Lee has been playing "Dragon Age" since the first game's release. She enjoys exploring and explaining the characters and the lore.
After years of observing the Dragon Age fandom, it occurs to me that Merrill is probably one of the most misunderstood characters in the series.
I don't really blame the fans, though. I always felt Merrill's arc could have been written a little better. Far too many of us were scratching our heads, wondering why Marethari had apparently become an asshole and turned the clan against Merrill. We did not interact with the clan before the demon's influence, so there was no way to know something was different unless you played a Dalish in Origins, and even then . . .
Other fans simply hated Merrill for looking like she was sixteen and behaving like a child. That's understandable, I guess. I, too, was turned off by Liara in Mass Effect before I came to "know" her character for the very same reasons.
I'm not here to convert Merrill haters or anything, though. I would just like to offer a different perspective and/or interpretation from someone who actually liked Merrill's depiction in Dragon Age 2.
"Merrill is Too Childish to Romance"
This is something I see a lot. Fans say that Merrill looks and behaves like a child, so it makes them feel awkward romancing her. And . . . I don't blame them, really.
When I first played Mass Effect, I felt turned off by the fact that the game put so much emphasis on Liara looking young and being much older than she appeared. Meanwhile, she wouldn't shut up about what an innocent virgin she was. Excuse me while I retch.
Liara's original concept (and the entire asari species) was little more than gross fan service. I remember being surprised when I went on game forums and saw many male players actually hated Liara for this exact reason. Ironically, Liara is my favorite Bioware romance. I'm just not oblivious to her flawed and unfortunate concept like some fans.
Tali was another fine example of this in Mass Effect 2 but was taken to a higher extreme than Liara (her virginity and helplessness was played up times a thousand, to the point that Shepard has to save her repeatedly, not just once). For this reason, a lot of fans compare Merrill to Tali and Liara.
But just as Isabela is a deliberate mockery of the typical objectified female video game character, I feel Merrill is similarly a mockery of the typical pedophilic female video game romance.
I say this because Merrill is actually nothing like Tali (and Liara is not actually helpless or childish. At least not after the first game).
Merrill was deliberately written to seem like she might be helpless and innocent and virginal but she is actually the exact opposite for anyone who is paying the least bit of attention.
Let's break this down piece by piece.
Merrill is Not Helpless
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Again, Merrill is not like Tali, as she is not helpless and virginal. Merrill is actually more like Liara, a character who was created to seem young and innocent but who actually subverts the player's expectations again and again.
Just like Liara , when Hawke first meets Merrill on Sundermount, Merrill stammers and is nervous about offending her because she's human.
Given all this babbling and stammering from a thin and cute elf, it's clear the writers want you to think Merrill is helpless and in need of your protection. This expectation is subverted in about six seconds, however, once Hawke realizes Merrill is a mage. Hawke will stop the entire journey just to comment on Merrill's battle prowess. So not so helpless after all.
And later in Act 3, if you bring Aveline along on Merrill's final quest, Aveline will marvel that Merrill used to come up the mountain alone, battling waves of demons, darkspawn, and corpses by herself. Merrill is nonchalant about her badassery when she responds, but seriously, take a peep at her abilities. She is a very powerful mage. She just doesn't seem that way next to a mage Hawke.
I also enjoy the fact that Hawke can also be a stammering idiot when they meet Merrill. During the scene where Merrill's clan tells her to GTFO, Merrill gets upset and declares she will one day save her people. Not wanting to embarrass her further, Purple/Sarcastic Hawke will ramble about the weather to draw attention away from the tense moment.
It's all so awkward and cute. I think fans can forget that Hawke is just as weird when meeting Merrill . . . at least Purple Hawke. It's clear that they like each other but are dancing around it and avoiding it.
For Merrill, behaving like an awkward fool and tripping over herself for Hawke was probably frustrating. She wants to be seen as the strong, intelligent woman that she is. But because she's thin and small and cute (and has that cute voice) she is never taken seriously as an adult by anyone.
Merrill is Not a Child
When Dragon Age 2 begins, Merrill is very young and very sheltered from the outside world. Again like Liara, she has not interacted with other species much and doesn't know how to behave.
The Warden from Origins is written to be very young, the Dalish Warden especially, and Merrill was about the same age as the Dalish Warden during Origins. This would place Merrill at about nineteen or twenty when the sequel begins, the same age as Carver and Bethany, Hawke's younger siblings. So right off the bat, Hawke is older, more experienced, and more mature, which only makes Merrill seem even more young and immature by comparison.
