Rick and Morty, Szechuan Sauce, and the power of online fandom

After 18 months of intense fan anticipation, April 1 saw the first episode of the third season of cult television show Rick and Morty drop as a surprise April Fools prank.

The episode was a triumph, showcasing the show’s creativity, heart, and humour at its best. Yet the episode did more than entertain, it started a cultural phenomenon, best served with chicken nuggets.

Szechuan sauce.

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Within the episode, Rick recalls a McDonald’s Szechuan dipping sauce that was served for a limited time in 1998 to promote the Disney movie Mulan. In the final scene, he proclaims valiantly to his grandson:

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“I’ll go out, and I’ll find some of that Mulan Szechuan teriyaki dipping sauce, Morty, because that’s what this is all about, that’s my one armed man. I’m not driven by avenging my dead family. I’m driven by find

ing that McNugget sauce. That’s my series arc, Morty. If it takes us nine 

seasons, I’m going to get that dipping Szechuan sauce.”

With one line from the protagonist’s stammering, drooling mouth, the show’s creators, Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon, created an army to serve one purpose. No, not to pass butter, to get sauce. And that army is rather large.

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Facebook groups dedicated to the show boast large memberships

By and large, Rick and Morty fans are passionate, gathering online using platforms like Reddit and Facebook to discuss the show. And since the release of the episode, the discourse of these groups has been almost entirely dominated by the topic of McDonald’s Mulan-inspired szechuan dipping sauce.

Hardly contained, the mania has progressed beyond these curated spaces. One of the most viewed YouTube videos this week is a how-to on making szechuan sauce, and a petition urging McDonald’s to bring back the sauce is gaining traction.

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Alleged packets of the sauce, and even photos of packets of the sauce, are now being auctioned on eBay, with the most impressive fetching bids in excess of 50,000USD.

Though an obsession with McDonald’s sauce may seem to contradict this fact, Rick and Morty is an incredibly clever show. Its whip-smart writing and mature themes attracting and nurturing the huge fanbase.

The star of the show, Rick Sanchez, is the ultimate free thinker. The literal smartest man in the universe, rebelling against not only his dimension’s rules and social norms, and the status quo of a multiverse, but also against a citadel made up entirely of infinite versions of himself.

“Think for yourselves, don’t be sheep.”

In line with their hero, it is well documented that much of the Rick and Morty fandom consider themselves smarter than those who do not watch the show, or other members of the fandom they consider inferior, taking their passion to emulate this free-thinking genius to an arguably obnoxious level. 

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A top ranking meme from r/rickandmorty

Yet these same fans have heavily promoted McDonald’s, a brand synonymous with capitalist culture.

In the time that has passed since the dawn of the Szechuan Sauce era, fans questioned within the aforementioned online groups over their alleged susceptibility to the product placement, have been quick to claim the show’s reference is satirical, unable or unwilling to critically assess the use of the sauce.

Whether or not the show did mention such a specific condiment in truly irreverent fashion, the McDonald’s Mulan Szechuan Sauce is tough to swallow (and not because it was made in 1998.)

Today’s consumer has the option to approach much of the advertising they’re exposed to with a healthy sense of scepticism, though this scenario made that difficult. The fundamental problem with this kind of audience manipulation is subtly, it hits when the viewer is most vulnerable: expecting to enjoy a story, not listen to a sales pitch.

In this case, there is no denying that the viewers were completely won over. The show’s fandom has become so dedicated to the product they were told to like, that an animated alcoholic’s wish may very well be granted in the real world.

While there’s no official or public partnership between the show and McDonald’s, the two parties are communicating on Twitter, and a corporate McDonald’s chef has tweeted his support of the movement. With a live action Mulan remake currently in the works, everything seems to be lining up neatly.

The sheer volume of free advertising the golden arches have received over the past week is an astounding display of the power of fan culture. It’s product placement gone meta, and the fans don’t mind one bit.

For to be in favour of bringing back the sauce, is to be a part of the narrative of the show they so dearly love, of something bigger, of an exclusive club, and the pursuit of that is at the root of what online communities and social media are about.

That, and selling stuff.