Scene you wish you could change the outcome of the most: When Orsino turns into a Harvester
Orsino is one of those characters I wish I knew more about, and not just because he’s a sexy Silver Fox (and we all know how I feel about those). But there is so much left unspoken about him, in the same way there was so much left unspoken to Marlowe Dumar. That is: How does a man who seems as weak and spineless as Viscount Dumar raise a son as strong as Saemus? (Answer: Dumar is hardly weak nor spineless, not by a long shot, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
Likewise, how does a man apparently as spineless as Orsino raise the Gallows mages to so suddenly and efficiently fight for their freedom?
The answer is likewise obvious: Orsino is not spineless.
Not by a long shot.
I often get frustrated with Orsino in-game because I wish he would just stand up to Meredith and not just let her treat his mages like cattle, but honestly, what else can he do? Neither the Knight-Commander nor the Grand Cleric are on his side, and he has no other option, no higher power to beseech—nobody’s higher on the Kirkwall food chain than these two.
The only other power he can turn to is the Hightown nobility: the same people who for decades lived in relative harmony with their mages; whose sisters and brothers and babies live just across the lake, making their potions and weaponry and enchanted amulets. These are the same people for whom Kirkwall’s mages probably performed at birthday parties and masques, just ten years before the game starts. Not so much time has passed that the people of Kirkwall would have forgotten this. And judging by the breadth and reach of the Kirkwall Mage Underground, I don’t think they have.
(Aside: Whenever I start to feel that Kirkwall is a city full of unredeemable, terrible people, I remember the Mage Underground, and the countless regular citizens an operation like that would have required. They are all heroes in my mind, every last nameless one of them, and they do beautiful things for their fellow man, and not because they hate the Templars or because they want glory, but simply because mages are citizens of their city too.)
And Orsino tries that, he tries to ask for their help, and Grand Cleric Elthina herself comes to shut him down; she even accuses him of starting a riot. I’ve written on Elthina’s position on the mage question before, and given the recent history of Kirkwall, I think it’s obvious her position is to keep mages hobbled, keep them confined, and keep them quarantined so they can’t hurt the city again.
Her intentions may be in the right place – protect the city and her flock – but her execution is all wrong, because it never was about the mages, even back during the Threnhold riots; it was about fear, and oppression, and a Chantry that had failed its flock. We see evidence of that last point even now: Chantry sisters begging Lowtown paupers for coin, the complete absence of Chantry presence in the alienage and Darktown (as was pointed out a few days ago, notice that the only children in Kirkwall we see are the ones slumming it in the sewers, precisely where no Sisters or orphanage outreach will venture) — even the growing number of conversions to the Qun in Act 2 is evidence of mounting dissatisfaction with the Kirkwall Chantry among the populace.
In many ways, what happens in Kirkwall in 9:37 Dragon is like World War II, in that it was made inevitable by the resolution of the Threnhold riots (in which Viscount Perrin Threnhold tried to kick the Templars out of Kirkwall, which would have essentially liberated the Circle). If only the Templars hadn’t won, if only Elthina hadn’t appointed Meredith as Knight-Commander, if only she hadn’t immediately started kicking out the Old Guard who opposed her… if only, if only, if only.
Is it fate or chance that the Gallows erupted in 9:37? I think it was neither: It was cause and effect, action-reaction, the only way the legacy of the Threnhold riots could ever have been resolved.
That leaves Orsino fighting not just an uphill battle, not just a losing battle. Orsino is the boy with his finger in the levee, struggling in vain to hold back the tsunami.
Like Anders, Orsino has explored every avenue available to him: He has tried appeasement, he has tried asking Elthina, he has tried beseeching the nobility, and IMO, his correspondence with Quentin, his protection of Grace, and other tidbits suggest he has even tried asking other Circles, apostates and blood mages outside the system for help. But nothing works. Help never comes. And without the nobility or external forces on his side, Orsino is once again left with only the Chantry as recourse.
The problem with the Chantry’s supervision of Circles is that mages must always beseech their oppressors for freedoms, and that is forever a losing proposition: Jailors are for good reason very unlikely to ever give power to their prisoners.
There can be no compromise, because the system itself has already removed the chance of compromise – what compromise could there ever be when you give one side unlimited power, and the other side none at all?
So what recourse does Orsino have but to start a prison riot?
The truth that Orsino comes to — the truth about all mages, and really about all people — is that they will only wear chains as long as they themselves allow it: Mages can only be enslaved by their own permission.
And when Orsino slices open his own wrists and drowns himself in blood; when he surrenders to the tender embrace of his dead comrades; when he subsumes all the death into himself and transforms into the grotesque and the powerful; he is removing that permission the only way he has left – he is, as he says, not giving up, but finally, finally giving in.
This is the culmination, the inevitability, the sacrifice Elthina made when she selected Meredith to be Knight-Commander in 9:21; it is a sad and bloody echo of the Nexus Golem’s parting words, “We were once more than we are”, except in reverse: We are once more than we were. And it is the only way this conflict could ever have been resolved: In forbidden magic and death and a Gallows run red in ash and blood.
It’s a powerful moment—or at least it should be.
Because then Orsino turns into a fucking Harvester.
Look, it’s bad enough that a pro-Mage!Hawke has to fight Orsino. But then a Harvester?
WHAT THE FUCK.
As I discovered while writing this, if you sit and really, really dig into the lore, you find that it actually does make some sense—but only if you squint real hard.
The Harvesters are born from the flesh golems invented by the dwarven smiths of Amgarrak, who worked in tandem with a Tevinter blood mage in an attempt to recreate Caridin’s lost work. Using the power of blood magic, the researchers sealed a Fade spirit (potentially a demon, although I don’t think it’s specified) inside a twisted, Frankensteinian amalgamation of dead bodies, with the purpose of animating it. It’s essentially the same process as when a mage becomes an abomination – blood magic, demon possession, twisted flesh, etc. – but instead of a live body, the demon possesses a dead one.
We know that Quentin was researching blood magic, and that he had a keen interest in reanimating dead flesh, particularly dead flesh that had been stitched together from disparate corpses. And we also know that Orsino was in contact with Quentin about his research; through the letter Hawke finds in Quentin’s lair, we know that Orsino even helped Quentin by providing research materials and peer review.
So, if you take all this together, then it becomes clear that Quentin was researching Amgarrak’s blood rituals, he animates Leandra by the same process Nerada and the dwarves invented, and that this is where Orsino learns how to create a Harvester. (Although how he does it out of his OWN flesh, and not someone else’s, is still uncertain.)
But I don’t think the developers dropped nearly enough hints in game to ensure Orsino’s transformation made sense. That’s quite a bit of extrapolation the developers assumed the players would make, and it it hinges on DLC information that was never summarized or otherwise readdressed in DA2, for those who forgot or never played Amgarrak.
Everyone here knows how much I love canon trawling, but when your penultimate boss transforms into the final boss from a previous DLC, you just shouldn’t hide the justification for it behind codexes and inference.
It’s my least favorite moment in the game, and the only time in sixty-odd hours of gameplay that I feel the writers dropped the ball. We know part of the reason why, of course – the Pro-Mage Orsino fight was added in only after the developers were asked to put in another boss fight – but that doesn’t negate the fact that it still happens in the Pro-Templar playthrough, and the transformation isn’t fully explained there either.
As amazing a character as Orsino is, as tragic and frustrating and wonderful as his character arc is, I think he deserved better out of his final scene; and even though I’m actually willing to accept that Orsino turns to blood magic in the Gallows, I just wish the execution of it hadn’t been so bungled.
I don’t know how to end this essay, so I’ll end it how the developers did — with a Harvester.