Friday, May 10, 2019

The Lies of the Qun (My Case for Bull as an Unreliable Narrator)

The Iron Bull is perceptive and intelligent, one of the most keenly aware and complex characters in Dragon Age. But what if his choices make him an unreliable narrator?
SOLAS: The mind does marvelous things to protect itself.

Hello, there! I've been working on a series of posts about The Iron Bull's arc that will culminate in an in-depth analysis of Bull's pivotal loyalty quest "The Demands of the Qun" very shortly. It's been a long time in the works and may actually break my current record for post length (WALLS OF TEXT! OH, SO MANY, MANY WALLS OF TEXT!).

But in the meantime... before we do, let's pause for a second... and rewind. Because those demands of the Qun may be even more insidious, embedded, and complicated than we knew.

While researching the Qunari and transcribing "Demands of the Qun," I've been thinking about Bull and his story arc a lot lately, and it occurred to me that by Bull's own admission, he's not a reliable narrator when it comes to some of the events he relates to us. I am, after all, talking about a guy who openly tells us that he cheerfully and happily turned himself in for brainwashing a decade or so back. And still finds nothing wrong with that. If anything, he seems to find it comforting.

This means that there are comments and banters and stories involving Bull that I think may deserve closer examination before we plunge him into the terrible choices of his pivotal loyalty quest, so let's take a look at those before we meet Gatt and the Chargers on that faraway rainy cliffside.

So come along with me, won't you? Let's pause and look back...

One of Bull's most frequent arguments as he defends the Qun is that Tal-Vashoth are savage, and that the Qun is the only thing keeping them under control. What if this is simply an implanted awareness, versus a result of true observation?

Reeducating Bull

As the storyline and companionships of Dragon Age: Inquisition progress, one of Bull's most frequent arguments with Solas as he defends the Qun is that Tal-Vashoth are savage and inherently dangerous, and that the Qun is the only thing keeping them civilized and under control. Bull openly and fully subscribes to the idea that there is a beast within him and within all Qunari that's always straining to break free, moments from appearance, and I find this really interesting and actually more than a little paradoxical.

Let me explain.

Bull is, after all, one of the characters within the DAI story who appears, at least to me, to be not just under his own constant and assured control, but to a pretty finely honed, even extraordinary degree. Bull often implies that he's almost able to regulate his own biological systems, at least insofar as they register outwardly. He's able to read people down to the micro-expression, he's a flawless actor in his own right, and he's been taught how to observe, use and manipulate people socially and even sexually for decades.

So... why is Bull so scared of "going savage?" He's a freaking superhero of Qunari spydom! He's capable of being as cold and still as the moment requires.

And yet... he is genuinely afraid of that loss of control. Palpably so. So it's no surprise that he's also preoccupied with demonic possession, or that his greatest fear is insanity. And the bummer is, I think most of this has been instilled, manufactured, and exacerbated... by the Qun.

Because, truth is, ultimately, Bull's prejudices all benefit the Qun. So it's no surprise that they might mess with those, a bit. So there's a difference between what Bull perceives and what's actually happening, and me, well, I think it's a combination of factors that include, unfortunately, the reeducators. 

The fucking reeducators.

To become Tal-Vashoth is the worst and most shameful fate for any Qunari, who can at that point only hope for a quick death or endless reeducation and submission (or qamek and death as a mindless laborer).

The "Others"

Let's face it, it is all to the interests of the Qun that Tal-Vashoth be seen as raging demons, outsiders, and savages. Which is why I believe that not only are those within the Qunari raised with this point of view and live within its propaganda constantly, but I also believe the reeducators reinforce this with actual brainwashing whenever given the opportunity.

If the Tal-Vashoth are actually not feral, unhinged monsters, and are rather just people who chose to leave the Qun, then this also means that of course the Qunari are in constant danger of a neverending sloughing off of people, strength, numbers, labor and talent. So instead they demonize the defectors—and provide an even more insistent reason for killing them: That they are animals, monsters, savages. They are defined within the classic "other" language used since the dawn of time. 

And presto! With a few choice adjectives, some propaganda, and a little savvy brainwashing, the Tal-Vashoth are no longer heroic rebels fighting for individuality and choice. Instead, they become monstrous; mindless arbiters of violence and fear. And according to this propaganda, of course, to become one is the worst and most shameful fate for any Qunari, who can at that point only hope for a quick death or endless reeducation and submission (or qamek and death as a mindless laborer).

