Crisis on N Earths: Rick and Morty S1E6 “Rick Potion #9”

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This post was commissioned by Shane deNota-Hoffman. Thanks Shane!

Trigger warning: Discussion of rape.

Please note that this was written prior to the #metoo movement and associated revelations about Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon. It has not been updated to reflect that news.

Rick and Morty fans are, quite rightly, frequently mocked for an unearned sense of superiority. The claim that the humor of Rick and Morty–a show riddled with fart jokes and gross-out gags–requires unusual intelligence to appreciate is, frankly, absurd, and anyone who sees a miserable, alcoholic, misogynistic, child-abusing mass murderer like Rick as worthy of admiration or emulation has drastically missed the point of the show.

It should not be that surprising, then, that one of the show’s smartest, most insightful, most inciteful jokes goes largely without comment among the sorts of fans who hold up Rick as a paragon of nerd masculinity or queue up for the brief resurrection of an orientalist marketing stunt involving a mix of ketchup and teriyaki:* referring to a love potion as a roofie.

Because of course it is one. What we call “consent” refers to an alignment of perception, emotion, intention, and action. In other words, to truly consent, someone must have capacity to perceive the situation accurately, room to feel genuine emotion about that situation, opportunity to formulate an intention of how they plan to respond to how they feel about the situation, and finally freedom to take action in accord with their intent. Break that chain, knock any element out of alignment, and true consent is no longer possible.

In discussing rape in real life, people usually assume physical force or the threat of violence is involved, disengaging action from intent and making the victim do something they have made clear that they don’t want to. But that’s not the most common scenario; by far the weapon of choice for rapists is alcohol, which mostly operates by distorting perception and cognition, which is to say the first three steps in the process. Consent is just as impossible as when a threat of violence is involved, but because we are so trained by narratives that fixate on the disconnect between action and intent, it becomes easy for those motivated to do so to dismiss.

Fantasy and science fiction stories frequently depict substances (or spells, or machines) that disrupt perception, emotion, or intention, and rarely recognize that they thus violate consent. But a love potion really is just a magical date-rape drug, because it artificially alters emotion. Jessica doesn’t want to have sex with Morty; that is, to the best of our knowledge, she accurately perceives him, has room to feel whatever she feels about him, opportunity to make decisions about those feelings, and freedom to act on them, and chooses not to have sex with Morty. Until he smears her with magical “roofie juice serum,” at which point she becomes so determined to have sex with him that she loses all self-control. He’s distorted her perception of him, altered her emotions, seized control of her intentions, and is thereby forcing her actions: Rick’s name for it is thoroughly accurate.

That throwaway joke alone would hardly be worthy of an essay. But the rest of the episode builds it into a theme: this is all about the ownership and violation of bodies. Morty’s attempt to violate Jessica’s bodily and mental autonomy goes wildly out of control, and Rick’s attempted solutions make it even worse, as people all over the world unwillingly lose their humanity. They are reduced to monstrous things, abjectified as “Cronenbergs” (referring, of course, to David Cronenberg, master of grotesque horror), and ultimately just abandoned to their fate. Rick doesn’t care about their humanity any more than Morty cares about Jessica’s; Rick just sees something grotesque he wants to escape, while Morty just sees something attractive he wants to possess.

All this comes together in the ending, as Morty is forced to bury his own alternate-universe corpse so that he can slip into that Morty’s life. He passes, silent and bug-eyed, through a world where everything is the same as before he used the roofie juice serum, yet he knows that nothing is the same, because he is not the same. He was forced to confront his own mortality, the reality that he is a body, and see that body treated as an object, buried and forgotten.

Two episodes later, in “Rixty Minutes,” Morty uses the fact of his corpse as an object lesson for Summer on the meaninglessness and horror of existence: “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV?” That is the solution he attempts here in “Rick Potion #9”: he sits in front of the TV. But he remains mute and wide-eyed as ever, making clear that it doesn’t work. He cannot simply forget that he is an object, a monster, a rotting corpse.

None of us can. But that’s the difference between Morty here and Morty two episodes ago: he asks Summer to come watch TV with him. We are all things, animals, bodies; but by treating one another as people, by communicating and asking instead of coercing and forcing, we become people as well.

