Bran Stark and the Problem of Omniscience

The Game of Thrones character joins a long line of fictional oracles: inscrutable, all-knowing, and troublesome to the narrative.

Bran Stark sees the past on 'Game of Thrones'

This post contains spoilers through Season 7, Episode 7 of Game of Thrones.

“None of you were there to see what happened! None of you knows the truth!”

So protested Lord Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish in Sunday’s Game of Thrones season finale, after his onetime ally Sansa Stark ambushed him with accusations of murder and treason in front of an audience of knights and lords.

“You held a knife to his throat,” cut in Bran Stark, the ever-less-chatty younger brother of Sansa. “You said, ‘I did warn you not to trust me.’”

Bran was referencing an incident from way back in Season 1, when Baelish betrayed Ned Stark, consigning the honorable family patriarch to execution. And Baelish had been right: No one accusing him had witnessed that moment. But when Bran spoke, a look of shock and recognition came over the conniving Baelish’s face. Somehow, this boy could see his past. Moments later, Baelish was consigned to death, his throat cut by Arya Stark, youngest daughter of Ned.

Thrones played Baelish’s comeuppance as the result of an Avengers-like team-up between the three living Stark heirs, demonstrating the extraordinary change they have all undergone over seven seasons. Sansa employed hard-earned wisdom; Arya employed long-honed force; Bran employed expensively gained sight. But step back and it becomes clear that the defining factor here was Bran. Baelish’s deceit, until now, had resulted in a long string of unchallenged wins. He finally met his match not because Sansa the self-described “slow learner” finally caught on, nor because Arya had trained to kill, but because Bran’s magic omniscience unveiled all the hidden things Littlefinger did to the Stark family.

It was two season finales ago that Bran gained the mysterious title of “The Three-Eyed Raven” after a long, strange trial north of the Wall. But it was in this season finale that the full scope and importance of his powers were most significantly displayed. Not only did he dig up the receipts to condemn Littlefinger, he provided a huge revelation for viewers by discovering that Jon Snow, thought to be a bastard of Ned Stark, is actually of royal parentage.

Both developments were a sign that Bran has become an MVP of the Game of Thrones plot engine. His powers are in fact so great that they threaten to break the story—as all-seeing, all-knowing types, whether in comic books or classic novels or religious texts, often threaten to do.

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On some level, storytelling is the act of revealing information. To experience any narrative is to hear a mystery solved, and common plots are often quests for knowledge—how to save the world, the community, the self. So it’s striking that characters with the power to see things they haven’t personally experienced are legion in literary history, whether you look to mythology (Cassandra) or to pop entertainment (Professor Xavier in his Cerebro). Maybe that owes to a fundamental human desire to know the unknown. Maybe it’s also because of the oracle character’s usefulness as a narrative device, an easy way to close plot holes.

Certainly Bran’s powers help clarify the once-vexing question of what role he’s been meant to play all along. After providing the first gasp-worthy twist of Thrones when he was pushed from a tower in the series premiere, he’s rarely been a source of thrills. First, he convalesced; then, he underwent a long journey to the North for hazy supernatural reasons. Lately, after returning to his home of Winterfell and reuniting with his sisters, it seemed he might finally start affecting the larger storyline via clairvoyance. Instead, until the finale he just inspired memes about his stoner-like dialogue, his coldness toward loved ones, and his apparent refusal to use his powers to solve urgent problems.

All of which, in a way, should be very familiar: Bran is a trope. The often-criticized cliché of mystic disability—which explicitly or symbolically implies that bodily difference marks spiritual difference—has long been in full-force with Bran, who first began seeing visions once he lost the ability to walk. But some other common features of shamans, seers, and psychics are increasingly apparent: his cryptic-ness, his distance from those around him, his caginess about when and how to employ his powers. He’s the Yoda of Westeros.

The show explained these personality changes in the awkward farewell between Bran and Meera earlier in Season 7, during which Bran’s longtime companion said, “You died in that cave,” and he professed to not really be Bran Stark anymore. Cut him some slack, Thrones was saying—the ability to see all of the present and past would change you, too. (It’s not a theoretical matter, really. Are you quite the same person you were before Google was at your fingertips?)

But it’s also obvious that his character quirks serve a meta-narrative purpose. An omniscient hero could quickly sap the show of suspense, solving all problems and anticipating all threats with ease. To prevent that, Thrones took away Bran’s relatability as a human. No longer is he necessarily motivated by love of family, a sense of honor, or even self-preservation. Some other, murkier agenda is at work.

What’s more, the show has kept conveniently coy about the mechanics of Bran’s powers. In the finale scene with Samwell Tarly it seemed Bran’s visions had shown him who Jon’s parents were—but had not shown him that Jon’s father had his previous marriage annulled. It was only when Sam mentioned the annulment did Bran have the crucial flashback showing Jon as the rightful Targaryen heir. This suggests there are limits to Bran’s powers, gaps between what he’s able to know and what he has consciously chosen to learn.

Such haziness makes some sense within the story—he’s still getting a handle on his index—but it makes more sense for the integrity of the show: Bran, and hence the viewer, can’t solve every mystery all at once. You could argue that a better way to handle this situation would be for the show to lay out clear rules about how Bran’s sight works so that the audience can better understand what and when he gets to see. But all along, Thrones has shown little patience for explaining the system of magic underlying its world. (This is becoming more of an issue as supernatural forces move closer to the center of the story; see all the confusion about why the undead can’t find a way to kill six guys in the middle of a lake.)

Other oracle-like characters such as Melisandre and Thoros, it should be noted, also have been circumscribed by Thrones. Both serve the capricious Lord of Light, both clearly have limits on their powers, and both have been sent away from the main action at crucial moments (Thoros recently to the grave; Melisandre to Essos for most all of Season 7). The arms-distance treatment of such characters obviously helps the show tell its story, but it also fits with Thrones’s larger themes. Magic is a terrible thing, and the only thing that’s kept it from destroying the world till now has been its scarcity—which troublingly, over the course of the story, has started to become surfeit.

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The “omniscient narrator,” in fiction storytelling, is the person relaying the tale who, it’s clear, knows everything that the characters and the reader might want to know (as opposed to, say, how in the Song of Ice and Fire books the reader experiences each chapter through the lens of a different character). Great omniscient narration can impart the scope and thematic cohesion of a Charles Dickens novel. Poor examples of it leave the reader feeling confused or manipulated for how information was doled out.

The map-spanning title sequence of Thrones winks at the idea of an omniscient narrator, but the series has in large part kept its camera aligned with the eyes of its characters. When we get a flashback, as with Cersei’s prophecy at the start of Season 5, it’s because someone is thinking about their past. But an increasingly widespread criticism of the show is that the uber-narrators—the showrunners—seem more driven by spectacle and business imperatives than by the desire to convincingly impart the feeling of characters experiencing a cause-and-effect universe. Note, for example, how the important action of Season 7’s Winterfell plotline, essentially a conspiracy among the Stark siblings, happened almost entirely off-camera—presumably so as to enable the season-finale reveal.

Bran’s omniscience gives the show’s writers more cover to cut corners. They can spell out the answer to the mystery of a character’s parentage whenever they now want, or they can reveal a villain’s crimes at the maximally dramatic moment, and they can simply say the revelation itself is part of the story thanks to the murky way Bran’s gift works. Fascinatingly, the potential pitfalls of having an omniscient character aren’t far off from the problem that philosophers and theologians have long debated about the notion of an omniscient god. When does a being who can see everything choose to act on its knowledge? Why not all the time?