“Cognitive toxins” in Rick and Morty
This week’s episode of Rick and Morty, “Rest and Ricklaxation”, is sort of making a complicated argument about the folly of viewing personalities as either toxic or clean. Toxicity is a term by now firmly entrenched in the zeitgeist, and is applied to everything from environmental management to food blogging to pop psychology.
This episode makes brief allusions to the notion of toxic eating in the form of a few side jokes. One concerns Morty’s newfound ability to derive pleasure from bland food on the basis that it might be organic, particularly “crudite” chopped carrots. Another shows people’s toxic personas changing their eating habits, leaving Saladworks for Sbarros, and leaving Sbarros to eat actual garbage. These jokes risk re-entrenching notions of “clean eating” that perhaps should be complicated by the episode’s overall argument. Finally, the last joke of the episode concludes a doublet about teen girls having unexpectedly frank conversations about deviant sexual acts, by referring to the consumption of bodily waste:
A previous episode looked at toxic relationships — Beth and Jerry go to a marriage counselling centre where their monstrous views of each other find literal physical manifestation, and then these monsters overpower the facility’s restraints as the counsellor cries, “they’re codependent!” In this episode, the toxicity isn’t in how characters view each other, but in how they view themselves. Rick and Morty have different views about what aspects of their personalities are toxic. For example, toxic Rick uses misgynist slurs…
Whereas it’s healthy Morty who is a manipulative womaniser who makes objectifying, sexist analogies.
Toxic Rick accuses Healthy Rick of “holding him back” with “sentimentality”. This is because Healthy Rick has a strict moral code and a strong sense of empathy…
In direct opposite to this, healthy Morty brags about having dropped the things that were “holding him back”, and then is repeatedly accused of being a psychopath, implies that he does not love as intensely, and “capitalises on” his lack of conscience in order to become a wildly successful stock broker.
These are two competing, and perhaps ideological, images of what healthy functioning looks like: Rick’s is a morally-relativist equanimity that could perhaps be associated with milquetoast liberalism, whereas Morty’s is closer to the kind of performative hyper-positivity that’s sold by leadership programmes and business schools. The context of these models in 21st-century tech and nerd culture is, I think, evoked by the veiled joke about products such as Spotify (as well as the detox machine itself), in which healthy Rick remarks that it would be foolish and arrogant to believe that one could make an algorithm that optimises music selection (or personality makeup) to maximise happiness.
These two models of emotional health work well together in some contexts, but ultimately diverge because Morty’s healthy ideal is more self-serving than Rick’s, and Rick’s healthy ideal is less proactive than Morty’s.
In both of these ideals, emotion operates in service to a set of rational values; emotion unmoored from the anchoring force of values is seen as toxic. Rick experiences the serviceable emotion of empathy towards others, but does not experience loneliness, because this would conflict with his work ethic. Morty experiences enjoyment and curiosity in service to self-advancement, but not fear or shame, because these would, in his view, hold him back.
However, toxicity is a construct of the individual’s self-image, not an objective measure of moral virtue. Given time to develop without these purported “toxins”, each character is shown to be just as flawed as before, just in a different way that reflects the problems with their limited aspirations. Morty lacks a moral core, emotional sensitivity, and affective range. Rick lacks moral fiber in a different way, as he is slow to act and fails to recognise the cynicism in others.
The fact that the detox machine is only able to separate out people’s personalities based on their own self-evaluations suggests that toxicity cannot be measured in an objective manner. Instead, toxicity is a shadow that is constructed by the subject in opposition to their own ideal of who they would like to be. That ideal comes not from inside or from a universal truth, but from the conditions around them, and is never free from context.
M0rty’s ideal in particular is frighteningly close to the persona that Rick routinely affects as a defense mechanism — Rick pretends not to give a fuck about things because he doesn’t want to admit that he is vulnerable, but Morty has internalised this as something that he should genuinely aspire towards — just like his mother has, as shown in the Pickle Rick episode. Having already been introduced to the damage that Rick’s devil-may-care attitude has done to the younger family members who look up to him, this episode builds on that and shows us how deeply it affects their self-image.
This episode once again made use of the pattern whereby Rick uses his apparent lack of concern for Morty as a weapon to manipulate people, but it expands on the ambiguity at work in this ploy. First of all, healthy Rick explains that his attachment to Morty is irrational, and is linked to his crippling loneliness. In so doing, he demonstrates that even the supposedly healthy version of himself is capable of violence.
Then Toxic Rick performs a comically exaggerated version of his usual behaviour, asking “not that I give a f — k, but are you okay?” and chiding Morty, “quit your bitching, it’s going to be okay. Grandpa’s here.” However, healthy Rick is also keen to make sure that Morty re-merges, because it is the healthy thing for both toxic and healthy Morty to do. This commitment to Morty’s wellbeing is cemented after Rick re-merges, as the healthy and toxic parts of him both work together over the course of weeks to bring Morty back to normality.
If Rick’s need for Morty was merely pragmatic, he could have acquired a replacement another way, such as by stealing a Morty from another dimension — something he hints at in the final scene when he says “‘Need’ is a strong word. I need a doorstop, but a brick would do just fine”. He doesn’t strictly need Morty, and a large part of his attachment to him is sentimental, regardless of the impression he may give of not giving a fuck.
One of the major questions of Rick and Morty is whether it is desirable to give a fuck. There is a vicarious pleasure for the audience in Rick’s repeated, loud declarations of not giving a fuck, as well as the graphic violence, disregard for life, and utter mayhem that is portrayed on screen. Cartoons are a medium that allow us to not care about the things that matter a great deal to our flesh-and-blood bodies, and throughout their history this has been exploited to delightful effect. However, this episode showed that there are significant failings in believing, as Morty does, that it is toxic to give a fuck, that sentimentality only holds one back. It is no less arrogant than Rick’s self-identified toxic belief that his scientific ability makes him akin to a God.
This episode doesn’t just boil down to a platitude about how all toxicity is a personality strength in disguise, or that everything must be taken in moderation. What’s also key here is that toxicity is something that is enacted through self-reflection; the toxins are such only because they go against a character’s values. What was sold to Rick and Morty as innate psychic pollution that can be cleanly excised, turned out to be a more complicated act of self-denial, motivated to some degree by self-loathing.