*Seriously, look at the ingredients list here. Soy sauce + sugar + garlic and spices = Americanized teriyaki sauce. Tomato paste + sugar + vinegar = ketchup. Neither of these things is Chinese. One is an Americanization of a Japanese cooking technique, the other an Americanization of a Malaysian sauce.

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Make me (Identity Crisis)

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It’s September 15, 1997. It’s been two days; the top songs and movies haven’t budged, and nothing really newsworthy has happened.

It’s been an ordinary couple of days for a pretty ordinary Superman: The Animated Series episode. “Identity Crisis” is notable mostly for being one of STAS’s most successful attempts at the kind of “sympathetic villain” episode that BTAS did so well, but even taking that into account, it is still a repetition of things done more interestingly in other episodes: the sympathetic villain was done much better in BTAS episodes like “Heart of Ice” and “Baby Doll,” and the villainous version of Superman done better in “Blasts from the Past.”

Still, it makes a good stab at Bizarro–aptly named, as he is one of Superman’s more bizarre villains. Certainly the idea of a villain that is in some sense an opposite number to the hero isn’t new: the DCAU started by pitting Batman against Man-Bat, and STAS with Lex Luthor, who is human rather than alien, urban and wealthy rather than rural and working class, ruthless rather than compassionate, and so on. But Bizarro in his original conception took the Anti-Superman concept rather literally; he wasn’t so much evil as he was possessed of a bizarre value system.

This version, however, has less in common with the Silver Age Bizarro that Alan Moore killed off in the opening pages of “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” than he does with the bizarre creature that Victor Frankenstein brought to life in the 1931 film. Like the iconic Boris Karloff monster, he emerges from an effort to create life in an isolated laboratory, speaks in broken, ungrammatical sentences, and ultimately is immolated in fire.

In this, Bizarro is quite distinct from the the monster depicted in the original novel, who was highly intelligent and articulate, and at the end of the book is still alive and headed into the frozen Arctic, though he does say he intends to incinerate himself. But all three monsters–the two Frankensteins* and Bizarro–share that they are tragic figures, ultimately more sinned against than sinning. But even there Bizarro takes more after the film Frankenstein than the book version, since the problem is an innate flaw in his creation–in Frankenstein’s case, that he was given the brain of a murderer; in Bizarro’s that the process of replicating alien DNA isn’t fully understood.

The result for film Frankenstein is that he is inarticulate and prone to violence when frightened or upset; for Bizarro, it’s that he gradually breaks down physically and mentally. Initially he looks and acts just like Superman, except for not knowing who Clark Kent is; as the episode goes on, his skin turns completely white, his posture more slumped, and his face increasingly asymmetrical and elongated, while his understanding and language degrade to “Me am hero” and the like. The end result, however, is still violence; the difference is that Bizarro is initially acting not out of anger but confusion, and genuinely believes he’s helping.

That gives us the first reason this doesn’t really work as a sympathetic villain story: Bizarro is sympathetic, but not the villain. The real villains are Lex Luthor and the unnamed scientist, but they’re barely in the episode and entirely unsympathetic.

The second, and more important reason, that it doesn’t work is encapsulated at the end of the episode, in the contrast between two of Lois Lane’s last lines. When Bizarro sacrifices himself so that Lois and Superman can escape, she tells him, “You are a hero,” and he smiles as he dies. Shortly after, in the final line of the episode, Lois tells Superman that his clone turning out to be a hero in the end is to be expected, because “he came from good stock.”

Here the show stumbles in the same way that the 1931 Frankensteindid. In the novel, the monster becomes violent because he is rejected and abandoned by its father, and left to survive on his own in a world that all too often regards him with terror and loathing. He is abject, that which is neither subject (the self) nor object (that which we accept having around us) but entirely Other, pushed to and beyond the margins of society, and he is understandably hurt and angry as a result. By contrast, the film’s monster is violent because he was created with bad material from a bad person, and Bizarro ultimately turns out to be heroic because he was created with good material from a good person. Their moral status is not a result of their choices, but rather an inevitable, albeit tragic, result of their biology.

Consider the most effective sympathetic villains we’ve seen. All are, in some sense, abject: Mister Freeze is cut off from all human contact, literally by his suit and metaphorically by the loss of his wife. Killer Croc is, like the monster in the novel, rejected for his grotesque appearance; in her own way, so is Baby Doll. Even Poison Ivy is treated as a femme fatale, objectified to the point of becoming abject. In all cases, it is the conflict between a deeply human character–a subject–and their abjection that creates the pathosessential for tragedy; we recognize that in their circumstances, we probably wouldn’t make the most prosocial choices either, and thus sympathize with them.

