‘Grand Theft Auto V’: A Populist Revenge Fantasy

The final boss of Grand Theft Auto V is Mitt Romney's 1%.

In Grand Theft Auto‘s past, the “final boss” of any of these games was something relatively expected, a crime boss, perhaps, or maybe a corrupt cop that has been hassling the protagonist throughout the course of the game. Such an antagonist makes sense overall, since essentially what one plays as in a Grand Theft Auto title is a criminal entrepreneur, a street level hustler that has enough ambition to climb the ladder of the American economy through criminal enterprise. Thus, the crime lord or the corrupt cop are his rivals, his competition, interested in acquiring the same dirty money that the protagonist aims his sights on.

Of late, Quentin Tarantino’s films have moved thematically towards the motif of the revenge fantasy (unsurprising, perhaps, as Tarantino seems to be returning to his roots, the films that he was most influenced by growing up, the revenge fantasies that are often the central focus of blaxploitation cinema). First, he made a Jewish revenge fantasy in which a Jewish woman got the opportunity to rewrite history by killing Hitler. Then, came his African American revenge fantasy, in which a former slave got the opportunity to assassinate plantation owners. Grand Theft Auto V would fit nicely into the Tarantino oeuvre, amounting as it does to a populist revenge fantasy.

The “final boss” of Grand Theft Auto V is a man named Devon Weston. This guy is a mover and a shaker, a legitimate businessman (at least in the sense that he performs on the surface what is considered to be a normal job as a financier and investor) that deals with billions of dollars. In a nutshell, Devon Weston is the 1%. And in a nutshell, that is exactly who the “boss” of this game is. The final enemy is the 1% and what they represent.

Grand Theft Auto features three protagonists, Franklin, a young African American from the ghettos of Los Santos, Trevor, a white trash shitkicker living in the boonies outside the city, and Michael, a former bank robber up to his eyeballs in debt. Each of these three represent those individuals that make up the American economy and are (most importantly) — not the 1%. The character that most resembles wealth and affluence is Michael, of course. However, early on, we learn that he is what amounts to those who are “doing well” in the American economy, a guy with a big house and a nice car, who really doesn’t own any of it. What he “owns” is debt.

Indeed, that is how the main thrust of GTA V‘s plot is touched off. When Michael goes off the rails and wrecks the expensive home of a local crime lord, he finds that despite his “wealth” he just doesn’t actually have any capital to make things right. He needs to get out of retirement and back to work in order to stay alive. What follows is the eventual banding together of Michael, Franklin, and Trevor in part to pay Michael’s debts, but soon these crooks find new “work” because of the interests of men like Devon or the federal government, both of whom find ways of pulling all of these men’s strings in order to get them to do what they want.

Grand Theft Auto V, then, is a game about accomplishing objectives for the men in charge, the government, the 1%. After all, we are their employees.

What this long string of events culminates in is a decision that Franklin has to make that is pressed upon him initially by Weston. Weston finds Michael to be a liability, and he wants Franklin to kill his mentor and friend. The FIB (GTA‘s parodic version of the FBI) soon contact Franklin and also press the young man with a request to kill Trevor, his friend and colleague. Franklin is then offered a choice to fulfill Devon’s request, the FIB’s request, or to sign his own death warrant by refusing both.

While each ending is interesting and has something to say about the previous events of the game and about possible responses to American economics (and if you are interested, Nick Dinicola and I will be discussing them at length in an upcoming Moving Pixels podcast on GTA V, so check in with us several Mondays from now on that), it is the third solution that appears to be the “good ending” of this GTA or at least the only one in which all of the game’s protagonists manage to survive, essentially because they reject the system that they have found themselves complicit in as the peons of individuals like Weston.

I like to refer to this ending as the “You’re not the boss of me!” ending, which in and of itself sounds both petulant and impossible. So, of course, does a Jewish woman getting the chance to kill Hitler or a black man in the nineteenth century blowing up a planatation house. Indeed, these are fantasies of revenge. So, what GTA V‘s final ending amounts to is opting out of a system in which the moneyed get to make all the decisions by banding together and eradicating them and returning to autonomy.

Franklin, Michael, and Trevor are all under the players control throughout the game, and in a sense, as that collective identity of the player, they have “worked together” to advance the plot. But the truth is that their own personal interests frequently create friction between them. Indeed, at some points during the game’s story missions, it appears that Trevor will likely kill Michael. These are workers that establish as much camaraderie as their own personal needs and desires allow them and as much antagonism as those needs and desires produce by creating obvious conflict with one another.

Thus, the “death wish” ending features the three coming together to initially solve one another’s problems, each of them kills some powerful individual in one of their colleagues lives that is making it impossible for them to survive otherwise, that is, just before Trevor is sent to additionally kidnap Weston, who is seen by all three as the true bane of all of their existences.

Trevor seems the most appropriate individual to send to get Weston and to be willing to commit to a “You’re not the boss of me!” solution to a seemingly ironclad system of worker and employee relations. This is a man with a tattoo of a dotted line encircling his neck that additionally says, “Cut here.” Indeed, after Weston’s kidnapping and as Weston awakens in the trunk of Trevor’s car, Weston attempts to negotiate with Trevor, promising favors and wealth if Trevor will come to work for him. Trevor responds: “You’re looking at [this] rationally. There are people that are useful to you and people who ain’t. And the people who ain’t, gotta go. Me? I’m not rational. I don’t care if you’re useful or not. I feel… like taking you out, Devo, and that’s what I’m doing.”

It is easy to accept one’s position in the familiar system of 21st century American capitalism. There are bosses. There are workers. The bosses hire useful people, tell them what to do, and then pay them. At least, when they want to (and indeed, Devon’s payments to the three have been less than consistent in appearing on time or at all in some cases at various points in the game). When we get screwed as workers, well, what’re you gonna do? Keep on working for the guy that has the money or find another job with some other guy that pulls the purse strings. You have to survive. You must be connected to the system.

Trevor simply rejects the rationality of doing the best you can. What he feels becomes the only important thing, and what he feels is that the system, or at least the man that represents it, must go.

When Michael and Franklin join Trevor at a cliffside overlooking the ocean to finally put Weston down, Michael speaks in even more explicitly economic terms saying: “I’m no intelligent businessman like you, but the way I see it, there’s two great evils that bedevil American capitalism of the type that you practice. Number one, is out-sourcing. You paid a private company to do your dirty work for you [Michael gestures to himself, Franklin, and Trevor] and then you underpaid that company because you thought you were big enough and bad enough that you didn’t have to play by the rules. Oh, number two. Off-shoring your profits. And we know your opinion of [off-shoring. It lets you] keep your problems [and your money] out of America”

With that lesson in business ethics over, the player, who throughout the game has controlled all three of these characters separately, finally takes a single collective action that controls the singular action of all three. The player is instructed to press a button allowing all three men to push the car off the cliff. It is an act of solidarity with three men quite unwilling to accept the idea of existing at the whim of someone who is simply “bigger and badder” than they are economically. They have given up on the rules that say that he can and given up on being a part of such a system that assumes that those are the only rational rules that one can follow in order to survive. A death wish? Perhaps. A petulant and irrational act of screaming in the face of what doesn’t seem fair (“You aren’t the boss of us!”)? Very likely.

It is also quite satisfying.

Essentially, an impossible solidarity arises in this scene between men of different races, of different economic backgrounds, and of competing desires. If this sounds outrageous in contemporary American economics, well, yes, it’s just a wish fulfillment fantasy masquerading as a game, after all.

But, still, they shouldn’t be the boss of us. Right?