The Complicated Cliché of ‘Bran the Broken’

Game of Thrones, which always commented on the social effects of disability, ended by selling its final twist as inspirational.

Arya, Bran, and Sansa Stark in the 'Game of Thrones' finale
Macall B. Polay / HBO

This story contains major spoilers for the series finale of Game of Thrones.

“A boy born broken, raised to see himself not as disabled, just different.”

That’s how a newscaster described Oscar Pistorius in an uplifting segment on the South African runner before he became the first double-leg amputee to compete at the Olympics (and quite before he was convicted of killing his girlfriend). I came across the clip in a YouTube compilation documenting popular media’s obsession with portraying disability as something to be “overcome,” a trope that doesn’t so much help viewers understand people with disabilities as it does turn them into inspirational tchotchkes. There’s even a term that disability activists use for this sort of portrayal: the “supercrip.”

Tyrion Lannister knows the appeal of a supercrip mascot. “Who has a better story than Bran the Broken?” he tells a council of Westerosi lords in the Game of Thrones series finale. “The boy who fell from a high tower and lived. He knew he’d never walk again, so he learned to fly. He crossed beyond the Wall a crippled boy, and became the Three-Eyed Raven.”

Making the pitch for Bran Stark to be made king of Westeros, Tyrion bases his case, primarily, on its public-relations appeal. Stories, Tyrion says, are more capable of uniting people than armies or gold—and Bran’s tale of thriving in paralysis supposedly represents the most compelling biography among the prospective rulers of the realm. Tyrion might be right in this prescription, given how popular Branlike tales are in our own world’s history. All along a show about “cripples, bastards, and broken things,” Thrones ended up leaning into the clichés of disability it once complicated while also, fittingly, acknowledging them as clichés.

The supercrip is a powerful and an old stereotype. Its maudlin self-help applications are seen when para-athletes, for example, are treated as saints. If people with disabilities can excel, goes the logic of such treatment, able-bodied people should be able to push themselves even further (“Who would you be if you were born broken?” the newscaster rhetorically asked viewers in the aforementioned Pistorius segment). Broken is the sort of terminology many people with disabilities find offensive for implying that they are less-than—and it’s the sort of terminology that reduces their lives to simple tales about being defined by difference.

There’s also often a mystical component to images of disability. The line of characters whose physical difference goes hand in hand with supernatural power stretches from modern examples such as Marvel’s Professor X and Daredevil back to the blind seer Tiresias of Greek mythology. In 2016, after the death of Hodor on Thrones, I spoke with the scholar Lauryn S. Mayer about medieval attitudes on disability. She told me about the “idea that the state of the body reflected the state of the soul. If you were suddenly disabled, it might be considered a punishment from God because of some sort of aspect of your living.” But disability “also might be considered … a privilege because you were living your penance on Earth rather than going to purgatory. Going back to the idea of Christ suffering on the cross, it’s like, Here’s your test.” The legend of King Bran twines these two threads—the overcomer and the wizard.

If that legend is simplistic, it has to be considered in relation to Game of Thrones’ generally diverse and nuanced take on physical difference. Tyrion, one of the primary characters, is a dwarf; Bran fell from a tower in the very first episode. Whereas other heroic sagas have characters emerge unscathed from their highly violent adventures—or undergo one defining wound, such as Luke Skywalker’s amputation—injury was commonplace on Thrones. Tyrion received a facial nick in war; Jaime Lannister lost a hand; Beric Dondarrion had multiple lives’ worth of battle scars; Hodor had his brain short-circuited in a supernatural calamity. These developments countered pop culture’s comforting fantasy of corporal invulnerability for heroes, and debunked the notion of a fundamental distinction between people without disabilities and people with them. In an instant, anyone can move from the former category to the latter.

Throughout its run, Thrones paid attention to the body as a social marker. Tyrion was put on trial all his life, as he explained in Season 4, simply for being a dwarf. The Hound’s childhood burn wounds made it so that strangers perceived him as a monster. Melisandre used magic to hide the physical effects of centuries of aging so as to better seduce and inspire. Even in the cases of Brienne’s tallness or Arya’s childlike stature, being physically different shaped people’s lives—but largely only because it affected how others treated them.

For Bran, physical limitations did have practical effects. A boy who once loved to climb now couldn’t move independently from bed and began having supernatural visions. Making his way in the world required the assistance of others: Tyrion, crafting him a saddle; Hodor, hoisting him on his back; Meera and Osha and Jojen Reed, attending to and defending him. But rather than casting him as someone more existentially carried by others, the show was always clear that Bran was driving the journey north. He even had enough agency to appear to some viewers to be exploiting Hodor. As Mayer said, “Bran, who of all people should have some empathy for Hodor, is kind of an abusive little shit.”

But Mayer actually approved of this flaw in Bran’s character. “There is a huge step forward in the fact that you’ve got people in here who are disabled, who are complex, sometimes really annoying, sometimes heroic, sometimes selfish, sometimes unselfish,” she said. “I think [George R. R.] Martin is really trying to not put them into types or use them as some symbol for the suffering of humanity.”

The thematic implications of Bran’s crowning, however, might smooth out some of that sense of complexity. He, it’s now clear, was always the show’s exemplary victim of violence in the name of hereditary power, and thus there’s poetry in him being the one to “break the wheel.” That Martin and the showrunners tied his inability to walk to a mystical awakening puts Bran in company with characters throughout mythological and pop-culture history, but it doesn’t exactly humanize him. What defines his character now, other than what he can (see all of history, warg into creatures) and cannot (walk, want, feel emotions, sire children) do?

Tyrion—the show’s more fully fleshed-out example of all the contradictions and desires within people marked physically apart—knows how the perception of bodies can be as important as the lived reality of them. All his life, he had to fight against the prejudiced notion that looking different on the outside made him freakish on the inside. Now he endorses someone whose status as a “broken thing” really is tied to a deeper strangeness. By leveraging that strangeness—and wider perceptions about a “broken” boy who “learned to fly”—for his desired outcome, Tyrion’s championing of Bran has an air of subversion with relevance to our own world. But there’s also something all-too-typical about Bran: He rules humanity by losing his own humanity, which is exactly the thing society so often denies people like him anyways.