Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Demons and Archangels: The Journey of Cullen Rutherford

Yes, Cullen's hotness in Dragon Age: Inquisition is actually visible from space.
Cullen: No one ever listens. Not until it's far too late. Maker turn his gaze on you. I hope your compassion hasn't doomed us all.

Spoilers, as always, for all of Dragon Age (Origins, Dragon Age II, and Inquisition)!

This is the first analysis of several overdue discussions I'll be posting on our Inquisition's ridiculously beautiful Commander Cullen. Here, I'll start by examining his earliest origins and influences, and will be progressing through a look at his romances and other quests to follow. 

And fair warning—I love Cullen, but I'm also going to be tough on him here and there. However, I think it's important to point out his flawed and less than stellar moments as we follow his journey to the humble and reluctant commander he becomes in Dragon Age: Inquisition. I think his journey is far darker than it may appear to be, at first, and I think there are many, many times when he actively fails the tests set before him. But I do think he eventually triumphs. Which is what makes the entire journey so satisfying for me.

As written by a team of writers who gave him real nuance throughout the trilogy, Cullen was written by Sheryl Chee in Dragon Age: OriginsJennifer Hepler in Dragon Age: II, and by Brianne Battye in Dragon Age: Inquisition, with editing by  Cori May. Cullen is voiced, and with beautiful range, emotion, and inflection throughout all three chapters of Dragon Age, by Jonny Rees.

So let's look at his progression through the story from a big-picture perspective.

But before we do... I guess I should start by admitting a Dragon Age sacrilege. And it's a pretty serious one.

No, really... here goes: 

Cullen's not my type.

Is he beautiful? Of course he is. Cullen in Dragon Age: Inquisition is the kind of gorgeous that renders ordinary humans verklempt. His eyes are as changeable as the skies above Honnleath. His cheekbones could cut metal. His lips are firm and beautifully formed, and the little scar on his upper lip only accentuates their perfection. His body was evidently carved by Michelangelo. His golden hair curls slightly, waving perfectly back from his face in a casual, accidental tumble that no doubt requires zero effort from him at all. His voice is both manly and gentle, and when he sings, little birds perch on the branches to listen in bliss.

In other words, it's a scientific fact that Cullen's hotness is actually visible from space.

But to me, his beauty was almost a handicap in Dragon Age: Inquisition. At first, all I saw was the pretty, pretty man, a readymade Prince Charming, and while I admit I did my fair share of gazing (because I am actually alive and fairly low on the Kinsey scale), I also waved a hand and went, "Nope." For a long time, I just was never really interested. I tended to prefer characters whose beauty was more subversive or hidden because it felt more real to me—Bull, or Solas, for instance. The kind of person where one day you wake up and go, "Oh, my God, how did I not notice how gorgeous you are?" When it's too obvious, for me, it's less fun.

Then I flirted with Cullen in my third playthrough, and he was shy and embarrassed and just horrible at it. Awkward. Sweaty and stammering. Terrified of all human contact. Here was the most beautiful man at Skyhold... and thanks to life's cruel conspiracies, he was a social misfit, a secret loser, a man haunted by his own past and terrified at the prospect of an actual date. I'd also just done a full trilogy playthrough and I was definitely feeling a little judgmental toward him for his decisions in the first two games. The only thing that made it better for me was that he was so visibly haunted, sleepless, guilty and penitent here.

Flawed, damaged, sleepless and haunted? And the worst flirt ever? Suddenly, I'd never found him so attractive in my life. 

Cue my Dragon Age: Inquisition romance with Cullen. When I was, suddenly and definitively, very interested in Hitting That.

Surviving Trauma

One of the themes that shows up over and over again in the Dragon Age trilogy, and especially that of Dragon Age: Inquisition, is that of survival over trauma. Of triumph over personal loss and adversity. And I don't think that's accidental. It's one of the things that made me fall in love with DAI even above and beyond the other previous and beautiful game chapters. Life is tough. What doesn't break us makes us stronger, and what does break us makes us both grateful and humble for what we still have.

The end result, for me, is when it comes to stories, I'm a sucker for damage, and for triumph over it. So I loved the fact that when we meet each and every Advisor and Companion in Inquisition, there is a beautifully complex person waiting there. A life already built, a history, complete with yearnings, guilts, regrets, torments and fears, all private and hidden and waiting to be confessed and (just possibly) healed.

I think this theme of overcoming the trauma and damage life inflicts is a deliberate and too often overlooked subtext in the games, and it's a wonderful thing to notice and appreciate. It's an idea each chapter of Dragon Age has addressed, and each time in a new and expanded way. 

In Origins, for instance, this theme was explored through, well, an origin story. Through the tale of a certain kind of young hero who must triumph when tested by the very direst of circumstances, corrupted and sentenced to an eventual cruel death in the very flower of their youth and innocence. In the underrated Dragon Age II, it was presented through one person's poignant attempt to support family and to keep on living a normal life right in the middle of the maelstrom, as her city (my Hawke is a girl) fell into chaos and destruction around her. And in Inquisition, I felt, those stakes were raised even higher as the Inquisitor must rise to an almost insurmountable challenge. Personal life, home, family, love, all of that is gone as Inquisition begins, and because I am a forever fool for headcanons, I always found that notable and tragic. The Inquisitor, after all, did not emerge from a vacuum. As Dragon Age: Inquisition begins, they are simply present at the Temple as a nobody, there to take note of events, as a regular person interested in (and worried about) the world.

Then the sky tears, demons fall, and suddenly the Inquisitor has abilities she never, ever wanted or imagined. Thus begins, for me, a gorgeous and slightly melancholy hero's journey that Joseph Campbell himself would have loved.

Just keep in mind that the entire time your hero is doing all of these things? Closing rifts? Saving worlds? They're also battling trauma and loss.

Just like everyone else we meet. And just like Cullen.

Refusing the Hero's Mantle

One of the best things about Cullen's character design is how plainly haunted
he is by what he has survived. He may be gorgeous, but his pain and
suffering are clearly visible on his face in the deep shadows around his eye
What the Dragon Age trilogy does well every time, I feel, is the way it plays with classic tropes and then spins or subverts them. There's the hero's journey, and there's also my other favorite trope—that of the merry band of misfits who must triumph against impossible odds. But then the Dragon Age writers complicate that hero by stacking the deck before their journey begins (the Joining) or by forcing them to ask themselves (to quote Solas) "what kind of hero they'll be" right after they've just survived catastrophe, imprisonment, loss, and a near-death experience. And that's just the first hour.

Bioware also adds complexity to that little band of misfits by giving us characters who are so rich and nuanced and complicated that they fully deserve their own novel treatments. Sten, with his brutal alignment to a terrifying ideology yet still with a simplicity and capacity for loyalty, love, and softness (and cookies and kittens). Leliana, with her simultaneous pulls toward life as an adept assassin... or life as a gentle, pious servant of the Chantry. Alistair, with his chance to stay an anonymous and brave warrior against the Blight... who must then answer (or refuse) the call to serve as the unwilling sovereign of his entire people. Zevran, the assassin on a mission of self-annihilation and suicide, who instead finds the possibility of loyalty and love. Morrigan, the secretive daughter of a mythic figure (she has no idea HOW mythic), the Witch of the Wilds... even from the beginning, they're all wonderfully drawn and complicated figures.

And don't forget Hawke, who never ever wanted any of this shit, and who simply wanted to live a nice quiet life in Kirkwall. Until the world went to hell and she had to step up. And step up. And step up. (A feeling my canon Dragon Age: Inquisition Inquisitor knew all too well, since she'd had no desire at all for power, fame, or even color-coordination.) And Anders, Fenris, Aveline, Merrill, and Isabela all deserve columns of their own (and they'll get them, eventually). Each of them survivors in some fashion, each brave and cowardly, compassionate and cruel, tender and irrevocably flawed.

Each one of these characters feels guilt for actions taken and (most of all) not taken. Guilt for actions in which they may have actively colluded. Guilt, sometimes, for simply surviving.

