The sci-fi show pulls no punches when it comes to humanity's complicated relationship with work and nature.
"Rick and Morty" shines a harsh light on society in some obvious ways, and some surprising ways. The show doesn't deal with environmental destruction directly (well, minus the times Rick destroys entire planets), but it hides messages about the torrid relationship humans have with nature ... largely in a single commercial for candy bars.
The famous wafer commercial features Simple Rick, a Rick who lives in what looks like a picturesque cabin in the woods, or at least a homey cottage.
"There's a Rick who works more with wood than polarity plating," begins the ad. Unlike other Ricks, Simple Rick finds happiness through human relationships, such as the one with his daughter.By contrast, the Ricks on the Citadel all live in a mechanical, urban environment totally removed from nature and lacking human connection.
The Simple Rick commercial works because Ricks long for the love and nature they imagine Simple Rick enjoys. So much so that the candy industry has actually kidnapped Simple Rick and hooked him up to a machine, making his brain secrete a chemical which the industry implants into its wafers.
Ironically, by buying the candy bars, Ricks support the industrial machine that destroys nature and forces them to work in factories all day. Their jobs take away the things that normally bring happiness, like freedom, nature and human connection. Then, it sells inferior versions of these things back to its workers in the form of chemical-laden wafers. And so the cycle continues.
"Come home to the impossible flavor of your own completion," the commercial goes on.
At this point, a lot of shows would place the blame on evil bosses and leave it at that. But "Rick and Morty" is too cynical to stop at bad corporate apples. In this world, Ricks run the factories, and Ricks also work in the factories. There is no difference between the Ricks in charge and the Ricks at the bottom of the social pyramid — as Evil Morty points out, they are identical.
"The division I see is between the Ricks and Mortys that like the Citadel divided, and the rest of us. I see it everywhere I go," Evil Morty explains. "I see it in our factories, where Ricks work for a fraction of their boss’s salary, even though they’re identical and have the same IQ."
It drives home the message that the industrial machine isn't just a creation of some evil wealthy people who oppress everyone else. Rather, the system creates itself. People just fill the slots of "CEO" and "worker." Given different luck, a worker could have been a CEO, and a CEO could have been a worker.
Humans don't keep on destroying the environment because there happen to be a few bad actors in charge. We do it because we're part of a system that destroys nature no matter who happens to be in charge at any given moment. We all buy the gasoline, plastic and other items that cause corporations to destroy resources.
Michael Muthukrishna, a professor at the London School of Economics, told me that the kinds of bad behaviors that go on in the upper levels of society also go on at the lower levels. The same people who complain about nepotism in politics give jobs to their own nephews.
"Our cultural evolutionary biases lead us to look for whom to learn from and perhaps whom to avoid," Muthukrishna explained. "They lead us to blame individuals for corruption. But just as atrocities are the acts of many humans cooperating toward an evil end, corruption is a feature of a society, not individuals."
So you can't stop the machine by blaming individuals or even sending corrupt politicians and businesspeople to jail. They'll just be replaced by more of the same — more of us. Instead, you have to change the system itself.
That means making personal lifestyle changes. It also means choosing leaders committed to slowing down the industrial machine, breaking the cycle of work for candy, and giving people time to enjoy each other and nature ... Not just inventing better solar panels.