Warning – this post contains some hot, fresh spoilers for Shadowlands that appear to be available early due to bugged quest progress for some players in Torghast.
I had a lot of topics I wanted to write about today, a lot of varying thoughts about the future of Shadowlands and its present, from loot design to questing to the future content the story may hold.
Well, today, Wowhead discovered something that cements a theory I’ve had as more details have come to light…sort of.
And yes, it is easy to call it a theory I had now, when it seems very easy to confirm now, but you’ll have to trust me on this one!
So the main story thread from the Maw introductory sequence we haven’t tied up yet has been with Anduin. Our adventures through Torghast have seen us free Baine, Jaina, and Thrall, with a bonus of Tyrande if you picked Night Fae. However, Anduin has remained in captivity, and both the introduction to the expansion and subsequent cinematics make quite clear that Anduin is indeed the key that the Jailer is seeking. Why that is, we don’t know yet – it seemingly revolves around his Light-granted powers as shown in the Maw escape cutscene, but that has been left vague for the time being.
What has been datamined and seen on live servers since then with Torghast is that Sylvanas and the Jailer seem to be a part of a team. The Jailer ultimately rules, but Sylvanas seems to have more free will than we might otherwise have anticipated.
And the strangest thing of it (and something I’m not a huge fan of, which we’ll discuss later) is that Sylvanas seems to have a sort of softness around the Jailer’s plans. She is invested, but also doesn’t seem to be willing to push too many lines, and is downright accomodating in the cutscenes with Anduin.
The first cutscene between the two, “No More Lies,” shows Sylvanas and Anduin discussing the fate of the others while Sylvanas ultimately reveals a bit of the plan to Anduin – he will be made a tool of Death, and she paints the contrast of life and death as life being a momentary flicker in the darkness, with the plan being to “tear it all down.” Sylvanas frames this as a complete lack of control, with no ability to define one’s own fate and the object of their plan being to grant that control, although she is willing to sacrifice Anduin’s for her own ends – of course.
When this cinematic (supposedly due in-game in two weeks with the full conclusion of the Torghast weekly quest chain) came to light, I had an assumption in my head, when coupled with the Jailer asking the Runecarver for a Helm of Domination and Frostmourne – that Anduin would be made to be Arthas 2.0, serving Death at the hand of the Jailer. However, the Runecarver cinematic seems to be the past – the creation of the original items that were employed via the Lich King and Arthas. So I sort of found myself working away from that theory.
However, this new cinematic discovered today recontextualizes all of that and makes me believe that at some point, we will indeed see a Death Knight Anduin. First, here is that video:
This video has some cleanup in the lore to do – firstly, by this point, we’ve dealt with Sire Denathrius (in lore) and the imprisonment he faces at the end of the raid has been completed – locked into the living blade Remornia, locked in the Ember Ward in the light of the Naaru. Sylvanas asks what the plan is to rescue him, but the Jailer plainly states that he has served his purpose and that is not necessary (which recontextualizes the end of the raid in a funny way – Remornia would have wasted time bringing Denathrius to the Maw). But the real interesting part comes in the interaction of Sylvanas and Anduin – firstly, Anduin is clearly more brash and edgy than he has previously been shown to be, showing clear exasperation with Sylvanas and his imprisonment. Secondly, however, is the clear parallels of the journey Sylvanas is on compared to another character – Arthas.
The parallels of Sylvanas and Arthas is a theme that has been invoked numerous times in the last handful of years. Sylvanas using the plague on Undercity and harming her own forces is a direct line to the culling of Stratholme, her drift away from her people as she takes on her own path that leads apart is very reminiscent of Arthas as he went to Northrend, but the event that has most haunted Sylvanas is a line she has yet to cross. But, as the preview image for the YouTube embed above reveals, Sylvanas may be dangerously close to doing so.
Arthas cut down Sylvanas on the battlefield as he waged war across Quel’Thalas, bringing her to a cruel fate as the Banshee Queen, a title she did not want. She has served Death in some form ever since, from bringing the Forsaken to the Horde all the way to her service as the side of the Jailer, but it was never her choice. The theme of choice is echoed constantly in both cinematics – Sylvanas is soft with Anduin, offering a choice, because for as absolutely horrific as Sylvanas has been, she too realizes that conscripting Anduin into the forces of death is her crossing that same line, and she would be no better than Arthas at that point. I would argue that the lore has already painted her as past that point, but the obvious personal pain of crossing that line would likely even bother Sylvanas.
