The Rotten Western (Part 2)

Spoilers for The Last of Us Part 2 from the very start. You have been warned.



← Part One

After the shock of Joel’s horrific death subsides, Ellie and Dina plan their trip to Seattle, where they hope to avenge Joel by hunting down the members of the Washington Liberation Front who are responsible for his demise. What Joel did to deserve such a death is, for the moment, unclear. “Joel pissed off a lot of people,” Ellie admits.

Before heading out, they visit Joel’s house to take on final look at the life they knew — a briefly sheltered life; a brief life with Joel. Inside what we find is not so much a house as a museum piece. It is unclear how long Joel has been gone — days; maybe a week or two? — but already his home feels like a living memorial. However, this home is very different to the homes we’ve so far seen Joel inhabit… For starters, the Old West nostalgia in Joel’s Jackson house is surprising. Whilst, at first glance, it seems to suit an idealised version of the man we’ve come to know, as I lingered amongst its decorations and detritus I also found it jarring with reality.

It was a moment that took me back to the start of the first game. As Ellie staggers around Joel’s now-vacant house, grief-stricken, I wanted to replay the first game’s prologue, in which Joel’s daughter Sarah staggers around their home half-asleep looking for her father.

Sarah and Joel’s house is recognisably modern. It’s messy too; the banal neglect — no doubt the product of an entwined teenage laziness and single-parent fatigue — is pervasive. It is also strangely haunted by a violence to come, in which we can already predict the surreality of a house in ruins, its present lived-in state foreshadowing an inevitable, soon-to-be looted state-to-come. But the house is lived in, at least. Joel’s house in Jackson feels like it has been laid out all too neatly, like it will be the future home of a Joel waxwork. It is sterile, and haunted by an unpredictable past rather than an all too predictable future.

We could argue that, post-outbreak, the entire world is haunted by the past in this way but the eeriness of much of The Last of Us‘s environments comes from the fact that these pasts are forgotten. As recognisable as the suburbs and cityscapes are to us as players, we become accustomed to seeing them as ancient ruins — that is, we see them through the eyes of the game’s protagonists. The difference between the two is, perhaps, one of grief. Whilst we might grieve the sight of a burned down house in our present, as the sight of it invades our capacity for empathy uninvited, we do not grieve the remnants of ancient civilsations.

The tension between the past, present and future in this regard has been the defining enviro-temporal tension of the Gothic for centuries, but this only makes the design of Joel’s house more surreal. It slips somewhere between the two — between the Gothic and the grief-stricken. It’s preservation jars with a narrative wherein life so often ends without legacy.

Most interesting to me, in this regard, are the paintings on the walls of Joel’s two houses. In the first game, Sarah’s room is peppered with posters for bands and films, for instance. As you head into the corridor and, eventually, to her father’s bedroom — it’s the middle of the night and he is, conspicuously, not at home — you see that the walls are decorated with various family photographs and natural vistas.

Much has been said about the snowy landscape “easter eggs” above Joel’s bed and set as his phone’s background, both foreshadowing an environment later on in the game where you first get to play as Ellie, but beyond this it is intriguing to see the majesty of nature devoid of any presence of the human.

On another wall in Joel’s room, for instance, there is a painting of horses running free. It is that stereotypical image of American natural beauty but it also foreshadows the stampede of infected and uninfected that the player is about to be caught up in. Elsewhere, there are pictures of ducks about to take flight, similarly evoking a natural tranquillity whilst also being a sight you might expect to see on the end of a gun. Humans are nonetheless absent in all instances.

In this sense, the decorations are more reminiscent of a dentist’s waiting room or my grandma’s house rather than a modern family home. It inadvertently emphasises some of the critiques of the first game — the player is left feeling more like an observer than an actual participant in the world around them — but, in The Last of Us Part 2, this changes; there are many figures in the landscapes that adorn Joel’s walls, as if the decoration now reflects the forced changes in play style. Actions have consequences. This is no longer (just) about an indifferent nature in-itself. This is a game with a Promethean edge, imploring the player to interrupt the world, even when the odds are not in their favour.

In the game’s next act, this point is made clear almost immediately. Whilst this is true within the context of the game’s new mechanics most explicitly, it is also evidenced by Ellie and Dina’s interactions with their environment. Take, for instance, the musical encounter that has already proved to be iconic in representing the game’s intensified emphasis on player agency and character development.

As Ellie and Dina trawl through downtown Seattle, they chance upon a music shop. Vinyl records fill the bins ready to be flicked through but, perhaps to our surprise, they are not some by-gone novelty for the pair; in Jackson, it is shown that they have the capacity to listen to music from the old world and they also watch old DVDs. Instead, confronted with this snapshot of an old way of life, Ellie wonders if there are people out there in the world somewhere who are making new movies. She writes new songs, she says, as well as listening to old ones, so surely there are people out there lucky enough to have the resources and know-how to make new movies too.

