QUISTIS: They told me that I failed as an instructor. Basically, that I lacked leadership qualities. I was a SeeD by the age of 15, got my instructor license at 17...It's only been a year since I got it... I wonder where I went wrong... I did my best... Are you listening?
SQUALL: Are you done yet...? I don't wanna talk about it. What am I supposed to say about other people's problems?
QUISTIS: I'm not asking you to say anything. I just want you listen.
SQUALL: Then talk to a wall.
QUISTIS: Aren't there times when you want to share your feelings with someone?
SQUALL: Everyone has to take care of themselves. I don't want to carry anyone's burden


QUISTIS: ...No leadership qualities... Failed instructor... Perhaps they're right...


QUISTIS: Squall. It's not like everyone can get by on their own, you know?
SQUALL: ... Says who?

Most of the game will tell us more about Squall than any other character; his personal journey is at the heart of the plot. Quistis's importance looms large in the early game, and it does so largely to contrast to Squall's attitude and eventual successes. There are a lot of obvious points to take from the famous exchange quoted above, dramatically: she chooses Squall, her prior student, to confess this failure to; he spurns the burden of her emotions; she wonders if this interaction proves that she has no leadership skills; and his reaction to her claim that not everyone can get by without help demonstrates his esteem for her authority.

The third point is the most interesting to me. What I want to gesture to here is that the thing that Quistis tried to give and said she failed to give, comfort, is also something we never see her receive - and we see her connect this moment to leadership. Possibly what she meant when she said not everyone can get by on their own means that leaders don't need others, others need them -- and so perhaps her critics are right because here she is, in need. Possibly she thought that if she had the right leaderly gravitas, Squall would offer her what she was looking for, or at least be sufficiently cowed to listen quietly for a few minutes. Possibly it's simply that her lack of leadership qualities refers to her unprofessional interest in a younger student. Maybe all of these things. What remains certain is that her failure to be comforted links with her failure to be an instructor to others. When she later alludes to having given up on a romantic attachment to Squall prior to Rinoa's appearance, I think it's here, in her last platitude to him. Not everyone can get by on their own, but she has to – and yet, unlike Squall, she doesn’t give up on emotional connections despite not receiving what she needs from them. It’s just that from this point forward, we exclusively see her as the comforting one, rather than the one comforted.

For Quistis, emotionality and leadership are connected. Once upon a time, I took that same connection to hold for the whole story of FFVIII, so that as Squall became more emotionally in tune with his fellow liberi fatali and his romantic interest, he also grew as a leader. True, Squall is entrusted with increasing responsibility as he increasingly allows himself to be emotionally vulnerable, but I wonder if he is that effective as a leader, or that the qualities of leadership really feature at all in the moral of FFVIII. He leads as the martial leader of Garden, which doesn't seem greatly informed by his epiphanies of the heart. Instead we see Squall wrestle with martial leadership against emotional connection – exactly where we see Quistis push for the latter.

SQUALL: I...I have to lead the attack.
IRVINE: I don't care what you have to do, or how you feel. Just do it... please! For Rinoa.
QUISTIS: Listen to Irvine, Squall. She's one of us.

Given that connection for her, it’s interesting to consider the sole moment that the game puts her in a position of leadership during the attack on Sorceress Edea in Galbadia, specifically to consider her interactions with Rinoa Heartilly. Though there are multiple opportunities within the game to choose different party leaders, the narrative specifically involves Squall's choice of Quistis to lead a team that will shutter the sorceress in a gatehouse - to Zell's animated disappointment. As the gang mills around in the opulent Caraway parlour, Rinoa introduces a bangle from Dr. Odine that she stole from her father, possibly capable of neutralizing Edea. Though Odine is notorious for his knowledge of sorceresses, the mission has not been framed around the usage of this item, and its source and true potential are not known; hence Quistis's obvious impatience with the late suggestion that they somehow employ it now.

ZELL: If it's Odine brand, it should be pretty effective! They're NO. 1 when it comes to magical goods.
RINOA: Right! Right!
QUISTIS: So what exactly do you want to do with it!? Are you planning to have the sorceress put it on!? Who? When? How?
RINOA: That's what we're going to discuss!
QUISTIS: We don't have time for that. Squall and Irvine are already standing by. We have an operation to carry out, too. You understand, don't you? This isn't a father-daughter quarrel. This isn't a game.

Of course, there's more to the moment than the quoted lines. The player catches Quistis’s particular interest in Squall well before it’s made explicit (and past-tense) later on; the romantic mise-en-scene of the Training Center counts as a substantial clue, even if the actual romance chips off on Squall’s cold shoulder. Similarly, the player gets the significance of the full-motion video when Squall dances with Rinoa -- as does Quistis, who watched them waltz after being demoted, prompting her to coerce him into accompanying her through the last vestige of her position of authority over him. (And, of course, we all know who ended up on the cover of the game.) The sole previous interaction between the two women occurs when discussing Seifer's fate, specifically when Quistis attempts to comfort Rinoa and the remaining team after Seifer's execution is revealed. #bechdeltestfail

QUISTIS: It was your group that got Seifer involved in all this. You're a resistance faction, right? You must have been prepared for the worst. I'm sure Seifer was prepared, too. So don't think of it as Seifer sacrificing himself for you. I'm sorry. I guess that wasn't much consolation.