Leading that pack is, of course, the Inquisition's commander himself, Cullen Rutherford. And yet Cullen isn't arriving new and fresh to the scene in Inquisition. We've watched his journey from the beginning. And yet Cullen, as a participant in each of these chapters—is also similarly weighed and challenged by circumstance, and each time, his reaction is different and believable.

For instance, in Dragon Age: Origins? He's no hero. He fails. 

And fails hard.

The Tender Templar

Cullen in his fetal, DAO form. He's basically still a caterpillar here. He's
not bad, he just needs to cook a little longer to achieve maximum hotness
Cullen Rutherford was born in 9:11 Dragon, to parents in Honnleath. When we first meet Cullen, he's a sweet young lad, a naive Templar barely out of his teens proudly serving as a Templar at the Circle Tower at Kinloch Hold, on the shores of Lake Calenhad.

Through conversations, correspondences and Codices, we learn that Cullen was a sweet child who looked up to his older sister Mia (to whom he lost most of his early chess matches), and who was not necessarily an immediate leader, even of younger siblings Branson and Rosalie. 

What he was, was good

Even as a child, Cullen was good. Thoughtful. Kind. A boy who looked out for others. Time and again, all he really wanted to do... was protect. Support. Help. (And... I have to interject here... who does this remind you of? I'll address this later, but I think the parallel is not an accident.) 

And he wasn't just kind or seeking justice and order... there was a spiritual component. He was also devout. He believed in the preachings of the Chantry, and wanted most of all to serve the Maker.

When he was eight, Cullen declared his decision to be a Templar. His family teased him a bit but his adored older sister Mia was his champion, and he eventually convinced his family of his seriousness. She also evidently supported his early training efforts, purely on his own, until he was noticed by a visiting Knight-Captain, and brought into the Templar order for training at the age of thirteen. He was later in this than most, but his dedication soon had him surpassing the other trainees around him, and he flourished.

When he was eighteen, Cullen took his final vows and began the strict religious and combat regimen that included devotion to the Maker and Chantry, along with the required and voluntary addiction to lyrium that would boost his Templar powers against magic. He was then assigned to the Circle Tower at Kinloch Hold, under Knight-Commander Greagoir. When the Blight began in earnest, his family fled to South Reach, but while his siblings survived (shepherded, I have no doubt, by the indomitable Mia), Cullen's parents both perished.

It's a sad story, like so many in Thedas. But there are a few noteworthy details to this period of Cullen's life that I think are, once again, worth highlighting, especially in our first meetings with him in Origins

The Boy Soldier: Cullen in Origins

In Origins, Cullen is the sweet, slightly naive Templar who (if we play a female Circle mage) has been charged with killing her if she does not survive her rite of Harrowing, something he dreads, since he's also in love with her.

But our intrepid future Warden survives, and there's a little banter with Cullen that pretty much echoes what will become most of his future attempts at flirtation (please note that there are several Warden dialogue choices, so here were mine):

Cullen: Oh, um, hello... I uh, am glad to see your Harrowing went smoothly. What? I'm fine. I... uh, I'm just glad you're all right. You know.
Warden: Would you really have struck me down?
Cullen: I would have felt terrible about it. But... um... but I serve the Chantry and the Maker, and I will do as I am commanded. 
Warden (flirting hard): Maybe we could go elsewhere and continue our discussion?
Cullen: (horrified) Elsewhere? What do you mean?
Warden: I've seen the way you look at me...
Cullen: Oh, my goodness. If you're saying... what I think... that would be really... inappropriate and... I couldn't. (pause) I—I should go.

And... He RUNS AWAY.

It's both wonderful and awful and incredibly embarrassing. Poor Cullen. But it's a memorable introduction, at least. (And bonus points for the sly "I should go" departure line that would become famous through the ages in Mass Effect.)

Torture and Death

Cullen as a captive after the atrocities at the Kinloch Hold mage circle. What he
witnesses here warps and twists him for nearly a decade to come
When next we see Cullen, it's after the horrific events of the Kinloch Hold mage circle, in which possessed mage Uldred has almost destroyed the entire tower thanks to a following of corrupted blood mages, inflicting a catastrophic wave of terror and damage through a rain of demons and Abominations.

The Warden fights through all the levels of the Tower and eventually comes upon Cullen, killing his captors and attempting to reconnect with him and let him know that he is safe. The conversation with the deeply traumatized and tortured Templar, however, does not go well—please note that I include my own female mage and party member responses, below, which can of course vary slightly depending on your own choices. It's a pretty lengthy dialogue section but one I think it's important to quote in its entirety:
Cullen: This trick again? I know what you are. It won't work. I will stay strong. I know, only too well. How far they must have delved into my thoughts.
Wynne: The boy is exhausted. And this cage, I've never seen anything like it. Rest easy. Help is here.
Cullen: Enough visions! If anything in you is human... kill me now and stop this game. You broke the others. But I will stay strong, for my sake... for theirs. (Pause) Sifting through my thoughts. .. tempting me with the one thing I always wanted but could never have... using my shame against me... my ill-advised infatuation with her... a mage, of all things. I am so tired of these cruel jokes... these tricks... these...
Warden speaks: (I'm real)
Cullen: Silence! I'll not listen to anything you say. Now begone! (a pause, and Cullen is visibly confused) Still here? But that's always worked before. I close my eyes, but you are still here when I open them. (pause) I am beyond caring what you think... the Maker knows my sin, and I pray that He will forgive me.
Warden: (There's nothing wrong with liking someone.)
Cullen: It was the foolish fancy of a naive boy. I know better now. (pause) Why have you returned to the Tower? How did you survive?
Warden: (This was my home.)
Cullen: As it was mine. And look what they've done to it. They deserve to die. Uldred most of all. They caged us like animals... looked for ways to break us. I'm the only one left...
Sten (if in party): Be proud. You mastered yourself.
Cullen: Be proud? What is there to be proud of? That I lived and they died? They turned some into.. monsters. And ... there was nothing I could do.
Warden: Stay strong.
Cullen: And to think.. I once thought we were too hard on you.
Warden: We're not all like that.
Cullen: Only mages have that much power at their fingertips. Only mages are so susceptible to the infernal whisperings of the demons.
Wynne: This is a discussion for another time! Irving and the other mages who fought Uldred... where are they?
Cullen: They are in the Harrowing Chamber. The sounds coming out from there... oh, Maker.
Wynne: (We must go save them.)
Cullen: You can't save them. You don't know what they've become. But you haven't been up there. You haven't been under their influence. They've been surrounded by blood mages whose wicked fingers snake into your mind and corrupt your thoughts.
Alistair: His hatred of mages is so intense. The memory of his friends' deaths is still fresh in his mind.
Cullen: You have to end it now! Before it's too late!
Warden: No.
Cullen: Are you really saving anyone by taking this risk? To ensure this horror is ended... to guarantee that no abominations or blood mages live, you must kill everyone up there.
In my playthrough... the Warden refuses.
Wynne (to Warden): Thank you. I knew you would make a rational decision.
Cullen: Rational? How is this rational? Do you understand the danger?
Wynne: I know full well the dangers of magic, but killing innocents because they might be maleficarum is not justice. I know you are angry— 
Cullen: You know nothing! I am thinking about the future of the Circle. Of Ferelden.
Warden: (It's not as bad as you think.)
Cullen: I am just willing to see the painful truth, which you are content to ignore. But what can I do?
Sten speaks up in favor of Cullen's brutal belief and choices (not surprising given the Qunari and their incredibly brutal stance on mages)—however, a mage with good persuasion can ask him to rethink his stance.
Cullen: As you can see, I am in no position to directly influence your actions, though I would love to deal with the mages myself.
Warden: Perhaps I can free you.
Cullen: Don't waste time on me... deal with Uldred, if that is what you plan to do. Once he is dead, I will be freed.
Warden: Stay safe. It will be over soon.
Cullen: No one ever listens. Not until it's far too late. Maker turn his gaze on you. I hope your compassion hasn't doomed us all. 
And then we go save everyone. And everything so far is totally forgivable and understandable. Then, unfortunately, we meet up with Cullen again, freshly freed from his cage. In a meeting with the Warden, First Enchanter Irving, Greagoir, and more, a newly-rescued Cullen unfortunately if understandably goes completely bonkers:

