This article discusses plot points from throughout the entire game.
When the player first meets Arthur Morgan, protagonist of Red Dead Redemption 2, he appears to be almost entirely unlikeable. His voice, which is so gruff it makes Sam Elliott seem delicate, seems to be barely pushing down a vast anger. He carries himself stiffly, heavily, and deliberately, moving through the knee-deep snow and frosted cabins of the game’s mountain-set prologue like some partially shaven, mildly sedated bear, always ready to lash out if provoked enough to break his stoicism. Only one aspect of him betrays real warmth at this point: his relationship with horses.
Early in the game, Arthur is given a horse and part of the player winces at thinking to what purpose he’ll put the poor animal. Given his curt discussions with other members of the outlaw gang he rides with and his propensity for casual violence, we imagine that he’ll treat his horses like the rest of the world—as tools used only to further his own purposes. But he doesn’t. He calms them easily, pats their flanks with a gentle hand, and speaks to them with genuine affection, telling even the most unpredictable horses that they’re not so mean as they think, gently encouraging them with a drawled “good boy” or “good girl” when riding. There are specific prompts to pet and brush them or feed them by hand. Doing so regularly helps the horse bond with Arthur more quickly, filling up a gauge which makes them easier to control, but even past the point that this gauge is maxed out, Arthur can still comfort his companion and continues to mutter sweet words to them when hitching up to a post.
These horse interactions are the “hug button” or the “chat with demons” absent from lots of games primarily about killing people. At first, they seem like a minor quirk—Arthur is great at murdering, but he loves his horses!—but, over time, the system and Arthur’s behaviour are revealed as the core of his personality and the game’s major thematic concern: how to maintain humanity in even the most inhuman circumstances.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is set in 1899, in an America hurtling toward the 20th century that would make it a global empire on the backs of an economy fuelled by slavery, genocide, and an ideology of patriotic solipsism. Arthur’s band of outlaws, led by a charismatic, perpetually mournful man called Dutch van der Linde, exists on the outskirts of this society. The gang is comprised of those that “respectable” American life has no room for, Dutch presiding like a 19th century Jim Jones over some nominally socialist, nominally colour-blind, roving utopia. The misogyny and racism of the outside world, while not completely absent from the gang’s behaviour, is discouraged; greed is imperfectly condemned by a tithing system that sees the outlaws chastised if they don’t contribute any individual wealth they gain to a community bank. The Van der Linde gang moves its campsite from location to location, stealing and conning a given region’s populace until the heat turns on them and it’s time to pick up and repeat the process again.
Though the means of their lifestyle are based on exploiting others, the gang maintains that its scores should come from people who deserve to be duped anyway. They go after wealthy landowners and industrialists, self-mythologizing as a group of easy riders who want nothing more than to drop out of society. When they get enough money, they’ll leave the country with it packed into the saddlebags of their horses—rather than the gas tanks of star-spangled choppers.
The cruelty of their work, though, can be hard to stomach. There are scenes where the gang truly does live up to its Robin Hood ideology, ripping off old Southern families whose riches stem from slavery+. (One great image sees them walking in a shadowy row down the lane of an old plantation house they’ve set aflame, great billows of flame lighting the night sky.) Just as often, though, the player sees the darker side of their livelihood. Arthur goes out to collect money lent by the gang’s shark, beating and yelling at a series of borrowers including a Polish man trying to hide a family ring he brought to America and a sick farmer who coughs blood during a shakedown where he pleads for mercy. This last encounter, which sees Arthur return to camp empty-handed, is also the beginning of his end. He wipes droplets of bloody spittle from his face. Later, he will realize the man’s blood—blood he spilled—has caused him to contract the tuberculosis that takes his life.
The contradictions of outlaw and institutional American violence are never resolved by the game because, ultimately, it’s honest enough not to offer a pat resolution for the horrors that birthed the United States and characterize the nation to this day. Still, Red Dead 2 is not content simply to wallow in the misery it’s quite right to identify as central to any Western story—or to let its protagonist reach the end of the plot simply as a melancholy sad sack, resigned to despondency because he’s recognized his part in it.
