Note: Hey look, I’m back! TAKE THAT, deadlines!
Favorite Villain: Meredith Stannard
Dragon Age 2 has some outstanding villains.
You’ve got the sexual deviants: Ser Karras who sneaks into Alain’s chambers at night; Kelder, who quietly pleads for death. You’ve got the zealots like Petrice and Varnell and the elven freedom fighter who sets off poison bombs in Lowtown. You’ve got people pushed too far, like Huon and
Ragey McRagerson the Arishok. And you’ve even got cold-blooded lizards, the people who commit evil simply because they like the way cruelty tastes on the tongue: Ser Mettin and Ser Alrik and Gascard du Puis.
But what I love about Dragon Age is that there are no real villains, not really: Everyone is both hero and villain, justice and vengeance, savior and damned. With very, very few exceptions, Kirkwall is a city of broken people all trying to do the right thing, and if someone’s motivations seem black-and-white, well, it’s probably just because we haven’t spent enough time, or maybe the right time, with them yet.
It’s telling that the game’s best lines, the truest lines, come from the mouths of villains: I still get goosepimples whenever I think about Quentin lovingly saying, “The strongest force in the world is love”. I imagine that’s what sticks with Hawke the most – not the sight of his mother dead-eyed and stitched together, or the weight of her in his arms; it’s the sound of that slithering voice, stealing something so beautiful and true and forever linking it to horrors beyond imagining.
But there’s one other line that I think sticks in Hawke just as much – and it’s not even a line I think most players will ever hear.
At the beginning of Act 3, if you side with the Templars, you have a discussion with Meredith in her office to get “On the Loose”, and she says something so casually, so well-hidden within the rest of what she’s saying that maybe she’s hoping Hawke will miss it, or maybe Varric is hoping that Cassandra won’t:
Death is never justice.
Think about it. Varric gives this line to a woman whose entire modus operendi has suggested quite the opposite. Meredith is directly responsible for so much death, so much heartache and suffering and injustice and cruelty, it would’ve been so easy for Varric to turn her into a human Archdemon, a figure of unquestionable evil that only Hawke can defeat. But Varric didn’t.
And he didn’t because he’s better at storytelling than that, but also because he loves all of his creations, even the ones who hurt him. So he cannot turn away from Meredith, cannot marginalize her or paint her in black-and-white, no matter how much you can tell he wants to. As much as he despises her, he loves her too—and so do I.
Who is my favorite villain in DA2? It couldn’t be anyone other than Meredith.
What I love about her is that unlike Alrik or Karras or du Puis or Kelder or so many of the rest, Meredith’s actions do not stem from cruelty but compassion. Meredith honestly believes she is doing the right thing, for both the citizens of Kirkwall and for the mages themselves.
Meredith genuinely believes that she is only protecting the mages from themselves, “from their own stupidity”, as she tells Orsino. And frankly? She’s not wrong, because many of the mages we see in Kirkwall do make stupid decisions. Time and time again, we see apostates turning to blood magic, from Orsino summoning a Harvester (seriously now: whut?) to Evelina turning to protect her orphan; from Quentin’s Frankenstein-creepery to Grace’s first vengeful cut.
You want to know why this game is so damn brilliant? Meredith is fucking RIGHT.
Freedom isn’t about making smart decisions. You don’t only deserve freedom if you make the right decisions, or the smart ones, or the ones that are in your best interest. Freedom means you also have the ability to utterly fuck up; to hurt yourself without any interference. As they say in politics, your freedom stops where your fist meets my face, but that’s not to stop you from punching your own jaw over and over again.
Mistakes are good, mistakes are learning experiences; we improve not by textbooks and examples but by trial and error. That’s the only way humans have ever moved forward: by stumbling our way through the Gauntlet, sticking their hands into every available light socket; figuring out 497 ways to not make a light bulb before we find the one way that works.
Meredith is right that locking mages up keeps them alive; that turning them Tranquil keeps them from turning into abominations. But the freedom to choose is more important than making the right choice.
A few days ago, iapetusneume wondered why Meredith didn’t just kill Anders herself after the Chantry blast. He was sitting right there, after all. Why go through the trouble of luring the mages back to the Gallows for a final showdown?
This is what I wrote, and I copy it here because I think it pretty much covers my thoughts on Meredith’s character succinctly:
I have a different read on that scene; I thought it rather subtle and clever, and very revealing of Meredith’s true motivations. Because you’re right — she could turn and stabbity-stab-stab Anders herself right then and there. But she doesn’t.
Because it’s not about justice. It’s not even about vengeance. It’s about fear.
In Meredith’s mind, mages are not a bomb but a burning fuse: the threat of explosion, the potential, the possibility. Her fear stems from what they might do, not what they actually will do, even when the proof of what the worst of what they can do is sitting on a crate not five feet from her swordtip. Because in her mind, no matter how bad mages can be, they can always, always get worse.
That’s why she sends away for the Rite of Annulment mid-way through Act 3, long before Anders even sneezes at the Chantry; and it’s why by Act 2, she has locked most mages up in their cells all day long, because you never know what those mages might do.
For Meredith, it’s about beating them to the punch. Holding accountable Anders (or any other mage, for that matter) is not the point; it’s about being proactive, in her mind, stopping the ttragedy before it even begins.
Because, let’s face it, as a Templar Meredith knows exactly what to do when mages turn to blood magic or other evils; there are rules and procedures and Holy Smites for that sort of thing — but how to prevent them from getting there in the first place? How do you know and control the human heart? How do you save the mage from the demon’s whispers in the first place?
That she rightly feels less certain about, and it scares her, because deep down, the only thing that scares her more than the idea that there was nothing she could do to prevent her sister from turning is the idea that there was and she just didn’t do it.
So yes, I think ignoring Anders is completely in character for a woman who enacts preventative midnight raids and curfews on Kirkwall citizens to prevent them from helping escaping apostates, but does not crack down on the apostates who flagrantly visit the Gallows for seven years; who locks mages up to prevent them from turning to blood magic, but lets Emile de Launcet’s escape go unchecked; who allows a lizard like Ser Alrik to thrive within her ranks but presses no charges when he is killed underneath her own Gallows.
And I think her actions in that scene, and when she demands Orsino’s unconditional surrender, reveal that she believes that once a path has been chosen, once tragedy has begun, there’s no turning back.
As a motivation for Hawke, as a foil for Anders, Meredith is so much better than an Archdemon, so much more powerful than a thousand Mothers or Architects, because she is real. The lyrium may have magnified her thoughts but the truth is, everything there is honest, everything there is true.
I love Meredith because she is the is the kind of villain we might face in our own lives – indeed, the only kind we can ever face: just a regular person, as broken as we are, just trying to do what she thinks is best.