How ‘Game of Thrones’ Baited and Betrayed the Disability Community
A lot of people are angry about the final season of Game of Thrones. So am I, but not for the same reasons as everyone else.
Every fall I teach a course called “Disability and Representation.” I spend a lot of time analyzing the ways in which people with disabilities are represented in literature, film, television, the media, and popular culture. Spoiler alert: there aren’t many good examples.
Disability representations are usually tragic, with the disability serving as a metaphor or a cautionary tale. Seemingly “positive” representations are, more often than not, what disabled activist Stella Young terms “inspiration porn” — designed to compel nondisabled audiences to overcome obstacles, or to look favorably on their own lives by comparison. Then there are stories where the disabled person is only there to illuminate the character development of the nondisabled people around them (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Rain Man, etc.). In film, stories about disability typically end in the elimination of the disability, either by a miraculous cure (Heidi and The Secret Garden), or through death, which gets framed as a mercy killing or a noble gesture (The Elephant Man, Of Mice and Men, Million Dollar Baby, and Me Before You are examples).
For years, Game of Thrones seemed to buck all these trends. Because the show served for so long as a counterbalance to disability stereotypes, Daenerys’s crossing over into “Mad Queen” territory in the penultimate episode, “The Bells,” is all the more harmful to the community. Moreover, concluding the finale, “The Iron Throne,” with Bran as king forces his narrative into an inspiration trope that cheapens the whole series.
How was Game of Thrones a “good” representation of disability?
There is no such thing as a perfect disability representation, but prior to the final season, GOT was thought-provoking in productive and often empowering ways.
In Tyrion Lannister, played brilliantly by Peter Dinklage, we have a complex hero — neither a saint nor a villain, but flawed and fascinating. A dwarf born to a noble family, he discusses his disability unflinchingly. In the first episode of the series, he tells Jon Snow, raised as the bastard of Winterfell,
All dwarves are bastards in their fathers’ eyes. Never forget what you are. The world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you. (S01 E01)
Refusing euphemism, Tyrion counsels Jon to own his identity and even find power in the labels society uses to keep him down. Tyrion is a voice against discrimination in the series, later claiming to have a special affection for “cripples, bastards and broken things” (S01 E04).
As a side note, the casting of Peter Dinklage in this role — an actor who has the same disability as the character he portrays — was a simple and obvious choice that nonetheless flies in the face of tradition. It felt like a direct challenge to films like The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, which used little people as stand-ins but never lead actors, instead pouring money into special effects to make actors like Elijah Wood and Sean Astin appear small. In fact, tricking audiences into thinking nondisabled actors are disabled has historically resulted in the highest praise: disability masquerade is almost a guarantee for an Oscar. (See Rain Man, My Left Foot, The Theory of Everything, The Shape of Water…)
With Tyrion’s comment in the first episode that “all dwarves are bastards in their fathers’ eyes,” the series set up a theme that “children are not their fathers” — something Tyrion says with regard to Daenerys Targaryen in season seven (S07 E03). Daenerys’s father Aerys, dubbed “The Mad King,” had been a cruel authoritarian ruler, who died crying “burn them all!” and ordering his pyromancer to set the city of King’s Landing on fire and burn all its citizens.
With the recent history of the Mad King in the backdrop, the show pursues an intriguing exploration of power. Where does power reside? What is the difference between a conqueror and a good ruler? Is peace and prosperity possible for “the realm” when human nature seems to tend toward selfishness and greed?
the disability plots are not peripheral to the show’s explorations of power and humanity, but central.
These are questions for the ages, and although the show is set in a medieval fantasy realm with dragons and white walkers, its explorations of power and humanity feel exceedingly real. To a viewership currently witnessing the death of democracy in our own world, these questions are pressingly relevant. And the disability plots are not peripheral to the show’s explorations of power and humanity, but central. In a feudal society where a person’s station in life is mostly a function of birth and family name, Tyrion’s claim that “children are not their fathers” established an important and empowering message for the audience: biology is not destiny.
The disabling of Bran Stark at the end of the first episode is arguably the event that sets the whole plot in motion: Jaime Lannister pushed him out of a window because the boy witnessed him having sex with his twin sister, the queen. Bran survives, but will never walk again. The show deals decisively with the familiar trope that disability is a fate worse than death:
JAIME: Even if the boy lives, he’ll be a cripple, a grotesque. Give me a good clean death any day.
