It Took Bran Stark Seven Seasons to Get a Wheelchair: Disability Culture in Westeros

For those who haven’t finished watching HBO’s Game of Thrones, this article contains spoilers for the series finale! If you don’t want the ending ruined, read no further!

Well, that happened.

As far as endings go, that certainly was one. I have a lot of petty gripes with how writers D.B. Weiss and David Benioff handled the final season – but at this point, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone that doesn’t. To save you time, though, this article is just going to be about Bran.

Yes, Bran Stark, King of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men. Lord of the Six (well done there, Sansa) Kingdoms, and Protector of the Realm.

“Bran the Broken.”

Certainly the sort of lofty epithet any new King would choose for himself. When Tyrion dropped this gem on us (still in handcuffs!) at the end of the King’s “election”, I actually burst out laughing.

Wait, he’s cool with that?

The internet was ablaze (hah) almost immediately. Some people felt the title was ableist, others presumed a more symbolic, perhaps ironic meaning. My immediate reaction was distaste – it hardly seems like the kind of thing any self-respecting ruler would allow his own subordinates to say. But as the night wore on and denial about the last season set it, I had to wonder if the choice was really a tone-deaf gaffe like it seemed, or a well-reasoned decision that logically concluded Bran’s story.

Before we can draw any sort of conclusion, it makes sense to start at the beginning. Right at the end of episode one, Jaime Lannister defenestrates a baby-faced Bran from a Winterfell tower, permanently paralyzing him below the waist. We learn quickly, from Bran and others, that the already unkind continent of Westeros can be even more unforgiving to the “other,” especially the disabled.

Before his “accident,” Bran participated in an active lifestyle – spending much of his time arching, riding horses, and climbing dilapidated structures. He is forced to quickly come to terms with his injury, however, when a stable servant named Hodor (who also seems to have a degree of disability) is assigned to carry him around. However, it’s not long after that Bran has his first interaction with someone who doesn’t see him as helpless after the accident. In what I would argue (with hindsight) is one of the most important scenes in the whole of the series, Bran meets Tyrion Lannister, the “Dwarf of Casterly Rock.”

When Bran tells Tyrion he loved to ride horses before his fall, a court adviser implies that the accident would be the end of that. “The boy has lost the use of his legs,” the adviser explains.

“What of it? With the right horse and saddle, even a cripple can ride,” Tyrion retorts. Though hardly politically correct by modern standards, the sentiment is clear – especially when coming from the continent’s most famous “disabled” person.

Tyrion then hands Bran a scroll of schematics for a sort of leg-braced riding saddle. “You must shape the horse to the rider… on horseback, you’ll be tall as any of them,” he says. This is a pretty remarkable sentiment for the violent world of Game of Thrones; one that, despite the supposed backwardness of the fictional continent, openly reckons with the nature of the relationship between the “disabled” and society.

This is a problem we’re struggling with right now. It is the belief of some in the disabled community that “disability” is the result of societal response to physical limitation, rather than some inherent state tantamount to paralysis, developmental condition, or dwarfism. If a building has an entrance ramp, someone in a wheelchair could hardly be considered “disabled” – they can access the building just as easily as anyone else. Only when a society fails to meet the needs of the individual does a physical trait become a disability.

Bran’s older brother, Robb, is caught so off-guard by the uncharacteristically forward-thinking gift that he questions Tyrion’s sincerity. “Is this some kind of trick?” he asks. “Why do you want to help him?”

“I have a tender spot in my heart for cripples, bastards, and broken things.”

Fast forward eight seasons.

Tyrion dubs Bran, “the Broken.” The significance of the moniker coming from Tyrion can’t be understated. If one of the other lords of Westeros had suggested it, the epithet probably would have come across as especially tasteless and nasty – but there is a subtext to Tyrion’s words that would be hard to take out of context in any good-spirited analysis. After all, Tyrion sees himself as a cripple, bastard, and undeniably “broken” thing.

Tyrion spent his whole life hated by his father and ridiculed by society. He understood as well as, or better than, anyone else in Westeros that physical limitation could make an already hard life magnitudes harder. In their first meeting, when Tyrion passingly refers to Bran as a cripple, the boy objects – “I’m not a cripple,” he says.

“Then I’m not a dwarf! My father will rejoice to hear it,” Tyrion retorts. Not one to ignore the reality of the situation, Tyrion is, in a sense, preparing Bran for how the rest of the continent will see him.

It’s perhaps because of these widely-held notions that when Tyrion proposes Bran become Lord of the Six Kingdoms, he is met with skepticism. “Bran has no interest in ruling, and he can’t father children,” the eldest living Stark, Sansa, contests. Her assumptions about her brother, however, are clearly flawed. Bran, who until now had expressed no interest in ruling a kingdom of his own, gladly accepts Tyrion’s nomination.

Much of Bran’s life revolves around the presumptions of those around him. Because he was wheelchair-bound, many assume his innocence. If Petyr Baelish, better known as Littlefinger, had expressed “no interest” in ruling, we would have taken his words with a healthy dose of skepticism. In fact, due to the Machiavellian nature of the show, I would be skeptical of anyone proclaiming a disinterest in the Iron Throne. However, when Bran says this, his words are taken at face value.

Bran’s independent and ambitious streak goes back a long way, though. He traveled north of the Wall almost completely alone. Some believe how he led Hodor to his end showed a surprising willingness to sacrifice those “beneath” him. Weeks after the finale, questions about Bran’s ambitions dog me even as I type this.

It seems, intentional or otherwise, that Bran’s character is somewhat up to debate – and maybe that’s a good thing. In an interview with The Atlantic, Dr. Lauryn Mayer, an associate professor at Washington and Jefferson College, argued that Bran’s emotional opacity and complexity are positive advances for the disabled community. “I think it’s a good thing that Bran is a profoundly complicated individual. [He abuses] Hodor but he’s not an evil character—he’s selfish and lacks empathy on occasion, just like everybody else,” Mayer said in the interview that was originally posted in the middle of season 6.

Perhaps, then, we should have seen Bran’s rise to power coming.

We now arrive back at where we began – “Bran the Broken.” What does it mean to Bran, or Tyrion, to be “broken?” Either one would hardly consider themselves powerless. It seems more likely, especially from Tyrion, that the epithet is being applied in an evocative, ironic, sense – flying in the face of the toxic hierarchy of traditional power dynamics that define much of the show’s philosophical core.

Though I fully understand why “Bran the Broken” comes across as a bit tone-deaf to much of the audience, it’s perhaps wrong of us to automatically assume that we’re in the right for thinking so. The inferred belief that Bran lacks the agency, ability, or power to assert himself just because he doesn’t object to the same terminology we do, is perhaps in its own way, a form of ableism.

The fact that Game of Thrones was willing to have such discussions about the nature of disability is a testament to often brilliant strength of its writing. At the very least, the epithet invites a conversation about the issue – something praiseworthy in and of itself.

What do you think of the title “Bran the Broken”? Is it inspiring, or offensive? Patient Worthy wants to hear your thoughts!

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