Tis the Season of the Cowboy

Whether celebrated in film, novel or video game, the myth of the American west never seems to lose its allure. Brutal, dramatic and sometimes romanticized, the stories of outlaws and trigger-happy gunmen braving the frontier and meting out pragmatic justice have been serving as stand-ins for the American dream for well over a hundred years.

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While every genre waxes and wanes, anyone with an interest in popular entertainment might have noticed that it’s currently awash in westerns and many of them are excellent. There’s the Netflix series “Godless,” a slow meditation on retribution and reconciliation, the novel (and soon to be YouTube original film) “The Sisters Brothers,” and most recently, the Coen brothers’ brilliant anthology of six short westerns, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” Then, of course, there’s Rockstar’s magnum opus, Red Dead Redemption 2. We’ll get to that one in a minute.

It’s pretty obvious that westerns have survived and flourished as a genre because they traffic in larger than life characters with often easily understood motivations, and they portray American frontiersmen and women as rough and ready, stoic to a fault and yet somehow sentimental about things that matter, like faithful horses. Whether gritty or sanitized, there’s a deep current that runs through the western that suggests contentment is only a pair of well-worn boots and a day’s ride away. It’s a fantasy to be sure, but one that has sustained the American imagination and image of itself as a pioneer in a hostile world.

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In the hands of some creators, however, westerns drill a whole lot deeper and the result is richness that transcends the limitation of the genre. In the case of the Coen brothers, the product is a collection of short films that are meditations on fate, the random nature of existence and the short and sometimes brutally fleeting moments of beauty. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” starts with an ironic and surprising musical vignette, and ends with a nihilistic allegorical journey to the afterlife. The Coens—deft and precise as always—both pay homage to the western storytelling traditions and use them as vehicles for almost Old Testament-sized themes. Unlike many modern western storytellers, the Coens reject the revisionist approach but double down on their characters living short and brutal lives graced by odd moments of repose.

Sometimes, westerns take on some classic themes and give them a more contemporary polish. Both “The Sisters Brothers” and “Godless” are what snooty academics might call “postmodern” or revisionist. In the “Sisters Brothers” the characters are both trapped in their roles as hired killers and self aware enough to understand their existential dilemma, and their narrative is peppered with observations of morality. In “Godless,” a mining town is decimated by an accident that kills most of the working-age men and the women step in and assume all the traditional male and female gender-based roles. While there are much bigger themes at play, “Godless” in part asks us to examine both old western and contemporary gender stereotypes, but it also has episodes which focus on characters’ relationship with nature or indigenous people.

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If you’re still with me, that brings us to Red Dead Redemption 2, which has to be one of the most ambitious and — overall —- accomplished games ever made. Whether one enjoys the moment-to-moment gameplay, or measured pace, or considers the characters effective, I think that Red Dead 2 pushes hard against the boundaries of video game storytelling, landing easily into the company of the greats. Here’s why:

Red Dead 2 is not just an allegory for the American dream gone bad, or a heavy handed rebuke for out-of-control industry pillaging nature or our mistreatmentent of Native Americans (although it is those things, too). Arthur Morgan and his peers are who we are as Americans, now. Rockstar’s absolute commitment to its vision means that some gamers will complain that much of the moment-to-moment gameplay isn’t “fun” (whatever that subjective term means), but the studio has clearly articulated a theme in a way that most games can’t approach.

Without giving anything away, perhaps the biggest theme in Red Dead 2 is abandonment, the abdication or responsibility of those in positions of influence— whether a parent, posse leader, or spouse. Self aggrandizing and convinced of his infallibility, Dutch has been elevated to a position of power, of moral leadership and responsibility that time and again he asserts, before misleading or mischaracterizing or outright lying about his motivations. While his decline is gradual, it has only more clearly revealed his true nature. Although it was in development far longer than the political and social events of the past few years, Red Dead Redemption 2 unmistakably tells the story of a egomaniacal leader who wrestles with truth and casts aside anyone who questions his authority.

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Whatever your political affiation, it is hard not to be disheartened by the missing moral center and divisive nature of American discourse in this moment. Does Red Dead Redemption 2 really mean to make a comment about this? I think it does — because America in 2018 is not the only country to have fallen into public disrepair at the hands of incompetent leadership —and by doing so, accomplishes something even more remarkable than its graphics or memorable characters. Like the best in the genre, Red Dead Redemption 2 has one boot in the past and another firmly planted in the distressing, confusing and chaotic present.