Civil Violence in the Old West: ‘Red Dead Redemption’

[20 January 2011]

By Nick Dinicola

As the name suggests, Red Dead Redemption is about a man searching for redemption. Ex-outlaw John Marston is trying to escape his past. His old gang left him for dead, and when he recovered, he took the opportunity to settle down with a family. That is, until Federal Agents kidnapped his wife and son, forcing him to hunt down and kill his old gang, Bill Williamson, Javier Escuella, and Dutch van der Linde. Marston is a man of violence searching for a peace that constantly eludes him, and his journey reflects society’s attempted journey from lawlessness to civility.

Throughout Red Dead Redemption, developer Rockstar shows us three civilizations at different stages of development—the lawless New Austin, the warring Nuevo Paraiso, and the well established West Elizabeth. Each one has people within it working towards the betterment of that civilization through violence. We see over and over again that the bonds of society do little to quell man’s violent nature. Rather, man’s violent nature shapes the civilizations that we live in, creating a world of constant conflict on a personal and national level.

Civil Violence in New Austin
Violence and civilization are intimately entwined in New Austin. Individual acts of violence encourage people to form little civilizations, which then rely on more violence in order to survive, leading to an endless cycle of bloodshed.

New Austin represents that iconic image of the Old West. It’s s brutal, mostly lawless place, outside the reach of government intervention. There’s no singular civilization here, just individuals fighting to survive. Call it selfishness or rugged individualism, but the major characters of New Austin are first and foremost concerned with the life that they’ve carved out for themselves, and in this place, Marston’s hunt for Bill Williamson is a distant matter.

There’s Nigel West Dickens, the incessant snake oil salesman; Seth, the obsessive treasure hunter; Irish, a drunk who can’t be forced to care about anything; and Leigh Johnson, the District Marshal for Armadillo who ignores the threat of Bill Williamson’s gang because: “He’s out of my jurisdiction.” Each man cares only about himself or about what’s directly going on around him, so in order to buy their assistance, Marston helps them with their various problems. In Johnson’s case, Bill Williamson’s gang finally encroaches into Armadillo territory and suddenly the Marshal and Marston share a similar goal.

However, these men are not entirely selfish. Johnson is the only one with his own reasons for assaulting Bill Williamson’s hideout. Everyone else is simply fulfilling an obligation. Seth could split after his treasure hunt ends in failure, but he doesn’t. With the object of his obsession gone, he can see the world more clearly. He acknowledges Marston’s assistance and the debt he now owes. West Dickens could abandon Marston and New Austin for greener pastures to practice his brand of fraud and fleecing. Irish could flee into a saloon to continue drinking himself to death. But none of these men do. It’s not because of some code of honor but because sometimes selfless acts are a practical necessity in a lawless land. They finally help Marston because that good deed may come back around to benefit them in the future.

This is proven later in the game when Marston saves West Dickens from jail. The salesman is being dragged into a police station, facing charges of fraud, when Marston tells a government agent, “This man helped me take Fort Mercer”. As a result, West Dickens is let free. His freedom was contingent on his help. If he had abandoned Marston, he would be jailed. You can only go so far by yourself in a world as violent as this one. These characters know this, that’s why they help. Lawlessness breeds community out of necessity.

If Leigh Johnson represents the voice of Armadillo then the town can be seen as a place in which people don’t concern themselves with the problems of outsiders unless the people of the town are themselves directly threatened. It’s the same “practical selfishness” that Johnson exemplifies early in the game but applied to an entire town. By contrast, if Bonnie MacFarlane represents the voice of MacFarlane’s Ranch, then this town can be seen as a place in which people help those in need no matter what. Bonnie finds Marston bleeding in front of Fort Mercer and takes him in, bandages his wounds, and does so without the guarantee of reciprocation. In fact, whereas every other character in the game helps Marston only after he helps them, Bonnie saves his life even before learning his name.
MacFarlane’s Ranch represents the closest thing to a utopia in New Austin. It’s filled with people who are selfless but not helpless. Bonnie may help strangers in need, but she’s not naïve to the dangers of the world; she can fight and embrace her own violent nature if her community is threatened. However, she doesn’t let the violence of the world dampen her good nature. MacFarlane’s Ranch is just as violent a place as Armadillo. There are attacks on the barn, Bonnie is kidnapped at one point, and during a night watch, Marston might see multiple robberies and murders. However, MacFarlane’s Ranch has also reached an equilibrium that no other community in New Austin has. Its people help others when help is needed and then defend themselves with as much violence as possible when violence is needed. It’s telling that the utopia of this Old West is no less violent than any other town.

Bonnie MacFarlane of New Austin

Bonnie MacFarlane of New Austin

Civil Violence in Nuevo Paraiso

The communities of New Austin aren’t major civilizations for one important reason: they don’t seek to grow. Instead, they’re content to remain little bastions of society in an otherwise lawless land. By contrast, Blackwater in West Elizabeth is constantly expanding its presence in the world of Red Dead Redemption. It’s fighting off the “savage” Native Americans, and it’s already sending out small tentacles of culture into New Austin in the form of telephones and movie theaters. Technology defines the civilization of Blackwater (as evidenced by Edgar Ross’s love of the automobile and Harold MacDougal’s supposed dedication to science) so it’s only natural that Blackwater would use that technology to advance itself. But what if Marshal Leigh Johnson, perplexed by the telephone, decides to fight back against this growing civilization? What happens when one civilization seeks to impose its will upon those who don’t want it? In Mexico, we see the quintessential clash of a civilization with itself: a civil war.

