In the last moments of Rick and Morty’s Season 2 finale, “The Wedding Squanchers”—titled, as all of the show’s episodes are, with an awkward pun which doesn’t quite roll off the tongue the way puns should—Rick surrenders himself to intergalactic authorities in order to save his family. Finally apprehended, the alcoholic mad scientist/notorious space-time criminal approaches imprisonment in the same way he approaches pretty much anything: Jaw firmly set and emotions suppressed, Rick makes a noble sacrifice, secretly mortified that his family would ever find out he actually cares about them.
And all the while, Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” blares overhead.
Rick’s decision is the perfect resolution to a season in which each character must face the bitter ache of knowing that the idea of family can be a tenuous thing. In fact, in the season’s best episode, “Total Rickall,” it’s the pain family members regularly inflict on one another that saves the Smiths from an alien parasite invasion. Because the parasites spread through false memories, convincing people to bring into being new parasites by disguising them as life-long family friends, the Smiths unwittingly conjure up a small army of parasites camouflaged as such intimate pals as Pencilvester, Reverse Giraffe, Hamurai, and Ghost in a Jar. It’s Morty, the show’s wayward idealist, who realizes that the only way to know which character is “real” and which is a parasite is to comb through whitewashed nostalgia to recall something awful. Only a real family member would ever be the harbinger of such bad memories.
By remembering, with the kind of lightning-quick agility that means such thoughts could be readily queued at any moment, that time Jerry used Beth as a human shield to ward off a violent hobo, or that time Beth drunkenly hit Summer in the head with a wine bottle on Summer’s school picture day, the Smith family is able to discern real people from hallucinated cast members. It’s all in Jerry’s voice when he finally understands that his affair with the parasitic Sleepy Gary was just too good to be true: Love is a license to hurt someone.
But “Hurt” itself? For a show with the cultural acumen to lift a song called “Get Schwifty” (about, predominantly, shitting on the floor) to the status of best pop song in the known universe, “Hurt” just hurts my brain. It feels morally wrong. Or worse: It’s lazy—so on-the-nose it reduces the last moments of a surprisingly poignant season of cartoon absurdity to a safe, sitcom-friendly emotional beat. Even if you made an argument for Rick and Morty as a clever subversion of any number of pop cultural archetypes, most of all of the sitcom form, you’d still have a lot of ’splainin’ to do to defend the obviousness of buying from Trent Reznor’s melodramatic puppy mill of a goth-pop oeuvre.
But then again, what’s so wrong with buying from puppy mills? After all, Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed purchased their rat terrier Lolabelle from a mall store—a store supplied, no doubt, by a so-called mill, where inbreeding and genetic neglect make for maximum puppy output at the cost of pretty much any functional ethical integrity. This Anderson describes in her lyrical documentary, Heart of a Dog, putting a fine point on it with a tracking shot of adorable baby dogs caged and crushed together, yipping and climbing over one another to find enough room to lay down. The legendary artistic couple—two people, we assume, who must have been attuned to the moral grey they’re wading into by giving money to a store which is totally cool with selling Costco-bulk creatures—were only giving one helpless puppy soul a better life. A better home. They freed Lolabelle. It was one small thing they could do: They gave this dog a better context.
It’s clear in Anderson’s documentary that she and Reed adored Lolabelle, especially in the context of Anderson’s ruminations on grief following Lolabelle’s death, but the more telling aspects of the film are all the ways in which Anderson treated Lolabelle like her own child. She opens the film by retelling a dream in which she forgoes all manner of medical malpractice to give birth to Lolabelle, forcing doctors to implant the full-grown dog, alive and well, into her uterus, to soon after be expelled. Then, too, there are the piano lessons, the recording sessions and performance gigs, the concerted effort to develop a language with the dog—if you aren’t a self-identified “dog person,” this will all translate as alien and obsessive. And yet, the most human of Lolabelle’s luxuries was the fact that Anderson shared with her dog a Buddhist teacher.
They would work toward nirvana together.
Instead, Lolabelle moved faster, sprinting down the beach ahead of her owner into oblivion—arriving at the end of her life long before Anderson ever could. When she died she was at home; Anderson and Reed elected to, at the behest of their Buddhist teacher, allow Lolabelle to approach death on her own terms, and not, as their vet had advised, through the intercession of euthanasia. They gave their dog the freedom to confront death, then back away, then confront death again. She could finally go forward when she was ready.
Heart of a Dog wallows in the grief that follows. And while Anderson steps aside frequently to muse on post-9/11 surveillance or anecdotes about her childhood, the film’s throughline is that grief: how to deal with it, how to live with it. How to, ultimately, control it.
Because the agony of our reality after 9/11 is that all illusions of control have been completely torn down. It’s what Anderson is talking about when she tells the story of Lolabelle’s encounter with a bird of prey in rural California: She saw the moment in her terrier’s eyes when the dog realized that death could come from the sky, from an entire “180 degrees” of heretofore un-inspected, unguarded space. There’s little more relevant to our ideas of mortality than the notion that every one of us, bipedal or avian or bellies-to-the-ground or whatever, is totally helpless in the face of an indifferent universe.
But control? We’ve got to take it for ourselves—we’ve got to embrace what little control we do have over these short lives of ours, and make it count. With that in mind, in the aftermath of Lolabelle’s death, Anderson’s Buddhist teacher coaches her toward something that at first seems like a paradox:
“You should learn how to feel sad without actually being sad.”
The difference between “feeling” and “being” is one of control. To be sad is to exist, rudderless, in a state of misery that’s simply endured, but to feel sad—that’s to hold that sadness, to turn it in your hands, to trace its contours and understand it like a phrenologist treating an especially craggy noggin. Maybe the functional difference between the two doesn’t really matter—and maybe you aren’t into piddling over such semantics—but for Anderson (who in close succession lost her dog, her mom and her husband), the idea that she can take ownership of her sadness is a comfort when dealing with the incomprehensible forces of the universe she has no choice but to live with.