As a Dragon Age fan, Netflix’s new show Dragon Age: Absolution was always going to be like catnip for me. I am unable to resist the alluring scent of not only a new Dragon Age anything but also a new Dragon Age something that might give me a few precious crumbs of Dreadwolf lore to tide me over until BioWare decides to release the game. For my Dragon Age-addled brain then, Absolution perfectly satisfies my rapacious needs. But if I take a moment to step outside that mindset, the show that emerges is still pretty decent but wholly forgettable. If you’re an outsider looking for something along the lines of Arcane or Castlevania — shows whose stories and themes appeal to a wider audience than source material fans — keep looking.
In Dragon Age: Absolution, a motley crew of rogues, mages, warriors, and thieves band together to steal a device of great and terrible power. Along the way, the heist falls apart, forcing the leader of the party, Miriam (Kimberly Brooks), to confront her excruciating past in all of its heartbreaking detail.
Let’s get this out of the way up front: Dragon Age fans, if you’re coming into Absolution looking to tease more information about your Thedosian faves or even just a glimpse or a mention of them, you’re gonna be disappointed. However, I had the opportunity to speak to John Epler, Dragon Age creative director at BioWare, and Mairghread Scott, Absolution’s executive producer and showrunner, who explained the very good reason why.
“So much of Dragon Age is about the choices players make,” Epler said. “Characters can die, characters can live so we always try to avoid as much as possible, suggesting a specific canon.”
If you’re coming into Absolution looking to tease more information about your Thedosian faves, you’re gonna be disappointed
I respect that. For as much as I would have been over the moon to see Vivienne or Dorian again, I’d be pretty upset if Absolution featured a loathed character I killed (Anders), suggesting my vision of the Dragon Age universe is false. And Absolution’s new characters themselves are pretty great. Miriam is an interesting if dour protagonist — dour for a very good reason I might add.
What Absolution nails pretty succinctly about its source material is that any Dragon Age story is only as good as not only its main character but also its companions. I appreciated that every member of the ensemble cast was memorable in their own unique way.
Hira (Sumalee Montano) is a messy, complex character who adds much-needed gray to the black-and-white idealism of the heroes. Sweet Qwydion (Ashly Burch) with her quirky, happy-go-lucky manic pixie dream mage attitude is the most interesting qunari character since The Iron Bull (Freddie Prinze Jr.). And Roland (Phil LaMarr) and Lacklon’s (Keston John) will they / won’t they relationship was a delight to watch unfold.
Including the romance between Lacklon and Roland — the ship I’m now going to call LackLand — felt like such a perfect move for Absolution to make given that BioWare games in particular are praised for their deep, romantic, and heartbreaking romance plots.
“We wanted to give you all those great highs and lows of Dragon Age,” Scott said. “Because our show is so dark in a lot of ways that we wanted that bright spot of a romance just starting.”
The show is indeed dark. The trauma and horror of slavery are frequently evoked. (The place where Absolution takes place, the Tevinter Imperium, is an empire that permits the enslavement of elves.) And one character’s misguided fight to undo a wrong done leads to even more slavery-flavored suffering. For a long time, one of my pet peeves about certain communities in the Dragon Age fandom is their gung ho willingness to take up causes from the game — mage rights or elven freedom, for example — while ignoring or minimizing or even attacking the very people those pet causes serve as allegories for.
A lot of people stan Anders, a character I loathe, and that’s fine. But it chaps my ass when some of those people call me and other Anders-haters fascists for not supporting his particular struggle for mage liberation. He blew up a church. That’s always, always gonna mean something vastly different and personal to me such that I cannot change my mind about him.
“We wanted to give you all those great highs and lows of Dragon Age.”
As for Absolution, I wanted to know BioWare and the showrunners’ processes for ensuring these allegories don’t get so out of control that they wind up harming real people.
“It’s something we’re very aware of and it’s something that, historically, maybe we haven’t always done the most sensitive job with,” Epler said. “I think there are elements that can be allegorical and there are elements that you need to be incredibly sensitive to ... And for [BioWare], one of the things that we’re doing a lot more is talking to consultants and bringing in people who understand those topics a lot more than [the development team].”
I think Dragon Age: Absolution suffers in its shortness. Clocking in with just six 30-minute episodes, rather than its brevity being the soul of the show’s wit, we just don’t get enough time with the characters to really develop feelings or opinions about them. Qwydion is a qunari mage. In the lore of the game, qunari mages are essentially enslaved weapons of mass destruction. They are kept in chains and confining helmets and led around by minders who are ready to kill them should they go out of control. Additionally, the qunari religion and social structure teach mages that this treatment is right and just, and therefore, a lot of them enthusiastically accept their fate. Qwydion is nothing like that, and we never get the chance to know why.
While I respect the show’s decision to go with new characters, it wound up hurting its staying power. There are no characters I care about and the things they do cannot impact whatever plans BioWare has for Dreadwolf. Therefore, there’s no emotional stake. Whereas with Arcane and Castlevania, I either came to the show with an attachment that kept me engaged (hey, Alucard!) or the show went deep enough with its characters (Jinx and Ekko) so I could form one. As it is, Absolution is a perfectly fun romp with a couple of good moments that is eminently forgettable.