This cinematic indeed makes that clear – the stage is set for Death Knight Anduin (the blade Sylvanas wields is a mourneblade version of Shalamayne, which is certainly intentional!) but Sylvanas does not want to cross that line, the line that set her on a journey of vengeance against Arthas that ultimately led to her suicide when she could not fulfill it (and that event leading her to the Jailer). Anduin realizes this and puts Sylvanas into a corner – as long as she holds that line for herself, he will not be forced into the service of death.
So where does that story go from here?
Well, we don’t have much to go on, but as far as I see it, and just in the context of this singular element of the plot, we have two branching paths I can see.
Path the First: Sylvanas Descends
The path that I personally think works the best here is that Sylvanas ultimately continues the Arthas journey she has been on, and forces Anduin into service. Sylvanas can have a moral quandary and that is fine, but the one that makes the most sense to me is the one that sees her continue the path she is on. Outside of the personal pain she’s experienced, I don’t see any reason that she would ever pull back from that path, especially when she sees the ends of those gruesome means as noble and just. From a character exploration standpoint, it makes the most logical sense and allows us to explore the theme further – Sylvanas believes her goals are beneficial to all, but will they be received as such, and even if so, are they worth the cost?
That makes the themes in play fairly fitting – Azerothians have a very fractured and unsalvageable relationship with Sylvanas, and she played some part in the redirection of souls to the Maw, removing the judgment of the Arbiter and placing all into a single, nightmarish destination, which means no one in the Shadowlands has any warm feelings towards her. With that, we can move on to what mostly seems to be the consensus opinion on how the expansion ends, with Sylvanas and the Jailer as the big bads trying to inflict the afterlife with their false utopian vision. Sylvanas gets to complete the Arthas speedrun, having moved from well-meaning soldier to genocidal villain in record time (actually, Arthas may still have been faster in-game time) and then meeting her end at our hand, and we’re left to mourn the son of a great Alliance leader, falling to the forces of death once more.
But, because the story arc involves a possible redemption arc (Chris Metzen has entered the chat), there is another way, and this is where my berserk button is.
Path the Second: Sylvanas Redeemed
Alright, I need to state my categorical objection to this one up front. I don’t mind or even hate redemption arcs, everyone can learn and be better, blah blah blah. I understand why redemption stories are appealing, because ultimately we all make mistakes and do bad things and it is nice to have fiction that grapples with how anyone makes a path away from those things to a brighter tomorrow. That’s all great!
Sylvanas, however, has not made a series of small oopsies, or done an uh-oh accidental mass murder. She calculated and planned the deaths of thousands as fuel for the Jailer, seeking to cause harm for her own ends. The burning of Teldrassil was a deliberate, awful action, as was the gassing of Undercity. She led her own forces to a war knowing they would die and with the sole intent of them dying. If you follow a plan that involves the murder of countless people, the agitation of a war with the intent of causing more death, and then damning those souls to the Warcraft equivalent of hell without their due judgment, it doesn’t get to be erased because you thought really hard about not crossing your own arbitrary line that you only feel because it mirrors a personal experience. There isn’t even really a real-world parallel that could be invoked without getting dangerously close to Godwin’s Law, because you would need to use the experience of someone with a lot of power – a president, general, or the like who has the means to inflict violence on that scale.
Even then, though, let’s talk about redemption as a narrative arc. For Sylvanas to be redeemable in the context of the current run of WoW story, there would need to be a clear indication of contrition, that she has a sorrow and need to atone for her past acts, and the current story as delivered doesn’t even so much as look in that direction. The Sylvanas we see in Shadowlands, what little we have so far, has zero remorse or willingness to apologize for her atrocities. Instead, she moves forward, continuing down the path those actions have wrought with no regard for the bones lining it. That, to me, is the key – and given the characterization we have of Sylvanas Windrunner, the Banshee Queen, I highly doubt we’ll see it.