Sten's a scary reminder of the Qun's devastating simplicity: "They knew me before I was born. I was birthed on the day they chose. Placed into the world by their hands. When I die, it will be the tamassrans who note my passing. I am their work."

"It Was Theirs to Begin With..."

Keep in mind, this is all ethical not only to the Qun's ruling triumvirate, it's openly espoused and supported by its people themselves, like Bull, or (hearkening back to DAO) Sten, who in one of the most telling banters in the game, reveals to the Warden how deeply the Qun truly owns him, body and soul:

WARDEN: Why do you let the tamassrans control your life?
STEN: What makes it mine? It was theirs to begin with.
WARDEN: What does that mean?
STEN: They knew me before I was born. I was birthed on the day they chose. Placed into the world by their hands. When I die, it will be the tamassrans who note my passing. I am their work. What I do is for my people, always.
WARDEN: They made you, but they can't make decisions for you.
STEN: No need. I have been trained to choose as they would. There is little point in pursuing this, we should move on.

"What makes [my life] mine?" Sten wonders. "It was theirs to begin with."

It's simple, it's sort of beautiful in its purity... and it's terrifying. To me, these words could just as easily have been said by Bull when we first speak to him in Haven about what it means to live under the Qun. Sten is, as always, both poignant and seriously scary here, utterly willing to spend himself as nothing more than a tool of his people... a blunt instrument against the untamed ones.

Meanwhile, those who remain clean and uncontaminated patrol the streets, vigilant against the "savage" ones who seek nothing more than the deaths of children and innocents... 

At least... so says Bull.

Is it really feasible that the Tal-Vashoth are spending their time sneaking around, poisoning children, slaughtering whole schools of children and their tamassrans... versus running as far away as they can get?

Pity the Children (Propaganda 101)

But what evidence do we have of this? 

Does it really make sense that the Tal-Vashoth are sticking around and victimizing innocents and children instead of making tracks as far away from Par Vollen, the Ben-Hassrath, their trained trackers and assasins, as they possibly can? Does it make sense that they're spending their time sneaking around, poisoning children, slaughtering whole schools of children and their tamassrans?

For me: Nope. It's all propaganda. And they use people like Bull as a mouthpiece. 

From the banters, take a second glance at this:

IRON BULL: Most Tal-Vashoth are nothing more than savages. Killing's all they know. The Ben-Hassrath are trying to lose fewer people to that sickness.
SOLAS: It isn't a sickness. You are losing them because they see a chance for freedom! And most of them are "savage," as you say, because your culture taught them nothing else. They know nothing but the Qun. So even as they fight against it, they are guided by its principles.
IRON BULL: Watch it, elf. You haven't seen the Tal-Vashoth like I have. Try watching a Tal-Vashoth kill a Tamassran and her kids. Then we'll talk.

The thing is, I am convinced that Bull hasn't seen this either, himself. Not really. 

I believe that in all likelihood, it is a fictional memory created and implanted by the Ben-Hassrath.

Looking back with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, it seems apparent to me that Bull has not only been indoctrinated beautifully by the Qunari and Ben-Hassrath, but he's also been potentially, visibly manipulated at a level that is horrifying and invasive.

For instance... Let's talk about Bull's breakdown.

The events of Seheron and the loss of his friend Vasaad haunt Bull even in his days with the Inquisition.

Lost in Seheron

According to his own descriptions, further examined in World of Thedas, Volume 2, Bull encounters a Seheron merchant who poisons several of his men under pressure from rebels (the man also dies in the ensuing attack). It's a tragic situation; the man is a longstanding friend of Bull's, and he tries to communicate that something is wrong with his face and eyes. Bull gets the message, but it's too late—many of his men die, the man dies, and those manipulating him do as well.

That same poison is then used by a stubborn Tal-Vashoth group as they wreak terrible havoc and poison a school full of Qunari schoolchildren. Bull pursues them to a Tal-Vashoth stronghold and attacks without waiting for Ben-Hassrath permission. In the fight, Bull's best friend, a warrior named Vasaad, is killed before his eyes. Bull then sees red and goes mad with rage, evidently mowing down all attackers. 

The loss of his friend Vasaad haunts Bull, enough so that Cole comments on it in one of their conversations:

COLE: Vasaad was angry. He went first because he wanted to fight. Taking point, then points take him, red on his neck.
IRON BULL: I was just thinking about—wait, you in my mind again, kid?
COLE: Even if you went in first, there would have been another fight, another time he didn't listen. It wasn't your fault.
IRON BULL: Yes, it was. I was in charge. Should've found a way to—hey, that's pretty good. We could use that!
COLE: You can use sadness?
IRON BULL: Ben-Hassrath, kid. We can use anything.

