The Satire of Red Dead Redemption
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Satire of Red Dead Redemption!
Written by: Leo Cookman
Directed by: Michael Luxemburg
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Andrew Nishimura
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
The Satire of Red Dead Redemption – Wisecrack Edition
Howdy y’all, Jared here. We are stupid excited about Red Dead Redemption 2, so to celebrate it coming out, we wanted to break down numero uno and ask – what does it all mean? Just like its older brother, Grand Theft Auto, Grand Theft Horse takes a satirical look at American culture, despite being set over 100 years in the past. But above all else, Red Dead Redemption is a commentary on the, “Wicky Wicky wild wild west,” our relationship to it, and if civilization was even worth all the trouble.
So, saddle up for this Wisecrack Edition on the Satire of Red Dead Redemption. And, of course, spoilers ahead… for a game that’s 8 years old…
To recap: Red Dead Redemption tells the story of John Marston, an OG cowboy trying to become a productive member of society until he gets blackmailed by the government, forcing him to hunt down his former gang members. Marston then moseys on down that lonesome trail into his past seeking redemption, I see what you did there Rockstar, so he can get back to that simple farm life. So far, classic Western. The game even uses all the classic cliches: Expansive vistas, quick draw shootouts, literal cowboy-ing, gambling, Mexicans and Native Americans getting shot by a dude called John, and horse riding. Lots of horse riding.
So with all this direct homage, where does the satire come in? Like GTA, much of Red Dead’s satire comes from the game’s huge cast of non-playable characters, who at first may seem like stock Western archetypes. There’s Jenny, the good Christian girl in the opening scene. “Father, do you mean unless an innocent receives communion, they’re destined to go to hell? That hardly seems fair.” Or Sam Odessa, who’s on a journey to the promised land of California. Or old Billy West, who asks you to collect flowers for his beloved wife. But whereas your traditional Western would use these tropes to tell wholesome tales of faith, hope, or love, Red Dead Redemption has other ideas. You leave Jenny to die of exposure out in the desert, Sam becomes a paranoid drunk, and then you find his body torn apart by vultures. Oh, and Billy’s loving wife you collected all those flowers for she’s actually a rotting corpse. “Yes, you don’t look a day over 30, ma’am.”
Or you have a character like Luisa, an idealist with naive notions of a glorious revolution and a free Mexico, who gets unceremoniously shot dead in the middle of a mission and the man she claimed to be engaged to can’t even remember her name. “Who was she again?” “Your peasant girl wife-to-be…” “Oh, yes, of course! She will have a day named after her! Laura’s day!” “Luisa.” “What? Oh, yes. I knew a Laura as well.” This puts RDR firmly in the camp of something we’ve talked about before: the post-western, a kind of anti-Western that subverts the image of the Old West as it’s classically depicted. The game pits kind old men and young maidens against the harsh realities of the lawless West, revealing how easily these idealists and romantics were crushed by the brutality of the great Westward Expansion. Even the twisted idealism of the tyrannical Mexican leader Colonel Allende, — “Now, I fight to help them from themselves! To save them from themselves!” — ends rather abruptly.
But it’s with the characters who survive that provides the games most scathing satire. The characters that survive tend to be your allies. And they, well, suck. Except Bonnie, she’s fine. But the rest are largely selfish and unsympathetic, leaving us to wonder who we’re supposed to be rooting for? Most of them won’t even assist you until they’ve been assisted by you. Take Marshall Johnson. He has some pretty… fluid ideas on how to police the town of Armadillo. In an early mission helpfully called ‘Political Realities in Armadillo,’ he reveals a conflict of interests, to put it lightly, between public safety and big business. “I got the railway, the people who pay my salary, trying to get me to turn a blind eye to them burning down settlements up there.”
He also is more than happy to turn a blind eye to crime, “He’s outside my jurisdiction,” that is, until he owes you a favor. Then, there’s mister West Dickens the snake oil salesman, businessman and, “He’s a harmless old fraud, the kind of man that built this country,” a man who actively discourages people from acting selflessly and uses Marston to win horse races and sell his tonic before lending a helping hand. Or Professor MacDougal, the Anthropologist from an Ivy League school, who also happens to be a racist cocaine addict whose theories on genealogy are constantly proven wrong. “It’s remarkable, it completely refutes my last book!”
