Now that our long, harrowing, slow-updating trek through Mass Effect 2 is over, it would be valuable to take stock and try to figure out exactly what in God’s name my mother imagines the story of Mass Effect 2 to be.
If you’ll recall, we learned in Mass Effect 1 that The Illusive Man is Kaidan’s older brother, and CEO of the Calvin Klein corporation. When blue-jeans sales in the Terminus Systems colonies began to plummet, he discovered that it was because the Collectors were abducting humans for some unknown purpose. With his vast resources and keen business acumen, he determined that they were working with the Reapers, an ancient race of machines that are planning to eradicate galactic civilization and throw the fashionable blue-jeans industry into turmoil. His right-hand woman Miranda Lawson tells him the simple fact that neither of them want to admit: the only hope for the future of the company is to bring Miranda’s mother, Robyn Shepard, back from the dead.
Decades ago, Cerberus instituted a program to genetically engineer new agents. They infiltrated the science department of Virmire Community College, where they used the students as a source of cheap, quiet labor. Donnell Udina and Benezia T’Soni were two such students. The project led to many artificially produced or “petri dish” life forms, including Jacob Taylor, Saren Arterius, the Thorian, and even a new Rachni Queen. Working with Warlord Okeer, they also developed a means to mass-produce krogan soldiers, working around the genophage to create a new breed of subservient krogan soldier. Experiments continued on Virmire while Okeer headed to Korlus for a new development in krogan biology: presumably by combining krogan and thresher maw DNA, he was able to develop krogan that could grow from mere spores. Okeer pretended to develop this technology for the Blue Suns mercenary group, in order to use their funds to finance the project and keep his experiments off of Calvin Klein’s books.
One such “petri dish” experiment was a project labeled “Robyn Shepard.” The pinnacle of human potential, Shepard would one day mature into an unstoppable supersoldier, charismatic enough to serve as a spokesman for the corporation, strong enough to exert Calvin Klein’s will through force in the uncivilized swathes of the galaxy, and beautiful enough to work as a model.
Unfortunately, the experiment was a failure. Though Shepard possessed many of the traits that she was intended to, she was also highly unstable. Her learning abilities, attention span, and empathy were all far below normal human levels. While the other experiments were sent out into the galaxy to serve as soldiers and sleeper agents, Shepard was sent to earth, where she was kept in a CK-owned blue-jeans factory, where she was looked after by a “sister.” Whether this person was a genetically engineered caretaker or simply a volunteer that adopted the young bastardization of science is unknown.
Cerberus hoped that Robyn Shepard could one day develop into the asset they designed her to be, but her destructive and rebellious nature made this possibility ever-more remote. At a young age, she fell in with a local gang, The Reds. By age 13, she was selling her body, using Calvin Klein’s connections to gain access to such elite clientele as Henry Lawson.
As we know from the events of Mass Effect 1, the state of affairs on Earth soon fell to pieces. Shepard’s “sister” became romantically involved with one of The Illusive Man’s brothers, while another brother, Kaidan Klein, murdered them both. Kaidan’s motivations remain unclear. Is he truly the unhingend sociopath that Robyn Shepard believes him to be? Or did he simply wish to escape the paramilitary/overpriced clothing empire he had inherited, and enlisted in the Alliance to find some way to atone for his and his family’s sins? It would explain why he is so angry that Shepard has chosen of her own volition to continue working with Cerberus. Perhaps we will finally discover his underlying motivations during the course of Mass Effect 3.
After defeating Saren, Shepard was killed by an ambush from a Collector ship. With no other choice, Cerberus revives her, hoping that her passion for revenge will assist in keeping her focused on killing the Collectors, rather than themselves. In order to keep her satisfied, The Illusive Man provides Shepard with a sizeable paycheck, a highly equipped ship, and surrounds her with specialists, most of which are selected due to the low likelihood that Shepard would attempt to murder them. These included: her former pilot and occasional love interest Jeff “Joker” Moreau; her fellow genetic supersoldier Jacob Taylor; her “baby brother,” the experimental krogan prototype known as Grunt; Jack, another Cerberus experiment and fellow violent sociopath; and her daughter, Miranda Lawson.