After a bank robbery gone horribly wrong, Arthur, Dutch, and three other gang members stow away on a ship bound for Cuba, only to get caught in a storm and washed up on the sandy shores of a fictional North Caribbean island called Guarma.
A short time before this, Jack, son of the first Red Dead Redemption’s protagonist John Marston, was kidnapped by a wealthy Mafioso who controls the institutions of the game’s New Orleans stand-in, Saint Denis. After Jack is rescued, the gang returns to their hideout and throws a party. Dutch, drunk as the rest of the group, calls for everyone’s attention and begins to hold forth: America is rotten, he says, and the gang needs to go somewhere else entirely—Tahiti maybe, or Australia. Dutch has given up on the idea of continuing to live in a nation where people like the Mafioso and his pals, the crooked politicians and upper class of Saint Denis, can live comfortable lives. “They stole what this country coulda been,” he has said before. Then, uncharacteristically angry, Dutch raises his voice in a rant about the idiocy of the Old World “peasants” who have come to another land to enact revenge for what’s been done to them in Europe. The only place for the gang to go now is an idealized foreign land. Whether it was unique to the game’s dynamic weather patterns or not, at this point, a huge clap of thunder shakes the sky, underscoring the announcement of a plan to bring the gang’s outlaw violence to another country. A hard rain starts pouring and the night sky lights up with flashes of electricity. Dutch, in an effort to escape the American nightmare that makes his own gang’s violence necessary, wants to bring his nation’s brand of terror to another country. For a game set in 1899, the horror of this moment is clear. Having decimated its own country in record time, people like Dutch who have internalized a country’s knack for subjugation and exploitation—even as they try to fight against it by moving within and outside that system—are about to take up a 20th century imperial project. Nature itself trembles, shaking with thunder and sobbing with driving rain, in horrified anticipation of the world to come.
It’s with this backdrop in mind that Arthur and Dutch’s arrival on Guarma—“the second island east of Cuba”—takes on an apocalyptic context. The few members of the Van der Linde gang to find themselves on Guarma’s beaches are soon embroiled in a rebellion. Guarmese workers, aided by Haitian revolutionaries, are attempting to overthrow colonial rulers who keep them working on sugar plantations in inhuman conditions. A Cuban colonel named Fussar governs the island, rounding up rebels and brutally executing dissidents. The entire situation, though fictionalized, is evocative of the nearly contemporaneous reconcentrados system overseen by the Spanish general Valeriano Weyler, who, as military governor of Cuba, constructed concentration camps to imprison—and effectively starve to death—the rural population likely to join the revolutionaries in the Cuban War of Independence.
Arthur and Dutch end up on the side of the Guarmese rebels, fighting Colonel Fussar’s forces and learning of the United States’—and, particularly, the expansively named tycoon Leviticus Cornwall’s—involvement in the exploitation of the island. Their interest is entirely selfish. Though Arthur is disgusted by the treatment of the rebels, he, Dutch, and the others from the gang simply want passage on a ship off the island and the Haitian leading the uprising says he’ll give that to them if they help him. Soon enough, they’ve joined the conflict and Arthur is shooting a cannon into a Cuban warship from the top of an old stone fortress. He walks across the ramparts at battle’s end, the groan and grind of a nightmarish horn collage painting the foggy grandeur of the scene’s Romantic, Raft of the Medusa horrorshow into something otherworldly and sickening. The warship sinks like the USS Maine, suggesting the start of the Spanish-American War that would see the United States colonize Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, and establish itself as an empire. Following this stage of the fight, Arthur and Dutch scramble to escape the island by shooting their way through soldiers to a captured boat captain. The scene is propelled by a patter of toms, rolling military snares, and a pulsing, insistent bass line overlaid with a rising and receding tide of atonal horns, squeaking in and out of ear while the player guns down barely visible enemies through the mist of a twilight jungle.