Poor Cullen is... (cough) to put it bluntly... not okay:
Irving is rescued, order is restored, and he meets with Greagoir, the Warden, and Cullen.
Cullen: Uldred tortured these mages hoping to break their wills and turn them into abominations. We don't know how many of them have turned.
Irving: Don't be ridiculous.
Cullen: Of course he'll say that, he might be a blood mage! Don't you know what they did? I won't let this happen again!
Greagoir: I am the Knight-Commander here. Not you. 
Irving: We will rebuild. The Circle will go on. And we will learn from this tragedy and be strengthened by it.
Greagoir: We have won back the tower. I will accept Irving's assurance that all is well.
Cullen: But they may have demons within them, lying dormant! Lying in wait!
Greagoir: Enough. I have already made my decision.
Um... yeah. So. Not Cullen's finest hour. Admittedly.

The Aftermath

There has been plenty of justifiable criticism of Cullen's harsh reactions to his captivity and torment. He's basically immediately calling Greagoir to enact the Right of Annulment, and to kill ALL of the mages, and that's pretty brutal stuff.


I want to point out that he says this stuff literally minutes—minutes—after being rescued. He is very much not in his right mind, he's absolutely still back in that cage, and while I'm glad Greagoir immediately overruled him (in my playthrough, at least), few responsible people would have taken Cullen's hysterical outcries as real orders or as the recommendations of a sane person.

The irony is, of course, that the Right of Annulment (I keep wanting to type "Rite of Annulment" but that's not the phrase) has been invoked and carried out (depending on DAO character choices) 17 times in Thedas at this point in time, sometimes in instances in which it was later proven the mages were either innocent or murdered outright for political reasons (Antiva, Dairsmuid, and others).

But as far as Dragon Age: Origins, keep in mind, Cullen is a 19-year-old kid here who's just been tormented and teased with visions of the woman he loved and was too shy to approach. As Bull notes later on in DAI, people are pretty easy to break. We're not that complicated. The demons were able to warp Cullen's love and twist it into something ugly and shameful. Because, well, that's what demons do.

Then on top of that, he pretty clearly implies that the blood mages tortured him mentally and deliberately as well before leaving him to the cruel play of the desire demon. And then he watched everyone else with him die horribly, and then heard the additional deaths and tortures all around him, even when he couldn't see them.

So I tend to forgive Cullen's outburst here, although he doesn't get a total pass from me for one key reason: As a Templar, in this moment in which he is unable to master himself, to me, he has failed his first major test. Because he's not just a guy who's been traumatized. He is a Templar with the power of life and death over the mages, and in his own hysteria here, he is willing to sacrifice dozens and potentially hundreds of additional lives simply because of his own fear. And what's troubling is, he wields the power and legal right to do so. It is only Greagoir who stops the unthinkable from happening (if that's our choice).

I don't forget that. And—to be fair—neither, I think, does Cullen. Not for an instant.

I think now, for instance, is a good time to flash back on an admission Cullen made when we first encounter him in captivity. He says: "And to think.. I once thought we were too hard on you." I think this is so important because it demonstrates the empathy and the 'real' Cullen he was meant to be. He wanted to be a protector, a good Templar, but already even as a young man here barely out of his teens, he had begun to harbor doubts about the system's fairness to the mages under Templar care. (And that was in what was, reportedly, one of the fairer, gentler Circles!).

The Kinloch Aftermath

It's worth noting that Cullen was still recovering after these events for some time, and was definitely not seen as stable by Greagoir. If you play the Dragon Age: Origins DLC "Witch Hunt" with a Warden who was a female mage, for instance, you will overhear two gossiping mages at the Tower talk rather callously about the fact that Cullen was sent by Greagoir to Greenfell, to the Chantry there in order to "level out."

As far as Cullen's story goes—it appears that he did in fact calm down at Greenfell, but that Knight-Commander Greagoir then felt it best to send him elsewhere, so he was sent to serve the Circle in Kirkwall, in 9:31 Dragon. Once in Kirkwall, Cullen was promoted to Knight-Captain and was assigned to serve as Knight-Commander Meredith's second in command there.

Talk about the worst possible time and place. Poor Cullen couldn't have been sent to a more trauma-inducing location in all of Thedas (except, maybe, for the White Spire). And unfortunately, every paranoid thing Cullen may have ever thought about mages would have been reinforced and supported by the increasingly crazy Meredith, as well as by Kirkwall's incredibly high percentage of blood mages.

Cullen in Kirkwall

When we meet up with Cullen again in Kirkwall, he's visibly calmer, older, and more confident. He's also made a giant leap in hotness from his DAO appearance (this will become a continuing theme with Cullen from chapter to chapter), and makes for a rather kingly, almost angelic golden figure here.

In Dragon Age II, Cullen's metamorphosis continues. My favorite thing about
his character design here (other than the circles under his eyes) is how visibly
curly his hair is, since I secretly think he hates that and tames it in DAI
One thing I find interesting about Cullen's character design in both Dragon Age II and Dragon Age: Inquisition is that his suffering is visible. Yes, he's beautiful, but his eyes are haunted and pink-rimmed, with deep purple shadows beneath. From our first glance in Dragon Age II, we can look at Cullen's face and see that this is not a man who gets a lot of restful sleep. He's haunted by his past sufferings.

Cullen has a rather difficult role to play in Dragon Age II, because he is still damaged, and still wants so badly to be a good Templar, a good soldier, a good leader. And despite his experiences in Kinloch, I do get the feeling in most of Dragon Age II that he's attempting to be just and fair in his interactions with mages, despite the fact that (bless his heart) a good percentage of those are actually either practicing blood magic or doing insidious or potentially demonic things (seriously, Kirkwall is just the worst place ever). He also admires Meredith, who is charismatic and for many years, at least, appears to be tough but also someone who can be reasoned with.

Yet as the years pass in Kirkwall, the madness grows in Meredith's eyes, and Cullen is forced to examine both his own prejudices and the realities of the situation before him. He admits in several conversations with Hawke that he has increasing doubts about what was once so clear to him, yet even so, he defends the usefulness of the abhorrent Rite of Tranquility on mages (ugh), and at another memorable point (what I'd argue to be Cullen's lowest in the trilogy), he says some pretty vile, unforgivable things if you happen to be a mage supporter:
Hawke: Blood mages have infiltrated your ranks. They have been implanting your recruits with demons.
Cullen: Sweet blood of Andraste!
Masha: Demons! Did you say something about the recruits and demons?
Templar: I didn't want to tell you, Masha. They—they were horrible. Those mages see the rest of us as just ants to be crushed. They won't stop until they've destroyed the Chantry and the Templars forever.
Hawke: Mages have been systematically abused by the Templars for a thousand years.
Cullen: How can you say that after what you've seen?
Carver (hilariously, if present, to Hawke): Yes. How can you say that to the Templar right in front of you?
Cullen: Mages cannot be treated like people; they are not like you and me.
Masha: Surely that's a little harsh.
Cullen; They are weapons. They have the power to light a city on fire in a fit of pique. 
Hawke: Mages are humans and elves. Just like the rest of us.
Cullen: Many might go their whole lives thinking that. But if even one in ten falls to the lure of blood magic, they could destroy this world.
This, right here, is Cullen's nadir. His absolute worst moment. Worse for me even than the aftermath of his informal call for the Right of Annulment in DAO.

Now, to be fair, he says it after the revelation that blood mages have infiltrated the ranks of the Templars, and I'm sure Cullen's inwardly flashing back to every horrible thing he experienced. But... yeah... it's pretty terrible. (The only bright spot in this scene, for me, is the absolutely priceless reaction of Carver... and scenes like this are why I will always love our grumpypants insecure little Hawkebrother.)

