Rick and Morty: An Unhinged Look at Mental Illness

Rick Sanchez from Rick and Morty
Image Source: Adult Swim

When Rick and Morty first premiered back in late 2013, it was hard to know exactly what to expect from it. The brainchild of Community creator Dan Harmon and the multi-talented Justin Roiland, Rick and Morty was the latest addition to The Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block… but what exactly was it?

While its main characters, the hard-drinking scientist, Rick Sanchez, and his eternally fretful grandson, Morty, could be seen as a loose interpretation of Doc and Marty McFly from the Back to the Future trilogy, Rick and Morty was nowhere near the wholesome 80s adventures of that duo. Instead of time-hopping, Rick and Morty mainly concerned themselves with travel between dimensions or to the far-off reaches of the galaxy.

However, this small change in focus is nothing compared to the swap in the tone of the show. From very early on it became clear that Rick and Morty would not dial back from anything, no matter how disturbing or troubling. A season one gag, for example, has Morty being approached in a tavern washroom and hit on by the leader of a mythical kingdom . This would be pretty above board if not for the dark turn the scene takes when the monarch tries to sexually assault Morty mere seconds later.

This attitude for embracing dark and taboo subject matter, especially for comedic cartoons, became part and parcel to Rick and Morty‘s success, as for every laugh there was to be had, there often existed a dark reality behind it. This became more and more clear as the series continued, and the psyches of the characters were laid bare.

Rick and Morty
Image Source:
Den of Geek

Rick, for instance, suffers from obvious alcoholism, a coping mechanism that he uses to mask his long life of pain and regret. His relentless cynicism, brutal honesty, and penchant for exotic drugs all serve to showcase a man whose intellect and talent have only served to increase the depth and breadth of his frustration with a reality that is never going to be able to offer enough to satisfy him. The clearest evidence of just how damaged Rick has become is showcased at the end of the season 2 episode Auto Erotic Assimilation.

The episode centers around Rick meeting up with an old flame on an alien spaceship, and following her to a nearby planet, where his bad influence causes the derailment of everything she’d spent her life building since the two parted ways in the first place. Now, never mind for a moment that she’s a weird alien hive-mind creature who takes over the bodies of all of her victims, because that just provides the backdrop for Rick’s escalating bad behavior, and increasing disregard for the health and safety of those around him. What really seals the deal is when the hive-mind herself, a creature called Unity, sees how destructive their relationship has become, and decides to leave Rick for good.

This leads to one of the shows most brutal moments, where Rick only narrowly backs out of a suicide attempt in his garage, as the episode ends with him sobbing in his hands. Not exactly a laugh riot, is it?

Rick Sancez and Morty Smith from Rick and Morty
Image Source:
AV Club

While Morty’s psychology isn’t quite as dark as Rick’s, it isn’t untouched by the revels of mental illness either. As anyone who is familiar with anxiety disorder would notice, Morty is a textbook case of this ailment. Consider his endless fright at what could be around the next corner, and how quickly he escalates to panic in any stressful situation, and his unhealthy basket of neuroses begins to make itself immediately clear.

Now in less talented hands, exploring pitch black subject matter like this could be a recipe for disaster. Few comedies would have the ambition and the gall to make light of such horrific matters while also using them for emotional gravitas when the viewer least expects it. However, much like Raphael-Bob Waksberg’s Bojack Horseman, Rick and Morty‘s out there premise offers it a sort of anything goes passport right out of the gates.

Wacky as they are, the cast is very likable and relatable, even as it extends to the rest of the family, filled out by Morty’s materialistic sister, Summer, his career-centered mother Beth (who is also Rick’s daughter), and his sad sack, unemployed father Jerry. Each of these characters suffers regularly in their own way, as Beth and Jerry’s marriage often seems like it’s on the brink of disintegration, while Summer regularly struggles to fit in and make friends at school.

Rick, Morty, Beth and Summer
Image Source:
Hollywood Reporter

The general screwed-up nature of Rick and Morty‘s tone and its cast help to ingratiate it to the audience. The unhinged look at a cast of very flawed people, trying to get by in a world that is increasingly changing their scope of reality, makes for a ton of laughs but also a group of characters that you really come to care for with time.

While there’s no set premiere date for season 3, Dan Harmon has recently offered an update that he and Justin Roiland are hard at work, and that the new season will premiere in 2017 at least. Whether the solution to the season 2 cliffhanger, which saw Rick giving himself up to an intergalactic prison in a self-destructive sacrifice, can possibly appease fans after so long of a hiatus remains to be seen, but if anyone can do it, it’s the creative minds behind Rick and Morty.

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