On October 7th, fans of the cartoon Rick and Morty lined up at McDonald’s around the United States to obtain some promotional Szechuan sauce not available since the release of Mulan in 1998. The fast food chain was taking advantage of the nonsensical third season premiere that concluded with Rick revealing all of his machinations were about obtaining more of this cheap condiment. For fans of the cartoon, it was a chance to gather and grab a bite of supposedly delicious sauce. For McDonald’s, it was an opportunity to sell a lot more chicken strips.
Things did not go well.
The restaurants were allocated between 20 to 40 packets at most, and many were left without any at all. This was far from enough to satisfy lines that often ran hundreds of people long. Things spiraled out of control. There were fights that required police to be called, violent and crude rants against the restaurant, conspiracy theories of employees stealing the sauce, and one customer even sold their car for a single packet.
Even readers who have never seen Rick and Morty have likely heard about the McDonald’s Szechuan sauce debacle by now, and it has not resulted in a good look for fans of the series. Others have trashed the fandom and called out how this experience runs counter to the show’s actual themes. They also all miss the real point of this minor disaster, and here’s why...
Responses to the fandom who turned out for the Szechuan sauce promotion are coming from a place of obvious bad faith. There were overreactions. A fistfight cannot be justified over any McDonald’s item. Cursing out a PR professional for miscalculation is a ridiculous response to sauce that can easily be made at home. Selling your vehicle for a few ounces of said sauce reflects some pretty poor decision-making skills.
These stories are horrifying, hilarious, or a mix of the two. They’re also the exceptional reactions to this event, not the rule.
Stories that represent the fans who turned out as being represented by these responses do so in order to make a broader point that doesn’t exist. Most fans arrived, were disappointed to not receive any sauce, and went somewhere else for lunch instead. Some tweeted about their disappointment and others decided to settle for BBQ sauce, but they were almost all very reasonable. That doesn’t make for a great take though. Applying the worst examples across the whole is more exciting and purposefully dishonest.
Frankly, these takedowns all come across with an air of elitism. They not only represent every person who turned out with a dozen of the worst examples, but also write about the silliness of seeking some sauce on a Saturday afternoon as if there’s something inherently wrong with that event. A lot did go wrong; that’s no reason to trash the concept itself or anyone who experienced a small amount of excitement about it.
A small, non-violent and non-disparaging, level of disappointment is entirely understandable in this scenario. Rick and Morty is a cultural phenomenon, and the idea that 20 packets allocated to only a few restaurants in a major metropolitan area would cover demand is a severe underestimation. What’s even worse is that most restaurants failed to be up-front about the limited supply, opting instead to allow hundreds of people to spend hours waiting for sauce they would never see. It’s very fair to say that this is also a bad look.
A lot of the anger from attendees on social media or local news broadcasts is a completely understandable reaction to what happened. If McDonald’s had told fans about the limited allocations from the start or been sure all select locations actually received sauce, it would be extreme. Yet they spent hours at an event which they were promised a specific outcome that McDonald’s always knew wouldn’t be the case. They spent hours of their weekend waiting in line like many fans do for Hall H at San Diego Comic-Con, but at least they get to see some celebrities at the end.
The restaurant has worked to make amends. In response to the furor surrounding this event, they’ve announced a much larger batch of Szechuan sauce is to be prepared, guaranteeing enough that no attendee will go without. That’s a good response, and the chain should receive credit for rectifying the initially botched promotion. With any luck, it will provide some much better news stories when the second round of sauce is released.
One of the worst takes to come out of this situation is that Rick and Morty fans don’t understand the show they love. Writers at a variety of sites and magazines spent time explaining the conclusion to “The Rickshank Redemption”. Rick’s obsession with Szechuan sauce is an example of how his nihilistic worldview leads to loneliness and self-loathing. When everything means nothing and you start attaching meaning to the meaningless (e.g. Szechuan sauce), it creates a vapid existence. You don’t have to be a super-genius to see that.
The assumption that every fan who turned out to get some chicken strips and sauce believed the sauce really was the point of the episode or series misses the point of the event entirely. Obtaining Szechuan sauce wasn’t about striving to be like Rick, it was about connecting to the show and other people who enjoy it. It was about experiencing fandom.
Szechuan sauce is cheap and not particularly special.
Rick Sanchez doesn’t actually care about Szechuan sauce.
Nobody should throw a punch to get a condiment.
That’s all besides the point. Most of fandom in any “nerdy” arena, whether it’s comics, films, cartoons, or anything else, is a singular existence. You watch or read stories alone. Fandom is the experience of sharing these joys we typically find alone. We find these excuses in a variety of ways. Sometimes it’s a convention or viewing party and sometimes it’s a fast food promotion. The fun comes in encountering people who love the same thing you do, and that was why so many people turned out for Szechuan sauce.
McDonald’s may have severely underestimated Rick and Morty fandom, but they’ve also responded by preparing a lot more sauce for the winter season. It’s another opportunity for fans to gather for a silly and enjoyable event. Let’s treat it like what it is.