That Time I Wrote a College Essay About Rick and Morty

I’ll confess: I unabashedly love Cartoon Network’s dark sci-fi comedy Rick and Morty. Five years ago, I probably wouldn’t have, but college had the surprising(?) side-effect of imbuing me with an incredibly dark sense of humor, so it eventually became one of my favorite TV shows, maybe of all time.

And somehow, perhaps through Divine Providence, I was able to write a college essay–nay, my senior capstone essay–about its “literary merits.”

I actually remember the event quite well. This was my last semester of college, in my Advanced Critical Theory class. I know, gross. Holler if you’re an English/Humanities Major, because you probably know the pain.

But anyways, we were in small groups brainstorming topics for our final essays, and I kind of offhandedly said, “I really want to use Rick and Morty as a cultural text for this.”

To which my professor, a pretty cool but incredibly scholarly and professional woman, looked me dead in the eyes and said, “Do it.”

So I did. I have no idea what grade it got, but it hardly matters. All I know is that I got to write a capstone essay about a friggin TV show.

Thus I submit for your reading pleasure(?) an abridged version of that originally 3,000 word essay. I know there’s a lot of academic jargon going on in here, and I did my best to explain it where I could, but rest assured… I hardly knew what I was talking about, either.

So without further ado.

“shattering the grand illusion”: pop culture critique in the 21st century

In general, pop culture is not necessarily considered fertile ground in terms of cultural critique—often, the goal of pop culture appears to be entertainment and distraction. However, as Jeffrey Nealon and Susan Searls Giroux say in The Theory Toolbox, “Films, TV, and advertising are never simply about, nor can they be reduced to, ‘entertainment.’ Media teaches us how to be subjects, or how to be certain types of subjects” (68-9).

Because of its influence on people’s lives, this also makes pop culture a prime suspect to be critiqued—the cultural theorist [person who spent way too many years in college] can therefore step back and ask questions like: why is something popular? What is it promoting? What are the unsaid assumptions?

However, there are also types of pop culture that appear to answer these questions themselves by drawing attention to the cultural constructions of society and critiquing them. The question that arises in cases like this is, by its very nature as pop culture, is the work truly critiquing anything, or is it simply self-perpetuating the status quo by presenting cultural critique within the context of entertainment?

Such is the question that will be applied to a cultural text that appears to critique culture itself: Adult Swim’s offbeat adult cartoon series, Rick and Morty. Though considered a niche show that, through its unique appeal, has amassed something of a cult following, it is a prime example of a cultural text that both critiques culture and can be critiqued as culture.

A historical materialist [literary theory that focuses on how material conditions impact culture] reading of pop culture brings to light the uncomfortable but inescapable fact that culture is a product, and people are its consumers. This includes a cultural text that is self-aware, as Rick and Morty appears to be.

Pop culture can simultaneously provide cultural critique in itself and require it of itself, as a historical materialist reading of Rick and Morty will show. Specifically, season three, episode seven, titled “The Ricklantis Mixup,” provides a chillingly relatable vision of consumer culture that, while in itself a parody, also offers its own form of cultural critique if seen as more than just a dark comedy. The episode splinters from the main plot to explore a place called “The Citadel” where thousands of Ricks and Mortys from various dimensions of the multiverse (bear in mind: this is a very offbeat science fiction) have come together to form a society.

However, this society is demarcated along “racial” lines, as Ricks and Mortys fight against each other in the wake of a democratic election. The episode follows several different mini-stories, all of which explore different issues of (heavily parodied, yet at times hauntingly familiar) race, class, and labor relations.

One of the arcs follows a disgruntled Rick who works in a factory that makes cookies called “Simple Rick’s Simple Wafers,” which, in a parody of hyperbolic advertising, literally capture “the impossible flavor” of Rick’s love for his daughter by “running it on a loop through Simple Rick’s mind,” making his brain secrete a chemical that then goes into every cookie (2:30).

This may seem ridiculous, and granted it is, but as Sut Jhally argues in “Advertising at the Edge of the Apocalypse,” it is not all that unlike the advertising tactics used in real life, which talk “about the relationship of objects to the social life of people. It starts to connect commodities… with the powerful images of a deeply desired social life that people say they want” (625).

This is certainly what is at work in “The Ricklantis Mixup,” and it develops as the episode progresses: when the disgruntled factory worker, who was expecting a promotion, is passed over for another Rick who is “cooler,” he rebels, murdering his boss and attempting (and failing) to free the “Simple Rick” whose memories go into every cookie.