The scene itself, taken as a whole, however, is troubling, and it also shows that Cullen hasn't advanced all that far from his previous traumas and prejudices. Yet I think that very fact is so important to his story, and to his arc. 

"They are Weapons"

For me, as upsetting as Cullen's comments are here, they provide a shockingly important moment in the trilogy, and in Cullen's character arc in particular.

And what's interesting is the visual handling of this moment as designed, animated and presented in the game.When Cullen says that mages cannot be treated like people, the action abruptly stops being a simple back-and-forth series of closeups. Instead, after Carver's comment, Cullen steps slightly forward and we see a beautiful wide shot with Cullen at the center, as our view of him rotates slightly. It's very cinematic (kudos to the artists, designers, animators and director here) and signifies something momentous, something worth noting. And I think it is.

What Cullen says here, what he puts into words, is the crystallization of the anti-mage, pro-Templar side of the entire war to come. The belief that allows magically gifted children to be taken from their parents and imprisoned in Circle Towers for the rest of their lives, to live or half-live under the watchful eyes of soldiers who have the ability with full impunity to harm, rape, lobotomize (with Tranquility) or kill them without consequence at any moment. And even in good mage circles, this boils down to the fact that, if you are a mage, you are taken from your family. You are captive in a high narrow place with people you don't know. You are forbidden, in most cases, normal romantic relationships or marriages, and if you do succumb to a hasty affair, any resulting child will be taken from you.

And, of course, someone is watching you and everything you do twenty-four hours per day, seven days a week. Me, I'd go stark raving mad in a month. No wonder Anders becomes consumed with it—Anders, who ran away seven times, and who was captured and returned every time, then tortured, abused, and put in solitary confinement, and who then watched his friends and lovers killed or turned Tranquil. Anders, who never even gave his captors the satisfaction of his real name. (Yeah, I feel tremendous pity for Anders... but more on that in a later post.)

To me, the most notable thing Cullen says here isn't that mages aren't people. Yes, that's awful. But to me what's worse is when he actually puts into words the terrible subtext that "Mages are weapons." Here, he is speaking the Chantry's subtext for all to hear—and what has always been the Chantry's real belief. That mages are tools. Things. Objects to be shut away until needed, and then used and cast aside.

The tragedy of this speech is compounded by the fact that—even if 1 in 10 mages did in fact succumb to possession (and of course the actual percentages seem to be exponentially smaller than that)—that still leaves nine other brave and loyal mages who would be happy to fight injustice and demons, despite what they have suffered, and who I believe would stand at his side and fight those demons.

I think Cullen does get where he needs to, and it's to a recognition of repentance, guilt and shame that are miles away from his words here. But it's gonna take time. And the better part of a decade.

Therein Lies the Rub

This is also precisely why I think it's important that Cullen be the one who says these words. That it's Cullen—who has before now seemed to be older, kinder, more thoughtful—who allows this terrible series of admissions to occur.

Here, in the Dragon Age II dramatic spark to the powderkeg that is the issue of mages versus Templars, while Meredith is an insane extremist (as, of course, eventually, is Anders, directly opposed), Cullen must serve as the seemingly reasonable and conscientious Templar soldier, the man of duty and faith. When he admits that he thinks violence is the only way, it's both deeply disappointing and surprising.

But it's also, I feel, a necessary part of his story. Cullen, after all, is the unbeliever who will see the error of his ways; he is Saul on the road to Damascus.

Look at it this way: A mage who realizes the Circles are wrong is just one mage out of thousands. It's not a surprising revelation. However, a Templar Knight-Commander who does so? Can and will help to change the world for the better.

For me, this makes Cullen's journey through the rest of Dragon Age II more suspenseful and satisfying. He is the shining true believer, the one person who should stand beside Meredith and her irrational hatred at all costs. And yet he cannot do so. As Chapters 2 and 3 take place, Cullen becomes a visibly sadder, more penitent and confused man. He spouts platitudes. He says some pretty awful things against mages and doesn't appear to recognize why they are so terrible.

I'm grateful that the Cullen who says "Mages are not people" is not the same
man we meet in Dragon Age: Inquisition.
My own take here is pretty simple: Just as the Qun warped a protective and nurturing Bull into Hissrad, so too did the Templars warp and twist Cullen into a person who would say the words I quoted above. 

However, that hate-filled man is not who Cullen was meant to be. It is not who he is at his core. When he says "Mages aren't people," to me it's a last gasp. It's Cullen expelling the very final vestiges of that demonic poison, as he succumbs for just a moment to it and gives himself over to absolutes.

But then I think the madness passes. And I believe, going forward, as his doubt and guilt grow, he truly begins to change. Yes, he wants so badly to believe, yet he's courteous to a mage Hawke and is even willing to admit to Hawke on multiple occasions his fears of and for Meredith and for the people of Kirkwall.

By the end of Dragon Age II, Cullen must yet again make a choice that will define him, and yet again, I do think he fails. Not because he supports Hawke and finally allies our merry band against a Lyrium-mad Meredith. But because it is only her threat against Hawke that finally spurs him to action. Cullen  doesn't take action or discover his own humanity because of her invocation of the Right of Annulment before a pleading, intelligent, and very sane Orsino (who I will always adore, and who I absolutely headcanon did not end Dragon Age II as relayed by Varric). 

In fact, Cullen is silent when Meredith tries to invoke the Right. He knows it is wrong, and he is silent. He only actually speaks up against her when she threatens Hawke, whom he has reluctantly come to see as a friend (to both himself and to Kirkwall).

However, for Cullen's trilogy-long arc, this works for me. I think it has to be this way, and I think it's deliberate: Cullen has failed his test yet again. Not as badly as in DAO, but... he has a ways still to go for redemption.

As Dragon Age II ends, in 9:37, Cullen hangs in there for a few more years, but the writing's on the wall. Everything he thought he believed in... the system he loved, has failed him. He has to find new meaning. He's starting to ask himself questions that tear at him, that hurt him, to which he doesn't want the answers. And yet he can't help himself. He is, oddly, almost pulling himself unwillingly forward into his own growth, self-awareness, and redemption. And also, of course, into bitter shame and repentance.

The Chisel on the Marble

And that's where Dragon Age: Inquisition comes in, and why it's a fascinating finish to Cullen's arc.

Each time Cullen appears in the Dragon Age trilogy, he is visibly changed. It's
as if he is a statue of marble being shaped by a sculptor.
I started this analysis by noting that most of the characters we meet in Dragon Age are damaged in some crucial way, struggling against past abuse, loss, torment, and pain.

The interesting thing that DAI does, is that it takes the framework of that survivor's story and pushes the boundaries a bit further, darkening the tapestry and adding complexity to it. Inquisition uniquely almost always couples a background of trauma and violence with a heightened and dual perception of guilt and responsibility. Everyone in DAI who is battling PTSD, for instance, is also battling guilt. Bull. Varric. Cassandra. Cole. Solas. Blackwall. Even our darling Josie. And especially beautiful Cullen.

I began this analysis by talking shallowly about Cullen's beauty. However, I also think that this character attribute can also actually be seen as an intrinsic and fascinating external representation of Cullen's own journey. 

Each time Cullen appears in the Dragon Age trilogy, he is visibly changed. It's as if he is a statue of marble being shaped by a sculptor, and in each ensuing chapter, he is more handsome because, it can be argued, he is becoming who he was meant to be. The Cullen of DAO was the princely, biddable young warrior you wouldn't have picked out of a crowd. The Cullen of DA2 was the archangel at the gate—tormented with doubt, but surviving, and struggling toward the light. The Cullen of Dragon Age: Inquisition is Cullen in full flower—not the prince or the archangel but the mature man whose visible handsomeness is only matched by his equally visible suffering and desire for penance and reparation.