Why? Well, simply put, the current characterization of Sylvanas isn’t one for that kind of self-reflection. The one we saw in BfA was sure of her path, confident in the journey she was taking, and while these new cinematics paint her in a slightly different light, it isn’t a remorseful or reflective one. She simply knows what awaits if she were to doom Anduin in the same way she was, or at least, she assumes that she’ll be hunted just as she sought out Arthas. Even if we assume the best possible intent, there’s very little redeemability in the idea of being so pointedly moral about this one single life, over the long roster of lives she’s harmed leading to this moment.
Because of all of that, I personally don’t like the idea of a redeemed Sylvanas. It just feels wrong, and like far too much has to be glossed over completely to get there.
But, let’s say for the sake of argument that this is the real path, and Blizzard does it – Sylvanas is being set on a redemption arc with these cutscenes. Where does that leave us?
Well, the first issue is that it creates a situation where Sylvanas must break free of the Jailer. To be fair, she seems to have a fair amount of autonomy and even addresses the Denathrius situation like a commander, seeking to guide him, but it is made clear who is in charge there. Additionally, if we believe that the Runecarver 15-memory cutscene is the forging of the original Frostmourne and HoD, then it stands to reason that were Sylvanas to figure that out, it would be clear that the Jailer played some role in her fate to serve as the Banshee Queen, although how involved he was outside of the creation of the key items involved remains to be seen.
The second issue is that Sylvanas would then likely be in a weird teamup with Anduin, and I don’t know how such a story would play out. After BfA, it is hard to envision a productive team there, but adversity makes for strange allies. In order to escape the Jailer, it seems like they would need to be paired up – Anduin is imprisoned and the interaction over Denathrius shows a clear extent of fear from Sylvanas towards the Jailer such that I would anticipate her not acting alone. Again, given the current course of the story, though, I don’t think that makes much sense or feels fitting. It would be a mistake on Anduin’s part to trust Sylvanas, much less forgive her, and the story has spent the last two years thoroughly beating that into our heads.
There are then a myriad of other story issues that presents – what happens with Tyrande? How do we reconcile her redemption with the burning of Teldrassil or her willingness to harm her own people? How would Greymane react? What is the path forward past that point? The only conclusion that even barely makes sense to me is that Sylvanas and Anduin is a long-reaching, expansion-spanning story that concludes with some sort of noble sacrifice on Sylvanas’ part for our benefit, and even then, framing that as a redemption arc would be a huge mistake, in my opinion.
That leaves me with a follow-up story point I want to discuss here.
Death Knight Anduin
Exploring Anduin and Sylvanas is, to me at least, a better way of exploring the concept of Arthas’ legacy than actually bringing Arthas to the stage. However, what remains to be seen is the actual nature of the Jailer and Sylvanas’ plan. So far, it has been discussed in broad, dramatic language with few actual details, but it seemingly centers on Anduin’s power with the Light.
What remains to be seen is how that would be used or what the thematic implications of that are. Since Legion in particular, we’ve been dancing around the idea of an evil Light, from X’era to the genocidal forces of Light on AU Draenor in the Mag’har quest to the use of the Naaru light as punishment in the Ember Ward of Revendreth. The theme is becoming almost overbearingly omnipresent, as no matter where we are in the Warcraft universe, light becomes an oppressive element, and it seems that it may play a role in the nature of the afterlife of Warcraft as well (beyond just the Naaru mentioned above).
The idea of tearing the whole system down seems like it would need components of all parts of the system to be successful, and that may very well be where the light comes into play. However, we have precious little idea of the balance of Light and Void in the Shadowlands, short of a hint at issues with the Void in the Bastion sidequests around Agthia, and the aforementioned use of Naaru light in the Ember Ward (which really plays more into a vampire stereotype than any new, meaningful lore).
And in truth, when I say “Death Knight Anduin,” I’m being a little interpretive of the cinematic contents, as the runed Shalamayne seems tailor-made for that more than anything else.
So what else could exist here as a plot element?
Well, Anduin’s family has a lot of connections to death in its own right. There is the very unceremonious death of his mother Tiffin, a fate which we haven’t seen alluded to in Shadowlands yet and could be a lever to push Anduin towards the Jailer. However, the big one that I think a lot of people have already speculated about is Varian Wrynn.
