"Mass Effect" (2009): Joker, a Character Analysis
Joker is actually one of my favorite characters in Mass Effect.
I'll admit that part of it has to do with the fact that he is voiced by Seth Green. I grew up seeing Seth Green in a lot of movies that I enjoyed as a teenager (such as Can't Hardly Wait), and I also liked Oz, his character on Buffy (werewolves are cool).
But there was also the character of Joker himself. Joker is considered a secondary character and most fans don't care for him, but as a writer, I actually really appreciated his evolution across the series. He had a nice arc. The only thing I regret about it is that EDI had to become a sexbot.
But whatever. Back to Joker.
Joker Starts Out Pretty Rude
In the first Mass Effect, Joker isn't very nice to Shepard.
He's rude, bitter, and insulting—but then, he treats everyone that way. When the game first opens, we can see him bickering with Kaidan, which because I hate Kaidan, I kind of don't blame him for. In fact, Joker sharing my utter hatred for Kaidan only makes me love the cynical pilot more.
Should Shepard try getting to know Joker after becoming commander of the first Normandy, he is very defensive and rants at her about how he earned his place as pilot, despite his disability—something a baffled Shepard doesn't even know about.
As you continue through the first game, you can talk to Joker after every mission to hear him say something funny about what just happened.
Talking to Joker after the Noveria mission means he will insult Shepard with a "balls" joke. The joke is extra insulting if you are playing female Shepard.
Then on Virmire, he mutters bitterly, "I know the drill!" after Commander Shepard does her job by—you know—commanding him. He is blatantly disrespectful of a commanding officer. And he does this whether you're playing male or female.
And finally, there's the fact that Joker continuously interrupts Shepard's private moments with her love interest. As you may have guessed, this does not happen on accident. Joker purposely interrupts what are private and intimate moments for Shepard by suddenly talking over the comm.
Shepard can demand to know if he was actually listening in (because the timing is just too perfect), and he will awkwardly and quickly deny it, having been caught.
I should add, however, that Joker is actually really nice to Shepard after Kaidan/Ashley is sacrificed on Virmire. You can talk to him afterward, and he comforts Shepard that it wasn't her fault, while marveling that she had to make such a difficult decision (perhaps realizing for the first time that it's not so great being Shepard, after all).
Seems to be the only time he's really nice to Shepard in the first game. To me, it says that he's really decent underneath all the bitterness and mockery. He just doesn't care to share who he really is with Shepard or to bother getting close to her at all.
In fact, (aside from Wrex, who grudgingly talks with Shepard in the beginning) Joker might be the only character on the ship who doesn't have any desire to give Shepard his entire life's story and doesn't really have any interest in speaking to her. His dialogue is kind of dismissive as he grudgingly explains how he became pilot.
It's utterly refreshing that Joker is not a yes man drone, does not fawn over Shepard or hero worship, and slowly becomes friends with her over time. I love that there was at least one character like this, because basically everyone else in the game puts Shepard on a pedestal from square one.
Joker always saw the commander as a normal person.
Joker is Jealous
My theory is that Joker is jealous of Shepard.
Shepard is a big war hero, loved by Anderson, adored by all of Earth. She is fit, healthy, and powerful. Everyone is trying to sleep with her, male and female, human and alien. She's likely also rich, and if male, Shepard being good looking would also have to get on Joker's average-looking nerves.
Meanwhile, Joker is stuck at a lower paid grade, stuck sitting in a chair all day, and doesn't get to do all the awesome stuff Shepard does. Before he actually becomes friends with her, he has no idea what it's really like to be Shepard (as in, it sucks).
To him, Shepard gets to play this super hero role while he is stuck being a sidekick that no one even notices.
If you trigger Joker's special scene in Citadel, Mass Effect 3's DLC, Joker can be seen narrating a fantasy where he is a hero who kills scores of goons like Shepard. Shepard is then given the option to come up and support his lies, telling the bartender that Joker is one hell of a badass.
The fact that Joker's Citadel scene is about him wishing he was a hero and Shepard telling him he already is one kind of supports my theory: Joker sees himself as weak and helpless, while Shepard sees him as a hero in his own way.
Joker's Change Of Heart
After the way Joker treated Shepard in the first game, I was very surprised to get to the second game and see how warmly he greeted her upon her resurrection. Not only that, but Joker continued to be there for Shepard, talking to her, joking to keep her spirits up, being a listening ear after the confrontation on Horizon.
