The first time I played Mass Effect, Virmire was an easy decision for me. It was a choice between Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko—who had started out as one of my least favourite characters in the game since I’d immediately written him off as ‘whiny’ (since that was the consensus of people on the Internet…), but who had really grown on me throughout the entirety of the game until I realised that I’d become pretty damned attached to him—and Ashley Williams—who was clearly a racist because she dared to question Shepard’s decision to have the two best bros in the entire galaxy (Garrus and Wrex) have full access to a prototype Alliance warship. In my head, this was a no brainer. My Shepard had fallen for the lieutenant, and Gunnery Chief Williams stood in the way of that. Sorry Ash, but you gots’ta go.
Plus, Ulysses gives me a headache.
So, picking to run back and save Alenko was a no-brainer. In fact, I was looking forward to it, since I played the game for the first time in 2008 and I’d accidentally brushed up on the spoilers. It didn’t help that in 2008, I kind of had this thing where I automatically discounted all female characters on the basis of being female (ironic, because look at me now, Ma), so Ashley Madeline Williams was pretty much doomed from the start in my book. I think I actually laughed when she said, “I don’t regret a thing.”
Well that’s great, Ash, but I regret everything.
From what I’ve seen, a lot of the people who kill off Ashley Williams are of the same mind that I was for a disgustingly long time in that they hated her for being “racist” or “overly-zealous” or whatever. And you know what? Ashley Williams was neither of those things. She was extremely hesitant to mention her faith in God just in case her CO would take offence, and then she barely (if ever, I can’t actually recall) mentions God after that.
And she was right to be cautious! The krogan species has a history of belligerence, and Shepard is just letting a mercenary—a well-known mercenary who isn’t afraid to exercise violence in order to get the job done—walk around the ship unchecked? And what about the turian? It was only twenty-six years prior to the events of Mass Effect that the turians were considered hated enemies, and her grandfather was turned into a professional and social pariah for being known as the first person to ever surrender to the turians in the First Contact War. Her entire military career was stunted by that. Liara? Her mother was working with the enemy. How in the hell are you supposed to trust someone who has extremely personal ties to the main antagonist like that? Ashley had every right to be cautious.
But she never, ever, ever expressed hatred or even dislike towards any of the non-human crew. In the third game, she refers to Tali as being like a little sister to her, and if you bothered to pay attention to her dialogue in ME1, you’d know that family is everything to Ashley. To say that someone is like her family when it’s that important to her is a huge indicator of not only trust, but adoration and admiration. She never hated aliens, not even a little bit. Hell, she calls out Charles Saracino and his followers for being racists!
Ash was smart, and to be frank, it was pretty goddamn strange for Shepard to bring all these aliens who hadn’t even been vetted for a second onto a human warship. On top of everything, it was damned brave of her to even bring it up, since she could have very easily been written up and had her career slowed even further simply by questioning the judgement of her commanding officer. If she shot Wrex on Virmire, it wasn’t out of hate; it was because Wrex would have killed her superior officer and everyone in the area in all likelihood, and in the military that is goddamn unacceptable.
In Citadel and if they’re both alive, Wrex asks Ashley if she would have killed him on Virmire if he and Shepard couldn’t reach an agreement. She says that she would have without hesitation. Can we marvel at that for a second? She was willing to risk her own life taking down a person she knew on a personal level if it meant saving the lives of others, not to mention that the person in question was an 800-pound krogan with more years of battle experience than she could even hope to dream of.
And she was willing to do it without batting a single eyelash.
Goddamn. That is impressive, and even Wrex said that he respected her for that.
There’s one thing that Ashley said in Mass Effect that has really come to resonate with me: “It takes a special kind of thick-headed to march into a job where your family’s blacklisted.” I understand what Ashley is talking about when she says that line about being thick-headed from personal experience. It’s the reason I have a natural reflex to defend her now when people say that she’s “too aggressive” or a bitch. In order to simply survive the kind of pressures that are against her, she has to be that way. She has to not only be as good as the guys in her deployment, she has to be better just to earn the same level of respect. Ashley was always assessing her surroundings (e.g. noticing that the Council Chambers were perfect for defence due to the stairs) like a career soldier, which was something that Kaidan didn’t do. At the same time, she felt as if she had to hide her interest in poetry and her attachment to sentimentality. Shepard has to earn her trust for her to share that part of her life, and she explicitly asks Shepard not to “spread it around.” I don’t that was just so she wouldn’t be made fun of by her friends—her professional reputation could have been severely damaged by rumours like that.
Something else that’s pretty interesting about Ashley is that she manages to marry being assertive and having a fairly aggressive personality with still being sentimental and simply having a heart. She’s kind, caring, and compassionate, but she will throw down. She’s willing to die for the things and the people that she cares about, and she’s fiercely loyal to her friends. But she does this all the while not being masculine. Ashley Williams is a very feminine individual, particularly in ME3. I know a lot of fans were upset that they “slutted her up” with the catsuit-like armour and that her hair was down (gasp!) and she wore makeup, but Ashley’s outfit was no more revealing than any other female character in the entire series. While it could be read as mere male fanservice, I’d like to believe that it was more reflective of Ashley’s embracing of her femininity and of her bolstered confidence because her career is finally going somewhere and she has the respect that she deserves. She doesn’t have to hide the fact that she is, in fact, a woman. She’s allowed to embrace it.
I like that. I like Ashley Williams.
I admire what BioWare tried to achieve with the choice between Ashley and Kaidan on Virmire. It has the potential to absolutely destroy the player emotionally, and it’s that kind of thing that makes the whole series have the power to impact people the way that it does. Unfortunately, I think a lot of people get caught up in their dislike of either option (because there’s a lot of hate for Kaidan, too) that they miss that. I know that I did. Both Virmire survivors are some of the least-liked characters in the entire series, which is sad, because they’re both such subtly well-done characters.
Now, when I think about how Ashley didn’t regret a thing, I can’t help but feel guilty. I feel like I let her down with that initial decision of my disliking her. I judged her before she had a chance to really prove herself, and that’s sad. She really was brave, right up until the bitter end. Ashley knew what she was signing up for when she joined the military, but she did it anyway, and she did it willingly. And I think she would do it again in a heartbeat if she was given the chance. It’s her war, too.
After everything, Virmire’s no longer an easy option for me. It never should have been.