And to top things off, Merrill's Keeper basically throws Merrill at Hawke and says, "Here. You take her." This immediately creates what would seem to be a power imbalance, except I would argue that people would only see it that way if they really saw Merrill as a child. I think whether or not there's a "power imbalance" depends entirely on how you see Merrill.
When I was nineteen, I was going through boot camp, for god's sake. I'm not saying nineteen isn't very young and immature (it is) but it's not a literal child. And yet, that's how fans (and the characters) treat Merrill.
Yes, Hawke helps Merrill find her way to the alienage, and yes, Hawke helps Merrill get settled there, but Merrill does not depend on Hawke. Merrill takes care of herself and is completely independent. Even if you romance her, she barely moves in the mansion. It's everyone around Merrill who insists on treating her like a child.
I think a good example of this would be Varric.
Varric, the kind-hearted dwarf version of Sera, treats Merrill like a child. While it's true that Merrill gets lost because she's not from the city, rather than letting her find her way like any normal adult, Varric gives Merrill a ball of twine.
On top of that, Varric wastes huge sums of coin sending bodyguards to follow and protect Merrill at night. In a funny party banter, he begs her to stop walking the streets alone at night. She dismisses him, and he reveals that "nothing ever happens" because he pays people to protect her.
So rather than acknowledging that Merrill is a kickass blood mage who makes deals with demons and can take care of herself, Varric sees her as a helpless child who needs his constant protection. He, like the other characters, insists on infantalizing her because of the way she looks and sounds, completely ignoring her actual intelligence and abilities.
Varric also calls Merrill "Daisy" because he sees her as a fragile flower that needs protecting. It's patronizing, though he means well. Merrill puts up with this with patience and kindness, but there are moments when we see her grow weary of it.
In Act 2, Merrill is obsessing over the mirror and Varric can be seen at her house, begging her to come outside and calling her Daisy again. Merrill irritably says that she is not a plant and for Varric to stop fussing over her like a child and leave her alone.
If Hawke is romancing Merrill, Varric will ask if Hawke knows that Merrill is working on the mirror again. Merrill will say that she doesn't need permission to visit to her own house and then tells Varric to leave.
Once Varric is gone, Merrill refers irritably to Varric as a "busybody." It's clear that she finds his coddling annoying. But he's also her friend, so she just kind of puts up with it.
Unfortunately, people are always going to treat you the way you look and not the way you actually are. I'm saying this as a woman in her thirties who people still mistake for a teenager. People talk down to me, coddle me, and patronize me all my life instead of recognizing me for the strong, independent, intelligent person that I am. And it's even worse when you're a "minority" because the way people perceive you is further colored by their prejudices on top of your seeming youth.
My IQ is about twenty or thirty points above average. I attended my first college at 17. So to have people treating me like I'm stupid because I'm black and/or because I look younger than I actually am is all levels of insulting.
Meanwhile, Merrill is a genius level mage who figured out how to cleanse the taint with blood magic. That's not a little thing she figured out there. Yes, the demon told her how to do it, but it likely only dropped a hint so she would keep coming back. It probably never thought she'd figure out how to actually clean the mirror.
Merrill repaired an ancient eluvian and cleaned it of the taint all by herself, with only teasing hints from a demon. The only reason she couldn't activate the mirror was because she needed a key, which she didn't know about (we learn about eluvian keys in The Masked Empire, a book released after the game).
Merrill is freaking brilliant. But everyone around her treats her like a child playing with fire. It's incredibly frustrating to be treated as less than you actually are.
I know exactly how Merrill feels.
I should probably point out that Hawke also treats Merrill like a child. Instead of allowing Merrill to be an adult and make her own mistakes, Hawke has the option of behaving like a helicopter parent.
She can deny Merrill the arulin'holm in an attempt to protect her, but she's really just being patronizing. While it's true that helping Merrill with the mirror is indeed enabling her unhealthy obsession, denying her the tool she requires to fix it is also infantalizing.
It's like walking up to an addict and snatching the drugs from their arm and shouting that you know what's best for them. In doing so, you take away their right to choose to get better in their own time. You can't force someone to change. You can't coddle an adult and try to prevent them from making mistakes, and you can't stand there and enable them either.
The most loving thing you can do for an addict is leave them, allow them to fix their own lives and save themselves, while protecting yourself from the harm of their influence. There's a saying that addicts can't change until they've hit rock bottom. The same applies for Merrill.
I think the problem is that players aren't given a way to handle Merrill's "addiction" well. We either enable her or treat her like a child, and both kind of suck. The only healthy thing Hawke can do is leave Merrill.
But then, none of the romances in Dragon Age 2 were supposed to be healthy. They were just different depictions of very realistic (sometimes abusive) relationships.