And that's what I'll talk about in my next analysis... as we meet the older, wiser Cullen in Dragon Age: Inquisition... where he's a man who doesn't just pray daily for victory, but for his own atonement.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Meaningful Banters: Tied and Tantalized (Companions on the Iron Bull's Romance)

The War Table? It's evidently quite sturdy.
Cole: She submits, but you serve.

NOTE: This post is part of a continuing series ("Meaningful Banters"), in which I shine a spotlight on especially important or revealing moments that occur between companions in banter, during the course of the games. As I've been writing a series of pieces on character romances, and most recently, The Iron Bull's, I thought this would be a fun and timely companion piece (and that it might cheer you up if you happened to just read the romance analysis segment discussing a Qun-Loyal Bull).

CONTENT AND TRIGGER WARNING: This post has NSFW elements and includes some frank dialogue referencing The Iron Bull's BDSM relationship with a romanced Inquisitor.

Bull's romance is one of the most complex in the Dragon Age universe, and as it evolves, Cole may perform his usual mind-reading magic to illustrate some of the relationship's more private elements—to the slightly embarrassed dismay of Bull and the Inquisitor, and to the delight of the rest of the companions.

I analyzed the Iron Bull's romance with the Inquisitor in more detail herehere, and here, but Cole's banter conversations about Bull and the Inquisitor's romance are also incredibly revealing about the dynamics of the relationship in the minds of both the Inquisitor and Bull—and are more than a little blushworthy (please note as always that I'm referring to my Inquisitor by the gender of my own Bull-romancer): 
Cole: She almost says the word sometimes. Katoh. She tastes it in her mouth, sweet release a breath away, tongue tying it tenderly like you tie her. But she doesn't. For you, and for her because it makes it mean more. A fuller feeling, a brighter burst.
Iron Bull: Yeah. (Coughs.) How's she feel about you saying this in front of everybody?
The Inquisitor can then respond with or without embarrassment, or matter-of-factly, and all the choices result in some funny reactions from our companions (I admit it, I usually take option #2—it's funnier, and more apropos): 

Inquisitor (Answer Option #2): If a rift opened up right now and swallowed me, I'd be fine with that.
Solas (if present): Provided it tied you down first, one assumed.
Varric (if present): Listen, do whatever works for you. You don't have to act restrained in front of us.

If your Inquisitor romances Bull, Cole will eventually broadcast several
of your most intimate thoughts to any companions in the vicinity!
This is just another one of those little character moments that I love in the game, because Varric's not the only one being mischievous; quiet, proper Solas is once again reminding us that he's possibly a lot naughtier in the sack than he may appear to be, as well.

Inquisitor (Answer Option #1): Bull and I are consenting adults, and there's nothing wrong with what we choose to do in bed.
Cole: Not just in bed. Sometimes it's up against the wall. Once on the War Table.
Sera (if present): (Laughs.) Hope you took her right up the Dales.
Dorian (if present): (Laughs.) Ahem.
Blackwall (if present): I look forward to informing Cullen!
Or the Inquisitor ends the conversation without further delay:
Inquisitor (Answer Option #3): Moving on.
Cassandra (if present): I could not agree more.
Vivienne (if present): Please do.
Cole: Oh, sorry.
Cole brings up the romance again later on, and again, it's unexpectedly revealing, on both sides:
Cole: You act like you're in charge, The Iron Bull, but it's really her. She decides when, and you measure it carefully, enough to enjoy, to energize, but never to anger. She is tied, teased, tantalized, but it's tempered to what she wants. She submits, but you serve.
Iron Bull: Do you mind, kid? If you take away all the mystery, it's not quite as hot.
Inquisitor (Answer #1): Bull? Yes it is.
Iron Bull: Right! My mistake. Carry on, kid.
Cole: What's an Orlesian Tickler?
Iron Bull: I'll tell you when you're older.
Cole: No, you won't.
Iron Bull: No, I won't.
What I think is amusing here is that Bull is pretty obviously very much aware of the psychology Cole is describing. He just maybe isn't too keen on having it revealed to the Inquisitor (or their companions).

Or depending on our reply, we get this option:
Inquisitor (Answer #2): Bull, is he right?
Iron Bull: The kid? Please. (Pause) Next time we're alone, I'm going to pin you down and do things your body won't believe.
Cole: But...
Iron Bull: Ahem.
Cole: Sorry.
It's interesting that Bull's fine with all the teasing and banter about his
relationship with the Inquisitor, but when asked for actual details by Varric,
he refuses, noting, "That room is for her and me. No one else invited."
The Iron Bull's romance is discussed with other companions too, and as always, these little moments can be surprisingly insightful about specific characters. Take Varric's request for information, below—Bull's completely not okay with that. He wasn't kidding when he said that what happens in the Inquisitor's bedroom stays there:

Varric: So, Bull. You and the Inquisitor, huh?
Iron Bull: Mm-hmm.
Varric: I'd love some impressions. Imagery. Something for my next book.
Iron Bull: Sorry. That room is for her and me. No one else invited.
Varric: Safe harbor from the storm outside?
Iron Bull: All right, now you're just making it weird.

Then Sera gets in on the discussion, later, as well:

Sera: You're bedding the Inquisitor.
Iron Bull: Sometimes. Usually it's just against the wall.
Inquisitor: (Laughter.)
Sera: What's so funny? Ooh, because you do it standing. Pfft. 
Inquisitor: Bull! No!
Bull: She sort of asked.
Sera: Ooh, because you do it standing. Pfft.
Cassandra: Moving on.
Varric: I usually describe a fireplace by this point.

Bull and Cass also banter again later a few more times, and it's as charming and funny as always:
Iron Bull: That was some solid work back there, Seeker.
Cassandra: You, as well.
Iron Bull: The way you backhanded that guy with your shield and then damn near chopped him in half?
(Then, if romancing the Inquisitor): Any chance I could have the Boss borrow your armor later? For, uh, personal reasons.
Cassandra: No.
Iron Bull: I'd clean it after.
Cassandra: Absolutely not.
Iron Bull: (frustrated sigh)

And then again later, in which Bull notes his commitment to his relationship with the Inquisitor (a detail I love, considering Bull comes from a culture in which that kind of commitment is utterly foreign):
Iron Bull: You know, Seeker, your style doesn't have to be so defensive.
Cassandra: Excuse me?
Iron Bull: You've got armor. Let someone scratch the paint a bit. You can wind up for a shot that will really ring their bell. Some part of you wants to just cut loose. I can feel the frustration in your swings.
(If romancing the Inquisitor) I'd offer to help you get rid of that frustration but, you know... I'm in a committed relationship.
Cassandra: Unlucky me.

And Cassandra has more to say, after the interruption incident (when she, Cullen and Josie walked in on the tryst between the Inquisitor and Bull):
Cassandra: You are aware her room has a lock, Bull?
Iron Bull: Sure.
Cassandra: Some people might find that useful. In future.
Iron Bull: I'd rather focus on--
Cassandra: Yes. I'm sure the room and its... contents... are very distracting. Thank you.

Although Cassandra notes to Bull that (after interrupting their liaison earlier)
the Inquisitor's room has a lock on it, what's fun to point out is that the room
where they were discovered was plainly not the Inquisitor's quarters
The funniest thing here is that the room Bull and the Inquisitor were caught in was visibly not the Inquisitor's quarters at all, but in actuality appeared to be the cluttered, empty room around the corner from the top floor of the Herald's Rest. (The one with the ax in the headboard). So this also made me headcanon that perhaps there was a period in the early days of the Inquisitor and Bull's romance where they were basically getting caught all over the place.

It's funny to envision—especially if you imagine Leliana and poor Josie having to actually sit the Inquisitor and Bull down and lecture them like naughty teenagers on which locations at Skyhold are less appropriate for, ahem, romantic moments.

Taarsidath-an halsaam!

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Spy Who Never Loved Me: The Iron Bull's Romance, Part 3

If you sacrificed the Chargers? Solas isn't the only one with
a DAI romance that will end up breaking your heart.
IRON BULL: You helped me remember who I really am, kadan.

