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Heartbreak, horses and the staggering Red Dead Redemption 2 ending explained

Rockstar’s original open-world Western had a fabulous finale. With a twisting, gut punch closing act, the first Red Dead Redemption delivered one of gaming’s all-time great endings. Thankfully, its prequel/follow-up also finishes on the highest of notes. Below, we break down the main beats from Red Dead Redemption 2’s multiple climaxes – spanning both the game’s sixth chapter, and its two epilogues – and how they tie into the first game.  

*Massive spoiler warnings below* 

RDR2’s ending is essentially 10 hours long, and actually has two parts. Taking its cue from the original’s thoughtfully paced closing chapter on John Marston’s ranch, the prequel doubles down on careful character development as it says goodbye to outlaw lead Arthur Morgan over multiple hours. 

The credits may roll on the ‘American Venom’ mission at the end of the game’s second epilogue chapter, yet the main thrust of RDR2’s story is capped off in chapter six. In the aptly titled ‘Red Dead Redemption’ mission that closes Morgan’s final act, Rockstar sends its melancholy outlaw out on a respectful note.

Well, provided you don’t play through the game’s first half dozen acts like an utter bastard. Play RDR2 like you really should, and an semi-honorable Arthur meets his end with grace. After being diagnosed with tuberculosis at the beginning of act six, Morgan spends his final days trying to free his fellow gang members from the increasingly self-destructive grip of Dutch van der Linde.

In Arthur’s last mission, he teams with Sadie Adler to rescue John’s wife Abigail from corrupt government forces. After sniping dozens of G-men from a clock tower, Morgan and Sadie eventually rescue Mrs Marston from the clutches of the nefarious Agent Milton, but not before the dastardly stooge admits that Arthur’s fellow gang member Micah Bell was the one that tipped the government off regarding the group’s criminal plans. 

Once he knows Abigail and Sadie are safe, Morgan rides to confront Dutch to tell him about the rat among his ranks. Upon arriving back at camp, Arthur spills his outlaw guts, though a reluctant Dutch is hesitant to believe his close ally Micah has really betrayed him. Soon after, a presumed dead John Marston shows up to cover Morgan’s back, but the government appear before the four cowboys can blast each other to bits.

There’s also a heart-shredding optional scene that plays out if you have a high bonding level with your horse. Provided you and your pony pal are close, Arthur goes back to comfort his dying mount after government forces shoot both he and John’s horses. Seeing Morgan tenderly pet his steed/filly - that you may well have been riding for 30-40 hours at this point - as it writhes around in agony is easily the game’s most upsetting moment. 

After a prolonged shootout with dozens of agents, Arthur is faced with a choice: either help John escape so he can reunite with his family, or go after the fortune Dutch is hiding in a nearby cave. Providing you have any sort of heart Morgan chooses to create a diversion for John, so that the younger outlaw has a chance to start a new life with his family. If you play through the game as civilian-slaying swine, your dishonorable Arthur can opt to go after the money. 

Cue a big old smackdown with Micah Bell. Depending on your honor level, Arthur either meets his end peacefully looking upon a sunset as he succumbs to TB, or Bell straight out shoots him if your honor is low. Play the game being respectful of NPCs, and Morgan’s end is quiet and dignified.  

The big twist comes with the epilogue. In a flash, you’re suddenly catapulted forward several years; now in control of John Marston as he attempts to go on the straight and narrow. Assuming the alias of Jim Milton, Marston at first embraces a life of peaceful solitude when he takes a honest farm job to support his family. Of course, this being a Rockstar game, John’s criminal past soon comes back to haunt him.

Forced into a gunfight to protect the property he’s farming, John quickly returns to a life of (at least well-meaning) crime. After saving the ranch for his employer, Marston’s boss thanks him by acting as a guarantor for John when he attempts to buy a ranch for his family near Blackwater. 

With a respectable businessman backing him, Marston’s loan is granted, and soon he begins to build a home for he, Abigail, and their son Jack at Beecher’s Hope.  

With the ranch completed, and his wife and child finally back by his side, it looks like Marston is about to ride into a peaceful sunset… until his past catches up with him. After reuniting with Sadie in Blackwater, John helps his old pal catch some criminals - Adler becomes a badass bounty hunter once Dutch’s gang breaks up. This reunion eventually leads Marston to a lead on Micah Bell. Cue a revenge mission that sets out to honour the memory of Arthur Morgan and the sacrifice he made for the Marston family. 

The second part of the epilogue pays tribute to Arthur’s selfless acts as John enacts a bloody revenge among the mountains of the game’s map in a extra snowy shootout. Once John takes out Micah’s cronies, he accepts a showdown with Bell. 

Enter the returning (beardier, fatter) Dutch van der Linde. Following a tense standoff, Dutch ends up shooting Bell, leaving John and Sadie to return safely to Beecher’s Hope… but not before Marston steals the gang’s saved-up riches from a nearby cabin.

Upon a newly minted Marston and Sadie returning to the Great Plains, RDR2 finally wraps up. With Arthur avenged, and John set with a huge amount of cash to pay off his mortgage, all looks rosy in the outlaw’s garden. 

Not so fast. When the end credits start to roll, it’s immediately apparent this companion piece is paving the way for the original Redemption. The last game’s dastardly agent Edgar Ross soon sniffs a scent of Marston’s trail, and upon finding out he’s stolen $20,000 from van der Linde, the government jobsworth is in a unique position to exploit the remorseful cowpoke. 

This piece of sleuthing perfectly contextualizes John’s motivation from the original Redemption: he turns into a government turncoat because The Man finds out his ranch was built on stolen earnings. With a debt he can never pay off lawfully, Marston is forced to do Ross and the government’s bidding, which involves hunting down the charismatic cowboy’s former pals, namely Dutch van der Linde and Bill Williamson. 

The climax of RDR2 perfectly explains why John Marston was so (albeit reluctantly) in the pocket of corrupt agents in the original Redemption. With the proof he’d stolen vasts amounts of money, Edgar Ross is free to manipulate John in any way he sees fit, which just happens to involve tracking down and killing Dutch. When Marston’s tragic end finally comes for him, the parallels with Arthur’s doomed fate are hard (and upsettingly) hard to escape. 

With RDR2 so perfectly bridging the gap between Rockstar’s last two Westerns, it opens up the question of what’s next. If there is to be a Red Dead Redemption 3, when will it be set? Who will star in it? Considering the original’s somber climax, don’t be surprised if a three-quel involves a descendant of the Marston clan, perhaps in a No Country For Old Men-style post-modern Western. 

At any rate, GTA 6 better have one hell of an ending if it’s going to live up to RDR2’s finale.  

Have you found these 17 amazing moments in Red Dead Redemption 2? Here are the most must-see, exciting outlaw sights in the open-world masterpiece.

Dave Meikleham
Paid maker of words, goes by many names: Meiksy… Macklespammer… Big Hungry Joe. Obsessive fan of Metal Gear Solid, Nathan Drake's digital pecks and Dino Crisis 2. Loves Jurassic Park so much, may burst at any moment.