Grab an Alamo, kick back in your homemade casket and imagine Hank Hill is truly happy as we learn why Hank Hill is greatest modern example of an existential hero.
Introduction: Greetings from a mad, mad, (did I say mad) scientist.
Why hello Lastertime community! This is my first article for the site, so before we get into the thick of things, I wanted to take an opportunity to write a little more personably and introduce myself. That way, all you fine people who took the time to read it won’t be left scratching your heads trying to understand why someone would put so much effort into creating an academic journal level article (millennial humble brag) about a cartoon that, as I’m sure you’ll point out, I’m far too young to know what I’m talking about. That way you can devote your time to telling me how much my jokes suck in the comments and how stupid and derivative my ideas are (like stealing this metacommentary device from Stephen Colbert). Well, as an aging punk rocker who still thinks anarcho-syndicalism is a viable political ideology, I’m used to taking the proverbial cigarette in the arm, but let’s not make this political (yay Meta jokes).
I’m twenty six and one half years of age, and I’m an ex-academic scientist who is now working a more translational research role within higher education. I have a masters in experimental cognitive neuroscience, but my full background is neuroscience, psychology, and economics. I’ve worked on research in synesthesia, decision-making, environmental attitudes, institutional economics, and visual and haptic perception (PM me if you want to read my master’s thesis on the size weight perceptual illusion). Basically, when I was an academic scientist doing basic research, I got write and think about a lot of cool shit. And the reason I got into thinking and writing about all this cool shit is because of my two oldest passions, philosophy and cartoons. But now that I’m part of the wage slavery system since I refused to play the petty politics of the tenure system (oh no, more politics!) I don’t have as many opportunities to cover the things I’m super passionate about (though they do come up in my job every so often). Now that I have a steady day job, where a third of my check goes to the government, and the other third goes to the government but they call it student loans, I can finally pursue one of my many Randy Marsh-Homer esque dreams of the week, and use all that extra education I don’t need (I feel you, Bob Mackey) to give the subjects I’m truly passionate of the academic treatment. Academic level research, but with the language and writing style I never get to use. So let’s get this motherfucker started. Make sure you tape down your nipples or they just might get blown off. Just call me the professor! Or don’t, I don’t give a shit (totally punk rock). This is America, a free country and I respect your right to do whatever you want.
Rick and Morty Versus King of the Hill (KoTH): Which does existentialism better?
Cartoons and I are old hat, and despite being so green around the gills, I’ve likely got more TV view time hour-per-hour than most octogenarians (but to be fair, they probably spent a good deal of their life without the luxury, so I had better check my privilege). It was cartoons that got me into philosophy, but it wasn’t animation at first. It was a little known comic strip called Calvin and Hobbes (which also got me into cartooning), which I don’t think ever really caught on with kids my age. It may have been too deep for them, because let’s be real, you need to have a pretty high IQ to enjoy Calvin and Hobbes… So anyway, now that I’m done jerking myself off, let’s talk about cartoons and my favorite schools of philosophy: existentialism and absurdism. That means get ready my glib glops, we have to take a quick detour to Rick and Morty.
Now, before the death threats start let me say this, I absolutely love Rick and Morty, and have been on board to the show since my suite-mate showed me the pilot senior year of college. I think the show is a stellar example of existential and absurdist literature. I don’t need to explain to you, dear readers, how Rick and Morty tackles the concepts of the absurd and the existential. There are plenty of think pieces on that out there and I would simply be repeating what has already been established. Instead, allow me to talk about the show that encapsulates existentialism and absurdism in ways Rick and Morty could only dream of: King of The Hill (KoTH). Allow me, for a moment, to contrast the two shows.
At first glance, Rick and Morty and KoTH could not appear to be more different. One is a zany sci-fi adventure that pits characters against the cosmic horror and utter indifference of the universe. The other is a grounded and realistic portrayal of the slightly traditional and conservative family responding to the radical cultural changes of the go-go 90s. However, both shows deal with the banality and absurdity of modern life when faced with the ultimate existential truth. That truth, is that one day you will die. So will everyone you have ever known. After a shockingly few generations, your name will be most likely forgotten to history like you never even existed.
