Unbroken and UnbowedRevisiting Disability Representation on “Game of Thrones”

Isaac Hempstead Wright as Bran Stark, left, and Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister in Games of Thrones (HBO)

Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers about the Game of Thrones finale

“What unites people. Armies? Gold? Flags? Stories. There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it. And who has a better story than Bran the Broken? 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. He is our memory. The keeper of all our stories: wars, weddings, births, massacres, famines. Our triumphs, our defeats, our past. Who better to lead us into the future?” — Tyrion Lannister

Like millions of fans around the world, I watched the May 19 series finale of HBO’s Game of Thrones with dread and anticipation. Every fan knows the queasy roller-coaster ride of following a show that’s been airing for a long time. Finales are inherently divisive—and Game of Thrones’ ending elicited visceral reactions, especially from disabled people. I’ve come to appreciate the diverse range of disability representation throughout the entire series. In the final six episodes I said “WTF” many times, gave plenty of side-eye, and cackled with glee that Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) and Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) became the two most powerful people in Westeros.

Now that the series has ended, it’s time to reflect on the evolution of these two disabled characters and what their presence meant to disabled people. What is “good” disability representation? Is representation itself enough? There is no single answer or set of criteria, but any discussion and critique about representation must center around people from those communities. So I talked with a few disabled viewers of Game of Thrones about some of these very questions.

What drew you to Game of Thrones? What did you love/hate about about this show during the past eight seasons?

Ing Wong-Ward, a former broadcast journalist currently on medical leave in Toronto: I had a variety of notions about how disability was portrayed. I appreciated the complexity of Tyrion’s character: He’s a survivor in a deeply ableist family who loathes him for being a “dwarf.” He’s very smart [but] deeply flawed. Dinklage portrayed all of [the character’s] sides very well. In recent seasons, I became increasingly frustrated with what I call the “mystic cripple” trope [in Bran’s storyline], [wherein] a character becomes disabled and [is] suddenly super wise in a way they weren’t before. It’s about the abled feeling better about their lot and [asserting] that they aren’t “like us.” That was my issue with Bran at the very end: He wasn’t particularly wise or thoughtful. He became a symbol of “overcoming” his circumstances, which is one of the oldest disability tropes.

Andrew Pulrang, disability blogger and activist based in New York State: I loved [that] the [show’s] disability depictions [had] relative depth and [that there were] moments of stunning insight into the disability experience. I disliked the inconsistency of [these moments]. A lot of the show’s insights into disability and other marginalized people were somewhat accidental, not really planned out, so there were as many failures as wins.

Ingrid Tischer, blogger and activist based in Berkeley, California: What drew me in at first was a visibly disabled actor [being] in a lead role and Tyrion trying to help a newly disabled Bran [with] an adaptive saddle design. I’ve loved the drumbeat of different disabilities running through the storylines. While these episodes—like the finale—center visibly physical disabilities, the narrative landscape more quietly tells the story of how intimately war and disability are connected.

Rebecca Cokley, sci-fi fantasy fan who works in politics in Washington, D.C.: I tend to avoid “dwarf” stories, but a number of folks whose opinions I respect encouraged me to read A Song of Ice and Fire. I really enjoyed Tyrion and thought there was a lot that George R.R. Martin got right about dwarfism. I find myself going back to the Purple Wedding, where Joffrey brings in “hired talent” (meaning dwarf actors) to mock his uncle. I had a visceral reaction to it in the book and experienced significant anxiety when watching [that scene]. I’ve been mocked to that degree; I’ve had people terrorize me in a way that reduced me to nothingness. And I’d never seen it portrayed that real before. Dinklage was a natural to play the role, and I thought he did an exceptional job, even when the show’s writing was less than compelling. I also think Tyrion matters because he’s been [so] embraced by nondisabled people.

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Let’s talk about the series finale, in which Bran becomes the ruler of Westeros and Tyrion becomes the Hand of the King. What did you think about the episode?