His best friend Vasaad is dead. Bull's enemies are dead, littered in pieces around him. The battle over, Bull then sits down amidst the corpses of his foes and friends, grieving and silent, until the Ben-Hassrath agents discover him. The agents take him back to Par Vollen, where by Bull's own admission he asks them to either fix him or destroy him so that he will not be a danger to anyone else. It's heartbreaking, and so typical of Bull. He knows what a good killer he is. I just think he isn't always aware of how much of his persona was created outside of his own control or awareness.

Hidden Meanings

Is this the moment that changed Bull's life forever?
Or does it denote something more complicated—his guilt?
One little side note—visualize that moment of Bull sitting in mute and weary sorrow among the gruesome bodies of the dead, hands bloody. Where have we seen this image in-game? It's the scene we're presented on Bull's new Tarot card (which is itself the "Wheel of Fortune" card, signifying change) if Bull goes Tal-Vashoth.  Which is pretty interesting in its implications. Is the card itself actually using this moment as a touchstone? Is this the moment that changed Bull's life forever? Or does it denote something more complicated—his guilt? Over the lost lives on the Dreadnought... or the lives he took while hunting the Tal-Vashoth? 

Food for thought.

Meanwhile, back to that memorable and traumatic experience in Seheron, where I have to question whether Bull is a reliable narrator there.

In other words, did this ever really happen at all? Or did it happen differently, and the Ben-Hassrath changed Bull's memories? Because that's my point of view right now. That what Bull believes may not be anything close to what happened at all, and that everything he describes with such emotion is a false, expertly implanted memory, by the reeducators.

If so, this is pretty horrible, and it's a criminal, terribly invasive thing to do against one of the most intelligent and complex people we encounter in Thedas. And to me it's just so disturbing, and such an incredible violation of a companion who's so interesting, complicated and delightful. 

And it appears that Bull was in real trouble after that event, and that others rose to defend him. Want an extra dose of sadness? We discover, thanks to World of Thedas: Volume 2, that Gatt himself wrote a lengthy letter supporting Bull after those events in Seheron, showing his support for his friend and savior while also holding the Qun itself to task: "He's a good man. He believes in you. You owe him better than what you've done to him." I've never liked Gatt much, although I pitied him. But this made me love him. His real affection for Bull shines through here and it's devastating.

It's tantalizing to wonder if Gatt is actually talking about Bull's reeducation here, or if he's simply addressing the possibility for Bull to lose his standing under the Qun. Either way, Bull's reeducation also offends me on another level beyond the obvious disservice to a dedicated captain. After all, Bull's a brilliant man, with keen insights into human nature, a deep sense of empathy, a superb mind for strategy and subterfuge. The thought of the reeducators rummaging around in that mind, blacking out windows, hacking away memories they don't like, is, to me, on the level of someone spray-painting a Rembrandt. It's grotesque and offensive.

The thought of the reeducators rummaging around in Bull's mind, blacking out windows, hacking away memories they don't like, is, to me, on the level of someone spray-painting a Rembrandt. It's grotesque and offensive.

The Young Protector

If we go back to Bull's childhood tales, one of my favorite little details is that, despite the fact that he was always bigger and stronger, even as a kid, his first impulse was to save and protect other children. He was never a bully; at his core, Bull is always a giver, a protector. And it was something I know his Tama loved and treasured about little Ashkaari, in the days before he became a pawn of spies and liars (and what a gift it is, that Cole can confirm that for him).

Me, I believe the Ben-Hassrath saw, and with very keen eyes, what his Tama had seen: here was someone they could manipulate and twist to their will, as long as he believed he was taking care of those smaller and weaker than himself. So Bull was constantly reminded that the Tal-Vashoth were boogeymen, evil incarnate, terrible savages willing to kill children—acts so terrible Bull sought them out and slaughtered them to the last warrior, with the knowledge that his vengeance was righteous.

The banters in Inquisition give us a sense that Bull both enjoys and loathes his penchant for violence:

SERA: Wait, Bull. All that rot you said about hacking people.
SERA: You do like it?
IRON BULL: Oh, yes. Finding someone who needs killing and just taking them apart… Brutally, skillfully, so their last living thought is realizing that I’m stronger and smarter than they are? Yeah, I like that a lot.
SERA: That’s weird.
IRON BULL: I didn’t say it was healthy. (pause) Look, I can either press those feelings down until I snap and hurt someone I care about… Or we can go find some bad guys who need to die.
SERA: (Nervously) Right. Bring on the baddies.

