The Rotten Western (Part 1)

Below are some preliminary thoughts on The Last of Us Part 2 that I’d like to add to as I keep going with my current first play-through of what is already an incredible game. It should go without saying that this post comes with a big spoiler warning: come back later if you haven’t played it yet.

This post is also part of an ongoing project I’ve mentioned a few times in recent years and which I’m (still) very slowly building behind the scenes: a book I’m calling Frontier Psychiatry. More on that soon.



Every era of modernity has had its own Western. The genre is a cultural weathervane for the United States (in particular but not exclusively) to reflect on, as well as assigning it a trajectory. By morphing and responding to each new phase of the USA’s history, the Western – although modelled on an ideological (and, therefore, also idealised) form of the past – suggests a state of mind in the present and what it sees in its own future.

The Sheriff, in this sense, is a great American imago. In many a classic Western, it is the sheriff or lawmaker who fights off the Red Man, the mad dogs, the robbers and rapists. And yet, he is also often an anti-hero – embittered, traumatized, perhaps a drunk. Indeed, as the genre has developed, along with America’s sense of itself, so too have the archetypes at its heart – and these developments have not always been positive. For instance, the frequently explored subgenre of the Acid Western paints a picture of the Wild West that acutely reflects the anxieties of the 1960s and 1970s. Most importantly, despite the horror of the environment, it is a subgenre that imagines the West as a mythical land that still retains a psychedelic function – that is, it retains its imaginative function as a land on which new (non-capitalist) worlds could manifest.

It is becoming ever clearer that our stories of a post-apocalyptic zombie-infested United States describe a new West for today – a putrescent West, rotting from within. The TV adaptation of The Walking Dead epitomised this new kind of Rotten Western with a distinct lack of subtlety. The show’s sheriff protagonist, Rick Grimes, definedthe show as a piece of transitional media in this regard. It walks a midway point between states of mind: between a nostalgia for the frontier and a fear of it, with the zombie hoards functioning a little too well as a racialised native other, at home in death.

Whilst this was an interesting tension in 2010, a decade later it is clear that the show exists in a very different world, in which the show’s internal drive to make a post-apocalyptic America great again takes on a far less melancholic momentum. With this in mind, the (apparent) death of Rick Grimes – the downfall of the great white imago – was long overdue and overwrought. By the time it happened, the show’s audience had begged so long for something new that the change went unnoticed by those who had stopped watching many seasons ago, but it was also unsurprising. For a long time, it had be necessary for the show to put its money where its mouth is.

No character can be afforded plot armour – that was The Walking Dead’s central traumatic assurance to its audience. This often led to grief being used as a plot device, often profoundly, but this rule seemingly began to test the writers’ own resolve as their audience staggered onwards in a brutalised daze. If the show was to stay true to its word, it had to refresh itself frequently. In a way, it was like the show’s narrative could do what much of its cast could not – shedding its skin, healing, becoming-new rather than becoming-rot. For many, it failed in that regard, and Rick Grimes’ lengthy rule as the only sheriff in town was the show’s Achilles’ heel. The sheriff was long best his best when he finally got the axe, both within the narrative of the show and within culture at large.


What has struck me most, in my playthrough (so far) of The Last of Us Part II, is that this franchise seems confident that it will not make the same mistake as its televisual cousin. Not only have characters been refreshed – I found that Ellie’s big nose, no doubt affixed to her face to settle that fall out with Ellen Page, took some getting used to – but, most controversially, the central character of the first game, Joel Miller, is brutally murdered at the end of the first act. There has been a lot of consternation online about this, and a lot of outright anger, but all I see in these responses is grief, of the sort that any viewer of The Walking Dead should be used to. In a zombie apocalypse, there is no plot armour. Joel, in the first game, demonstrated this in reverse. It was his daughter who died at the very start of that game’s first act, but in the final act Joel saves Ellie from a similar fate – murder, essentially, at the hands of the “state” (loosely defined as a pervasive militarised body) or, perhaps, for the sake of an apparent greater good. (A contentious connection to make between the two characters and one I don’t want to unpack here for the sake of brevity.)

The second game takes this brutality to a whole new level, Indeed, violence is one of the game’s primary USPs. This is a really fucking brutal game. And yet, the fact that the emotional impact of the game matches up to its gory spectacle is commendable. There are enough games out there that are all gore and no heart.

This sort of brutality is one of the defining characteristics of the Rotten Western – and, indeed, the Western more generally. In fact, what we are seeing with The Last of Us as a franchise is that it seems to be building towards some sort of trilogy, like the Spaghetti Westerns – those “operas of violence” – of the Seventies.

In the first game, you have an archetypal story of deliverance, specifically for Joel. It was the big Texan’s reluctant task to (quite literally) deliver an immune Ellie to a militia group, the Fireflies, so that they can develop a cure. But underneath it all, Joel also has to set himself free from the trauma of his daughter’s death at the start of the outbreak which has, at first, made him brutally cold to the world around him. It is Ellie who eventually thaws him out. [1]

In The Last of Us Part II, the tables have turned. The wintery tundra in which the first act of the game is spent tells us one thing only: Joel and Ellie’s hearts may have warmed, but the world is still cold to them – and to us. A fire still burns, however, and it reignites deliverance, turning it into vengeance. [2]

I think it is important that this act of revenge comes following the violent destruction of Joel as the sheriff-imago. In fact, it couldn’t realistically be anyone else. The Walking Dead‘s over-reliance on traumatised women and the horrific demise of the Asian-American Glenn, though still traumatic, felt like familiar instances of American dispensability for too many. It is a superficial twist on the black guy always dies first, swapped out for the minority always dies worst. This is to say that, in The Walking Dead, more abstractly but no less predictably, the less archetypal characters always had less plot armour than the likes of Rick Grimes.

Many have complained that the priorities of The Last of Us Part 2 betray a violent wokeness, through which the teenage lesbian outlives the patriarch, but it seems to me like this is the world that The Walking Dead didn’t have the nerve to inaugurate until its audience was passed the point of caring: a world in which the unseen and more nomadic subjectivities embedded within American life fair better than those we are more accustomed to cheer on.

Think again of the Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. We have long wrestled with the fact that there is a future that may not be for-us. We might think of that as a world without the human race, or we might think of it as a world without the hegemonic subject of capitalism.

This is the first lesson taught by the Rotten Western.


[1] Western’s often play on deliverance like this, particularly in their video game variety. Fallout: New Vegas anyone?

[2] In fact, this is one of my favourite things about the haven of Jackson – the little frontier town out in the mountains of Washington where Ellie, Joel and co. have been holed up since the events of the first game. Whenever it is mentioned, I can’t help but think of June and Johnny Carter singing about how they got married in a fever. Joel and Ellie may not be “married”, but the threat of the characteristic body burn-out of infection certainly cemented their bond.

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