Rick and Morty, while far from being a vessel for political propaganda, have been teeming with subtle social commentary wrapped inside boxes of testicle jokes and good old science fiction. The sixth episode of its second season, “The Ricks Must Be Crazy,” pokes fun at many significant issues in today’s society.
There are a lot of things one can appreciate in this episode. I, for example, love that Stephen Colbert is in it. Colbert is no stranger to political satire, spending almost a decade providing comedic commentary on the Colbert Report. This episode in particular talks a lot about capitalism, moral and social ethics, as well as the dynamics of power.
Here I shall share with you some of the themes I have observed watching the episode. I have watched it five times already in a span of 48 days and with every screening, I notice and understand more and more things. So I won’t spoil the whole thing, I opted to leave out the B-plot for you to analyze yourself. I hope you enjoy reading.
SLAVERY WITH EXTRA STEPS
The episode revolves around Rick trying to fix his “microverse battery” when it broke down while he was taking his grandkids, Morty and Summer, out on an alternate dimension for movies and ice cream. What is special about Rick’s “battery” is that it is a product of both Rick’s intelligence and indifference towards others. Inside the battery is a planet populated by sentient beings whose sole purpose is providing Rick free electricity to “power his engine and charge his phone and stuff.”
This is unknowingly done by the people of the Microverse by stepping repeatedly on a contraption made by Rick called the Gooblebox, which converts their movement to electricity. While the electricity they generate power their seemingly ordinary lives, the people of the Microverse unknowingly give an unspecified amount of the energy they produce to fuel Rick’s power needs, which they thought to be “waste” being transferred to a volcano.
Upon learning this, Morty, Rick’s sidekick and moral foil, calls his grandfather out for “enslaving” an entire planet for the sake of electricity. Rick argued that what he created was a functioning society whose byproduct merely incidentally fuels his need for electricity. Morty, however, seeing through Rick’s poor rationalization is convinced that the civilization Rick created is founded on “slavery with extra steps.”
The society Rick created inside his battery is reminiscent of the Marxist interpretation of the capitalist society. Capitalist society is founded on the accumulation of surplus value. Surplus value is the amount of value produced by labor, which is taken by the captitalists from the workers as profit.
In this case, the surplus value is in the form of energy produced by the Microverse people, stolen by Rick without their knowledge for his own gain. Just like defenders of capitalism, Rick sees this setup as justified as it enables society to function. Like Rick, capitalists see profit not as something stolen from those who worked, but as a natural consequence or a byproduct of individuals “working with each other.”
The truth, however, is that Rick only created the Microverse to never have to pay for electricity. In the same manner, capitalists accept and promote the phenomenon of profit as something “naturally-occurring” because they are the ones who thrive from it the most without being part of the production.
HOW LIES POWER SOCIETY
Rick arrives in the planet and is welcomed as the hero who benevolently introduced electricity to the civilization. Disguising himself as an alien, Rick flips them off as he had previously convinced them that it is a universal sign of peace.
Rick and Morty soon found out that the reason why the car battery won’t power up is because the people from the Microverse have found a way to produce electricity without Rick’s Goobleboxes. Zeep Zanflorp, the Microverse’s most intelligent scientist, while being ignorant of Rick’s true identity, has created a device similar to Rick’s battery. Zeep has also made a small planet inside a box he dubbed “Miniverse,” where little sentient beings power their planet through devices called Flooblecranks, similar to Rick’s Goobleboxes.
To Morty’s surprise, Rick pointed out Zeep’s method of acquiring energy as “unethical,” using the very same words Morty used to criticize Rick. Zeep, unknowingly demonstrating how much alike he is with Rick, used Rick’s previous arguments against him.
Rick, indifferent towards his own hypocrisy, planned to look for Zeep’s Miniverse’s version of a brilliant scientist who would create a smaller bottled universe, for Zeep to realize the moral implications of his Miniverse. However, after finding the scientist, Zeep only realized that Rick was his planet’s creator all along. Yet, instead of reverence, Zeep was appalled of this discovery.
This turn of events seem remarkably similar to how industrialized countries respond to emerging economies. From the First World War to China’s status as a rising power, the wars and international tensions in history since the industrial revolution have always had the interests of the elite among humanity as its primary motivations.
Here, Zeep’s consciousness of Rick’s systemic abuse resulted to aggression, in spite of Zeep being guilty of the same immoral deeds as Rick. This is because the struggle between Rick and Zeep is not a struggle of morality, but of power. Realizing that Rick is capable of totally annihilating his planet, Zeep, since his discovery, has yearned to get Rick out of the way.
Violence as a consequence of the state of war, arising from unequal distribution of power, is a component of what Political Science calls realism. Realism holds that things are not always as they seem: that events arising from relationships can be explained by the drive of individual actors for power.
Marx was also a realist in the sense that he believed that all social relations are based on “an economic base.” This means that culture and language, among many other institutions in society, are mere consequences of how society provides for its needs. In this episode, people from the Microverse use certain phrases (like “blow me”, “fuck you” and “much obliged”) differently, because they interpret such phrases as Rick, the representative of the ruling class, does.