Idealism is epitomized in the peasant Luisa Fortuna, a true believer in the revolution. She believes that the violence of the civil war will have a greater historical meaning.

When Marston first visits Chuparosa during one of his first missions in Mexico, he’s accosted by three thugs. They obviously don’t like him, and their distrust stems from his status as an outsider. When Marston aks if they speak English, one answers, “Si, hablo ‘filthy fucking bean eater.’ Hablo, ‘slippery little Mexican’”. The racial tension is obvious, and their distrust of this outsider is warranted since they don’t see Marston as an individual. He’s a representative of all Americans. Their distrust is one civilization protecting itself from another. They threaten him and tell him to take off his boots as “taxation” for coming into their country, and he kills them. An old gunslinger who observes the exchange, Landon Ricketts, sarcastically chides Marston, “What a great way to improve border relations. An illiterate farmer crossing the river, coming into this civilization, and butchering the local peasants. Thank you very much, sir”.

Ricketts eventually explains his cynical take on the civil war: “The local government… a foul bunch. Colonel Allende runs this place like a feudal king. He’s an awful individual”. Yet Ricketts doesn’t see the revolutionaries as any better: “Now there’s another local guy running around promising the peasants their freedom, just like the last two or three.” Despite his cynicism, he sides with the people and acts as if it’s the obvious choice to do so. After rescuing a wagon from robbers, he tells Marston, “They’ve been beaten down for too long. I give them some hope”. Landon Ricketts is another man of violence, embracing his violent nature to end more violence, or in his own words: “I’m a fighter sir, and I’ll fight to the end”. He’s just as violent as the characters in New Austin, only his violence is dressed in idealism rather than practicality.

That idealism is epitomized in the peasant Luisa, a true believer in the revolution. She believes that the violence of the civil war will have a greater historical meaning. She even says early on, “I’m living in history, I’m not afraid to die”. The inherent burden of this belief is that it must be all encompassing, the greater historical meaning of the revolution must excuse all acts of violence. When her father is killed, when his heart is cut out and fed to dogs, Marston explains, “It means that war is brutal and unnecessary and good people die, and that’s all it will mean”. But for Luisa, “That is not enough”. She needs her idealism to survive.

Marston has been down this road before. When he rode with Bill, Javier, and Dutch, he was not unlike the revolutionaries of Mexico, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, violently standing up for people who have been beaten down by society. He became disillusioned with his violent rebellion when he was shot and left for dead. He realized that society wasn’t changing, despite all they’ve done, so he decided to change, to put the violence behind him and try to have a peaceful life. He tries to explain this to Luisa but she dismisses him, “I’d rather be dead than a cynic like you”.

Her unshakable belief in the cause is rooted in her love for the rebel leader Reyes, but Reyes is no different than her or Ricketts. The leader doesn’t consider what he’ll do after he wins the war. Marston asks him, “If it does work, and you take down Allende, what then?” Reyes answers, “I will give the greatest speech of my life…I will march on the capital and take on [President] Sanchez himself!” There’s no end in sight for his war. It’s just violence for the sake of violence, dressed up as a noble revolution. In that regard, he’s the same as Ricketts, using the revolution as an outlet for his violent nature except that, whereas Ricketts has a genuine sympathy for the peasants, Reyes is simply using them to further his personal goals. He only cares about the people as one cares for a puppy. He still looks down on them and sees himself as better by birth, “I owe it to the future of Mexico to breed… If I can get noble blood flowing through the veins of peasants, can you imagine how great this country can be?” He then laughs at the idea of marrying the peasant Luisa, “I’m going to be the next president of Mexico. My wife will meet ambassadors, kings, other great men. The very thought that I would marry some peasant girl with a tight cunt and the hands of a farmer, well, I really don’t think so”.

For the people of Nuevo Paraiso, the revolution allows them to embrace their violent nature while acting like it’s something noble and good. When Marston describes Dutch to Reyes, Reyes makes a quip that best describes everyone in Mexico: “I like this man Dutch, another violent idealist.”

The war in Nuevo Paraiso proves that a new civilization requires violence to establish itself. A proper civilization takes the violent nature of all its citizens and directs it towards a single target. In Mexico, this works both ways as Colonel Allende also claims to commits violence for peace. He says, “My people have lived and worked here for a hundred years. We brought civilization, and these people, these fucking monkeys, despise us. We brought them God, and they turned their back on him. Now I fight to help them from themselves, to save them from themselves”. His second-in-command continues to defend the violence: “[Allende] is trying to preserve the order in our province to keep our civilization alive. It is tough… Sometimes in the service of what is right, you got to do terrible things”. Each side is fighting for their civilization, yet there’s very little that is civil about either one. Both sides idealize their own acts of violence, glorify them and excuse them, while condemning the other side for doing the same thing. In Mexico, both sides can do this because there’s a war going on, but what happens when there’s no war to fight? How does a civilization deal with people’s violent nature when there is no common enemy?

Luisa Fortuna of Nuevo Paraiso

Luisa Fortuna of Nuevo Paraiso

Civil Violence in West Elizabeth

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. 

John Marston is an ideological outsider that must be purged, and his violent past is simply a convenient excuse to do so.

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

John Marston in West Elizabeth

Nick Dinicola made it through college with a degree in English, and now applies all his critical thinking skills to video games instead of literature. He reviews games and writes a weekly post for the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters, and can be heard on the weekly Moving Pixels podcast. More of his reviews, previews, and general thoughts on gaming can be found at www.gamehounds.net.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/135090-civil-violence-in-the-old-west/