It’s a hellish, captivating sequence that inflects everything that comes after it. The island of Guarma is, in theory, exactly what Dutch wanted when he talked about leaving America and the nightmare of it shows just how futile his dream of another “New World” really is. He doesn’t see that other people live everywhere—that the American ideal of “freedom” is impossible without the kind of violence it was necessary to achieve it for the United States’ colonizers in the first place. Arthur and the Van der Linde gang may have rejected what their country is defined by, but they soon see that there is no way to turn back time—to totally reject—the ideology they’ve inherited by living in and being shaped by the American project.
After returning to the United States, Arthur becomes sicker and sicker. The cough he’s had since soon after trying to collect money from the sick farmer who spat blood in his face has become nearly constant. He collapses in the streets of Saint Denis and is brought to a doctor who tells him he will die of tuberculosis. Up until now, Arthur’s morality has been maintained in a sort of defiance. He rejects the institutionalized racism and rampant greed of American society but tries to cling to the promise of Dutch’s thinly enacted Robin Hood code, even as it leads him to brutalize others.
Though, in theory, the player can let Arthur give in to his worst instincts—to rob others, insult passersby, murder indiscriminately—Red Dead 2 disincentives this behaviour on a narrative and systemic level. Most notably, Arthur is thoroughly self-loathing. When he checks into a hotel room and stares into the mirror, a prompt allows him to speak his mind, which is always a variation of calling himself ugly, mean, or stupid. He is also, constantly, referring to himself as a bad person, regardless of the times he helps others, tries to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, or acts in ways that prioritize other people’s interests over his own safety. Making Arthur an asshole is punished by the game itself, too. Steal from or beat up civilians and a bounty is placed on Arthur’s head that, for most of the game, is far more expensive than the material gain of mugging, robbing, or looting corpses. The “morality metre” that ticks up or down depending on these actions can dip low enough that other people become aware of Arthur’s reputation, insulting him as he walks by or locking him out of conversations with people who’d rather not associate with him.
More importantly, allowing Arthur to be a jerk acts counter to the way the rest of the game suggests he really is at his core. No matter how evil he may be, Arthur will always pet his horse, take on missions that look to protect others, and pine for a simpler life, illustrated by recurring dreams of deer grazing a sepia toned riverbank. It becomes clear that the intent of Red Dead’s story is to illustrate how the hostility and viciousness of the world he lives in contrasts—tries to extinguish—his natural, often self-subdued instinct to do good.
As he comes closer to death, Arthur embraces his desire for humanity ever further. Toward the end of the game, he questions Dutch more and more, seeing his former friend and leader descend into a drive toward violent self-interest that involves sparking a hopeless war between a group of Lakota and local military. Red Dead 2 simplifies and fictionalizes real-world history here as thoroughly as it does its depiction of turn of the century Latin America, flattening nuance in the service of metaphor (and making the baffling choice to accompany the few, unfailingly noble Lakota characters’ entrance to scenes with a dopily cliché, mournful flute soundtrack). It’s also a section of the plot that, despite the clumsy method of arrival, shows Arthur finally working entirely for the benefit of others, turning against Dutch’s instructions to try to save lives in spite of his plans. During these missions, he helps members of the gang, now disillusioned by their leader, to escape. He talks with John Marston about what kind of future he can have with his wife Abigail and son Jack, imploring him to leave the gang and settle down somewhere to try to live peacefully. He throws himself into battle against everyone who tries to hurt his friends, knowing that any hope he might have to escape his situation and die a calm death is being erased with every new fight he takes on against hopeless odds.
All of it is futile, but it’s in that futility that Arthur’s kindness takes on greater meaning. His voice, still gravelly and stoic, is inflected with a sorrow not for his own fate, but for the fact that the circumstances of his life and the world he lives in are too nasty to allow him to properly give those around him a better future. Near the game’s conclusion, he stops in the middle of a gunfight, bullets flying all around him, to comfort his horse as she dies from a gunshot wound. He kneels next to her, not caring for himself, in order to offer just a little bit of warmth to another living creature that would otherwise die alone. The first inklings of his kindness, expressed only through his treatment of horses, find their fullest, purest expression in the moment he kneels down in a battlefield to stroke a dying animal’s side.