The difference in how these shows approach this truth, is that Rick and Morty do so an explicit and overt fashion while KoTH, due to the need for the show to be grounded in reality and approach absurdity with a higher degree of subtly. (can you think of a cartoon, or any sitcom for that matter, that is more “real” that KoTH?) To frame the shows in the context of other pieces of existential and absurdist literature, Rick and Morty is Kafka, Lovecraft, one half of Vonnegut, Camus, and Waiting for Godot, and KoTH is Sartre, the other half of Vonnegut, Camus and Waiting for Godot (Get it?). Furthermore, a striking difference is that Hank often acts as a realized existential hero whereas Rick often fails to do so, succumbing instead to bitterness and defeat.
Throughout this thesis, classic pieces of existential and absurdist writing will be used to highlight the behavioral and personality traits that cause that cause Rick to ultimately fail as an existential hero and that demonstrate Hank shrines as the pinnacle of an Ubermensch (in order to get that sweet 12 – 30 y/o market, you got to appeal to the kids; so everything has to reference Rick and Morty every few seconds, and I’m fine with that.). When push comes to shove, Rick is filled with anxiety and doubt whereas Hank acts with the conviction of a man who has stared deep within the void and come away knowing exactly who he is. This is more than metaphorical. Hank has literally survived a propane explosion that killed Buckley. If nothing else, Hank has some serious survivor’s guilt. But before we get to the deep cuts central to this thesis, we first need to understand the central question at the heart of all existential and absurdist philosophy; a question that some argue is the only question worth asking: should I kill myself? (Well that got fucking dark). To answer that, we must turn to Albert Camus and the myth of Sisyphus.
The Myth of Hank Hill: Propane and Propane Accessories
Before we get any further, it’s probably best to note and explain the difference between existentialism and absurdism. Though to this point in the essay I have been using the terms interchangeably, they are very distinctive schools of thought, that both originate, more or less, from the same point of view (meaningless suffering is inevitable in life). Both schools of thought attempt to answer the question of what to do when one reaches the conclusion of the futility and meaninglessness of one’s existence. Sartre’s existentialism argued that because humans were conscious beings, they create their own meaning in a meaningless universe. Many of the existentialist philosophers, such as Sartre and Kierkegaard (though for Kierkegaard, God is the ultimate conclusion), embrace this creation of meaning as fundamentally human and argue that these creations are what makes life significant. For Kierkegaard, this manifests in his “leap of faith” that allows for the subjective acceptance of God without objective evidence. For Sartre, this represents the expression of his concept of radical freedom, the idea that humans are always making a conscious choice in their actions and personality, though that choice may be between life and death. For existentialists, the existential hero is one who creates his own meaning in the face of meaninglessness.
Camus, conversely, rejects this creation of meaning as “absurd”, meaning that just because you create your own meaning in the universe, doesn’t mean it’s actually truth. Or as my main man Leopold “Butters” Stotch puts it, “you can call a shovel an ice-cream machine, Mom and Dad, but it’s still a shovel. (Season 5, Episode 14).” In fact, the creation of artificial meaning distracts humans from answering the only important question we face in life,
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether or not life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards. (The Myth of Sisyphus. Albert Camus, 1942)”
That’s some pretty heavy shit, and I’m sure I’ve lost most of you, but if you hang in there, I promise you will leave convinced that Hank Hill manages to encapsulate both the existential and absurdist hero in ways that Rick Sanchez only could after having his toxins removed.
In the final essay of the Myth of Sisyphus, the titular money shot, Camus recounts the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who was punished for defying the gods by being forced to roll a large rock up a hill each day only to have it roll back down afterwards, to begin anew the next day for all eternity. In the end, Camus says of Sisyphus:
“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. (The Myth of Sisyphus. Albert Camus, 1942).”
Basically, Camus is arguing that an absurdist hero is one who learns appreciate the ride for what it is.
