Saturday, September 16, 2017

Actor, Lover, Soldier, Spy: The Iron Bull at Skyhold

Cole: You can use sadness?
Iron Bull: Ben-Hassrath, Kid. We can use anything.

"You don't need blood magic or demons to change
someone's mind," observes Bull. "We're a lot more
fragile than we'd like to believe."
Note: This is part two of a series of analyses on the DAI character of The Iron Bull. Meanwhile, for my initial introduction to and overview of his character, please check out part one here. As always, beware of spoilers!

You've survived Haven. You've reached that lonely and miraculous castle that holds up the sky. What do you need next, as you move forward at the Inquisition? Chances are, to roughly quote the famous lines spoken by Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption, The Iron Bull can get it for you. Or give it to you.

Long story short? Bull's here to help. It's in your best interests, after all... and his.

If you've reached Skyhold, this is the point where the Iron Bull ramps up his potential usefulness and begins to engage with you for the first time. He's immediately a terrific asset—you're able to deploy his lovable mercenaries, the Chargers, on a variety of useful and subtly beneficial missions, while Bull continues to show his usefulness as a warrior, companion and captain.

However, if you pay attention, you'll note that, like any good spy, while Bull manages to seem transparent and open, he actually gives away very little personal insight—just a few bits and pieces of information (often misleading) that only slightly help us to understand him. He's brisk and professional, a cipher in the beginning—genial, helpful, and formidable in a fight, but he doesn't say much that actually tells us who he is in any specific individual sense.

Painting the Big Picture

Back at Haven (or early at Skyhold, depending on your choices), the first insights into Bull that he does provide to us about himself are mostly big-picture vantage points, and fairly deliberately so: He explains the concept of the Qun, and gives an idea of life under Qunari rule. He's frank if fairly general about everything from parenting and childhood under the Qun, to sex, which in Qunari culture is casual and clinical, useful for breeding, but which is otherwise treated routinely and therapeutically via tamassran sex workers as if remedying a stray symptom for release on an as-needed basis ("We don't have sex for love," Bull chuckles).

Although Bull does also touch upon his own previous wartime activities in embattled locations like Seheron, it's visibly a sensitive subject for him. However, as our conversations continue, he does indeed tell us about that experience in further detail, and even about his breakdown and ensuing voluntary re-education after he was traumatized there: "One day I woke up and couldn't think of a damned reason to keep doing my job," he admits. "Turned myself in to the re-educators. I wanted them to fix me like they'd fixed [others]."

Early on, Bull's really good at giving the impression of candor
while not actually revealing all that much about himself
My favorite thing about this interlude in our conversations with Bull is that so much of what he describes is, pretty frankly, alien and appalling: Children raised without families. People named for and used as literal tools. Sex as detached, clinical physical therapy and release. Trauma as a reason for brainwashing. Individuality as an opportunity for torture.

And you can tell he expects this reaction, acknowledges it, and is amused by it, noting that this is all routine in his society, and that it's not so hard to break or mold a mind. He doesn't see this as an immoral thing, just a necessary one—an altered mind, he reminds the Inquisitor, is preferable to execution (and keep in mind, he's speaking as someone who happily handed his own mind over for manipulation at a key moment). 

"Keep a man awake long enough, ask the right questions, give the right potions, and you can get him to say anything," Bull notes dryly, although not without humor. "You don't need blood magic or demons to change someone's mind. We're a lot more fragile than we'd like to believe."

A Shakespearean Touch

As we accumulate approval points from Bull—mostly for simply helping the poor and common folk we encounter, by battling Venatori or by succeeding at a variety of measurable, useful soldiering skills such as horse racing, Bull begins to thaw and show real affection. One of the first ways in which he demonstrates liking and friendship for us after the arrival at Skyhold is to take us out among our own soldiers, in a direct homage to a key scene from Shakespeare's Henry V, to meet and talk with a few of our own ordinary people incognito, and to listen to their hopes and fears.

"From camp to camp through the foul womb of night, the hum
of either army stilly sounds." Bull's first personal interlude
with us, as a tour of the common Inquisition soldier's plight, is
downright Shakespearean.
It's a great scene thanks to Dragon Age: Inquisition's writers and artists—cozy and comical, yet moving. Bull's deliberately attempting to inspire the Inquisitor and to provide a welcome reminder that these very soldiers will put their lives on the line for you tomorrow.

Yet there's more to it. The dialogue also can be taken as evidence that Bull's using this situation as a primary opportunity to evaluate your reactions and susceptibility. Do you do as he suggests, and stay silent when listening to the soldiers? Do you speak up and ask them questions? Are you inspired when the encounter is done, or are you worried or depressed? If you're someone who immerses themselves into the game and its story interactions, everything about how you react tells Bull a little more about who you are and how he might be able to utilize the Inquisitor to the benefit of the Qunari. And of course, he's also using the moment to move in closer, to say, "Look at how much I care about your mission, down to the smallest pawn on the chessboard. I can be trusted; I should be trusted."