Dutch’s right-hand man by the end of Red Dead 2 is Micah Bell, a stringy-haired demon who helps draw out the worst tendencies from the Van der Linde gang’s leader. As he ascends and Arthur falls from Dutch’s favour, the outlaw gang meant to reject the brutality of mainstream American life becomes, as it was always going to become, just about as vicious as the national system it imitates in opposition. Fittingly, Arthur’s last moments are a brawl with Micah at the end of a shootout meant to help John Marston escape the gang with his family. The two beat each other senseless on the side of a cliff, mashing one another’s faces into the mud and battering themselves into bloody pulp over what comes to seem like a battle for whose vision of the future can triumph. Arthur has become self-sacrificing. And on the other hand, there’s his opponent:
“I’m a survivor,” Micah says. “That’s all there is. Living and dying.”
Dutch intervenes and, if Arthur’s “morality metre” is low, the fight ends with him shot in the head by Micah. His last words are a despairing “damn us both.” If it’s high, Micah is still able to escape and Arthur dies from his illness anyway, looking out at the sun rising on a new day. In either case, Arthur’s tragedy allows John to start again, the game picking up years later as he buys and begins to run a ranch. The audience knows from the first Red Dead Redemption that John’s life is headed for ruin, too. It has to be this way because, as much as he may want to move on from what he’s been a part of, John’s past, like the history of his nation, is too horrible to be forgotten simply by putting it aside.
With Red Dead 2, though, John’s destiny becomes coloured by Arthur’s example of how an American can reckon with themselves. Arthur’s goodness, as compromised as it is, represents a furtherance of the American Dream—a refutation of its selfish nature and a remodeling of it as an individualism that still affords room for true compassion. As bad as he may have been, Arthur works within his failings to see himself as an instrument to create a greater good rather than work solely toward self interest. He may be unable to fully reject the system that birthed him, but he can still try to work imperfectly toward whatever kindness he is able to give to those around him.
At the end of Red Dead 2’s long epilogue, Abigail and John officially get married. While the first game closed as a bloody tragedy, John dead and Jack infected by his legacy, its sequel concludes as an uneasy comedy. We know that John and Abigail’s marriage is not really a happy ending—the credits even follow the federal agents who blackmail John into service for them as they track down his ranch, kickstarting the events that will see the first game end so cynically—but, as with Arthur’s attempts at goodness, the small, intimate optimism of the ending speaks to the potential of a uniquely American brand of morality. A terminally-ill man trying to be good despite his circumstances and his younger friend, trying to do well despite the audience knowing his path ends in violent death—the game is saying that it’s worth trying to be better, no matter the futility.
Watching John try to start his new life before the events of the first Red Dead, the “redemption” in the title sours even further into irony, but it becomes more poignant, too. Redemption has to be sought for its own sake: not as transformative penance or absolution but as an inherent, social good. Arthur will die; John will die; Jack, the last generation in this line, will be ruined by his forefathers’ legacy. But in each of them, Arthur’s attempt to redeem himself—truly, honestly, selflessly despite him anticipating his own doom—provides something aspirational.
“You’re not a good man, Arthur,” one character says before leaving the gang. “But you’re not all bad either.”
+ There’s a hint, early on, of an attempt at moral equivalency in the violence of the Old World and the New. One of the old Southern families—the Grays—attempt to denigrate John and Arthur as stuck-up “Yankees” come to exploit the South as carpetbaggers, but are quickly refuted. Both John and Arthur are from Scottish immigrant families, the time period suggesting that their ancestors came to avoid the physical or economic violence of the Highland Clearances. Gray Sr. approves because he, too, is Scottish. From the view of his thriving old tobacco plantation, still maintained by black Americans working in economic and cultural slavery, the game seems temporarily to suggest that being a victimized group means there is something natural in perpetuating victimization unto others. That Gray and his viewpoints are thoroughly condemned as the plot moves forward, thankfully, closes this argument and leaves no ambiguity behind.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, Paste, and VICE.