This final decision proved to be a serious miscalculation. Shepard’s contempt for her daughter utterly dwarfed that of the Collectors, and while she ultimately did accomplish the mission with which she had been tasked, her constant attempts to murder Miranda led to the operation being carried out in an even sloppier and more reckless fashion than Shepard’s usual output. Dozens of Cerberus officers, along with many highly talented and highly paid specialists and experts, were killed while assaulting the Collector base. Even worse, in a final fit of rebellion Shepard destroyed the base and finally succeeded in murdering her daughter. The commander hijacked the vessel and the remaining Cerberus crew and departed for parts unknown. Had Miranda been omitted from the Normandy SR-2’s crew, the mission likely would have cost Cerberus far less time and money.
Some readers might read the above paragraphs and suggest that, for instance, none of this makes a lick of fucking sense. Timelines don’t seem to add up, character motivations seem to contradict actions depicted in the story, and much of it seems to go against established Mass Effect canon. Some might suggest that these issues can be attributed to my mother not particularly giving a shit and just making up nonsense as we go along in a desperate bid to find entertainment in something she finds fundamentally boring. However, the more cultured among you will realize that such an opinion is naive and ignorant of the vast literary depth of the narrative that my mother has constructed.
The so-called “Indoctrination Theory” for the ending of Mass Effect 3 gained a large amount of popularity when it was first conceived (though I’m personally a bigger fan of the Intoxication Theory). If we as a fanbase have already accepted the possibility that some events depicted in the Mass Effect series may not be what they appear on the surface, then why has this interpretative lens not been applied to Mass Effect 2? Allow me to present the Mental Illness Theory of Mass Effect 2.
Shepard frequently sees similarities to herself in other characters. She claims that she looks similar to both Miranda and Grunt. Most perplexingly of all, at one point she mistakes the Horizon colonist Lilith for herself. As The Illusive Man himself informs us at the start of the game, “the patterns are there, buried in the data.”
Robyn Shepard suffers from a severe crisis of identity and a shattered psyche. Inconsistencies with the plot presented to us are the result of Shepard being a mentally unstable and unreliable narrator.
Shepard frequently expresses feelings of jealousy toward Miranda. She claims that they look alike, but also seems to acknowledge that she’s a more attractive woman. What’s important to realize is that Miranda represents an aspect of Shepard’s personality, her potential as a temptress and capable Cerberus operative. She simultaneously craves from the depths of her heart to be Miranda, and hates the idea of accepting a destiny that has been forced upon her by external sources. She dreams of greatness but wants to defy the expectations that others have established for her.
Enter Jack, The Convict. The opposite of Miranda in every way, Jack’s motives seem to mirror Shepard’s. At a young age she escaped from Cerberus and ever since has acted as a criminal and rebel, determined to reject any limitations on her imposed by society. Jack also represents a facet of Robyn Shepard, her potential to defy society’s rules and forge her own path, destroying any that would deny her this right. This is why Jack is the only female that Shepard befriends. She admires Jack, and unlike Miranda these feelings are not accompanied by jealousy.
Unfortunately, it eventually becomes clear that Jack’s way is also not a path to happiness. Jack is a broken individual carrying a vast amount of emotional trauma, and in spite of her tough exterior she will never be able to escape the pain in her heart. While becoming Jack will fulfill Shepard’s basic desires, it also represents a forfeiture of hope. Because of this, Shepard is constantly torn between which woman she will become, Jack or Miranda.
