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...)

Onward!

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.

Katoh.

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