Events, like Ricksgiving, as well as the education system of Rick’s Microverse are also centered around legitimizing Rick as a hero and a friend, and one can only assume that Zeep is also treated with the same admiration in his Miniverse.
This is parallel to how our present culture is engineered to legitimize certain people and groups: not because of their moral uprightness, but relative to how they advance the narrative of the ruling elite. In our case, this may be seen in how holidays like Christmas and Valentine’s Day both encourage the expression of love through consumerism – through purchasing things – in spite of supposedly being about generosity.
F*CK TREES. F*CK NATURE.
Many movies dabble on the apparent antagonism between science and the environment. The Star Wars saga and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example, both showed the triumph of religion, oneness with nature and humble, indigent communities over large industrialized empires which distort naturally-occurring things for the sake of power. Rick and Morty, however, did not have such a romantic view of nature in this episode.
Being frustrated with how Rick and Zeep are both using their scientific prowess to destroy one another’s chances of survival after being stuck inside Zeep’s Miniverse, Morty opted to live among the Tree People: an indigenous tree-worshipping tribe living in the nearby forest. After embracing the tribe’s culture, Morty proceeded to eliciting the help of the tribe in getting Rick and Zeep to work together for them to go home.
Morty, however, was not fully assimilated by the tribe’s culture. In fact he expressed disgust over the tribe’s cannibalistic tendencies and grotesque rituals.
While demonstrating the destructive nature of technology gone wrong, Rick and Morty avoids glorifying the “backward savage” society, unlike the Star Wars saga which had two movies featuring technologically-backward tribes overthrowing a more technologically-advanced adversary. However, one can derive the importance of the existence of poverty and deprivation as a possible uniting force for the supposedly progress-inclined scientific community, ripped apart by competition.
Another side to Morty’s disgust for the primitive tribe was his attachment to material possessions. After ranting about how the tribe eats every third baby for the sake of growing fruits, Morty also expressed that he missed his family and his laptop, and how it led him to masturbate to a drift wood.
Morty’s fixation on material things is akin to what Marx’s called commodity fetishism which is the belief that things have value in themselves, independent of the work applied to produce it. This is the principle behind consumerism, which is the belief that “we are what we consume.” Consumerism is one of the major themes in the story, with characters like Rick dismissing morality and discarding ethics in order to sustain their apparently less-important concerns such as going to the movies or fueling a car’s engine.
In a consumerist society, culture and identity has also been reduced to the goods a group or an individual may be associated with. In the story, in spite of the alternate dimension Rick brought Summer and Morty having giant telepathic, carnivorous spiders and “eleven 9-11s,” the characters seemed more concerned about it having the “best ice cream in the multiverse.” The invasiveness of innovation courtesy of consumerism is also demonstrated in how Morty’s genes was altered by Rick for him to conveniently turn into a car.
“PEACE” AMONG WORLDS
Order, or at least Rick’s battery is restored, when Rick finally escaped the Microverse with Morty and returned to his position of ultimate power over Zeep and his planet. Zeep, recognizing that Rick is capable of destroying his world if the car did not start, enjoined everyone to return to their original source of energy.
In a capitalist world order, or in any world order built on inequality, the only way to maintain stability is for the lower level of society to accept their position in society. The Greek philosopher Plato said in the Republic that this can be achieved through the proliferation of “noble” lies: false ideas of themselves and of society which would validate the status quo. Marx had a similar idea, saying that the promotion of a false consciousness among the workers and the rest of society is integral for the capitalists to maintain their dominance in society.
This is why in spite of our differences in class, people in our society tend to think as if we are part of the ruling elite. We are enslaved through the use of ideas: the assumption that we all possess equal rights (although only a few get to enjoy it); the fear of radical modes of change… Like the people from Rick’s Microverse, we are deceived into identifying with a society which treats us as commodities and tools for the benefit of a few.
In such a predicament, an “enlightenment” is needed in order to “demystify” the world presented to us: to be able to see beyond the illusions we are blinded with.
In the story, Zeep accomplishes this through wrestling with his universe’s God, Rick. Although he is unable to vanquish his Maker, he is made aware of the real conditions occurring in his society.
Rick, meanwhile, also realized that it was better for the people of the Microverse to know the truth in the first place. But this was not out of a new found benevolence, but out of his deception failing. In the end, the lies upon which society is built upon will crumble and the real contradictions in society will inevitably be exposed. By then, the ruling class will only be able to keep their position in society through brute force.
The story ends with Zeep saluting Rick with a middle finger, but with the knowledge that it does not truly mean peace among worlds. Zeep has gained a consciousness of the reality behind appearances, which for both Plato and Marx are the first steps to liberation.
Without regard for the creators’ motivations in creating episodes like this, this show presents us, although in a comedic manner, the moral dilemmas surrounding modern day slavery and how the status quo justifies it. It also challenges our pride: how far are we willing to justify how things are in spite of the exploitation and deception being experienced by people? And are we only so willing to rationalize slavery just so we can run our cars and charge our phones?