The thing is, and where it gets truly complicated, is that I think Bull's absolutely telling the truth in almost every conversation we have here. Just... you know, not the whole truth (a talent Bull shares, among many, in abundance with Solas—and it's not a coincidence).

Power Plays

This first approval interlude is where Bull's relationship with a high-approval Inquisitor changes, because it leads to additional approvals and milestones, and to relationships that operate on multiple levels.

I will be addressing Bull's entire romance in a separate post (because it deserves a greater analysis on its own, and is truly fascinating), but, meanwhile, to simplify: My personal belief is that Bull is forging links in a chain... links that will lead to a trusting Inquisitor... or (better yet) to an Inquisitor who actively seeks to pursue a romantic relationship with him. 

And that's the jackpot. Just imagine all those secrets, suddenly right out in the open and available. If Bull's seeking to regain credibility with Par Vollen? This is it. Right here. A romance with the Inquisitor could provide Bull with the leverage for a life-changing amount of security and power back with the Qunari.

It's an uncomfortable revelation if you're invested in Bull's romance. But it's also a really pivotal and interesting moment in the game, honestly. Because Bull's sexual relationship with the Inquisitor is the reverse formula of almost all of the usual relationship formulas I've seen in games or pop culture. It's paradoxical just like Bull—hot, yet cold. Intimate yet reserved. 

But more on that later. Let's just say... he very deliberately puts himself in a situation in which he not only holds all the power, he uses that as something to both entice and tantalize the Inquisitor.

With Bull, it's all about control. Ironically, still, he'll make sure you get what you need. Because that's how he's built, as a person.

The Caregiver Who Lies

For both good or ill, Bull's defining impulse is to give those
around him what he thinks they need. It's an aspect of his
character that exemplifies Bull at his absolute best... and worst.
From his central relationship with the Inquisitor to his interactions with his daily companions, Bull's dialogues and banters are intriguing because of their deceptive transparency. In the end, every single one of his interactions can be boiled down to an attempt by Bull to give people what he perceives them to require. Partly because it's what he's been driven since childhood to do—and partly because it's the best way to potentially manipulate them now or in the future.

This approach—this attention to what people need, is Bull's defining characteristic and here it's of course both lovable and deeply unsettling, because the Qun has, to some extent, warped Bull's positive core instincts as a caregiver into something negative; into something that he can use to manipulate and control others. 

Bull is a superb spy, a great warrior, and a smart strategist. However, I would argue that his most profound gift is that of a great actor—one who always seems to be flawlessly in-character, always apparently the same persona, yet who can play infinite variations on that character without blinking, and who can improvise at a moment's notice.

The unfolding story and banters with the Inquisitor and companions all reveal Bull as a person who effortlessly and delicately adjusts his personality for each social situation. With Varric and Sera, he's funny and companionable; with Vivienne, he's subservient, urbane and respectful; with Cole, he overcomes his initial fears of demons and spirits to quickly become affectionate and downright paternal. With Blackwall, he's professional and friendly, a fellow soldier, an approach he also takes with Seeker and female warrior Cassandra (along with a little respectful flirting).

The Trickster and the Vint

The only two companions who seem to be genuinely difficult for Bull to bond with at first are the handsome Tevinter mage Dorian, and, predictably, the secretive elven apostate Solas. Bull clashes with Dorian because there's genuine sexual tension there, and also because Bull, with his utter lack of sexual hangups or repressions, represents everything Dorian, a sensitive outcast of Tevinter nobility, hates and fears about himself as a man who loves other men.

Meanwhile, Bull clashes most of all with Solas, the (secret) rebel trickster and ancient, because the rigid militaristic strictures of life under the Qun represent everything Solas hates as a passionate believer in free will (he would, after all, happily burn down the world in order to free those trapped within it). It is interesting to note, meanwhile, that like almost everyone else, Solas underestimates Bull at first, as shown in one of my favorite early banters between the two characters:

Solas: Hmm.
Iron Bull: Something wrong?
Solas: A man in the last village. Something in his manner troubles me.
Iron Bull: The baker with the squint and the red nose? Yeah, spy. Probably Venatori.
Solas: Why do you say that?
Iron Bull: He watched all of us. A normal guy would focus on you, because staff, or me, because hornsHe had a dagger up his sleeve, which no baker needs, and the knot on his apron was tied Tevinter style. I sent a message to Red. She'll investigate.
Solas: You are more observant than you appear.
Iron Bull: The good spies usually are.

However, early direct attempts by Bull to befriend Solas don't go so well. As someone who fears demons and the Fade, Bull's attempts to bond with Solas over how goshdarned fun the Fade can be constitute some of his few visibly forced or false moments:

Iron Bull: Hey, Solas, you ever do your Fade thing and pretend you can fly? Just flap your arms and zip around in there? Then maybe bang some hot Fade ladies?
Solas: No. Such behavior attracts the attention of demons.
Iron Bull: Aww. Demons shit up everything.

