How the 'Rick and Morty' Story Circle Remixes the Hero's Journey
It's all about search and change.
Fans of Ricky and Morty have known for awhile that the philosophical bones of the show’s stories are more than just cheap laughs and references to other sci-fi and fantasy properties. There’s some deep pathos to these madcap adventures, which can partially be explained by Rick and Morty creator Dan Harmon’s implementation of what he calls “the Story Circle.”
On August 26, Harmon appeared in a video in which he describes his method for breaking most stories that become episodes of Rick and Morty. And for those interested in Joseph Campbell’s ideas of the Hero’s Journey, or the notion of a monomyth in general, this process will look very familiar.
With the second episode of Rick and Morty’s second season as his guide, Harmon says that his story circle consists of a person going on a journey, looking for something, crossing a threshold, finding the thing they were looking for, and returning totally changed. By the end of “Mortynight Run,” Harmon contends “that Morty makes the decision to turn into someone who is willing to kill just because.” But the notion of crossing a threshold in search of something and returning changed can be more literal in Rick and Morty, too. Harmon jokes that Jerry’s return from Jerry Daycare in the same episode is a change, too, since Jerry may have literally changed places with a duplicate of himself.
In the video, Harmon jokes that Rick and Morty is a “bad show for kids,” which might have something to do with why he calls this structure the “Story Circle” and not “The Hero’s Journey,” since Rick, Morty and Jerry are hardly heroes.
The less-than-heroic status of the characters on Rick and Morty also seems to recall an origin of the Hero’s Journey that predates the concept itself. Famously, Campbell based his Hero With a Thousand Faces from a variety of readings of various ancient texts, including fairy tales, myths, and used Jungian psychology to make sense of it all. Hardcore Star Wars fans are also aware that George Lucas was obessed enough with Campbell to pattern much of the plot strucutre of the first film with the Hero’s Journey as a blueprint. What Campbell and Lucas tend to miss, however, is the perhaps the intended audience for the monomyth. In his book Breaking the Magic Spell, Jack Zipes argues that folk tales were largely stolen from the lower class, and re-appropriated by aristocrats in Europe, starting in the 16th century. Zipes believes that this movement had a permanently “bourgeois effect” on folk tales, and specifically cites The Brothers Grimm among those who effectively watered down folk tales and turned them into what we more conventionally think of as fairy tales.
Zipes’s big takeaway is that a lot of fairy tales become moralizing or patronizing once they were taken away from “the folk” who originally told the stories out loud. If the audience weren’t a bunch of regular people sitting around telling stories to each other, then suddenly, the “heroes” of any given story couldn’t be normal or flawed. After the oral tradition of the folk tales was turned into a mass-produced product, heroes became more conventionally “heroic” and notions of morality became black and white.
But, what Zipes points out is something Harmon and co-writer Justin Roiland seems to understand in crafting the stories Rick and Morty. In July 2017, Roiland told Inverse “I think people sometimes mistake that for pure nihilism or toxic, dark comedy, but there’s a way to do it with a purpose.”
So, just because the structure of the monomyth exists, doesn’t mean the characters traveling through it are inherently good people. It doesn’t mean they’re bad either, but unlike some other more traditional heroes out there, Rick and Morty are at least allowed be characterized with various shades of amorality, all while going on a variety of satisfying, exciting, and fun journeys.
The third season of Rick and Morty* is airing on Adult Swim Sunday evenings at 11pm EST.