This article discusses plot points from throughout the entire game.
Red Dead Redemption 2 implicates heavily America’s recent past. Set in 1899, its presentation of violence, unrest, and industrial expansion proffers an angered explanation for contemporary crises. If poverty and discrimination are still rife today, the game seems to suggest, then they started, or at least went unchallenged, and through that being unchallenged took deeper route, here—society’s achievements in the 19th century are doomed to become its lamentations in the 21st.
But by the same token, as mourning the rises of big business and federalism, Red Dead Redemption 2 mourns also the losses of connectedness and community. The transformative chaos wrought by money, expansion, and law at the turn of the century is characterised as such owing to its destruction of a pastoral way of life; as the Van der Linde gang slowly implodes, driven mad by its quest for power, which runs through America like the lead in the Romans’ water, their friendships, love for one another, and good times spent together also draw to an end. Modern America’s rise has resulted in a lot of literal death, suggests Red Dead Redemption 2, but it’s killed also our ability to peacefully co-habit, to live shoulder-to-shoulder, and to extract joy, and fulfilment, from simply being with each other. The social fault-lines torn open by modernity—when people compete for money and material, and enter into the national game of statial one-upmanship—make it impossible for individuals to authentically bond. It’s telling that Red Dead Redemption 2 climaxes, partially, with Arthur Morgan doing a sacrificial good deed for John Marston; it’s more so telling that Marston’s central ambition, after all’s been said and done between the Van der Linde gang, is to reclaim a sense of community and closeness by living peacefully with his family. From drinking beer with friends around a campfire to going fishing with your nephew, and playing cards and eating lamb fry at a local bar, Red Dead Redemption 2 places large focus on the splendour of small, domestic pleasures.
It’s also possible, in the game, to smoke; select them out of his satchel, and Arthur Morgan will slide one of his unfiltered cigarettes between his lips, light it using a match, and then inhale apparently its entire length and contents in one deep, audible draw. I am unaware of the mechanic, ludic, systemic benefits of this—likely, it replenishes one of the several status gauges that appear in-and-out of existence in the bottom left corner of Red Dead Redemption 2’s heads-up display. Thematically, however—atmospherically—its purposes to me are very clear. I strongly associate smoking with university, i.e., with my own time at university. And I strongly associate university with friends: I think the reason the university experience is so wonderful is because it’s the one time in life when two diagonally-opposed, horizontal kind of graph lines intersect; when you’re both old enough to go out, and drink, and smoke, but still young enough that you can do so almost entirely consequence-free, and that you still live with, near or amongst all of your friends. This is an experience that never again recurs. What I say to my students, especially the ones who are university-reticent, is that university presents a unique opportunity, to see, and fraternise, and intoxicate alongside all of your friends, every day, for three years, and that if they can they need to seize on this because shortly work and geography will get in the way; there is, simply in terms of logistics, no other time in your life like when you’re at university, and the chance to bond with such a large amount of people, and do things, regularly, to strengthen and maintain those bonds, is never again so high. It’s this time of year particularly, October, November, autumn—the period in which Red Dead Redemption 2 has both gone on sale and, if some of its landscape and weather effects are to be believed, is set—that my memories of communally-smoking at university return to me most readily. Those initial months, at the start of each academic year, prior to exams and the assignment of coursework, were when my friends and I would spend the most amount of time together. That close to winter in the UK, volunteering to accompany somebody outside to smoke is a display of pretty devout kinship; you don’t do it unless you really like and want to talk to them. Hence my perception of a relationship between smoking and solidarity. Historically it’s something I’ve always done with people I’m close to, and in an environment where closeness to people is superlatively achievable, and prevalent. When Arthur Morgan smokes, it’s evocative of the halcyon era I personally spent living in a community of friends and compadres. His cigarettes become metaphors for the familial lifestyle he and his gang are trying to preserve.
The other side of this being: university has long-since ended and I eventually have to stop smoking. Financially and biologically, cigarettes are an extremely destructive proposition; at £10 per packet, there’s only so much acetone, cadmium, and hexamine I can imbibe before both my bank account and my chest announce that enough is enough already, and fond memories of friends and communality notwithstanding, it’s time to move on. Cigarettes for me have become a way of withstanding, almost protesting reality. When the effort required to behave, take care of myself, and make constructive life strides becomes too great, I’ll buy some and withdraw into self-indulgence for a day or so, enjoying the feeling of doing what I want to do as opposed to what I and medical and social guidance know I ought to do. It’s true that Arthur and the Van der Linde gang have a great time together. It’s also true that that time has to end: socialistic and loving towards one another, they’re also lawless, violent, and retrograde, and ultimately have to be cleared to make way for progress. In the end, owing to his tuberculosis, Arthur can’t even smoke any more—the disease fills the alveoli with pus, making it difficult for oxygen, let alone nicotine, to enter the bloodstream, so even if Arthur could endure a whole cigarette without coughing up blood, he wouldn’t be able to experience its narcotic benefits. It’s this eventuality that Red Dead Redemption 2 ultimately concedes. Just as smoking, hedonistic and cavalier, kills, unalloyed freedom and living beyond societal bounds is unsustainable. Knowing his fate, John’s unison with wife Abigail and son Jack at the end of Red Dead Redemption 2 is at best bittersweet; his idyllic, pastoral life, in light of the events of the original Red Dead Redemption, is transfigured into a foreboding prevision. Similarly, the communistic, self-sustaining ideology and behaviour of the Van der Linde bunch latterly grows much darker. The coming change might be bad, but the good old days weren’t all that good, either.
Ed Smith contributes to Edge, Rolling Stone, Paste, GamesTM, and PCGamesN.