Blackwater is the preeminent civilization in Red Dead Redemption, technologically advanced with a grandiose sense of superiority. In New Austin, we see man’s violent nature pit man against man. In Nuevo Paraiso, it pitted civilization against itself. In West Elizabeth, it pits a civilization against everyone else. Anyone that can’t be assimilated is killed because anyone outside the civilization is a threat.
Dutch Van de Linde is the current big threat facing Blackwater, since he’s gathered a following of Native Americans to fight back against the government. Disgraced anthropologist Harold MacDougal is excited by Dutch’s little resistance. MacDougal believes that there’s a biological reason that makes the white man more “civilized” than the Native Americans. “The savage heart cannot be conventionally civilized,” he exclaims, but Dutch contradicts this hypothesis, which intrigues MacDougal. Ironically, his prejudice is closer to the truth than anyone else’s philosophy in Red Dead Redemption. His one mistake is assuming that the “savage heart” lies only within Native Americans or “special cases” like Dutch and Marston, the latter who he describes as “a white man obviously, but with a savage spirit”. The truth presented in Red Dead Redemption is that all men are savages and can never be civilized.
Dutch subscribes to this pessimistic world view. He knows that he’s a violent man, and he embraces that violent nature even though it exhausts him. When he and Marston finally meet face to face, he confesses, “We can’t always fight nature, John. We can’t fight change. We can’t fight gravity. We can’t fight nothing. My whole life, all I ever did was fight… But I can’t give up, neither. I can’t fight my own nature. That’s the paradox John. You see”. Dutch has to pick his battles. He can fight his nature like Marston or accept his nature and fight the rest of the world. He obviously chooses the latter, and in this way, he’s similar to Landon Ricketts. However, instead of applying his violent nature towards fighting for something he sees as good, Dutch just fights whatever he can. This means that his life is constant fight, either against others or himself, and by the end, he’s simply too tired to go on. When Marston finally confronts Dutch, the famous outlaw kills himself.
Marston has more in common with Dutch than he’d probably like to admit. When he says that he wants to leave his old life behind, he’s really talking about leaving his violent nature behind. We root for Marston during his journey, and we want him to find his redemption because he seems like a good man who deserves a happy ending to his rough life. But John Marston is not a good man. Despite the fact that he honors his marriage vows by not sleeping with whores, despite his reluctance to return to his old way of life, and despite an Honor meter that might be full by the end of the game, Marston is still a frighteningly violent man. Throughout his journey he kills innocent people, helps a swindler gouge the poor, helps a dictator kill the poor, burns down a civilian village, turns his back on prisoners being executed, and more. He’s not a good man, and he knows it. When Reyes chastises him for being sarcastic, Marston responds, “Very little is beneath a man such as me”. His noble goal (of being reunited with his family) hides his violent nature. Marston is simply in denial; he knows the truth about himself but won’t accept the consequences of that truth. In this way, he’s no different than the man who kidnapped his wife and son, Federal Agent Edgar Ross, who believes that all his killing and kidnapping make Blackwater safer when he’s really just starting wars.
There’s something pure about how Dutch accepts his violent nature. He doesn’t excuse it as a practical necessity for survival like Johnson or anyone from New Austin. He also doesn’t excuse it with idealism like Ricketts, Luisa, or anyone from Nuevo Paraiso. Additionally, he doesn’t excuse it with prejudice or with the necessity for the expansion of civilization like Ross or anyone from West Elizabeth. Finally, he doesn’t hide it like Marston.
As a man who lived a violent life, it’s only natural that Marston die a violent death, but his death at the hands of Edgar Ross speaks to more than just a past that finally caught up with him. It’s important that Marston’s farm is in West Elizabeth and not New Austin. He wants to have a farm like Bonnie at MacFarlane’s Ranch, but being in New Austin means that she’s faced with the constant, brutal lawlessness of that land. Marston wants to leave that life altogether, so it makes sense that he would leave New Austin for the more stable West Elizabeth, but in doing so, he runs afoul of Blackwater. The little farming life that Marston wants to carve out for himself conflicts with the technology-driven culture of Blackwater. When a Federal Agent tells him, “They move most cows by rail these days, I hear”, Marston responds, “Not where I’m from they don’t”. That retort betrays his naïveté: That may not be how cows are moved where he’s from but that’s how cows are moved where he is now. Marston clearly doesn’t understand the land that he’s chosen to live in. He’s trying to live as a farmer in a land that won’t accept such a rustic attitude. He’s an ideological outsider that must be purged, and his violent past is simply a convenient excuse to do so.
With Marston, Dutch, and the natives gone, Blackwater is free to expand into New Austin where it will continue to force itself onto the people. This is the cycle of civilization according to Red Dead Redemption: expansion and conflict with no end in sight. This cycle repeats on an individual level as well. Every character is a man or woman of violence, and through their bloodshed, they create violent civilizations. To emphasize that point, the game doesn’t end after John Marston is killed. Instead, we skip ahead several years and take on the role of Jack Marston, John’s son, now grown into a man. The one new mission available to him is to hunt down Edgar Ross. Jack finds the retired Federal Agent fishing by a river, and Ross is quickly gunned down just as Marston was, ending the life of one violent man while Jack sets himself down a similar path of violence. Ross clearly didn’t make the world any safer by killing Marston. While the game ends there, pausing the world while the credits roll and implying an end to the story (even though we can continue playing the open world), it’s safe to assume that eventually Jack will die in a similar fashion as well. That’s the way of the world in Red Dead Redemption: violent people lead violent lives and create more violent societies to live on after them.
In the end, no one has earned that titular redemption.
John Marston in West Elizabeth