The Rights to Emotions According to Rick and Morty

Toxic Rick and MortySince 2015 I have been swept into the current of Rick-and-Morty-mania! I love the show so much; its absurdist view on life, its preposterous scenarios; its habit of completely screwing with your mind—it’s all so great. The plots always get me thinking, but last week’s episode, “Rest and Ricklaxation,” has had me hung up. Morty’s rise to success is entertaining and Jessica’s newfound desire for him certainly turned the tables around, but Rick’s moral conundrum has interested me the most, particularly his worry that his emotions have just as many rights as he does, as they are a part of him. He attributes comprehensible life to toxic Rick and toxic Morty. And I have been thinking about that all week.

When Rick and Morty go on vacation to relax, they go into a machine that is meant to remove all of their toxins. An easy parallel is considering the toxins germs, as the toxin world is green, dim, and slimy, much like we animate germs to be, and throughout the whole episode the duo are referred to as being “healthy.” (This is a point that I was happy to see included, as mental health is not traditionally considered a sickness the same way the sniffles are; being mentally healthy is just as important as being physically healthy.) Going back to the episode, Morty is satisfied with his new, confident self after the detox, but Rick is torn. He receives a transmission from his toxic self—an aggressive message at that, cursing Rick for abandoning him.

This triggered me to do some research on what it really means to be human, including what it means to be sentient and autonomous. Was Rick right in saying that his toxic side has just as many rights as he does? Now, I’ve watched this show enough to know that Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon are probably just screwing with the audience, presenting a huge juxtaposition between the Rick we know and the “healthy” Rick—case and point, this episode is the first in which Rick actually says “excuse me” after burping. Furthermore, he stops himself before trying to work out a formula to calculate happiness, just as toxic Rick discovers a new element. I know it’s all meant to be funny, and it is, but he brought up a good point.

Heathy Rick worries that he has denied his toxic self the rights that it should naturally have. By banning them from his psyche and transporting them to them to Hell, he has made his toxins captives, unable to exercise influence over healthy Rick while inside of him. At first it seems like a silly idea, but consider all of the other toxins in Hell: they all look like monsters, deformed, haphazard, unable to communicate; they truly are all of the bad parts of their owners mushed together. We see that they are all okay with one another, as they all run toward toxic Rick and toxic Morty without any issues. But they are clearly savage enough for toxic Rick to feel threatened, as he specifically says, “It takes more than that to kill Rick and Morty! But that might do it” upon seeing the toxin creatures.

Based on what the audience is privy to, they are the only toxins there that exhibit sentience and autonomy, two key traits that define humanity. Toxic Morty is more than just self-hate, doubt, and fear rolled into a ball of toxin; he seems to be an actual creature feeling these things. Halfway through the episode he steals healthy Rick’s ship and announces, “I’m a piece of shit, but I stole the ship.” This suggests that he recognizes his abilities to do things right, but denies himself praise. Toxic Rick also acknowledges a non-toxic side of himself while they are still in Hell. He brags about controlling toxic Morty, telling him he can die when he says so. However, that sentiment is followed up with a moment of self-realization when he questions why he’s bragging at all, saying he has nothing to prove. While small, these instances help identify toxic Rick and toxic Morty as more than just toxins.

Next, consider their sentience. Sentience, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “a feeling or sensation as distinguished from perception or thought;” it is being responsive to sense impression. Just listening to their dialogue concludes that toxic Rick and toxic Morty are able to sense. They can sense danger when the others toxins chase after them, they can sense sight (in the real world, not Hell) when healthy Rick releases them, and they can sense pain. This is most important, because sensing pain is unique to animals, including humans. Things cannot feel pain, and ideas definitely can’t feel anything. So, the fact that we see toxic Rick grunt in pain during his battle with healthy Rick and toxic Morty scream in pain when healthy Morty bites his head tells us that their nerves work like ours.

Lastly, consider Rick’s motive for getting back. He wants to be in control again. This toxin inside the original Rick was checked by his decent side, keeping him from going overboard; at the beginning of the episode, Rick cracks because he was not in control of the situation that almost killed him, thus leading him to identify stress within himself and call for a vacation. Toxic Rick, however, does not have that ability. He is everything unhealthy about Rick, meaning that all he cares about his control. That is why he tries to trap healthy Rick in Hell halfway through the episode: So that he will be in control on Earth. Toxic Rick’s drive for control and power is, according to Alex Lickerman of Psychology Today, his desire for autonomy. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines autonomy as “self-directing freedom and especially moral independence.” It seems pretty clear that this is what toxic Rick is after; it’s not enough for him to simply be back within Rick’s mind, as he complains about being trapped in that “sentimental jack-ass” for 70 years. (An interesting point to mention is that toxic Morty does not seem to share toxic Rick’s autonomy; he doesn’t want to make his own decisions and would rather be pushed around and told what to do even when he has his own opinions; this quality that Morty must have considered toxic rages in Rick’s own toxins.)

Lickerman states that it is our autonomy that pushes decision-making. We as humans want to have free will. Toxic Rick wants to be in control in Hell, but he also wants control in the real world as well; he even tries trapping healthy Rick in Hell to get there. Lickerman also believes that when we are told to do something (even something we enjoy) we resent being ordered about; in toxic Rick’s case, he cares about toxic Morty—as healthy Rick deemed his attachment to his grandson to be toxic when in the machine. But when healthy Rick tells him to take care of toxic Morty after shooting him twice, toxic Rick tries to resist simply because he could not make the decision on his own.

The examples above demonstrate how toxic Rick and toxic Morty (more the former than the latter) can be seen as real. For all intents and purposes, they act real: They speak a comprehensible language, they feel pain, they (mainly toxic Rick) have ambitions, and they look human. Remember that none of the other toxins resemble man or do anything other than screech. And finally, they believe themselves to be as good as human. David Livingston Smith (also of Psychology Today) ultimately sees being human as subjective. If the speaker believes him- or herself to be human, then that is good enough. Healthy Morty views his toxins as nothing more than toxins, and it helps that toxic Morty has no drive or motivation to do anything about his situation. But healthy Rick considers his toxins to be alive because toxic Rick considers himself to be alive. By locking toxic Rick up and preventing him from being himself, healthy Rick feels that he has enslaved somebody, even though that somebody is himself.

Emotions have a powerful effect on our behavior. We can’t separate them from decision-making, and in fact they help in rationalization. All of the bad parts of Rick are so vital to his character and personality, that they really might as well have the same rights. Healthy Rick is half a man without toxic Rick, that’s why merging at the end creates a better Rick than before—one that farts in Morty’s face and still says, “Excuse me.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy had a lot more to say on the impact of emotions on our daily lives, and is reading if you want to look into this more.

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