The owner of the factory then congratulates him on his rebellion and lets him go free—or so the worker thinks, as the factory owner proceeds to shoot him with a tranquilizer when his back is turned. The following sequence fades into a new commercial for “Simple Rick Freedom Wafer Selects”: 

There’s a Rick that held a factory hostage after murdering his boss and several coworkers. The factory made cookies, flavored them with lies. He made us all take a look at what we were doing. And in the bargain, he got a taste of real freedom. We captured that taste, and we keep giving it to him so he can give it right back to you… Come home to the unique flavor of shattering the grand illusion. Come home to Simple Rick. (17:22)

The significance of this small story beat, in terms of a historical materialist reading, is substantial—it presents a scenario where the very act of subverting the system—of “shattering the grand illusion”—becomes commodified, subsumed into a consumer culture that obscures its threat to the status quo by turning it into a product.

This demonstrates what Horkheimer and Adorno describe as “the spectacle of implacable life and the exemplary conduct of those it crushes,” saying, “Culture has always contributed to the subduing of revolutionary as well as of barbaric instincts… [Industrial culture] inculcates the conditions on which implacable life is allowed to be lived at all” (1045).

By turning an act of rebellion into a consumer experience, the industrial culture of the Citadel succeeds in “subduing the revolutionary,” a condition that it creates through its own systems and that it must therefore commodify in order to control. This is, perhaps, more applicable to the world of real consumer culture than one may suspect, as the advertising industry “reduces our capacity to become happy by pushing us… to carry on in the direction of things” (Jhally 625).

Even though TV shows are products of consumer culture, they can also draw attention to the system even as they themselves are entrenched in it. However, it must once again be noted that even a self-aware show like Rick and Morty contains and subdues its own cultural critique by its very nature as a cultural product—after all, it is unlikely that someone who watches “The Ricklantis Mixup” would actually be inspired to rebel against the system, and even if they did (as the episode makes clear), it is unlikely to be successful. 

At this point, it may be difficult to see how a cultural text can be anything other than a product, but just because a dark, adult cartoon satire is not the path to cultural change or enlightenment does not make it any less able to make people stop and think. As Nealon and Giroux argue, “It’s not so much that popular culture reflects the attitudes of its consumers; rather, the crucial reason to study popular culture is to figure out the ways in which it teaches us how and what to reflect” (69).

Therefore, rather than fret over whether or not Rick and Morty is culturally subversive, or a simulation within a simulation, or just another means of suppressing rebellion, perhaps it is enough to say that is both subversive because it critiques culture, and suppressive because that critique is contained within a parody that is ultimately a product. The benefit of a historical materialist reading is that it leaves room for both conclusions, allowing the critical viewer to recognize how culture is critiqued while stepping back to ask why, and for what purpose, it is doing so.

works cited 

(Since this was in MLA format I feel like I should probably leave this)

Criticism. 3rd ed., edited by Vincent B. Leitch, et al., W.W. Norton & Company, 2018, pp. 1483-92.

Harmon, Dan and Justin Roiland, creators. Rick and Morty. Williams Street Productions, et al., 2013.

Horkheimer, Max and Theodor W. Adorno. “From Dialectic of Enlightenment.” The Norton 

Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed., edited by Vincent B. Leitch, et al., W.W. Norton & Company, 2018, pp. 1033-50.

Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed., edited by Vincent B. Leitch, et al., W.W. Norton & Company, 2018, pp. 1033-50.

Jhally, Sut. “Advertising at the Edge of the Apocalypse.” Race, Class, and Gender in the United States, edited by Paula Rothenberg, Worth, 2007, pp. 621-9.

Nealon, Jeffrey and Susan Searls Giroux. The Theory Toolbox. Rowman & Littlefield, 2012.

Ugh, sorry about that. Still, can’t believe I got to write it. Best essay I ever wrote, maybe? Wubba lubba dub dub!

4 responses to “That Time I Wrote a College Essay About Rick and Morty”

  1. Your college experience is eerily similar to mine: a classmate in my fourth year critical theory class used clips from Rick and Morty in his presentation on Foucault. Makes me want to watch the show! XD and I totally see that scary dual role of pop culture in calling out the culture in which it exists, even while contributing to it. It’s so brilliant that you were able to write a paper about it! From the excerpt, your grade should have been fantastic, imho.

    1. Glad to hear I’m not the only one who leveraged a cartoon TV show for a grade 😂 It was definitely a fun paper to write, which is saying something, haha! I appreciate the compliment!

  2. Damn man! This is amazing

    1. Oh wow thank you XD

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