Shepard identifies Grunt as a “baby brother,” and even claims that they have a family resemblance. She feels obligated to protect and care for him, and yet in spite of this she doesn’t seem to actually like him all that much. The reason is clear. Grunt is everything that Shepard fears becoming, an ugly, brutish killing machine designed to fight for reasons she neither understands nor cares about, but that she cannot reject lest she lose any purpose in life. Grunt obtaining his own purpose through the Tuchanka Rite of Passage is the first glimmer of hope on her path to self-actualization.
While visiting Horizon, Shepard lays eyes on a colonist named Lilith, walking with Kaidan Alenko, a man whom she once tried to become romantic with. For a moment, Shepard believes herself to be Lilith, and imagines living an ideal life with Kaidan in the beautiful fields of Horizon. Lilith represents an ideal that Shepard strives for, a life of peace and happiness defined on her own terms. The idyllic moment is cut short, however, when the Collectors and their Seeker swarms descend upon the colony, representing the turmoil in Shepard’s soul that prevents her dream from becoming reality. Shepard continues to perceive a happy, quiet life of love and happiness as an impossibility, such as when she sees two confused men argue about which of them has a beautiful and loving wife and claims that both men are liars.
Throughout her quest to defeat the Collectors, Shepard is anchored by one man. Jacob Taylor. Like herself, Jacob is a genetically engineered supersoldier, designed to serve Cerberus’ whim. Unlike Shepard, however, Jacob is a confident individual who is able to balance his personal desires with his own expectations. Even when confronted with Ronald Taylor, Jacob’s own personal demon, he weathers the emotional storm perfectly, and emerges from the ordeal victorious. While Jacob is not a facet of Shepard’s personality, he is an ideal that she aspires to, the ability to reconcile one’s desires with one’s role. He has accomplished what she has not, and she grows closer to him in an attempt to learn his secrets. Shepard’s nicknames for Taylor, “Dark Chocolate” and “Hot Chocolate,” are both symbolically significant as well. Dark Chocolate is said to work as a mild antidepressant, and Hot Chocolate is known for its ability to warm a cold body from the inside out.
The conflict between Shepard’s various ideals and conceptions of herself comes to a head when she heads to the galactic core to confront the Collectors once and for all. Throughout the aptly named “Suicide Mission,” the representations of Shepard are killed off one by one.
The first to die is the colonist Lilith. Shepard is forced to watch in horror as her hopes and dreams of peaceful, idyllic life are literally obliterated before her very eyes.
Grunt is the next to die, symbolizing that while Shepard has been denied the perfection that Lilith embodied, she has also grown enough to escape the grim fate that Grunt once represented. It’s worth noting that Grunt is not killed on-screen, but rather ascends into the sky.
Jack is the next that is killed. As much as she wants to, Shepard can no longer accept the solution that Jack embodies. To reject everything is to embrace nothing, and Jack’s death reflects Shepard’s realization of this fact.
In the climax of the game, Jacob, the symbol of stability and self-determination, is sent sliding into a vast pit of darkness. Shepard barely manages to save him, and in doing so, saves herself.
Miranda is the last aspect of Shepard to die. In saving Jacob and discarding Grunt, she has learned that she can forge her own path in life, and does not need to live by the expectations that others have attempted to impose on her. Her conflict regarding the Miranda persona is finally resolved, and she can shed her once and for all.
There are many more casualties during the Suicide mission. In fact, every female character dies during the course of it, with the exception of one: Tali’Zorah vas Normandy. A woman who has only recently come of age, Tali is an alien who has been stripped of her original surname, and has been forced to take on a new one that represents not who she is or who she wants to be, but merely her current place in life, fittingly, a powerful and versatile vehicle. She has worn a mask her entire life, and has never shown her true face to the world. She is the only facet of Shepard’s psyche that remains, and represents the potential that Shepard now has to “remove her mask” and reveal any person that she wishes to the world. It is this persona that Shepard carries with her into Mass Effect 3, where she will finally become her own, independent and self-defined person as she takes on the ultimate embodiment of her personal demons, The Reapers.
Also she has a hole cut out in the back of her shirt to allow for fart ventilation.