One of the nuances in Quistis's characterization is her desire to connect balancing against a lack of emotional finesse. Here, when the liberi fatali and Rinoa are told that Seifer has been executed due to his assassination attempt against the president of Galbadia, her first reference is to the nature of what it means to be either a mercenary or a member of a resistance faction: death is quite often on the line, and their training emphasizes this possibility. What that tells us about our careful heroine is that she thinks that sacrifice must be something more than a loss that you choose to undergo -- because to realistically engage in either type of work, revolution or military action in general, you do so with the foreknowledge that you might not survive it. It’s not romantic; it’s a career choice. Her attempt here is to try to take the sting out of his demise by reframing it from moral terms (sacrifice) into what she thinks of as quotidian, the facts of being a solider, which she's been exposed to longer than anyone else in the room. And, of course, it fails miserably, because what the group is confronting is that death doesn't feel insignificant, business-as-usual anymore, because it happened to someone they know.

Though she admits that it's not much consolation that he knew what the stakes were, Quistis gently indicates to Rinoa that resistance work and military work involve drastic consequences. In the same scene, Rinoa confesses that she was romantically entangled with Seifer during the previous summer, that it was a kind of love. Far later we learn that Quistis's lingering memories of her fellow orphans focused on Squall and Seifer, particularly Squall, and that her adoption failed so miserably that she left her home to become a child mercenary before puberty.

We can infer, then, that what Quistis knows about Rinoa is that the two men that have a special focus in her life also have been especially focused on Rinoa; that the life-or-death stakes that Quistis has always taken in stride require processing for the princess of the Forrest Owls; and that Rinoa lacks respect for her father, while Quistis has never had a family. It's not fair to read the foiled romance between Trepe and Leonhart as her fundamental motivation, but I do see it seeded here. You could imagine her pushing back her brass spectacles and looking over this spoiled little rich girl, fresh from daddy's office with a tool she doesn't understand, supporting a resistance whose consequence she appears not to have fully understood, and somehow this is the romantic rival that supplanted her, that was worth dancing with in front of the entire academy when he couldn't stand to listen to her for five minutes. You could imagine Quistis envying the freedom to be under-prepared; it must mean that someone has been there to do the work for you.

I'm a reformed Rinoa-hater, I promise, but I still think this break in Quistis's cool represents a well of emotional damage for Quistis, some quite recent, and much of it dealing with the contrast between herself in Rinoa as it appears to be at this stage.

QUISTIS: Maybe I was too hard on her...
ZELL: Too hard?
QUISTIS I'm going to go apologize...
ZELL: You mean...Rinoa?
SELPHIE: But...but...We can't just leave our post!

Cue shenanigans involving implausibly timed locking mechanisms, leaving Quistis and company trapped in mansion Caraway while Rinoa confronts the sorceress, so the apology is never actually delivered. Things work out, asterisk, and though the solution of a secret sewer passage escape is unlikely, so is the problem. Still, this is not an inspiring look at Quistis the leader – and interestingly it’s a moment where Quistis elevates emotional concerns over those specific to the mission. My abstract sense of her is coolly competent, but she ain’t that here, and there’s a lot of irony in her decision to rush back to Rinoa given the reason she chastised her: that she treated a mission like a game with emotional stakes.

The thing about sensing emotional distress in others is that it can feel like a constant question requiring the right answer, so that if you just say the correct thing, if you can just open sesame them, you can make them feel better. Quistis feels the question. I’m not certain she’s ever known the right answer. I think she’s on far steadier ground when it comes to the right actions as a military officer, but despite knowing what counts as a right answer there, it’s not the kind of question she prioritizes. She puts the touchy-feely stuff first. And if you do notice the feelings of others as a constant question requiring the right response to fix them, one with moral priority over the ordinary tasks at hand, you’re in trouble. Part of being a person is a moving target of satisfaction, such that you are never just fixed. And when I think of in-game focus on her as a cool-as-brass mercenary, specifically when the robotic spider chases Squall Leonhart down Dollet’s beach, it’s importantly a moment when her competence is cast as protectiveness. Rather than saving the day, she’s trying to save the ones she loves.

Is that a kind of leadership?

Often we don’t think so. Leadership is supposed to be about getting your team to achieve an objective by hook or crook; a leader could be cruel, a leader could be kind, but the emphasis isn’t what they do for the team so much as what they get the team to do. That’s interesting, especially as aggression and femininity are often framed as compatible exclusively as a kind of maternal instinct. In another word: protectiveness. Aggression that doesn’t represent the interests of others – that is perhaps for your own interests only – raises hackles. Not the boss, but bossy.

IRVINE: It just kinda sucked that I was the only one who remembered … spunky little Selphie and bossy little Quisty.