And yet, Cole also calls out Bull's true self, his desire not to kill:

IRON BULL: You're a fast little guy, Cole.
COLE: Do you wish you were faster, The Iron Bull?
IRON BULL: Nah. Just as soon stand there and let 'em come to me when they're ready to die.
COLE: Then it's them, not you. You don't want to kill. You want to defend.
IRON BULL: Hey, don't go around saying crap like that. I like killing.
COLE: But you give them a chance. You make them choose. So it's their fault.
IRON BULL: Just... come on, kid. You're making it weird.

But let's go back to that pivotal moment in Seheron—and wonder how much of Bull's memory is real...

It's tragic when you think about it. Bull hands his brilliant mind over to the reeducators and says, "Fix me."

Fact Versus Fiction...

Let's look at the logistics again, of Bull's memory of the fight and aftermath. To me, the school-poisoning just doesn't seem realistic. Remember, the Tal-Vashoth are basically freedom fighters. What they want more than anything else is not, I believe, to murder little kids, but to simply escape.

In addition, there's frustratingly little evidence that these famous "slaughters of children" ever took place. And they don't make any kind of sense at all. If you were Tal-Vashoth, and trying to flee the Qun, would you kill children and noncombatants? Sacrifice the helpless? Ensure that your cause was vilified by all?

AgaIt's not just evil, it's bad PR. To me, there's no way this stuff is real. None.

But this is what the Qunari needs Bull to believe. They need him to be their champion. So they feed him a constant diet of horror stories, knowing his psychology. He is an inveterate pleaser; a compulsive savior. He saves the stolen and avenges the lost. It's who he is.

It's tragic when you think about it. Bull hands his brilliant mind over to the reeducators and says, "Fix me." 

And what I think happens then is that the reeducators do a little mental excavation, a little reconstruction, to both change Bull's memories of what actually occurred while also reinforcing his horror for the Tal-Vashoth and their capabilities.

The closer I look at the crimes Bull is 'avenging,' the more certain I am that most of them occurred in other ways that he no longer recognizes or remembers. By the Qun itself or the Fog Warriors (as collateral damage). Even, in some cases, in setups that may have been designed to inspire and enrage Bull to greater loyalty. After all, let's not forget that he lasted longer in Seheron (exponentially!) than anyone else before him. Eight years longer.

Because he wanted save them. He wanted to save everybody. Because he might be The Iron Bull right now (and Hissrad underneath), but underneath them all is the little boy who just wanted to fight bullies. Ashkaari.

And the Qun used that, twisted it, manipulated that good impulse, honing Bull as a weapon... and as the useful tool he became. Until it was time to weigh that tool... or throw it away.

It's just what happens under the Qun.


  1. This is a beautifully woven piece! I love the way you made me think about what if what Bull says is just implanted... I feel kind of dim for not thinking about how the Qun would influence his very memories, especially having read The Silent Grove series. The tamassaran with Isabela, and the way she got into her mind. It was a glimpse of what would have been the same thing Bull experienced with reeducators, I would think.

    1. Thank you, Whsky! I love that you brought up THE SILENT GROVE, something that was very much on my mind here, as well as on the brainwashing techniques employed by the Qun and Ben-Hassrath as presented in the game, novels and subtext.

      The thing that gets interesting with Bull is, of course, the fact that he turned himself in voluntarily. But this also makes things even skeevier. No, they weren't torturing him for specific outcomes there, instead they simply had to present him with a pleasing amount of deprivation or suffering (I mean this facetiously but it is what Bull would expect, to a minor degree) and then reinforce his prejudices, his anger, his rage, at the Tal-Vashoth. I firmly believe this is what kept him from going full T-V in the decade to follow.

  2. WOW! I never thought of that possibility but now I can't get it out of my head because it sounds exactly as something the qunari's would do!

  3. With an Adaar inquisitor, after you meet the Chargers you can comment on Bull's diverse group, and he'll ask about your own company. If you say they were mostly Tal-Vashoth, Bull kind of snarls and says "well, it's better than becoming bandits, I guess."

    Given that you HAVE to have high approval with him to trigger the "meet the chargers" scene and be able to ask this question, it's weird that Bull is so (frankly) rude to your face about this--it really feels like he just can't NOT snarl when it comes to Tal-Vashoth, even when he's talking to a Vashoth Inquisitor who he respects.

    Which sounds an awful lot like a conditioned reaction to me.

    (I love your blog btw, especially your Iron Bull posts)


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