelligent detective was also a quirky, lonesome adrenaline-junkie with a remarkable ability to isolate himself from the rest of society. Rick and Morty illustrates Rick as an alcoholic and addict, circumventing his need for emotional acceptance by reiterating that intelligence and logic are the only aptitudes a man truly needs to get by in life.
Rick is governed by his nihilistic views — and logic plays a big role in that. As Rick said, “Smart people get a chance to climb on top, take reality for a ride, but it will never stop trying to throw you, and eventually it will.” Rick believes that life is meaningless and therefore the only way to enjoy it is by doing reckless things and throwing caution to the wind. Here’s the breakdown: If nothing matters then emotions are a sign of vulnerability; vulnerability is weakness and if being very smart is the only way to understand this, then what’s the harm in being a dick, towering your intelligence over others?
This is the conundrum that House, Sherlock, Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, Patrick Jane from The Mentalist and so many other characters, including Rick, are confronted with. As one colleague said, it’s the “perceived asshole” subgenre of television. The brilliance of Rick and Morty is that the show doesn’t just lean into the theme, but addresses it head-on. As Beth and Rick travel to Froopy Land, where Rick imprisoned Beth as a child, it’s Beth’s turn to realize that her father is an asshole and, most importantly, that life is meaningless. As Rick explains, it’s only the smartest of people who can identify the justness of nihilism; Only they can understand that beyond the sporadic moments of happiness, all that’s left is meaningless voids of time and space.
Or, as Ernest Hemingway, put it, “happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”
The aforementioned TV characters have had similar emotional trajectories. In one episode of House, Dr. House admits that “Life is pain. I wake up every morning and I’m in pain.” In House’s predicament, this is both true emotionally and physically, but the sentiment is valid. It’s because he’s had to lead a life of pain — and because he’s brilliant — that he’s allowed to be an asshole. Being smarter than everyone else makes him feel good for even a second and, again, as Rick said, “smart people get a chance to climb on top, take reality for a ride.”
What Rick tries to instill in Beth this episode is that her life is also meaningless, but she’s smart enough and has the opportunity to choose a less painful way of living. For Rick, that was to grab Morty and take him on adventures so he doesn’t have to be alone. For House, that was Vicodin and a best friend named James Wilson. For Sherlock, that’s his best friend John Watson. Rick offers to let Beth go free, but in doing so, would make certain that the family wasn’t aware she abandoned them, alleviating the guilt from her shoulders that he’s had to carry for years. If she were to accept, then she would also be an asshole, like her father, but smart enough to acknowledge that life is meaningless so people might as well have fun while they’re living.
The ending to the episode is ambiguous, but seems to imply that the version of Beth we see snuggle up to Rick at the end, confessing her adoration for her father after learning about previous travesties, is a clone. Why else would Beth be okay with what her father did and the choices he made just hours after learning about their shared history?
This is another part of the genius trope we see on television. Despite the hard-shelled exterior and dismissal of a need for affection, these characters are still human and looking for a way to connect with someone — anyone. They want to be loved and, because of their in ability to break down their own emotional walls, accept that love in any form. Whether it’s a clone, an unhealthy friendship or unsatisfying relationship, the fact that someone is willing to tell them they’re loved trumps any other part of their logical brain that suggests they don’t need compassion and human connection to enjoy life; even if it’s entirely meaningless in their nihilistic mindsets.
This season of Rick and Morty has been its bleakest, something we were promised since it began, but it’s also structured in its hope for the future. Rick is a selfish bastard, but that doesn’t mean he hates his family. Rick continues to make mistakes, but he’s also learning from them in the process. It would be wonderful if Rick finally started confronting those mistakes instead of jumping into a different dimension every time things got difficult — or turning into a pickle to get himself out of, well, a pickle — but don’t expect that to happen any time soon.
Rick is a victim of his nihilistic views and it’s going to take more than a season to fix that. There is hope, however, that Rick may eventually come around to understanding that life can be meaningless in the long run but meaningful in the moment.
Rick and Morty’s season finale will air on Oct. 1 at 11:30 p.m. ET.