Though it may seem like a somewhat naive question, Ellie’s reasons for asking it are quite convincing. In a world so disconnected from itself, you can never account for how good or how bad other parts of the world might have it, and you also can’t account for what kind of cultural artefacts might remain a part of their social fabric. This is to say that, in its abject primitivism, the Fermi paradox is made wholly terrestrial.

As I play through the game, I find myself thinking about this a lot. Joel’s nostalgic nature isn’t something I want to criticise. In fact, it is all too relatable. In his role as father figure, he wants to inspire Ellie with his knowledge and expertise, showing her things about the old world that she can take with her into the new. Whilst Ellie’s excitement and curiosity in this regard is endlessly endearing, Joel’s own melancholy never quite fades into the background. And it is an understandable melancholy too. If I was able to watch old films or listen to old records depicting a world catastrophically destroyed by a zombifying pathogen, I think the cognitive dissonance would soon start to take its toll. For the younger characters in The Last of Us Part 2, however, this disconnect is taken to be a given. They don’t focus much on what has been lost but always push forwards, considering what they can do next. They seem inspired by the old world but only because it shows them the kind of cultural production possible in the new one they hope to build.

Joel’s is less focused on the future. Whilst this might seem like a cynical appraisal of his character, one look around his house makes it quite clear that, if Joel Miller had a film camera in post-apocalyptia, he’d be making Westerns. Whereas Ellie’s inner songbook contains the works of A-Ha and Pearl Jam; Joel’s starts to feel like a world of reactionary American primitivism — what Leslie Fielder once termed a “higher masculine sentimentality” — where a rugged music like the blues might suddenly makes an ahistoric comeback. After all, there are cowboys everywhere. Joel has even taken up carving them ornately into wood. But this romantic figure of man and horse — seemingly representative of a fraught if nonetheless very human relationship with nature — is far more reminiscent of the life Joel has acquired for himself after the apocalypse rather than being representative of anything that came before it.

In many ways, this is precisely the function of the Western in popular culture — a way of laundering the present through the romanticism of the past. As Sam Peckinpah, director of The Wild Bunch (among other Westerns), once said: “The Western is the universal frame within which it’s possible to comment on today.” However, in a game like The Last of Us Part 2, this sort of process is most commonly inverted — we launder the present through the horror of the future. As such, it is strange to see the Western’s original polarity contained with the game in miniature; it renders it strangely cyclonic, with overlapping feedback loops, giving rise to a kind of temporal horseshoe of cowboy metaphysics that immediately renders time out of joint.

This strange templexity is only made more apparent by the abundant references and archetypes taken directly from many a classic Wester. For example, walking around dead Joel’s house, I found myself thinking about his previous adventures and general misanthropy — at least in the first game. As I try to picture him as some archetypal cowboy, he starts to resemble Uncle Ethan in Henry Ford’s The Searchers — the coldhearted horse-riding rifleman.

The Joel we met in the first game — before Ellie eventually thawed him out — was similarly violent and cold, traversing the plains of former downtown financial districts, overshadowed by wrecked skyscrapers not unlike the geological towers of Monument Valley. However, this hardly seems like an existence Joel would want to romanticise after the fact, in the way he has done in Jackson.

But even in a film as revered as The Searchers, the cowboy’s life is deeply disturbing. Ethan the anti-hero, played by John Wayne, isn’t just cold; he’s a horrible and vindictive racist — surely even by the standards of 1956 (and this is apparent from the opening scene). The horror that often greets his actions, painted on the faces of his dysfunctional and god-fearing posse, is tellingly triggered most often by the strange disregard Ethan has for the living and the dead. He mutilates corpses out of spite, for instance; he also has no sympathy for the Indians, allowing them no respite so that they might deal with their dead and wounded after a shootout. This disturbs his fellow travellers even more than the racialised threat of the Red Man. (These attitudes are less scandalous when expressed following a zombie apocalypse, when the Indians are substituted by undead hoards, but we might note that this only normalises Joel’s familiar contempt as dead.)

Despite all of this, The Searchers, in the popular imagination at least, continues to be upheld as this classic and deeply romanticised representation of the Old West. It is as if the sheer majesty of its location quite literally overshadows the deeds depicted on screen.