I won't forget that.

Spoilers for Dragon Age: Inquisition and its DLC "Trespasser!" 

This is the third and final part of my analysis of The Iron Bull's romance in Dragon Age: Inquisition, as I take a look at the romance if Bull remains loyal to the Qun. If you're just arriving, please do check out that first article (Part 1) here. or the second one (Part 2) here.

And apologies, this is gonna get grim. Because this is where we talk about how Bull's romance can go wrong... in that dark and terrible alternate timeline in which the Chargers die, and in which Bull forgets that he ever had a chance away from the repressive collective mindset and worldview of the Qun. (I only survived writing it with a decent amount of wine, cat-cuddles, and breaks for soothing meditation. Okay, and yes, there might have been chocolate... So you might want to break out the wine and chocolate yourself...)


Love and Death Under the Qun

Although it's not obviously central to his romance at first, Bull's loyalty quest "The Demands of the Qun" is vital to understanding both Bull's romance storyline and its effect on the Inquisitor, and of course it has a huge effect on the DAI DLC "Trespasser." In that quest, we (and he) make a simple, significant choice: Sacrifice the Chargers, the family of lovable and skilled mercenary misfits he assembled, one companion at a time, over a period of a decade... or save the Qunari Dreadnought imperiled by the oncoming force (salvaging our potential political alliance). There is no way to cheat this quest, no way to save both. 

Just to note: If you avoid Bull's quest altogether, you'll still end up with the same result, and justifiably so: A Bull whose loyalty you did not earn still serves the Qun as a result. It's not an outcome that can be avoided or slid past. You're gonna have to make the hard choices.

Iron Bull's loyalty quest asks us in a clever, heartbreaking way: Do the needs
of the many outweigh the needs of the few?
I've seen criticisms that choosing the Qun alliance isn't actually a betrayal, that it's tactical, and that it's a purely intellectual decision. I do understand. And I would agree with that, to an extent, if what we were playing in Dragon Age: Inquisition was at heart a story of cold war strategy or intellectualism over emotion. But it's not. That's the secret, and the genius, of the choice presented to us in Bull's loyalty quest. If we haven't been paying attention, we might very well choose the Dreadnought, thinking, "Well, but it's the Qunari! Troops! Ships! I'm sure they'll be useful!"

And to this I simply reply, "Oh, you sweet Summer Child..."

Meaning... Even if you're new to Dragon Age, and only have DAI to refer to, it's still possible to note the details that Bull has provided multiple times now, in direct conversation with you, as well as in banters with Solas—these are the same people who sent a self-proclaimed spy to infiltrate your ranks and feed them information. These are the same people who proudly do not value the individual (the collective is all that matters), who openly admit that they are intent upon world domination, that they will sacrifice whoever is needed at any time.

A point of view further reinforced by Gatt in the very moment you are asked to make your decision.

I understand those who choose to sacrifice Krem and the Chargers. I just
also judge them. A lot. And a lot some more.
The Dreadnought Survives

And look, I'm not judging you if you chose the Dreadnought. Seriously. It's a viable game choice. I'm just explaining why I think the decision is subtly set forth as an emotional puzzle all dressed up as a coldly strategic one. Either way, I'll add that I think this choice is essential to the story. We must encounter this possibility of terrible outright loss. 

And even beyond that, look, it sucks, but I'm so glad I played it through at least once. There's no other way to get a true and complete glimpse of just how absolutely terrifying the deceptively likable, funny Iron Bull can actually be on the inside, where he has spaces that echo as dark and vast as the Void. I mean, he's markedly different instantly after that devastating punch when the Chargers die. He's creepy. He's empty and checked-out. He's cold. And then he gradually became genuinely scary to me a few times in that playthrough, even way before "Trespasser."

And as a storyteller, I love that. Even if I cried at his Hissrad-loyal storyline repeatedly, because I am a wimp, and because I react emotionally to ferrets, kittens, rainbows, and big, burly Qunari guys who lose their souls just when they could have found true love (cries).

Meanwhile: I will be analyzing Bull's "Hissrad" persona in its entirety in a separate future post, but for now I'll just note that Bull's entire story arc up to that decision in "Demands" has been about the disparity in his soul, about his yearning for freedom, individuality, intimacy, family, and affection, all of which is directly opposed to his loyalty to the Qun. That yearning of his is also set against his fear, over and over again, of going Tal-Vashoth, of going savage, wild, untamed. It's one of my favorite character notes that Bull, who is all about control, fears losing it more than anything else.

Bull's dilemma is a simple one, on the surface: Should he be who he really is, or be who the Qun created him to be? And I'd argue that the answer is obvious... if we've been paying attention to the story around us, and to Bull's own narrative.

However... if we save the Dreadnought, prioritizing our potential alliance with the Qun, it's pretty tragic and dark. (Meanwhile, if we do this, after all the revelations of DAO and DA2, I can comfort myself that I'm not the only one rolling my eyes—somewhere, somewhere, I swear to all the gods of Arlathan, so is Sten, who told Leliana and Alistair point-blank that agreements and alliances mean nothing to the Qun.) Either way, if we do it... everyone Bull loves will die right here, right now. Right in front of him.

But first, let's look back a bit.

A History of Loss

Keep in mind that Bull had already lost everyone once, way back in Seheron. The list includes his best friend, his squadron, and legions of other soldiers during a tour of duty that was supposed to cap out at two years because of the high instances of PTSD. But Bull kept on proving himself smart and superhuman, and he lasted nearly ten—an impressive feat that was almost unheard-of. A decade in hell, lying glibly, chatting daily with the townspeople he was trying to protect (and who died pretty continuously, like mayflies), watching for trouble, spying for information, and chasing rebels who relinquished all civility and went as savage as animals (terrifying Bull with glimpses of his own inner violent impulses). Bull did all of these things while fighting antagonists who crept in on the fog like twisted somethings out of a poem by Sandburg, but this time, not so much on little cat-feet, but on the feet of silent assassins that moved like ghosts.

Bull turns to us to answer to his best self. If he isn't asked to do so, is it so
surprising that he holds a grudge? He's lost everything... on our orders.
And to put it simply, in the end, it broke him. Everything breaks eventually, after all, as Bull would be the first to admit. Everything and everyone—no matter how strong. So, like a rock battered by the waves, eventually Bull capitulated in Seheron, after a devastating attack that killed scores of defenseless children, as well as every one of his friends and compatriots, and he, well... he just shut down. Gave up. Sat down on a pile of dead and waited for judgment. 

It's heartbreaking to realize that Bull would have only been in his late twenties at this point, but he was already prematurely old inside, having conscientiously served the Ben-Hassrath for a decade, and having been trained since literal childhood to assimilate, report, and to observe others for every single sign of how to best manipulate them to his own advantage. 

And in the end, it didn't matter. After Seheron, the formerly decorated Hissrad had been proven unworthy simply for being flesh and blood, handing over his battered mind and soul to people who would have gladly removed everything that made him an individual, pithing him like a reed and leaving him blank and cold (hmmm... sounds a bit Tranquil, doesn't it?) so that all that was left was a willing and soulless tool.

The Qun didn't care that even stone breaks if you hit it in just the right way, or for long enough. To them, Bull cracked. And from that moment on, he was simply defective. A nuisance. They needed to send their resident liar somewhere else, out of sight, if not out of mind. They gave up on Bull, and moved on.

Stupid Qunari. To quote the late, great Leonard Cohen: 

There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in

Hissrad in Orlais

When he recovered, a quieter, more vulnerable Bull was sent back out into the world, and I have wondered so often about what he was like after the reeducators had hold of him. Did they torture him? Reprogram him? Mindwipe him? Or did they just remind him of his loyalties, pat him a few times, and send him back out there? 