Varian’s dramatic death at the Broken Shore to start Legion was a cornerstone of that expansion, and one that raised the stakes for Alliance players drastically. It also remains a challenge to resolve in-game. In prior discussions of Fel magic, official Blizzard sources (the Legion quest “A Fate Worse Than Dying” addresses this concept directly) have described it as destroying the soul, and Varian’s death was, well, definitely at the hands of Fel magic. While this doesn’t inherently mean he’s out as a lore character in Shadowlands, it does mean that there could be a challenge to his presence – requiring either a retcon or just a dramatic retelling of his death that excuses the gap in the lore.
Ultimately, though, I think it paves a way for us to see some storytelling around Anduin’s insecurities over his ascent to the throne and the manner in which he has been made to rapidly fill his father’s shoes. His responses throughout Legion and BfA were lacking, to say the least, in that he has rarely been a focal point character even when he’s been present in a scene as a main character. The battle at the gates of Orgrimmar in patch 8.2.5 was about Saurfang and Sylvanas, with Anduin being an accessory to the scene. His punch to Wrathion in 8.3 only serves to escalate tension without meaningfully paying off any story. His characterization in Legion, what little we got of it, was good but focused on his doubts over his ability to lead the Alliance. The Anduin in the newest cutscene is much bolder than we are used to, but it could be an excellent jumping off point to show him persevering in the face of an unenviable fate.
And in some ways, Anduin serving as an unwilling Death Knight at the hands of Sylvanas on her Arthas retelling could be interesting. In that case, Anduin serves almost as Sylvanas was in the story of her and Arthas, creating something of a looping story. Will Anduin make the choices that Sylvanas made, be able to stay on a righteous path despite the odds stacked against him? Will he seek vengeance against Sylvanas for his fate or remain grounded in seeking justice for the murder of thousands at her hands? Will he return to lead the Alliance or take a different fate, akin to Sylvanas breaking away to lead the Forsaken?
The other interesting point in all of this for me is the addressing of Life and Death as opposed forces. Warcraft’s cosmology does have this split, but it hasn’t been explored to the extent that Light/Void have, with one exception….
Highlord Bolvar Fordragon
I don’t have much to say here, other than to stick a pin in the role Bolvar can play as the expansion rolls on. Sylvanas pointedly mocks the value of life, contrasting it as a brief “flicker” against the enveloping darkness of death. That is an interesting choice of phrasing when considering our good friend Fordragon – a man enveloped by death at the Wrathgate, but sustained via Alexstraza’s flames of life. The contrast is so deliberate as to feel intentional, to me at least – Bolvar is a man empowered by Life, who commanded the forces of Death, but overwhelmingly, Bolvar refutes Sylvanas’ idea, at least in some way. For him, Life is the overwhelming, enveloping force – Alexstraza’s flames leaving him a charred husk but also enabling him to continue his existence. In many ways, as was the case in Wrath of the Lich King when this beat was first explored, Bolvar represents the antithesis of the “Arthas Problem” – when faced with an unenviable and involuntary fate, Bolvar made the just choices and has continued to fulfill a righteous quest to hold peace in Azeroth by maintaining a cease-fire over the Scourge, instead of using them to enact his own agenda. In fact, he has served this role selflessly to an extreme, leaving his daughter in the dark completely as to his fate, which we will obviously be exploring to some extent going forward given that Taelia is in the Shadowlands hovering around her father.
My guess is that Bolvar plays the role he does in the Torghast quests for a reason – and that he will be invoked to compare and contrast the ways in which Sylvanas decides to act as she gets ever closer to falling the rest of the way down the Arthas Problem. Further, the “box” art for the game shows a rather ominous looking Bolvar in front of Torghast – and while the scene is just a collection of cool images about the expansion, it replaced the original Torghast/ICC mirroring cinematic art on the launcher as the background, which, short of the base edition of the game, hasn’t happened before. Bolvar being so heavily focused upon in the promotional materials for the expansion over Sylvanas, the Jailer, or any other character leads me to believe that his presence is going to serve a larger role – but I can only guess (as I have already here) as to what that role will be.
However, what I do like is that at least for now, it seems like the future story threads of the expansion run through a more grounded and interesting story with characters that are currently involved in the lore, instead of invoking more past characters, and I think that is a more interesting way to explore the overall narrative.