With allies like these, we’re forced to ask, who’s the good guy? You’ve probably heard the phrase “History is written by the victors,” and Red Dead Redemption seems to agree. The Federal Marshals like Johnson are ultimately the ones who ‘tamed’ the Wild West. Professor MacDougal, who believes the Native Americans to be barely-human savages, survives to bring these stories back to ‘civilization’ where the decimation of native tribes continued for decades. While West Dickens, the entrepreneur and profiteer, lives to sell another bottle of Elixir. These dick-bags were the real ‘champions’ of the Wild West. The idealists die while the cunning shysters survive. Such is Rockstar’s satire of the Old West. As a post-western, Red Dead not only satirizes the Western genre but the history of “the West” itself. The game takes place at the beginning of the 20th century, when the old, lawless West was dying, killed off by industrialization and urban development.
Federal Law was growing to help police these newer states and the Industrial Revolution was finally catching up with Western Expansion. We like to think that technological progress “tamed” the Wild West, but the game points out that it just brings its own flavor of violence. It gives you a railroad that you can take anywhere but – as Marshall Johnson pointed out – the owners burn down people’s houses. You’re also given an early machine gun – twice – that you use to gun down entire armies. Not exactly your mythic cowboy shootouts, but equally, if not more, violent. But hey, new technology is awesome. “Civilization is a truly beautiful thing, Mr. Marston.”
You end up with a pretty nuanced debate about the merits of “civilization.” Just as technology came to civilize the west, so did the government, which is similarly not given a flattering portrayal. For example, Abraham Reyes stages a coup against the debauched and cruel Colonel Allende in Mexico. Before we meet him, Reyes is described as a heroic revolutionary leader of great moral worth. “He doesn’t care for their bourgeois, snobbery, or elitism.” When we do meet him, however he’s a lying, arrogant, selfish, womanizer, who isn’t stirring up a revolution to free Mexico, but to get money and power with no intention of leading once it’s attained. “Like any great leader, my brother. I will delegate.”
The other representative of Government is Edgar Ross. You know, the US official who has the backing of the United States government so he can ‘civilize’ the West? Well, he forces you to murder your former friends by stealing your family, “We need you to find Williamson, then head to Blackwater as quick as you can. We have reason to believe that Dutch Van Der Linde is in the area.” “Oh, your wife sends her regards.” And when you accomplish your goal, sends the entire army to your house to shoot you to pieces.
He even says: “You see we – me and Archer – we’re the bad guys, we enforce the rules.” This is a world where the good guys call themselves bad guys, and the bad guys think they’re good guys. So, if the game is targeting the people who built the institutions that survive today, isn’t that kind of bleak? Well, Rockstar may not be full of quite as many edgelords as it seems, as their conclusion on the merits of civilization is quite complex. So, sure, John Marston and co. argue that, while life as an outlaw is violent and often ugly, they are at least free. But the feds point out that the cowboys’ violence that comes from defending their freedom kinda sucks for everyone else. “I’ll tell ya what the alternative is, it’s not complicated! It’s about one man and his gun versus another man. Sure, civilization may be dull, but the alternative, Mr. Marston, is hell.”
This bleak satire of society can be summed up in the chief antagonist of the game: Dutch van der Linde. Dutch is the former leader of Marston’s old gang and the man you’re sent to kill, but he isn’t quite a classic Western villain… We hear from Marston how Dutch raised him: “The leader of the gang taught me how to read. Taught me how to see all that was good in the world. He was a great man in a way.” And whenever we meet Dutch he is eloquent and honest, violent – sure, but isn’t everyone in this game?
And then there’s the fact his new posse consists almost entirely of disenfranchised Native Americans who see Dutch as a savior. The only Native American character who talks to Marston and his allies is Nastas, who is patronized and insulted by Professor MacDougal and then shot in the head as a traitor by his own people. Dutch is trying to stand against the march of the so-called ‘civilization’ of the West that Marston’s mission represents, having seen what it does to people and their communities. Before Dutch dies he says, “When I’m gone they’ll just find another monster. They have to. Because they have to justify their wages.”
For Dutch, if you want an industrialized military with machine guns and motor cars, you need to justify that investment with an enemy to use it against. Which makes his character less an oblique satire and more of an on-the-nose commentary, seeing as it would be only 3 years later that World War One would break out. In Red Dead Redemption, not only is our nostalgic view of the Old West wrong, but so is the idea that the civilization that replaced it is somehow better. We’re left with a world in which the crooked businessmen, selfish revolutionaries, morally bankrupt academics and corrupt government officials are the ones laying the the building blocks of the New World, while the selfless are forgotten. With this kind of pessimism running through the game, it’s no wonder a key mantra throughout is: “You can’t erase your past, Mr. Marston, but we can,” and that “You can’t erase the past, John. Killing me — it won’t make it go away,” and, “The past is all that’s real, my friend. It cannot be erased.”
Just as John can’t escape his violent past, neither can America.