I soon realized that he felt guilty for Shepard's death. It was because of him that Shepard—instead of getting on an escape pod—wound up going back to save him and was ultimately killed (in what was one of the best video game intros ever).
While it is realistic that not everyone is going to like the main character and be their friend, I was glad when Joker finally stopped being bitter and was kind to Shepard. Especially given what a tough time she faces in Mass Effect 2, what with her reputation being destroyed by Cerberus and her becoming isolated due to the fact.
A lot of fans were baffled that Shepard and Joker both chose to ignore that it was Joker's fault that Shepard died, but I always felt it was perfectly in line with their characters.
Shepard can be molded to the player's liking, but to a certain extent, she is still a predefined character. As such, she doesn't seem to be a person who holds grudges. There are many examples over the trilogy of Shepard forgiving people for committing what could be considered deep offenses against her.
A few examples would be the Virmire Survivor's relentless trust issues (in Mass Effect 2 it was fine but in Mass Effect 3 it went a bit too far), Liara giving Shepard's body to Cerberus (which was kinda a violation of Shepard's autonomy and consent . . . I mean, she didn't leave a will saying "If I die, resurrect me as a cyborg!"), Engineer Adams refusing to join the Normandy in Mass Effect 2 (which was understandable, but I could see why Shepard might still be hurt).
In other words, Shepard doesn't seem to hold things against people if she likes them enough. No matter how you play her, she is set up as a forgiving person who is likely aware of Joker's guilt and isn't going to make him feel worse by harping on about it.
Joker, meanwhile, is all about actions and not words. He will never flat-out tell Shepard that he cares about her. But he will stand by her in the fight against the Collectors and the reapers. He will comfort her when she is sad. He will defend her against the Virmire Survivor's endless accusations. And he will be there to swoop her up when she's in desperate need of rescue.
But Joker won't actually say, "You're a sister to me, Shepard. I love you." Which is hilarious to me, because Wrex pretty much does that in Mass Effect 3. A grumpy badass krogan who enjoys killing big things is more sensitive and affectionate than Joker!
Joker is not a mushy, sentimental person. He is all about actions and not words. So both him and Shepard ignoring Joker's guilt until the pressures of the third game forces them to confront it makes perfect sense.
Friends Who Become Family
Another thing I love about Joker is that he's the one person who can see through Shepard's bullcrap and isn't afraid to call her out on it. He never takes crap from Renegade Shepard (whose lines toward him can be pretty harsh) and is always ready to go toe to toe in an argument should she pick a fight.
By this I mean that when Shepard is upset and pretends to be fine, Joker sees through it. When Shepard is angry and lashes out at him, Joker has an amazing way of holding up a (figurative) mirror and forcing her to stop and examine herself. If Shepard is full of sh*t, Joker will tell her she's full of sh*t.
He is the only person in the entire franchise who does this. Everyone else just ignores and/or glosses over Shepard's crap and plays along. Not Joker.
For example, I distinctly remember shooting Kaidan on the Citadel one playthrough (lol, so fun) and during a conversation with Liara afterward, I had my Shepard take the Renegade option and say that Kaidan deserved to die. I remember Liara looking at Shepard in shock but not saying anything and kind of backpedaling away from the harsh and bitter comment. Joker, on the other hand, would have called that comment out. I could easily hear him saying, "I'm not a Kaidan fan, but wow, that's sh*tty, Commander."
And no, not even the Virmire Survivor, who can oppose Shepard for two games, ever really calls Shepard on her bullsh*t. The entire reason they're angry with Shepard to begin with is that they have her on a pedestal and are furious that she has disappointed them by "joining" Cerberus.
Joker never had Shepard on a pedestal, sees her as extraordinary but also still just a person, and thus, isn't afraid to bicker, argue, and criticize her on her level and not as some bewildered and betrayed former worshiper. I think the clone was right when she sneered on "the cult of Shepard."
A good example of Joker calling Shepard out is the infamous post-Thessia argument.
The post-Thessia argument is actually my favorite scene between Joker and Shepard in Mass Effect 3 because it shows how close they've grown as friends over time. Their shouting and arguing makes them look like family, and because of this, I have come to see Joker as the little brother my Shepard never had.
When Shepard gets angry at Joker for making an inappropriate joke about Thessia, he whips around in his chair and bursts out that he is just trying to keep Shepard calm because he knows how stressed out she is—even though she's trying to put on a brave face and hide it.