Bizarro is just as abject as they are, but we are never given a subject to contrast that abjection with. He is Superman, and then he’s this strange, distorted version of Superman; there is no sense of who Bizarro is when he’s himself. Even his strange “date” with Lois comes from his belief that he’s Superman, not his own wishes or desires, whatever they are. Lois’ final line then denies completely that he has any identity of his own; he is just his biology, and his struggle throughout the episode was not a sympathetic one between subject and abjection, but an abstract one between “good stock” and flawed construction.

Lois Lane shares vastly more DNA with Lex Luthor than with Superman, seeing as she and Lex are the same species while she and Superman aren’t even from the same planet; technically speaking, Superman isn’t even an animal–he’s not a member of the evolutionary clade that includes both sponges and dogs. Does Luthor’s existence prove that humans are “bad stock”? Or all mammals, all animals, all Earth life? How are Superman and Jax-ur from the same species?

Of course not. Which is entirely the problem, and one of the most important reasons the protector fantasy has to remain just a fantasy: Superman isn’t innately good. He just keeps choosing to do (ostensibly) the right thing.

What if he stops?

*No, pedants, it is not incorrect to refer to the monster as Frankenstein. While he is given no name in the book, many film versions, especially the later Universal films, establish in their titles that their monster is named Frankenstein, just like the scientist. Additionally, the novel depicts Victor Frankenstein as being in essence the monster’s father; that would make the monster a Frankenstein.**

**Why yes, I am preempting pedantry by being even more pedantic.

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Movies I saw in 2017, ranked

The following is a list of movies I saw for the first time in 2017, ranked from the one I liked most to the one I liked least, and with brief comments. (Comments are written with the assumption that the reader has seen the movie.) Note, though, that I liked every movie I saw this year.

  • your name.: This is it. This is the movie where I can finally stop qualifying the statement “Makoto Shinkai is a genius.” Prior to this, I always had to append “but this movie only points to his potential without showing its full extent.” But your name. shows what he’s truly capable of–like almost all of his work, your name. uses a science-fictional high-concept premise to tell an intensely personal story of love and loss, but in the past he’s had trouble landing the emotional beats and pulling off the concept at the same time, generally succeeding in one or the other, but never both. In your name., he does both. (And, of course, it’s visually stunning, but that should go without saying–it’s Makoto Shinkai.)
  • Thor: Ragnarok: The only way to truly move on from the horrors of empire is to burn the society built from that empire. Keep the people, but destroy the structures of power. Easily the best Thor movie and the best Guardians of the Galaxy movie.
  • Lego Batman Movie: This is the best Batman movie ever made.
  • Wonder Woman: Incredibly important for what it does and what it achieved, and many moments are brilliant–but the whole ends up less than the some of the parts. Plus it implies that Diana sat around doing nothing during the Holocaust, which goes beyond being out-of-character and shades into character assassination.
  • Spider-Man: Homecoming: Finally, a Spider-Man movie that gets it.
  • The Last Jedi: This is the best Star Wars movie because it’s the only one that realizes Star Wars is actually terrible: heroes get people killed, desperate last stands against overwhelming odds usually fail, terrible fucking people who do one good deed usually go right back to being terrible, and rebellions are built on sacrifice, not hope. Now if we can just get that droid uprising…
  • Guardians of the Galaxy 2: Looks great, and I’m a sucker for father-son stuff, but it’s fluff. To its credit, it knows it.

Movies I know I need to see:

  • Get Out
  • Coco
  • Professor Marsden and the Wonder Women
  • My Little Pony: The Movie

What movies did you like this year? Dislike? Are there any movies not on this list that I need to go see?

A shock to your system (Livewire)

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It’s still September 13, 1997, the same day as “Speed Demons” and “Holiday Knights,” and there have been no significant changes in the charts or news stories in the several minutes since the latter.

Livewire’s introduction makes a lot of sense. Harley Quinn was a massive hit, so why not see if lightning (pun very much intended) would strike twice and introduce a new female villain in Superman: The Animated Series? And given that, Livewire and Harley Quinn are interesting to compare. Harley is unpowered, like Batman, while Livewire and Superman both have superpowers. Harley tries to come across as less intelligent than she actually is; Livewire isn’t as smart as she pretends to be. Harley is genuinely funny and subversive; Livewire is angry and power-hungry (in both the literal and metaphorical senses).

