To be honest, I’d never expected zany sci-fi, Adam Phillips, and Leibniz’s best possible world approach to the theodicy problem to converge in a masterful twenty-two minutes on Cartoon Network. Then again, life sometimes mocks expectations. Adult Swim’s new series Rick and Morty is off to an unbelievable start, enjoying wide critical acclaim and no small amount of creative self-indulgence, in the best way. In a series of brilliant episodes, episode 8, “Rixty Minutes”, stands out for the surprising depth of its meditations on regret. Watch here. Spoilers follow.


For those new to the series, Rick – an ingenious, cynical scientist – moves in with his daughter’s family and takes his grandson, the not-too-bright and insecure adolescent Morty, on adventures with him. In the sixth episode, Rick Potion #9, we were introduced to alternate realities. Rick made his grandson a love potion to use on his math-class crush, which ended up transforming the entire human race into praying mantises, and later into Cronenberg creatures. Unable to reverse the damage, Rick uses, as a last resort, a portal to another reality similar to theirs, but sans Cronenbergs. They replace the Rick and Morty of the alternate reality (who have died in an experiment), bury them in the backyard, and go on living life as before – same house, family, friends, etc. Problem solved.

In “Rixty Minutes”, Rick complains about the Bachelor-style TV they’re watching, an obvious critique of escapist television, though an ironic one for a series whose protagonist is constantly trying to escape his pain by going to other dimensions, and bringing us with him. If the meta bells haven’t started going off yet, they should. So Rick fixes the problem by hacking the family’s cable box so it can show infinite channels from other dimensions – not bad, for someone on a planet with poor cell phone coverage. As he flips through the channels – gunfights from a universe where people evolved from corn, violent antique shows, and a teddy bear spinning silk into a web – they come across Jerry, Rick’s insecure son-in-law, on Letterman. The idea that in an alternate universe he is famous, and could have been famous in this one, captivates Jerry. Rick, more interested in trans-dimensional absurdity than his family members’ possible lives, disdainfully gives them a pair of goggles which allows them to flip through their alternate realities. “Infinite timelines, infinite possibilities”, as Rick tells them. He warns them of the vanity of “narcissistically obsessing about their alternate selves”, but the rest of the family – except his grandson Morty – go to the kitchen and fight over the goggles.

What would you see in your alternate reality goggles? For me, it’d be an alternate self in the early stages of a promising career in law, publishing a theology dissertation, or living abroad in South America. Beneath the animation and the sci-fi, there’s a gut-level critique of what we value. Focusing on our potential, our “infinite possibilities” or unlived lives, strokes out egos by affirming our talent and potential. Yet simultaneously, such an alternate self puts weight on the current, less happy, less-actualized self in this dimension.

Jerry and his wife, Beth, married after Beth became pregnant with their daughter, Summer, while they were dating. And in their dream realities – where Jerry stars in Cloud Atlas and Beth, a veterinarian, performs surgery on “real people” – Summer is conspicuously absent. To fulfill their dreams, they had to sacrifice the daughter who was holding them back. And the marriage which has seemingly held them back, yielding such normal, humdrum lives.


The goggles are like the fruit from Eden. They show possibility and potential – “you shall be like God” – which makes their creaturely existence suddenly seem mundane and insignificant. Meanwhile, Rick and his grandson continue watching TV, which, it turns out, is just as mindless in other dimensions. Car ads with gimmicky salesmen (Mister Sneezy), and trailers for escapist action flicks (Alien Invasion Tomato Monster Mexican Armada Brothers Who Are Just Regular Brothers Running In A Van From An Asteroid And All Sorts Of Things The Movie). So Jerry, Beth, and Summer escape the repetitious mundanity of their lives by absorbing themselves in better visions of what they could have been, while Rick and Morty distract themselves from their boredom with mindless, surrealist television. Is one any more helpful than the other?

The episode seems to push toward the strange contention that both are forms of mindless self-distraction, but at least surrealist television isn’t so narcissistic. Rick, as the burnt-out cynic, has a rock-bottom view of human nature, and thus he becomes the show’s voice of truth (à la TD‘s Rust Cohle). It’s a mindless surrealist TV show making a case for the value of mindless surrealist TV shows, but in making such a case, it becomes gut-wrenchingly profound. Between self-obsessed distraction and distraction by something other than oneself, it seems to suggest, we should be fine taking the latter. And sometimes, what appears to be lowbrow media pulls the rug from under our feet and speaks truth after it’s disarmed us – thus Rick and Morty way undersells itself in its meta self-comparison to Gazorpazorpfield (language warning).

Our responsibilities and our dreams often conflict. Since humans are (1) in competition with each other and (2) need each other, self-actualization – following one’s dreams – sometimes comes at a relational cost. For Morty’s family, his parents realizing their dreams would’ve meant sacrificing Summer, who forced them to get married and held them back. Every one of their alternate realities is so good because Summer is notably absent. When Summer learns this, she breaks down and decides to leave home.

Two conflicts have emerged: the marriage, it turns out, has killed Jerry’s and Beth’s potential, and Summer has found out she was unwanted, an obligation. The only way forward is for these dreams to die, so that the marriage and Summer’s existence can again be recognized as valuable. Two agents of reconciliation spring forth – one natural, the other super-natural (or at least, super-dimensional). The natural reconciliation occurs as Beth watches her alternate self in the goggles, proud of being a surgeon but trying to ignore her isolation as a middle-aged single woman, surrounded by birds. Jerry, meanwhile, is watching TV again, and he still seems proud that his alternate self is on the news, but this time it’s in a chase, as police follow him down the interstate. He comes to alternate, middle-aged Beth’s door, throws it open, and tells her he’s always loved her. She responds in kind, and real-life Beth and Jerry tear themselves away from alternate realities and come back into the real world, reconciled.

So the natural comfort here springs from the realization that maybe, in the alternate reality, they would’ve been envious of this one. They watch their ‘better’ selves lament the fact that they didn’t get married sooner. So even though their marriage was forced by Summer, and therefore the ‘how’ was less-than-ideal, the end result was (and is) better than they could have planned.

The other comfort is super-natural. As Summer’s packing her bags, Morty goes into her room and explains to her that he and Rick messed up another dimension, came into this one, and replaced their this-dimensional selves. As Morty tells her, after showing her his grave in the backyard, “That, out there, that’s my grave. On one of our adventures, Rick and I basically destroyed the whole world. So we bailed on that reality, and we came to this one. Because in this one, the world wasn’t destroyed. Every morning I eat breakfast twenty yards away from my own rotting corpse… nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV.”

The fact that there is something rather than nothing, the fact that Rick’s and Morty’s ambition destroyed an entire reality (sound familiar?!), the fact that this, their normal lives, was where they chose to end up… There is no delivery from the burden of infinite possibility until that possibility is revealed as destructive and ultimately unsatisfying. Morty has discovered this firsthand by dying to his ambition, as a result of his ambition to make people love him. The selves we want to reach out and lay hold of, the Utopian worlds we want to engineer, and the dreams which will satisfy our hunger for fame and legacy will ultimately be no more complete than our current, everyday lives. It is only by understanding the price of ambition and the universality of death that Morty can speak comfort to his sister. W.H. Auden said it best:

Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.

The death of possibility enables the mundane to be what it is – something valuable in itself, and only ‘mundane’ when overshadowed by misplaced dreams. The law comes before the Gospel, and we could all use a little deconstruction of our ‘better selves’: “nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV.”