Joel seems to romanticise his own life in much the same way. The majesty of the classic Western becomes a way for him to look beyond the violence of his life and revel in nature. It is an understandable compartmentalisation, considering the plant-horror of the cordyceptic pathogen, but still, the extent to which his house starts to feel like a Searchers shrine, with its paintings of gun-toting cowboys in Monument Valley, seems oddly out of place.

Why does Joel retain such a firm grasp on the Old West? Is this just Joel romanticising his own trauma in order to better deal with it? Is this him compartmentalising a life he never knew in the form of old genre tropes many of those younger than him may have never seen? Is a fall back into the Texan stereotype really all it takes to scrub the horror of his life away?

Perhaps this mournful dissonance is unescapable for Joel. After all, he seems to recognise, implicitly, that he lives in a new Rotten West, but the only way he can find hope for himself is by going backwards. Ellie and Dina, retaining a very different (post-)cultural foundation, find the West taking on a very different form — theirs is a postmodern Western, no doubt, but it is far more hauntological in that sense; that is, it is a kind of “good PoMo”, as Alex Williams once put it, compared to Joel’s “bad” form of reactionary pastiche.

I think this is because, whilst Joel has a world to mourn, it is a world that decisively dies with him. Most of what Ellie and Dina know of life is violent political factionalism and the equally violently indifference of nature. Whilst this might resemble the Wild West absolutely, they don’t seem to know that. It’s not an echo of the past for them; just the present that they know. As such, they’re still mournful, but their alienation seems to come from the fact that they don’t actually know what it is they’re supposed to be mourning. They live a hauntological existence precisely because they are mourning their own stuckness.

I’d argue that this position echoes my own (revitalised) version of hauntology quite acutely, but Alex Williams’ old critique is still worth bearing in mind. For Williams, hauntology is always representative of “a cowardly move, lusting after utopias that never were, or which are now unreachable, a retreat into childhood/youth, just as trapped in the endless re-iterative mechanistics of the postmodern as the lowest form of retroism, merely in a hyper-self-aware form.” Because of this, hauntology “cedes too much ground to what it attempts to oppose, because of an a priori assumption: that there is nothing else (at this moment in time at least), that nothing else is possible, and as such we [must] make the best of this (and that the best we can do is to hint at the possible which remains forever out of reach — with all the pseudo-messianic dimensions this involves).”

What we see in Joel’s house is precisely a “making the best of it”. The scenes represented on his walls are representations of the life he already lives, but exorcised of all horror and instead jettisoned to a few hundred years in the past. This temporal displacement is precisely an aesthetic instantiation of the a priori Williams is talking about. There is nothing else at this moment in time at least; ergo, all that is really possible is to return to a past moment, and a past moment that Joel himself has not experienced. It is a theoretical past rather than an observed one; the very definition of the Western as an ideological a priori.

So, what of the girls? Williams’ nod to Badiou in his conclusion is a factor I think most people interested in hauntology and accelerationism have forgotten. For Williams, Badiou’s “analysis of the emergence of the new” — recently discussed — “would entail a more strategic examination of precisely where the pop-musical evental sites and historical situations exist within our current time: those regions which appear, from the in-situational point of view, to be marginal, and properly undecideable.”

This is perhaps where Ellie and Dina lie. Whereas Joel, no matter how loveable, inhabits the reactionary misanthropy of a classic Western like The Searchers, Ellie and Dina personify a more revolutionary kind of homesteader, given the fact that they do not see themselves as some sort of iteration of the past. They respond with vengeance but because they are determined to pass through their new world of grief and transform it into a world where the same thing cannot happen again.

It is an intriguing form of the categorical imperative. They act upon the world in such a way as to punish those who live amongst them and think they can act with impunity. But they do so without much consideration for the now-normalised zombie apocalypse. This is, in itself, an intriguing gulf also present in many a genre film. The characters in any Western exist on a knife edge, where the indifference of the desert and the indifference of their fellow human beings produce quite distinct (but also oddly entangled) responses. In the Rotten Western, this already fine line becomes impossibly blurred. Nature and society are no longer false dialectical opposites, as they have been since the Enlightenment — or, perhaps, it is precisely that, but the falseness of this relation now takes precedent, transforming nature/society into a kind of corpse bride, with each mirroring the other and with each causing the other to rot.

It is a gross (but also nihilistic and realist) bastardisation of the relationship that dominates Joel’s house. Whereas he sees the best in this entanglement, represented by the image of a cowboy and his bucking broncho, in a cyclonic relationship that surfs the tension between natural rebellion and societal respect, the flatline construct of body alive and body dead is perhaps a far more honest appraisal of their new reality.

The figure of the survivor on horseback is an apparition; the reality is two humans, survivor and undead, in a never-ending tussle.

2 thoughts on “The Rotten Western (Part 2)

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