An iconoclastic take on Gutzon Borglum’s Start Westward Monument (1938). Original image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
I recently finished watching the Peacock network’s newest comedy, Rutherford Falls. If you haven’t yet seen it, do yourself a favor and sit down to binge-watch the whole thing. Although the people, places, and controversies that shape Rutherford Falls are fictional, it is hard not to see the show as rooted in contemporary and timely debates about history and memory. The show is a particularly welcome palate-cleanser after reading David McCullough’s The Pioneers. McCullough’s work is a celebration of white settler ambition and an homage to the triumph of visionary men over uncharted wilderness. Rutherford Falls also revolves around the memory and memorialization of triumphant pioneers, but manages to lay bare the absurdity of white-guy settler fantasies. In strange ways, the fictional TV sitcom manages to raise more pressing questions about the complexity and messiness of history than the best-selling book written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.
The show centers on the story of Nathan Rutherford, a privileged and earnest protagonist whose sole purpose in life is to celebrate his ancestors and their role in settling the town of Rutherford Falls. Nathan lives and breathes his family history. He preaches Rutherford gospel to anyone who will listen. Without irony, he explains to those who visit his museum that “Four hundred years ago brave settlers landed in a new world and befriended their Native American counterparts, all in the service of founding the very town in which you’re standing right now.” It sounds ridiculous when he says it, but Nathan lives in an echo chamber of Rutherford greatness, convinced that his version of history is the only history that matters. Swap out Rutherford Falls with Marietta, Ohio, and you will begin to see the similarities between Nathan’s version of settler history and McCullough’s tales of pioneers.
Problems arise when Rutherford’s mayor decides to move a monument to Nathan’s ancestor, Lawrence “Big Larry” Rutherford. The statue is a traffic hazard, but Nathan takes the plans for removal as an affront to himself and to history. The location of the statue, Nathan protests, is the exact spot where Big Larry allegedly brokered a “uniquely fair and honest” deal with the (fictional) Minishonka people to establish the town. Faced with what he believes is an erasure of his family’s legacy, Nathan embarks on a campaign to “maintain history” and protect the statue.
As he digs deeper into Rutherford’s past in order to save Big Larry, however, Nathan’s wholesome and sanitized family story keeps bumping up against historical evidence that his ancestors were actually quite horrible people. When he seeks out the expertise of a historian writing a book about his family, Nathan is shocked by just how racist Rutherford history sounds on paper. He also has to reckon with the ongoing presence of his Minishonka neighbors. The town of Rutherford Falls borders the Minishonka Reservation, and Nathan’s own best friend, a Minishonka woman named Reagan Wells, constantly points out their unequal access to their respective histories. When Nathan complains that facts can’t “just be picked up and tossed around willy-nilly with no regard for . . . historical specificity,” Reagan responds, “What you’re describing is literally my entire life.” Nathan frets and worries about his family legacy from his palatial estate filled with carefully curated Rutherford artifacts, while Reagan struggles to get funding for a small Minishonka cultural center buried inside a casino. She eventually learns that Nathan’s aunt is storing a treasure trove of stolen Minishonka artifacts in a barn. And when Nathan power-washes Big Larry and finds a message inscribed in the Minishonka language, he learns a hard truth from a tribal elder about just how much the displaced Minishonkas reviled his ancestor. At first Nathan scoffs in disbelief. “I’m serious,” the elder says, “[Lawrence Sr.] was a real bastard to our people.” Still blind to the possibility that Big Larry could have been anything but awesome, Nathan asks her, “Are you sure your knowledge of your language is accurate?” Then she slaps him in the face.
It is hard not to see echoes of The Pioneers in Rutherford Falls. The show takes aim at the fictions that white people nurture about history in order to protect self-serving narratives of their own saintly past. Although Rutherford Falls is consistently upbeat and funny, the show ruthlessly mocks white nostalgia for the self-aggrandizing fiction of manifest destiny. As such, it is a welcome lampoon of McCullough’s celebratory and uncomplicated brand of feel-good history. In The Pioneers, McCullough gives us a “Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West.” Rufus Putnam, the founding patriarch at the heart of The Pioneers, towers over the narrative as if he is McCullough’s own Big Larry. Just as Nathan views his ancestor as a flawless agent of progress, McCullough describes Putnam a man with “few human flaws” whose work in bringing white settlement to the Ohio Valley changed “the course of history in innumerable ways to the long-lasting benefit of countless Americans.” In The Pioneers, McCullough expects us to take such hagiography seriously. In Rutherford Falls, it is the heart of the joke.
How do we understand these two disparate caricatures of settler colonialism? McCullough gives us a heroic Rufus Putnam, an icon of progress who embodies the American spirit. Rutherford Falls gives us a ridiculous Big Larry, a flagging symbol of a settler story that feels tragic and stale in our contemporary culture. But the two characters are equally products of our present moment. The stories told in The Pioneers reflect a deep cultural hunger for stasis, stability, and predictability. McCullough’s tales of simpler times and American greatness provide safe harbor from the tumult of the present. His protective bubble insulates readers from contemporary controversies over monuments, racial violence, and the dark consequences of settler-colonial invasion. Rutherford Falls, in contrast, explodes that nostalgic bubble. It leans into the chaos of now and embraces the messy histories that continue to haunt our political present. Although the show is deep on satire and humor, in unexpected ways, it centers the need for historical reckoning by exposing celebratory history as fetish.