My guess is that since Bull surrendered himself voluntarily, that the last choice is the most likely—that the reeducators did a little light reprogramming, reminded him of his glorious allegiance to the Qun, Bull rallied enough from his inner despair (given a little time and space) to convince them they were right, and then he was released. Then the Qun would have sent him as far away as possible (hence, his undercover work in Orlais) to finish out a flawed service in whatever way would still benefit the Qun.

But Bull rallied. He surprised them, I think. He rebuilt his mind, his life, and his body. He assembled a small and fractious, fiercely loyal mercenary fighting force in his Chargers, and it's no accident that (as the story implies, at least) each and every addition to his group was a rescue of sorts, starting with his second in command, beautiful and brave Krem, for whom he lost an eye.

So Bull moved forward through sheer force of will. He assembled a family. He gave himself a name, a pretty glorious title worthy of conquerers (a moment I find significant since Bull comes from a culture where people aren't allowed actual names), then used the next decade to drink, play, fight, fuck and find himself.

The Iron Bull Abroad

It's fun to picture Bull striding into the midst of Orlesian politics and great Gamesmanship, isn't it? I suspect that the Orlesians probably reacted to Bull in pretty much the way I once had initially (before I knew how amazing he was)—with ambivalence, amusement, and slight condescension. Until they'd learned their lessons and fallen just as flat as I had done, realizing that the big horned buffoon they were laughing at behind their frozen masks could be imposing and smart, strategic and as polished as any diplomat... when he needed to be. I also think they'd have been charmed by that added spice of sheer wild humor, aliveness, joy, fun, danger and force of personality that Bull provided simply through being who he was.

But even while he was roaring and rollicking, conquering ballrooms and bedrooms and living as close to the edge of chaos as he was allowed to, Bull also couldn't stop being a superb spy and soldier. His loyalties were still, at least superficially, where they needed to be. And I think there was at least a part of him that was keeping his options open, waiting his chance to reenter the inner circle and to return to his former ascendance under the Qun, and to regain a few laurel leaves and hero's benefits. They were deserved, after all, and he was still relatively young.

For Bull's final years in Orlais, I picture the Qunari back in Par Vollen getting his missives, seeing his blunt, linear and elegant reports (and achievements) on the varying situations there, and going, "Huh. Well, okay. He's still valuable. Let's use whatever is left."

Then came the Inquisition, a new assignment, and (I believe) a glimmer of hope—and the chance to prove his loyalty on the grandest scale.

The Light at the End of the Rift

When Bull joined the Inquisition, I personally headcanon that to some degree, he fell pretty fast for the Inky and his companions emotionally. It's why I think his approvals (from "slightly" to "greatly") can be taken as absolutely genuine, as wordless clues to who Bull really is. He cares about the poor people we help across Thedas. He cares about structure, about order, about justice. Bull tends to like the brutal choices, but he also likes the soft little luxuries so often denied under the Qun, and sometimes he's simply happy to see a pretty person ride a pretty horse.

I think the Inquisition inspires and moves Bull, but I also think that Bull is so adept at compartmentalization that those emotions he encountered would have been shoved slightly out of the way. When he joins us, he's strong on every level, healthier than he's been for years. At the same time, I think, almost imperceptibly, even as Bull's been rebuilding himself psychologically over the past decade, he's still unable to stop being the superb Ben-Hassrath he'd identified as for so long. So he watches, spies, acts, observes, and reports just as he's always done.

And then Bull begins his waltz with the potential of a relationship with the Inquisitor herself (as before, just a reminder that I'm referring to the Inky by the gender of my own Bullmancer, but that of course your Bull-romanced Inquisitor can be any gender you prefer). As I've already described, he then sits back and waits as the Inquisitor attempts connection, and it's all part of Bull's brilliant strategy—to pull her to him rather than seeking her out.

And that's all well and good... until he's standing on a cliff on the Storm Coast, and everything he's built is balanced on the edge of a blade. Then it happens, the nightmare he doesn't admit to, when the Inquisitor takes him at his word, and thinks, "The alliance with the Qun is more important..." and just like that, Bull's alone again, and back where he was on a similarly misty coast in Seheron over a decade ago.

But there's no rebuilding this Bull. With the loss of Krem and the Chargers, Hissrad is back, and he's here to stay. Bull's struggle against his inner potential darkness, always a part of himself, is over. 

He lost.

"Nice Talking with You, Boss..."

One of my favorite things about the quest title "The Demands of the Qun" is that it can be perceived as both a direct callback to the Qun tenets so often recited throughout the Dragon Age trilogy, as well as, more ironically and bitterly, to the subtle unreasonableness that anyone can or should live up to those demands, that so subvert the individual and glorify the collective. That put the good of country and conquest above all else. In Bull's case, the demands of the Qun are devastatingly personal (to be fair, I really like that Gatt, Bull's elven Viddathari colleague, appears to truly care for Bull, and that he is distressed and sympathetic to Bull's plight in the moment... even if he cannot seem to really get the consequences for Bull of the terrible choice at play there).

Gatt isn't a nice guy. But he's a victim who overcame his tragedies
thanks to the Qun, and his blindness is both believable and poignant
But he makes that choice, with the Inquisitor's help. The Qun is upheld. And the mist swirls on that distant hilltop and we have our last tragic, bloody glimpses of our funny, sweet Chargers—Krem (KREM!), Dalish, Grim, Rocky, Skinner and Stitches—their bodies strewn across the green grass as the Venatori take possession and the Qunari Dreadnought safely retreats. 

Then everything's quiet, and the deed is done, and everyone's back at Skyhold. Bull seems okay (although we're given that one devastated, searing glimpse as he punches a tree an anguish), but he's back to his impassive self. If a little colder now, and quieter. His one moment of grief went unwitnessed. He had a slightly strange memorial for the Chargers in the battlements, admitted he'd been playing a role (as if he was awakening from a dream to a harsher reality, Bull commented, "Krem, Rocky, Dalish, all of 'em. Dead for the Iron Bull, a man who never really existed," while I reacted with a serious full-body shudder). 

From there, everything... just... continued. We could still go to the tavern and there he was, as always, apparently whole. Bull didn't seem to talk as much as before, and the one constant to his dialogue was that we could always ask about the status of our Qun alliance (ugh). 

Life went on. Bull was polite, accessible. Maybe a bit cooler, but there he was, right where we needed him to be. No need to mention how lonely he must be. No need to bring up the darkened corner to his left.

A Shift in Focus

Apologies for waxing rhapsodic, but I'm pointing out all of this to show how far-reaching and important Bull's loyalty quest is, and how much it affects his romance. That choice doesn't just affect one interaction with Bull, but all interactions. And even though it seems to affect the romance only glancingly, upon closer inspection the differences are pretty devastating. And if you're like most people, you did the loyalty quest before the romance triggered. Which means, for good or ill, your romantic course with Bull is already set once you've done so.

It's deceptive at first, because no matter what we do (save or damn the Chargers), Bull gives us a huge hit of approval. Which again, is perfect: He's a creature of loyalty. Challenge him and he grins. Hit him and he'll thank you. Fight him and he'll smile with visible delight. Everything becomes clear.

Either way, he seems to say, Hey Boss, thanks for trying.

But it's not that simple.

If you love Bull, but sacrificed the Chargers? Please sit down. Have some
maraas-lok. Because I have some really, really sad news for you...
Gone, Baby, Gone

The fact is, if you didn't save Bull's makeshift family on his loyalty quest, when you had the chance... You're romancing an empty shell, and he's lying to you now pretty much twenty-four-seven. 

Sorry to break this to you, but Bull's gone. And I believe that further, whatever's left of Bull, however masterful he is at compartmentalization, that there is nevertheless a surviving part that deeply resents us for our choice, and that he even enjoys his power over the Inquisitor for that reason. The romance in this case is, palpably, colder around the edges.

