French philosopher Alain Badiou in his essay ‘On Cinema as a Democratic Emblem’ comments upon the paradoxical nature of films, which with new-fangled technology can not only copy reality but altogether create a false dimension of that copy. There is, therefore, a contradictory relationship that emerges between images and reality, between the ideas of, as Badiou puts it, being and appearance. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, written approximately in the sixth century draws an analogy between these notions of what is, and what appears to be; incompetency to distinguish between copies and reality. I argue that Rick and Morty, a four-season television series produced by Adult Swim is a contemporary rendition of the allegory of the cave, a futuristic copy that takes the spectators on a journey beyond what the eye and the mind can fathom.
Plato’s allegory of the cave is one that holds prominence even in modern-day philosophy, a notion always relevant in demystifying what is, and what is shown to us. Written in the seventh book of Plato’s ‘Republic’, this phenomenon is mentioned in a conversation between Socrates (Plato’s mentor) and Glaucon (Plato’s elder brother), and revolves around the idea of mimesis, images, representation, discussing how untrue all of these notions are. Socrates begins explaining,
“human beings living in an underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets”
Asking Glaucon to suppose human beings in an underground den, he explains how they have been chained since birth and are made to view images only as reflections through the fire burning behind them. The prisoners perceive these objects that appear between the fire and the people as shadows, which they interpret as reality. Setting this scene and establishing the reality from the eyes of the prisoned humans, he asks Glaucon to imagine if one of the chained humans was liberated from the den,
“he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive someone saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision”
The Death of Socrates by Jacques Louis David (1787)
Socrates attempts to provide a contrast between the enlightened and the unenlightened through the analogy of the chained individuals, and the philosopher who he is freed from these shackles. The liberated philosopher, in this sense, learns to adapt to the environment outside of the cave and educates themselves (using ‘them’ as a non-binary pronoun here) through a new perspective. They ultimately interpret that what they saw earlier was a mere copy of what actually is, in the outside world. The Illuminated One here discovers a world beyond the cave and informs the others of what actually is.
Similar to the allegory of the cave, Rick and Morty suggests the idea of a world external of the den; in the show’s semantic, one could even term this as multiple realities and universes. The television show is about the adventures of an alcoholic scientist and his grandson who travel these different dimensions across multiple universes, encountering alien life forms and fighting off ‘bad-guys’ once in a while. These multiple universes are not accessible to the common human, and hence the common human in the show lives inside the “cave” and views the images and the perceptions of the realities that are accessible to them, much like us. The character of Rick comes into question here, who through his intelligence and god-like powers can conveniently exit and enter the cave, most of the time extending this privilege to his grandson, Morty. The duo travels the most absurd realities that are different from ours in a structural sense but contain similar political, social and economic realities. There exist alien-like life forms, time zones where all are immortal, and the infinite timelines; alternatively, there exists also social and racial hierarchies, government structures, societies, and languages to communicate in. One could call this an intense and overpowering version of the “reality” where the humans reside in, or as this argument suggests, the true reality.
In attempting to suggest that the television show is a modern rendition of the allegory of the cave, Rick’s character can be interpreted as the Illuminated One’s. Both Rick and the Illuminated One take on unconventional endeavours that lead them to the reality that is true. Rick’s conventional society lives on planet Earth, indifferent to other life forms or universes, assuming that theirs is the only and true reality; much like the conventional society in the cave, that view reality from their chained limbs and neck, as shadows on the wall. What we see as two-dimensional shadows, is their perception of the truth.
Rick’s ability to transport to different timelines and universes is what makes him the Illuminated One, the one who can escape the façade of “reality” as and when he pleasures. The symbol and object of this authority can perhaps be assumed to be the Portal Gun, without which Rick does have the knowledge, but he loses the ability to transport or escape from one reality to another. In season one, episode two, ‘Lawnmower Dog’, Rick and Morty enter Morty’s math teacher, Mr Goldenfold’s dream, attempting to incept the idea of giving Morty A’s on his tests. Doing so, they aggravate Goldenfold in his dream, where he almost kills them. However, they manage to turn around the events using the Portal Gun as the object of escape; they exit the reality they are threatened in and enter another’s random character’s dream. Using this as a ladder to the culmination of the narrative, the essentiality of the object is established in this episode, where Rick is the only person who has one, and this ability to enter and exit the ‘cave’ is monopolised as the Illuminated One’s property.
In the sixth episode of the second season ‘The Ricks Must Be Crazy’, Rick takes his two grandchildren, Morty and Summer to a different reality. When they decide to begin their journey back to Earth, Rick realises that there is something wrong with his vehicle’s ‘Microverse Battery’, and to fix the problem, Rick and Morty enter the battery. Inside the battery, we’re shown a whole different world, very similar to the one we live, with societies, families, children, this planet does everything that ours does, just that it resides inside a battery. Rick tells Morty that he created this planet to generate electricity for him, to which Morty responds, “You have a whole planet sitting around making your power for you? That’s slavery!” While stating this, Morty does not realise that he too is a slave like the rest of the population on Earth. We too, indifferent to the different realities that may or may not exist around us are slaves to the system, serving the one who holds the authority, as Rick does in his version of a ‘microverse’. Rick then explains to Morty that like ours out there, the microverse is a “… society. They pay each other, they buy houses, they get married and make children that replace them when they get too old to make power”, a kind of modern slavery through which capitalist societies maintain their authority in the real world.
Rick and Morty
Rick and Morty, after greeting ‘their’ world meet with Zeep Xanflorp. He, the most knowledgeable scientist in his Universe, like Rick, has created a source of energy which exists in an infinite universe. What Rick did by creating a universe in his vehicle’s battery, Xanflorp does the same with another society altogether, creating the ‘Miniverse’. This perhaps is an allegory to the ease with which the “God”, in this sense Rick and Zanflorp create Universes for a bigger truth, while the lives of the people who are created by this God-like figure are unable to see beyond what is being shown to them. The people living in the battery are hence also living inside the cave, living the truth that is presented to them as “shadows”.
While all fiction films and television portray images, which is something Plato is against, they also bring the most common of spectators in touch with the truth, the reality that they are in fact shadowed away from in a society. These moving images offer a chance to the people to see the reality as images and then put them in context to what they deem fit. Rick and Morty can be labelled as a modern or contemporary rendition of the Allegory of the Cave, understanding the same in the context of the world we see. While Rick has a portal gun to visit different realities, the common peoples’ portal gun is the moving image which has the ability to transport them to different realities of philosophy, political and social truth.
Kritvi Rana has an MA in film/cinema/video studies from the University of Amsterdam.