IWW: Part of me loved that two of the most powerful people in the realm are disabled. I wondered how they would address the many disabled citizens [who are now in] King’s Landing, thanks to Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) burning the city to the ground.

AP: I don’t like Bran [being made to] seem so blank and impassive, especially after becoming the Three-Eyed Raven. It left audiences feeling that Bran didn’t do anything, which I don’t think is actually true. It just seemed that way because of how he was played. The line, “Why do you think I came all this way?” was terrible. It reinforced [the] mistaken idea [that] Bran knew the outcome in advance. I don’t believe he did. I think he had a lot of insight and some cryptic visions of the future—much as Dany did. But that line left people feeling that he’d manipulated events and sat by while atrocities happened. It’s a terrible idea the writers lay on Bran for no reason. The overall sloppiness and earlier neglect of Bran’s character development detracts from what should have been a more meaningful disabled character.

IT: I still don’t really get exactly how Bran the Mobius Strip himself understands his path to ruling Westeros. It was something very circular, very Bran the Tautological, that he said. But call me Ingrid the Whatever and I’ll let it go.

RC: I thought it again showed how much like his father Tyrion is. As much as they hated each other, Tyrion was [as calculating as] Tywin. I always liked [that] Tyrion was [strategically] moving pieces across the board. He moved across the map on the floor of King’s Landing following the destruction of the Red Keep—as the sole Lannister piece on the board.

Lots of people on Twitter, both disabled and nondisabled, hated the name “Bran the Broken.” How do you interpret both the title Tyrion created and the arguments he made in favor of putting Bran on the throne?

IWW: I did find Tyrion’s speech about storytelling compelling, but this narrative is illogical to me. It really came down to the notion of: What is safe? Who is considered harmful or harmless? I took issue with the idea that Bran was a safe choice for the throne because he could not have children. It’s one of the oldest stereotypes surrounding people with spinal-cord injuries. I get that [Game of Thrones] is fantasy, but these notions seep into the public consciousness—especially on a show as big as this one. [As for the] “Bran the Broken” moniker: Bran has survived all sorts of things! Why not call him “Bran the Brilliant” or “Bran the Backbone”? Anything but “broken.”

AP: I understand why some people hate that moniker, but it did not offend me. I liked it. It’s appropriate [if you think about] the way disability has been spoken [about] in the show’s universe and used with an obvious ironic pride.

RC: I had no problem with the name. In fact, above my desk I have a lithograph of Tyrion’s quote “Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor and it can never be used to hurt you.” I also saw it as Tyrion [recognizing] that he really “saw” Jon and Bran from the start [as opposed to] society [viewing] them as “bastards” and “cripples.” People who are cast aside are often hungry for chances to lead.

IT: I thought Bran’s character arc showed how profoundly damaging war [is] versus the effects of a singular, largely physical, injury. Bran has not only adjusted to his disability; he’s transformed into a vastly more powerful person (or whatever he now is), and it’s notable that his storyline has included less violence and more care than any other character. This tells me that the show sees the disability itself as less of a problem than cruelty and violence.

Insisting on contemporary language standards for Bran separates him from his world and sends a message to the audience that disabled characters have to be handled differently from other characters I [understand the] criticism of his name, but such language is woven into the story. “Broken” seems to be the default [or] most neutral term as “disabled” generally is in ours. It’s Westeros.

No matter the money you have or what your ancestry is, if you have a disability, you are automatically an outsider—especially in a world that is modeled on medieval Europe.

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Bran and Tyrion have a ton of privilege and resources. They also shared a number of scenes together that explicitly acknowledged their realities as disabled people in a cruel and hostile world. What was powerful about these interactions

IWW: No matter the money you have or what your ancestry is, if you have a disability, you are automatically an outsider—especially in a world [that] is modeled on medieval Europe. We still see this today, and it is clear that we are safer and stronger [when] we seek one another [out]. We need each other to survive [in] a world that harbors hatred for [us]. Tyrion knows this better than anyone.

