'Rick and Morty' Story Circle: The Pilot, Explained
In Rick and Morty, the titular characters spend each episode on an exciting, fresh, high-concept adventure by exploring the vast multiverse in Rick’s spaceship made from trash. Every episode seems so new and different despite the fact that they all follow the exact same rigid structure.
Believe it or not, Rick and Morty follows a strict story template codified by mythologist Joseph Campbell. Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland, the creators behind the ultra-popular Adult Swim series, write every episode using a formula called the “Story Circle.” This type of formula is at the heart of most great stories. Star Wars? Absolutely. Harry Potter? You betcha. The Bible? Most definitely. In fact, it turns out that every book/movie/show/tale/game you’ve ever read, seen, watched, heard, or played is, at the end of the day, the same format.
In the pilot episode of Rick and Morty, the Story Circle goes like this: First, you have a hero. In this case, it’s Morty Smith. The hero starts out in his comfort zone (boring life as a below-average high school kid), where he wants something but can’t get it. Morty wants to date his crush Jessica — or, he wants to at least talk to her.
Then, the hero receives a call to action, which leads him into an unfamiliar situation. Morty doesn’t so much receive a call as he is coerced by his grandfather/partner in adventure, Rick Sanchez (who also follows the same arc, “the Hero’s Journey”). Either way, Morty enters an extremely unfamiliar situation through a green portal to a psychedelic, alien world.
The next step for any hero is to adapt to his new, unfamiliar surroundings. Morty does a pretty good job of learning to go with the flow (except for falling off a cliff and breaking both his legs), and is able to traverse the crazy world mostly unscathed. Mostly.
The hero, of course, gets what he wants on this adventure (Morty gets the courage he so desperately needs to talk to Jessica), but he always ends up paying a heavy price to get it. In Morty’s case, he has to pay up a few times, like shoving mega seeds up his butt or forever having to live with the guilt that comes from killing a man who has a wife and kids. Still, the hero now has what he came for, and so he returns to the familiar.
However, it’s not so simple. The hero will have changed from his time on this journey — sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Morty returns back to high school with his newfound courage, but also a new (and maybe unwanted) perspective on how the world works.
Morty travels seamlessly through all eight steps of the Hero’s Journey. But does Rick also adhere to this path? Probably not. The man’s a wild card. If you wanna see how he stacks up, check out the video above.