In order to understand the connection between the myth of Sisyphus, existentialism and KoTH, one must first examine the core premise of the KoTH. Hank Hill, in many ways, is a man out of time. He’s worked hard and played by the rules his whole life, loves his family, honors his mother and shit bag (but comedic delight) of a father, and works harder than any sonofabitch in reddest parts of Trump Country (seriously dude, the politics are not funny, let it go). And what does hank hill get in return? A crazy wife (and objectively horrible person) in Peggy, a disappointment of a son in Bobby, friends who bring nothing to his life but an unending cavalcade of increasingly outlandish problems, and a snooty Laotian neighbor.
I think this argument can best summed up in Hank Hill’s own famous salutations, “Hank Hill, Strickland Propane” and “I’m Hank Hill. I sell propane and propane accessories.” Hank Hill faces the same absurd problems day in and day out, but “pimping that sweet lady propane (Season 5, Episode 13)” makes it all worth it.
Hank Hill reaches this conclusion for himself in Season 2 Episode 13, Snow Job. In this episode, Buck Strickland suffers a heart attack gives temporary management of Strickland Propane to stuffy MBA Lloyd Vickers, effectively passing Hank over. As Hank’s perception of Buck as a paragon of propane virtue fades over the course of an increasingly bleak turn of events, Hank is rocked to his core and forced to question whether or not he truly belongs in the propane game. Caught in a fit of mania, Hank is seemingly ready to turn away from the head ache and stress of propane to a more simple life as a Mom and Pop shop owner. As he excitedly plans his new stress free life, he notices several missed calls on his answering machine. A host of propane emergencies await Hank, who in the throes of writing his official resignation from Strickland, remembers who he is and what he does. He is Hank Hill, and he sells propane and propane accessories. And off Hank goes, to surmount the mountain of winter with the efficient clean burning warmth of propane’s gentle embrace.
And I leave Hank Hill here at the foot of the grill. One always finds one’s burden again. But Hank Hill teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises steaks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that propane, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Hank Hill happy.
Hank Hill Uber Alles: Hank Hill is Always an Ubermensch
Part of the reason I wanted to write about the existential and absurdist themes of KoTH instead of Rick and Morty is that Rick and Morty has been done to death, and it kills me to have to keep coming back to it. But the internet loves to paint Rick out as an Ubermensch, but I think there may be evidence to the contrary (resume the death threats). Now, by Dan Harmon’s own admission (and I agree), Rick is meant to be an anarchist who lives by his own rules and hates government bureaucracy. However, Rick is not always as cool as cucumber (or pickle) as he claims to be. Once life becomes challenging or is no longer convenient for him, he is more than willing to hang it up. As we explore the concept of an Ubermensch in greater depth, we find Rick’s actions are precisely the opposite of what an Ubermensch would do. Rick actively attempts to minimize or avoid suffering. An Ubermensch embraces it.
Now the Ubermensch comes from 4chan’s favorite philosopher (I’m taking him back, God damn it!) Friedrich Nietzsche, and specifically the concept of eternal recurrence. One finds a great deal of similarity between Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence and Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus.
Rather than try to sum up eternal recurrence myself, and butcher it worse than True Detective, I invite you to check out this Video from Wisecrack that explains it using Megaman. If you didn’t click that link, it basically argues that eternal recurrence boils down to a thought experiment in which an individual is presented with the reality of existence as endless and meaningless suffering. For most people, this causes despair and a hatred of their own existence. This hatred is futile because it does not assuage your suffering. For Nietzsche, this represents a test for individual to rise above (I know the LTC loves Black Flag) and choose to not only embrace the suffering and misery of existence, but to be happy in spite of it all. An Ubermensch is one who looks at the meaningless suffering of the universe and says, “Hold my Alamo.”
Rick’s nihilistically insecure tendencies are what prevent him from being a fully realized existential or absurdist hero. He chooses to stay alive in the same way he makes almost all of his other decisions, so long as it remains convenient. In season 3 episode 2, Rickmancing the Stone, we get the most overt reference to this theme. Specifically, Rick literally says “the purpose of automation is to reduce cost and labor.” The theme of that episode’s subplot relies on Rick allowing Morty and Summer to remain in a post-apocalyptic Mad Maxian universe so long as it remains convenient for him. Once the robots start to require genuine effort, a quick cost-benefit analysis indicates it’s time to rescue the kids.
