This article contains major spoilers for the end of Red Dead Redemption II
There is a sentiment that periodically wends its way through the wild woods of social media, sometimes in meme form (for sentiment breeds memes the way a lost piece of ham breeds bacteria), expressing extreme grief at the death of this or that fictional character, often paired with the doleful question of whether anyone else in the audience also had suffered such tragedy. The audience tearfully agrees they have and join the mourning. They take up the meme, and the contagion spreads.
I take no part in this. I am a man! A manly man. I shave my head and wear Red Wing boots. My minivan has all-wheel drive. I don’t weep on Facebook over the death of Bambi’s mother or the loss of George Weasley’s ear or some such silliness. No! When I feel emotions related to the death of a fictional character, I retreat to my office, where I’ve built my shrine to Red Dead Redemption II’s hero Arthur Morgan. I put on a cowboy hat, light a candle, and allow the grief to wrack my body with uncontrollable sobs and shudders until the early morning hours—as a man does.
I may exaggerate a little. I do not have a shrine to Arthur Morgan in my office. (I certainly do not have one in the crawlspace under my house, where only I, the ground squirrels, and a very alarmed plumber know about it. Don’t even go looking.)
However, it is remarkable to note that even now, nearly three months after I finished Red Dead Redemption II’s long and emotionally taxing campaign, just the opening notes of the game’s gospel-inspired track “See the Fire in Your Eyes”—played in part at the game’s opening, and again during the credits in a heartbreaking scene—still send me into an unshakeable funk. At their sound the full weight of Arthur’s fate falls over me again. Never have I been so affected by the death of a video game character, or perhaps by any in fiction since my childhood days of reading the Redwall series—whose characters would have been safer in the hands of George R.R. Martin than creator Brian Jacques.
Arthur is extraordinary as a protagonist, not for the strength of his arm or the speed of his gun, but for his humanity. He is a killer, a thief, and a loyal lieutenant to his murderous-but-charismatic gang leader, Dutch. He is gruff, taciturn, and seemingly immovable, like a man cut from stone. Yet at the same time, he displays an astonishing interiority. Beneath the surface of the hardened killer lies a tender core of poetic melancholy and self-doubt, a frozen heart gradually thawed by encounters of love and hope.
Throughout the game, Arthur confides to his journal his secret thoughts of what he sees and does, writing his words with careful penmanship and drawing portraits of persons and wildlife with great attention to detail. He writes with evident disgust about his violent role in the usury racket run by the gang’s money lender, Herr Strauss. He marvels at the mercy, kindness, and instincts of selflessness of strangers he meets. He is tortured by his reunion with his estranged fiancee, the innocent and kindly Mary, and is torn between his duty to the gang and his desire to flee with her. In Mary’s presence, his hard face softens, and a shy boyishness peeks through the layers of grime built by years of violence. He is a man torn apart by opposing forces.
But complexity and the existence of extremes held in tension within a person are not enough to make one so endearing, so worthy of mourning. Dutch, the leader, is also complex. Dutch is both gentlemanly and cruel, charitable and avaricious, highly literate and wickedly stupid. The difference is that Arthur Morgan understands himself as a wretched man, and as he begins to see his wretchedness as a shadow in the light of the kind souls he encounters, he grows ever haunted by that wretchedness.
The sense of his own corruption bides within him across the game’s opening chapters before forcing him into action as the narrative rushes towards its finale. In the beginning, Arthur is content to brood over his misdeeds in his journal, berate himself in the mirror, and awkwardly ramble his misgivings to the concerned but confused younger women in the gang’s camp who lend him their ear. However, as the gang is gradually torn apart by government ambushes and Dutch’s freefall into paranoid madness, Arthur must decide who he is and who he shall be—and what to do with what little time he has left alive.
Unbeknownst to Arthur, he contracts tuberculosis early in the game while savagely beating an ill man caught in Herr Strauss’s money-lending scheme. (Arthur had even met the man earlier as the man collected donations for charity and mocked him for it). The man later dies, leaving his widow and son destitute and desperate. Arthur, meanwhile, continues largely unaware of his illness for some time, though his comrades comment on his worsening cough, and the baffled player struggles to keep Arthur’s weight up. It is not until he collapses unconscious and is carried to a doctor that the truth is revealed to both the protagonist and the player: Arthur is unavoidably dying, his illness carrying out the death sentence passed on him by his own cruel actions.Beneath the surface of the hardened killer lies a tender core of poetic melancholy and self-doubt, a frozen heart gradually thawed by encounters of love and hope.
This the point upon which all of Arthur’s life turns. It is here, faced with a death brought about by his evil life, that Arthur repents. I do not mean he walks into a church, falls on his knees, and bewails his sins. Rather, he repents in the Greek sense of metanoia: he has a true change of heart and mind. Arthur begins to resist Dutch, and encouraged by his encounters with a Catholic monk and nun, seeks to do what good he can as his illness drains and enfeebles him.
While biblical themes had been recurrent throughout the game to this point, the unmistakable notes of the Gospel begin to sound loudly as Arthur puts to death his old ways and commits himself to the saving of others. Dying and hunted by the government, Arthur finds the wife and son of the man from whom he contracted tuberculosis. He gives them all the aid he can, begging them to take the money he thrusts in the boy’s hands. (James 1:27: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction.”) When Herr Strauss dispatches him on one final debt collection, Arthur turns against him, absolving the victims of their crushing debt and running Strauss out of the gang’s camp. (Matthew 6:12: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”) As his final act, Arthur gives his life to save fellow gang member John Marston and his family. (John 15:13: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”) When we later see his grave, we find someone has etched upon it one of the beatitudes from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6).
In his last encounter with the nun Sister Calderon not long before his death, she urged him, “Take a gamble that love exists and do a loving act.” Arthur took that gamble and became, if only in my eyes, the most saintly of heroes in all of videogames.
The true strength of Arthur as a character is not in his great physical power or speed, or even his many deeds. Rather, it is in the clear-sighted recognition of his own wretchedness as a man, his rejection of that life which leads to death, and his desperate pursuit of the loving good that surpasses and transcends himself. His rich interior life brings him much pain and uncertainty, but it’s that richness that becomes the fertile ground in which his longing for goodness is sown and bears good fruit. By the end, Arthur was more than just a character I wanted to cheer. He became a character I wanted to be: warm-hearted, self-effacing, enduring suffering for the sake of others, reviling evil in others but first in himself.
His death was perhaps inevitable from a literary perspective, but until the closing scenes of the narrative, I hoped—nearly prayed—for some intervention that would spare his life. I loved Arthur as a hero, a companion on a long and sad journey, and as a broken soul who chose to forsake himself out of love and hope for those dear to him. Arthur Morgan’s passing broke my heart and, even now, draws tears to my eyes. Never has there been a video game hero quite like him, and never do I expect to see one again.
Now, if anyone needs me, I’ll be in my crawlspace.