Somehow, Cullen Rutherford has made it into every Dragon Age game. From his brief appearance in Origins, he won over enough fans to get an increasingly important role as the series went on. And on a surface level, I get it. He's a cute, shy, knight in shining armour who blushes around a female Warden like a lovesick schoolboy. But then you take a step back and realize he’s a fantasy cop with the power to kill his crush in a matter of seconds. In fact, he tells you he almost had to. But he’s really torn up about it, I guess.
Cullen may seem sweet, and he might make you laugh when he runs off all flustered if your Warden teases him, but it doesn't take away from the fact that he is crushing on a woman he subjugates every day. A woman he is told he has the divine right to imprison, who is only talking to him because she has to.
He is part of an army that regularly tears children from their homes and lobotomizes anyone who doesn't fall in line. He is treated better because he is not them, and it’s a system he is complicit in. There is nothing cute about his crush on one of his inmates.
Whether or not this makes Cullen a bad person is a complicated question. He’s a result of the system he was raised in. In fact, he is meant to come across as adorable and unassuming, and even a bit of a victim in his own right. But that’s only so you can see what the Chantry's teachings do to him later on – it chews him up, and spits out a monster beyond recognition.
After you leave the Circle as a mage Warden, it’s overtaken by blood mages. This is the thing Templars have justified their whole existence around – they have to do all the horrible things they do so they can defeat blood mages. But when the chance arises to prove themselves, they fail, spectacularly. Despite all of the power they exercise over innocent mages, they are hopeless against the rebels. Those who are able to flee the Circle and lock the door behind them. Cullen and a few others are left behind. They are tortured, and most of them are killed.
By the time the player character returns, he’s the only one left. He’s traumatized, as nothing the Templar’s taught him could have prepared him for this. But it has, in his mind, confirmed the worldview they indoctrinated into him – all mages are bad. They should all be treated as potential blood mages. Even the Warden. Especially the Warden.
When you find him, he wants you to kill all of the mages, not just the rebels. If the Warden is a female mage, he makes many references to his feelings, and is angry at her for them. He refers to her as his “shame” and his “sin”, something it is his “duty to oppose”.
This conversation is the point of Cullen’s entire character. This is his fall from a well-meaning, shy boy to a radicalised murderer. He represents the corruption of the Chantry, and how even its most innocent recruits are one bad day away from going genocidal.
And as depressing as that is, that’s where his story should have ended. Origins had a much better way of writing the Chantry than its sequels, understanding the unequal power dynamic without ‘both sides’-ing the mage issue. In Origins, you don't choose between the mages and Templars. You decide how much effort you want to put in, and Templars are the lazy option. This is the option Cullen wants you to take.
His Origins epilogue – which should have been his epilogue for the entire series – doesn’t leave him in a good place. If the Circle is left in the Chantry’s control, he becomes the new Knight-Commander and is even worse than Gregor before him. He rules the Circle with fear, while Gregor presumably dies from his Lyrium dependency, a grim reminder of Cullen's only future. If the Circle is granted independence, it’s even worse. He rants about how mages can’t be trusted, and murders three apprentices for no reason. The last we hear from him is that he “escaped from prison, a madman and a threat to any mage he encountered.”
Fast forward to Inquisition, and Cullen is a new man. He’s sorted his hair out, got his temper in check, and isn’t murdering mages indiscriminately. He even likes cute doggos now! What brought about this transformation, you ask? Spending Dragon Age 2 working under a Circle that treated its mages even worse than Ferelden. Did this open his eyes to how he was wrong all along? Not really. He just disagreed with his boss when she started glowing red and attacking everyone. He thought she was a bit extreme before this, but he didn’t care enough to stop participating in her brutality until the final minute.
To its credit, Inquisition does address the elephant in the room. His romance arc pins a lot of his mage-hatred on his forced Lyrium use, and if the Inquisitor is a mage, he’ll acknowledge that he would have treated her differently years ago. If you let him continue taking Lyrium, he insinuates he’d still kill you if he had to, and the romance ends.
But this doesn’t take away from the fact that Cullen was at his best when he represented the cruelty of the Chantry’s religious indoctrination. What BioWare did with his character was about as good as it could have been to justify his appearance in later games, but making his Origins endings non-canon does him a huge disservice. He wasn’t meant to get a happy ending, and he certainly was never meant to make good on his creepy crush in the first game.
Cullen should have died either a tyrant or a radicalised murderer tossed to the curb by his own church. The Chantry in Origins was scary shit, and BioWare should have committed to that.
He didn’t need to come back for two more games, made more palatable each time. Thank the powers that be, his voice actor’s very public falling out with BioWare likely means he won’t be appearing in Dragon Age 4, and I’m relieved we can finally put his confused character progression to rest. But even so, it’s a shame he was turned into yet another blond BioWare babe for players to hook up with. Leaving it at Origins would have been so much more poignant. Cullen’s story was cheapened by his romance, and it should never have happened.
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