My favorite thing about the Qun-Loyal Bull is the way Bull's character design and presentation by Casper Konefal and the talented Bioware team so seamlessly encompasses his colder, darker side. Bull's such a big and intimidating guy, but there's something open and sunny about his face a lot of the time, emphasized even more when he goes Tal-Vashoth. But when he goes Qun-Loyal, there's real darkness there every once in awhile, a subtle sense of potential malevolence. In "Trespasser," for instance, Bull looks downright villainous in a few early scenes when we talk to him at the tavern in Halamshiral, and that's not an accident.

A Qun-loyal Bull admits to several things at different moments, and almost all of these factual assertions are seriously unsettling if we're paying attention:

  • That The Iron Bull was just a role he was playing
  • That he'd almost forgotten himself in that role as he enjoyed being The Iron Bull
  • That we ourselves reminded him of his true purpose (loyalty to the Qun) when we sacrificed his people
  • That he's always going to be okay because he'll always have the Qun. (And it's such a relief! He feels great! Everything is great!)

Okay, give me a second... (bursts into tears, rallies, continues...)

Don't ask "Where's Krem?" if you chose the Qun. Just... don't.

The Lonely Captain

It's telling that, forever after in the DAI story, Bull is alone. Alone in most of his scenes and stagings. Alone in the Tavern, no nearby Krem loyally watching his blind spot. And alone metaphorically as well.

This adds to the potential tragedy of his romance with the Inquisitor, since it's basically all he has left, and even that's simply a lie he's living under orders. It's all sort of horribly Shakespearean and complex and tragic...

In other words, if you sacrificed the Chargers? Solas isn't the only one with a DAI romance that breaks your heart.

With a Qun-loyal Bull, your romance with Bull is like a slow-motion bullet. It's already been fired, you just won't feel it hit you in the heart for another two years.

Onward. Dammit.

A Colder Climate

And now here we are, and those invisible choices earlier with Bull have begun to shape our world in Thedas. We chose the Qun. And now we see what that has created in earnest.

The most noticeable change in the Inquisitor's romance with a Qun-loyal Bull occurs in the scene late in the romantic story progression, when Bull and the Inquisitor playfully exchange a little post-coital pillow-talk. They discuss each other's limits, with Bull teasing the Inquisitor about never using the safe word "katoh."

And this is where the main romance timeline diverges in a way that's visible and dark... and if you're paying attention, the sting of those changes is palpable.

In the original romance (and with a Tal-Vashoth Bull), Bull's far more emotional and accessible in this scene than here in the Qun-loyal Bull storyline. And full props to Bioware and to Bull voice actor Freddie Prinze Jr. here, because the takes are palpably different, even where specific lines of Bull's dialogue are still the same. In the Tal-Vashoth versions, his voice is more changeable and animated, more humorous, more emotional. In the Qun-Loyal versions, he's muted, more monotone, drier and quieter, and (I believe, deliberately) occasionally downright freaking creepy.

If you sacrificed Bull's people? You can never, ever say "I love you" to Bull...
 even if you headcanon that your Inquisitor genuinely means it
"You Helped Me Remember..."

There are also some notable scripted dialogue differences. 

If Bull is Tal-Vashoth, he will tease the Inquisitor about her boundaries, then tell the Inquisitor he's a better man for knowing her, and that he hopes he has eased her burdens. There is, here, the option to proceed to deep emotion, either through a declaration of love, or through the vulnerable admission of fear that you will die and lose each other (and I've already written about how beautifully performed that moment is, as Bull is the most open and vulnerable we ever see him when he responds with "Katoh... I can't.").

If Bull's Qun-loyal, however, those conversation tree options become simplified. And very quietly, almost invisibly... there's no longer the option to declare your love. If you sacrificed Bull's people? You can never, ever say "I love you" to Bull... even if your Inquisitor genuinely means it. And while the alternate declaration speech he makes may seem just as sincere (and ends the same way as the Tal-Vashoth version), it's pretty grim stuff if you really think about what he's revealing here:
Iron Bull: You helped me remember who I really am, kadan.
(A slight pause, in which worlds collide and my heart breaks so hard you can hear the sound three counties away.)
I won't forget that. No matter what happens. 
He then ends, as in the other versions, with a compliment for the Inquisitor and the hope that "this made it a little easier for you." But that key bit of dialogue beforehand changes everything. Later on, when you experience the final moments of "Trespasser," and flash back to this speech, it's pretty brutal, awful and heartbreaking. (I mean, I just did it in my head and looked around frantically for the nearest Xanax.)

Because. Right here, right when it seemed like Bull was thanking you, giving you a gift, a compliment? 

He wasn't thanking you. Or appreciating your time together. 

He was warning you. He was telling you he would never forget having to sacrifice his men. And that he wouldn't forgive it, either.

And he doesn't. He may cool to a glacial temperature. He may stomp his feelings into dust. He may feel nothing, no pain at all (as a surprised Cole realizes in "Trespasser"). But I do not think he forgets. And I do not think that Bull forgives the loss of his family. The loss of the son of his heart, Krem.

Embers, even the smallest ones, can burn with surprising heat for the longest time.

"Was this just part of your job?" the Inquisitor can ask a Qun-Loyal Bull. But
do they really want to know? His brief pause before his answer says volumes

Just Part of the Job

Meanwhile. This romance moment has another notable difference with a Qun-Loyal Bull, as (replacing the "I love you" declaration) it can end with Bull's comment about hoping he made things easier (and in a drier take on the line there by FPJ), followed by a slight and perhaps uncomfortable dawning revelation by the Inquisitor. 

NOTE: Writer Patrick Weekes was also nice enough to alert me that the talented John Epler "is also responsible for some of those terrifying moments of silent coldness in the afterglow talks, if you made Bad Choices," so huge credit to him here, as well! The entire scene is gorgeously staged and presented, and every movement, expression, and reaction is meaningful.

The following dialogue then occurs if the Inquisitor asks Bull the question that's only accessible in this alternate, Qun-loyal, timeline ("Was this just a job to you?"). And as I've noted previously, the animation and writing in this entire scene is so brilliantly handled, because it has to encompass so many variations, and yet each disparate character and plot beat means something specific and (yet) still believable.

For instance, here, depending on all story choices for Bull, the Inquisitor's pensive face at the final revelation can mean a variety of things:

  • Sadness at the fear that her love isn't requited
  • Deep emotion in the aftermath of connection and potential loss
  • Embarrassment at potentially being taken for granted
  • Dawning awareness and shame at being used

It's beautifully managed, just as with that closing scene, where as I've noted previously, Bull will always gently pull the Inquisitor back into the bed, but in each case, depending on your actions (TV-Bull or Qun-loyal Bull), the moment means something palpably different:

  • He's responding to her declaration by admitting his own love in return
  • He's emotionally connecting on a truly vulnerable level after allowing his fear and loss to show
  • He's playfully turning back for another casual sexual encounter
  • He's placating the Inquisitor with sex to cover her dawning revelation about his lack of feeling

And it all works, because Weekes's writing covers those character beats so gorgeously. And not just the writing—I suspect that this entire alternate-universe storyline must have required some incredibly fine tinkering and editing, so it's a good place to send further kudos to Ben Gelinas, Karin Weekes and the rest of the editing team on that aspect. Great editors make great writing seem even more liquid and effortless, and that's very much the case here to me (and it's even more impressive when you consider how many story variations had to be balanced and managed).

Meanwhile, let's move on to a detailed, depressing and scripted quote of that moment when the Inquisitor realizes, tellingly, that everything has gone irrevocably wrong:
Inquisitor (finally realizing she may have made a terrible, horrible, stupid, awful, no-good, very bad mistake): What do you mean? You make it sound like you don't actually... Was this just part of your job? Helping the Inquisitor relax?
Iron Bull (chuckles coolly): You look pretty relaxed to me.
The Inquisitor's face falls. After a moment, Bull relents, and he pulls her back into the bed with him.
Iron Bull: It wasn't just a job. Come here.
The worst part of this, of course... is that it was

If we didn't save the Chargers, then Bull's romance was, unfortunately, just all in a day's work.


"Dragon Age: Dreadwolf" Predictions & Ponderings (and "What's in a Name?" Redux)

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