'Rick and Morty' Szechuan Sauce Returning to McDonald's Proves We Don't Understand the Show

On Monday, McDonald's reintroduced its Szechuan dipping sauce to locations across the United States—thanks in no small part to demand from Rick and Morty superfans. The decision is proof that the Adult Swim show has become a capitalist juggernaut, and it cinches the fact that most of its fanbase doesn't understand it at all.

Let's start at the beginning. In December 2013, Adult Swim began airing episodes of Rick and Morty, a foul-mouthed irreverent sci-fi cartoon co-written by Community's Dan Harmon and a then-unknown animator and voice actor, Justin Roiland. The show followed a loose parody of Doc and Marty from Back to the Future, both voiced by Roiland, through interdimensional misadventures that usually ended on a dark note.

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'Rick and Morty' co-creators Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland at the Adult Swim upfront party in 2015. Getty Images

Over the next five years and three seasons of the show, Rick and Morty grew from a beloved cult hit to one of the most-watched series on television. Its fervent, even obsessive audience, was right in every advertiser's dream market: young people, especially men between ages 18 and 30. The problem was, a huge swath of the fanbase wasn't really in on the joke. Instead of accepting the deeply flawed Rick as Harmon's satirical take on himself—the writer has publicly battled with substance issues, his ego and depression—thousands of vulnerable fans began to follow Rick like a religious figure. Many of them formed online communities to discuss the reasons they felt superior to their peers, for example. And though they don't represent the entirety of Rick and Morty's fanbase, these viewers became a meme.

Adult Swim noticed the devotion and began churning out limited-edition merchandise for each episode. If Rick screamed something repeatedly, Adult Swim slapped it on a T-shirt. When he turned himself into a pickle ("I'm Pickle Rick!"), there were multiple versions of Pickle Rick for purchase online within minutes. Rick and Morty's viral popularity allowed Adult Swim to perfect its interactive experience through selling merchandise and fan experiences like the Rickmobile, network President Christina Miller told Newsweek.

A huge group of costumed "Rick and Morty" fans gather at San Diego Comic Con in 2017. Adult Swim

The fan phenomenon—watching and then buying—continued behind the scenes of Rick and Morty until things built to a peak during the Season 3 premiere, which Adult Swim surprise-released on April 1, 2017. "The Rickshank Rickdemption" was written under immense stress from fans for more Rick and Morty content, and Harmon and Roiland were open on Twitter about how demand had changed their workflow. The episode, which teased an answer for every question audiences have about Rick, only subverted them all in the end, confirming nothing about the character's backstory and mocking any viewer who expected something concrete.

And then, it happened. In the episode's final scenes, Rick went on a characteristic rant, telling his hapless grandson Morty yet again that nothing in the universe has meaning and that the only reason he gets up every day is the hope of acquiring a discontinued dipping sauce from McDonald's.

"I'll go out, and I'll find more of that Szechuan Mulan teriyaki dipping sauce, Morty!" the character babbled. "Because that's what this is all about, Morty. That's my one-armed man."

It was a simple joke with a quick reference to The Fugitive—and it sailed right over legions of fans' heads. Within weeks, self-professed Rick and Morty fans were throwing tantrums at McDonald's because the stores had run out of the sauce, which the restaurant chain had reintroduced briefly after the episode. (It was originally released in 1998 as a promotion timed to the release of Disney's Mulan.)

The poster for McDonald's Szechuan sauce, featuring knockoff "Rick and Morty" art from an uncredited illustrator. Ad Age, McDonald's

The chain even hired an artist to mock up a poster for the sauce in a style reminiscent of Roiland's drawings on Rick and Morty, and Szechuan sauce is now available at every U.S. location. The whole nasty PR Ouroboros has sealed itself, and a major corporation is profiting off the intellectual property of a different major corporation, all in the name of feeding petulant fans who didn't get the joke.

Rick and Morty has not yet been confirmed for a Season 4, but as Adult Swim's highest-watched show in history, it will undoubtedly return. Just like the sauce.