However, Bull and Dorian eventually reach a friendly detente (and if neither is romanced by the Inquisitor, they eventually may become lovers), while, if the Inquisitor chooses Bull's side and saves the Chargers in "The Demands of the Qun" (Bull's crucial central loyalty quest), Solas at last thaws and becomes genuinely friendly and caring with Bull. Solas's attempts to comfort and distract a terrified Bull after he goes rogue (Tal-Vashoth) against the Qun constitute some of the best conversations in the entire story, complete with a fantastic and detailed game of mind-chess between the two. (Meanwhile, if we don't make the right decisions in Bull's loyalty quest, then Bull's story takes a decidedly colder, darker turn that ends tragically, years later, in the DAI DLC "Trespasser"—but more on that outcome in another separate later post. Also, please forgive me while I go ugly-cry for a few minutes...)

All right. I'm back.

High Stakes

Ultimately, Bull's conversations and relationships are all by turns thought-provoking, complex, brutal, moving, and (usually) delightful. They are unfailingly the product of keen observation and a careful attention to identifying and then giving people what they need (and yep, this directly applies to his decidedly edgy and complex romance, as well). It's both the most endearing thing about him... and the most unnerving, depending on your choices as the game story progresses. 

Because, see, at this moment... right up until "The Demands of the Qun," Bull is two people. He is adeptly playing two storylines at once, and dancing as fast as he can the entire time. 

The irony is that our Qunari liar, the famed Hissrad, is just as adept at lying to himself as he is at lying to others.

Bull is a man waging a war inside. Sure, it's pretty apparent that he's at least on some levels working to re-ingratiate himself with his Qunari superiors in Par Vollen... or at least to give himself those options. As Gatt notes later on, Bull's very much aware that he's running out of time if he wants to remain an accepted or valued part of the Qun.

Flipping the Equation

Yet I also believe that Bull is at Skyhold in a last-ditch attempt at rescue—the rescue of himself, of the little boy who once protected his fellow classmates from harm. Of the man who singlehandedly avenged his entire unit, then broke inside because he was more than a mindless implement of violence. 

I think the Bull at Skyhold is therefore subtly and even desperately trying to create a place where he can find solace, companionship, a foothold, and real safety. Where he is valued not just for what he can do, but for who he is. Where he can preserve the family he has built for himself. Where he has a name. Where he can experience love that goes beyond superficial pleasures and extends to true intimacy. Where he can stop playing a part, reading the room, being the spy in the center of it all. Perhaps, where most of all, he can simply relax.

And where he can, ultimately, be himself. The part of his own equation that the Qun considers irrelevant. After all, the Qun does not value the individual. How tragic is it then, that Bull himself is such a magnificent individual in his own right, one constantly stamped out by the heel of his own government? Everything, everything, that makes Bull special is pretty much disregarded by his own culture. If Par Vollen had its way, they would cut out the loving, funny, selfless, generous guy Bull truly is... and gut that person for scraps, leaving only a cold and easily replaceable fighting machine without a soul. 

Ultimately, what moves me about Bull is that I think this is really why he's here, why he joined the Inquisition. Not to recover his career under the Qun, but to recover the sense of hope, joy and love that was broken long ago in Seheron. I think he knows deep down that he's broken. He knows he cannot follow the Qun forever, no matter how loyal he tries to be. Bull is a man who has provided himself with a life that involves a host of attributes that the Qun already directly forbids: independence, a name, a family, a cause, and (potentially) even a romantic relationship that's (whether with the Inquisitor or Dorian) about more than meaningless satisfaction and release. And last but not least, Bull's not stupid. He's a strong person, a warrior, but life has already shown him that, at a certain point—and after a certain number of losses—he doesn't bend; he breaks.

Bull's so close to freedom. He's already rescued himself and he's 90% there... but he can't quite cut those ties. He can't quit. He can't quite burn that bridge behind him. He's built for loyalty. He's built to stay the course.

That's why he needs us.

And for me, that's the secret of Bull's throughline in the DAI story. Ultimately, Bull's arc is not actually about what we need at all. In the end, it's about what Bull needs. From us. And the fact is, the power to provide what he needs is ours in the end. As it always was. Bull hoards control at virtually every single story moment, then comes the one, pivotal, crucial decision that he hands over to us—will we damn him, or save him?

It's appropriate and ironic to realize that, despite the fact that Bull is perhaps the most superb student of human nature in the entire story of Dragon Age: Inquisition, he's still capable of incredible blindness. In the end, the only person he doesn't recognize or understand... is himself.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks so much for reading, Annette! It was fun to write.

  2. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I look forward to your next analysis.

    1. Thanks so much! I so appreciate your taking the time to read them.

  3. This incite is amazing. I am enjoying reading your analysis of Bull. It’s confirmed what I already thought and has also made me see more.

    1. Thank you so much! Bull is definitely one of my favorite characters, and I'm so glad you enjoyed my analysis!


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