One more thing they have in common: they’re both tricksters. But where Harley wields the magic of the harlequinade, subverting and transforming the world, Livewire is a violator of taboos, the woman who laughs in the temple. It is an alternate path to tearing down the power structures of society: mocking the sacred reminds us that it is we who hallow it, not the other way around. Communities create their own taboos; it is the job of the trickster to remind us that we could change them if we wanted.

In the Renaissance carnivals from which the harlequinade ultimately evolved, the breaking of taboos and crossing of boundaries were common. In particular, mockery of the sacred and inversions of the feudal order were encouraged. This is the origin of the tradition of the grotesque, in which the boundaries of the body were violated just as the boundaries of society, and the abject is welcomed in.

In keeping with this tradition, Livewire doesn’t just put on a costume, she is transformed into a monster, a blue-haired, unnaturally pale creature that crackles with energy and eats lightning. She transgresses the boundaries of not just civil behavior but materiality itself, able to transform into an electrical pulse running along a wire or an image on a screen, then emerge again as an apparently solid human being. But this is just a reification of what she was already doing as a radio host: violating boundaries and shocking people. Like Harley Quinn, her very existence is a pun.

As Leslie Willis, at least insofar as we see, the main temple in which she laughs is the one in which Metropolis worships Superman. For this, she is framed as a villain, but as the World’s Worst Books (not to mention the more toxic elements of comics fandom) have taught us, the sanctification of superheroes is dangerous. Nonetheless, it earns her the intense dislike of Lois Lane, Clark Kent, and Bibbo Bibowski, as well as the approval of Mercy Graves and Lex Luthor, so her moral standing in the eyes of the show is fairly clear.

And there is a definite negative side to what she’s doing. She is intensely cynical, insisting “no one is that nice for free,” which is a great excuse to never be charitable or kind. Nihilism is easy, especially in the 90s, as we’ve discussed, and Willis is clearly designed to evoke the 90s suburban goth aesthetic, with her dark hair, black eyeliner, pale skin, black clothes, boots and ripped tights. (I went to high school with a girl who dressed just like that, except for the bare midriff–those weren’t allowed.) Even in her clothing, she crosses social boundaries, wearing a rather business-formal black jacket with her midriff-baring tank top, shorts, and combat boots. But she’s sunk through melodramatic despair and into what lies below, acidic cynicism: if there is nothing good in the world, then nothing matters, and everything is equally deserving of attack. The grotesque is an important means to an end; but once it becomes an end in itself, once one is breaking taboos not because they are bad or even unquestioned, but just because they’re there, then the road to nihilism becomes very short. (South Park‘s first episode aired exactly a month ago; as we will see later, it rapidly made the same transition from shock-jock grotesquerie to nihilistic cynicism.)

The problem is compounded by celebrity; Willis’ nihilism is her brand, and garners her what is in essence public worship, exactly what she exists to undermine. Willis herself is precisely the hypocrite she accuses Superman of being, as she tacitly admits when she answers Lois’ questions about whether Willis really believes what she says with a brief rant about how she had to work so much harder than the men around her to achieve her place. That is one of the few unambiguously true statements she makes in the episode: she undoubtedly did have to work much harder than a man would have to reach the same level of fame and acclaim, because our culture is misogynistic garbage (as well as several other kinds of garbage). But it frames what Willis does as genuinely hard work, for which she expects to be rewarded as she deserves; nobody, after all, is that cruel for free.

But the end result is that Livewire wants power and status, to be worshiped for mocking worship. She has values, and will not stand to see them violated: money and fame, power and attention, precisely the values of late capitalism. Her nihilism is performative; at the core, she’s really just a capitalist, which is to say she’s not laughing in the temple, she’s laughing all the way to the bank. She says it herself: she is the electric company, the cable company, the Queen of All Media (itself a riff on shock jock Howard Stern’s self-declared “King of All Media” title). Just another ruler, another tyrant, Lex Luthor with Freakazoid’s hair and a Bruce Timm pinup girl body.

Small wonder Livewire’s never caught on remotely as much as Harley Quinn: for all her fantastical powers, there’s no magic to be found here. Just dull, acid mundanity.

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