AP: The relationship between Tyrion and Bran reminds me of peer mentoring [or] people with disabilities advising [and] assisting each other in ways that nondisabled helpers can’t. Tyrion tells Jon: “If you’re going to be a cripple, it’s better to be a rich cripple.” That describes the intersection of disability and privilege perfectly. The remarkable thing is that it was [even] said on a TV show, since degrees of privilege among disabled people [are almost] never acknowledged—much less discussed—in popular culture.

IT: The most powerful interaction was when Tyrion simply demonstrated to Bran that he had a future, that he would one day be a grown man, [and] that the first step is surviving. Bran was just starting to recover and [he] wasn’t seeing any men who were like him.

RC: We’ve all been in scenarios where [we’re] the person without privilege who can’t access the space or can’t make it work—no matter how hard [we] try. And there’s nothing more “home” than in scenes where someone “sees” you and there’s a moment of shared humanity. Or a moment of, “Did you really just see that shit that happened over there? Is it just me?”

What do you most appreciate about the depiction of Bran and Tyrion, two characters who ended up on top in Westeros in a show about power, survival, and family? What do you hope to see in future shows that feature disabled actors and characters?

IWW: I loved how flawed Tyrion is. It is rare to see a disabled person represented so complexly. While he is brilliant, he makes terrible decisions. Too often, disabled characters [are] utter caricatures of evil or totally pure and good. Tyrion [has] many facets and I believe pop-culture historians will [continue] looking at how he was portrayed. My hope is we see more [shows with a] disabled person [who’s] conflicted and occupies a central role in a major storyline.

AP: Tyrion is by far my favorite. I loved his early observations about disability, but the peak for me were his two prison conversations, [one] with his brother Jamie (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and [one with] Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal). Each [conversation] explored deeper themes about disability in subtle but powerful ways. Remembering visiting the infant Tyrion, Obeyrn recalls saying, “He’s not a monster. He’s just a baby.” It highlighted the fact that while ableism is systemic and always present in society, there are people who instinctively rebel against it without needing awareness training or deep sociological insight. They just see that it’s wrong.

IT: I appreciated how central disabled people (I include Sansa in this) are to this world’s future. Unlike other shows (cough, Battlestar Galactica, cough) where the effects of war on a culture are explored, the existence of disabled people and our needs aren’t presented as expendable.

RC: I love the complexities of Tyrion and Bran, but for crying out loud can we get some women? And some nonbinary folks? I’m so tired of having to settle for disabled men. And if/when we do get disabled women, can we stan them as much as we stanned Tyrion?

AW: Tensions run throughout any fandom; there are conflicts, high expectations, and a sense of ownership juxtaposed [against] the creators’ intentions and decisions. I can love a show while feeling ambivalent and disappointed about certain aspects and Game of Thrones is no exception. Bran, Tyrion, and other disabled characters live in a society that wasn’t built for them. Like disabled people everywhere, Bran and Tyrion are aware of how others perceive them. They’re risk-takers, adaptive, politically astute, and experienced in navigating inaccessible and hostile environments. Game of Thrones may be a fantasy, but there’s a lot of reality that reflects disability culture and my own lived experience.

The Iron Throne is gone, making space for a new mode of leadership that Bran and Tyrion will build together. Who knows if their experiences as the “other” will give them a unique lens on how to wield power as they reshape Westeros? Join me in lifting a glass of your finest Dornish wine and saluting these two winners of this most deadly game: “All hail, Bran and Tyrion, the Disabled!”

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by Alice Wong
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Alice Wong is a disability activist, media maker, and consultant. She is the founder and director of the Disability Visibility Project, a community partnership with StoryCorps and an online community dedicated to recording, amplifying, and sharing disability stories and culture. Alice is also a copartner in two projects: DisabledWriters.com, a resource to help editors connect with disabled writers and journalists, and #CripTheVote, a nonpartisan online movement encouraging the political participation of disabled people. Follow her on Twitter @SFdirewolf.