It always fit so well into my roleplay, because in Mass Effect 3, I always roleplay my Shepard as slowly falling apart at the seams, while trying to hide just how stressed she is. I have her do out-of-character things (for my particular Shepard) like jeopardizing an alliance by punching Han'Gerrel or going off on someone, because the pressure has to be immense.
Everyone else on the ship just kind of ignores Shepard's outbursts. When Shepard punches Han'Gerrel, none of her crew calls her out for it or expresses concern. The admiralty board makes a feeble plea in Han'Gerrel's defense (in my game it's always Raan) but that's it.
Punching allies is pretty crappy. And yet, Joker is the only person who calls Shepard out for it immediately after on the bridge with his sarcastic remark,
"The fact that you managed to get through that without punching something... that's why you're command material."
You could argue that Joker is being his old snarky self, insulting Shepard because he's jealous of her. But I think the trilogy's progression makes it clear that Joker doesn't hate Shepard by Mass Effect 3. In the first game, he insulted her whether she was nice to him or not. By the third game, he only insults her when she acts out of line.
Punching Han'Gerrel is really out of line. Not only is it unprofessional, but it jeopardizes an important alliance. Just because Han'Gerrel was an ass doesn't mean Shepard has to sink to his level. . . . which is kind of the point Joker his making when he mutters his sarcastic comment.
In this instance, Joker isn't being unkind. He's forcing Shepard to think about her actions and to get her stress under control. Because the fate of the entire galaxy rests on her ability to calmly play an agreeable diplomat . . . no matter how crappy her allies.
What's more, Shepard is keenly aware of this. So when she talks to Joker about it afterward, she makes a sarcastic comment (Renegade option) that she likes keeping things professional (her way of flippantly hand-waving the situation or beating herself up depending on how you see it) and this is the point where Joker mutters his disapproval about her not being fit for command.
That said, Joker and EDI being so worried about Shepard is very sweet to me. And because of that, I was never bothered by Joker's clumsy attempts to help Shepard with inappropriate jokes after the fall of Thessia. In fact, I was surprised that so many other fans hated Joker for that scene.
I think it's because Joker's attempts to keep Shepard on the right course are very subtle and only apparent if you talk to him enough. Whenever she strays out of line, he brings her back into line with his muttered sarcasm and his jokes. As he confesses during the post-Thessia argument, it's the only thing he can do to help.
Probably another one of my favorite scenes between Joker and Shepard is in the DLC, Citadel, from Mass Effect 3.
If Shepard doesn't have a romance (or fails to lock one in before doing the content), Joker will talk with her instead. He'll say it's been one hell of a ride, and Shepard will remark that it's probably the last one, insinuating that she will die. Joker is upset and places a hand on Shepard's shoulder. It's a silent gesture, but there's so much unsaid in it.
By this point on the timeline, Shepard has gotten so used to Joker seeing behind her mask that she doesn't even try to hide the fact that she is sad. She knows she's going to die and calmly shares that with Joker.
The scene is very brief, but it shows the level of trust and intimacy that has developed between them. Joker is the only person in the trilogy who Shepard allows to see her real face and her true feelings. The only other character that comes close to this is Liara talking to Shepard about her feelings in Mass Effect 2 during the DLC Lair of the Shadowbroker, but after fans got tired of having Liara pushed on them, it seems Bioware went with Joker for the default "no romance" option.
Aside from the people annoyed by Liara, I think Joker became the "default" fill-in character because the writers went through so much trouble to try and present Joker and Shepard as having grown close over the trilogy. So at the end of the game, as Shepard is dying and having flashbacks, Joker is the first character she thinks of.
Fans who didn't like Joker were baffled by this. And to be honest, it took me a long time to like Joker myself, so I was also baffled. This is mostly because I didn't pay much attention to him across the trilogy. Once I started talking to him more, however, the sibling sort of friendship he had developed with Shepard became clear to me, and having my adoptive brother show up first if Shepard wasn't romanced made perfect sense.
Basically, the developers made the mistake of thinking that most people paid attention to Joker when in reality, most people probably didn't bother going to the bridge after every mission. And even if they did, that doesn't mean that they would see Joker as a brother type figure (even if that's what was intended).
In the end, Joker was Shepard's annoying brother who loved her and tried to take care of her the best he could. It was funny, it was touching, and the fact that the same protagonist returned for the entire trilogy was what allowed the relationship to unfold for an experience in gaming that is . . . simply like no other.
Yes, it's possible to feel that way even while acknowledging that these games are flawed and even terribly written in places. It was still the best gaming experience I ever had.
For me Mass Effect will always be the best thing Bioware ever did.
© 2019 Ash