As we saw in the end of Season 2 Episode 3, Auto Erotic Assimilation, Rick is more than ready to kill himself when faced with suffering. Rick often chooses to blame others for his problems, rather than accept his own choices and decision making. This is summed up quite well in the therapy monologue given by Susan Sarandon, in Season 3 Episode 4 Pickle Rick who points out that Rick’s biggest challenge is accepting his own radical freedom: that his choices are his own.
We can go even further and break this down to level of Rick’s dialogue. Rick often describes his actions as responses to other actions. The whole reason we see Rick and Jerry’s adventure in the Whirly Dirly Conspiracy (Season 3, Episode 5) is because he’s “doing it as a favor to Morty to keep Jerry from killing himself.” Rick claims he’s doing it because an emotional Morty would “impede his work.” We later find that this was all a ploy and Morty simply wants some time “away from the bullshit.” Since Rick is not only a genius, but a master Morty manipulator, he should be fully aware of Morty’s dishonesty. At the very least, he shouldn’t be so easily outwitted by Morty (except in checkers). This isn’t even mentioning that Rick could just change universes whenever he wants (and often chooses not to) or that he shouldn’t give a flying fuck about Morty’s feelings. Yet the situation provides a convenient opportunity for Rick to avoid his suffering by trying to pin his decisions to others. Therefore, he creates this lie to mask his insecurities and attachment to Morty (instead of owning it like a man) and create the illusion that he “has no choice” but to take Jerry on an adventure.
Conversely, Hank Hill often rises above and plows through the suffering, and he does it all without Rick’s bitching and complaining because that’s what a Texan (born in New York) does. The best example of Hank Hill’s unwavering tenacity in the face of impending doom comes from Season 5, Episode 9, Chasing Bobby. In this classic episode, we get to see a rare sight: Hank Hill crying like a little bitch (well that was unnecessarily sexist). Now I know what you all must be thinking: wouldn’t a crying Hank Hill be the opposite of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch as I’ve just described him. In most cases, yes it would (if all you know about Nietzsche comes from 4chan). However, if we remember the concept of eternal recurrence as it related to the Ubermensch, as well as understand the cause of Hank Hill’s tears, we find that in this example, Hank Hill’s crying is the ultimate characterization of an Ubermensch: a man who is willing to continuously smash his face into the wall and revel in the unending suffering that is truck ownership.
In this episode, Hank’s beloved pickup truck is on its last legs. The mechanics tell Hank the ol’ girl has not more than 500 miles left on her before she’s gone for good. Everyone says Hank should just rip the band aid off, and buy a new truck. Hank is unwilling to accept this, at least on the surface (I know, this a big point against my argument) but deep down, he knows the end is coming for his truck. Hank’s friends and family all try to convince Hank to skip wasting his time and money fixing the truck, and simply to buy a new one. Considering most of us are not Ubermensch (I believe the kids call this being a cuck) most of us would likely try to avoid this suffering by buying a new truck. Now, one could argue this would be the Ubermensch decision (but they would be wrong) because the individual is not trying to escape from the reality that their truck is dying. However, I would argue that the person who buys the new truck is the one who is trying to escape the reality that ALL of their trucks will inevitably die, and that we must accept and endure the process as Hank Hill does each and every time. Hank does not try to escape and shorten his grieving, but instead accepts and embraces this suffering to the bitter end (the fiery explosion of his truck on the train tracks). This is why Hank Hill’s womanly weeping (there he goes with the sexism again, what the hell! It’s not like it was implied Hank was womanly in the episode or anything!) is what ultimately portrays him as an Ubermensch. Hank was a given a choice, to avoid or embrace the suffering that comes with truck ownership. Hank made his choice; the only choice a man like Hank can make. Hank Hill chose suffering.
The deep dive on Hank Hill’s psyche continues on the next page!