TYRION: Speaking for the grotesques, I’d have to disagree. Death is so final, whereas life… ah, life is full of possibilities. (S01 E02)
Bran, who loved to climb and wanted to become a knight, says “I’d rather be dead” when he learns of his disability (S01 E03), but Tyrion designs a saddle that enables Bran to ride horses, and Bran eventually sets out to discover some of life’s possibilities on his own.
Bran’s travels in season three introduce even more interesting disability subplots. Bran and his younger brother Rickon are smuggled out of Winterfell by Osha, a wildling woman, and Hodor, a servant with an unnamed mental disability and “giant’s blood” (Osha, S01 E08). Hodor carries Bran on his back or drags him in a wagon. Soon the crew encounters Jojen and Meera Reed, a brother and sister. Jojen has visions and supernatural abilities, like Bran, but they sometimes give him seizures. Meera does the hunting and the fighting. In a conversation between Osha and Meera, the show delivered a strong, disability-positive message:
OSHA: Isn’t he ashamed, your brother, needing you to protect him?
MEERA: Where’s the shame in that?
OSHA: Any boy his age who needs his sister to protect him is gonna find himself needing lots of protecting.
MEERA: Some people will always need help. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth helping. (S03 E02)
In a few short lines, Meera casually dismisses traditional gender roles and affirms the value of disabled lives. For four seasons, Meera demonstrates what it means to be a nondisabled ally to disabled people. It gets lonely for her after her brother dies and Bran gets increasingly absorbed in a tree… erm, his quest to acquire all knowledge… but she doesn’t make it all about herself and there’s never a moment where we feel like Bran’s story exists to show us what a good person Meera is.
Beyond Tyrion and Bran, there are many other characters who experience either disability or the stigma of an atypical embodiment. Aemon Targaryen, Maester of the Night’s Watch, is blind. Doran Martell, Prince of Dorne, uses a wheelchair. Shireen Baratheon, scarred by greyscale. Jorah Mormont, cured of greyscale by Samwell Tarly at the Citadel. Samwell’s fatness. Brienne’s tallness. The Hound’s burn scars. Davos Seaworth’s missing fingers. These “othered” embodiments are absolutely a part of who the characters are, but they’re not their only defining features. And the fact that the show explores so many forms of difference reduces the metaphorical power of any one disability. Disability in such numbers becomes just a fact of life as a mortal human being.
This is not to say that disability was ever unimportant on the show. Certain disability plotlines interrupt a character’s story, leaving them forever altered. Jaime Lannister gets his hand chopped off and has to learn to fight lefthanded; Theon Greyjoy gets castrated and mutilated by Ramsay Bolton. For both of these characters — men who abused their power and did bad things — their dismemberment is a punishment exerted by other men abusing their power and doing bad things. But it doesn’t feel like justice. Learning to live without the very body parts they once hung their identities upon — “My sword hand. I was that hand” (Jaime Lannister, S03 E04); “They say hard places breed hard men, and hard men rule the world” (Theon Greyjoy, S02 E02) — plays a role in these characters’ gradual redemption arcs. Jaime and Theon’s stories gave us a representation of the grief following an acquired disability, and also the slow progression toward acceptance.
The castrated Theon Greyjoy is not the only eunuch in the series. There is also Varys, a character important enough to have many titles: Lord Varys, the Spider, the Master of Whispers. Varys is Tyrion’s best friend apart from Jaime, and his conversations about power are some of the most meaningful and intriguing of the series. Varys is one of the few characters whose actions are in the service of the realm rather than his own ambitions. He is portrayed as one who sees what is best for the people of Westeros, and knows which course of action is most likely to preserve peace.
Then there are the Unsullied. Imagine: the most formidable military force on two continents, comprised of eight thousand guys without cocks! Their leader, Torgo Nudho a.k.a. Grey Worm, even falls in love and has sex onscreen with (arguably) the most beautiful woman on the series, Missandei of Naath.
With these characters, Game of Thrones was toppling gender norms and disability tropes alike. I’m not saying I was comfortable with all the disability storylines — Bran’s disturbing ability to control Hodor like a puppet certainly gave me pause, and Arya’s temporary blindness by the magic of the Faceless Men was a plot contrivance to give her a superhero-like advantage in one-on-one combat. But for the most part, the way in which the show incorporated disability as a fact of life, always emphasizing the humanity of characters experiencing disability, was revolutionary. There were no mercy killings and no miracle cures. The disabilities were not in themselves symbolic or metaphorical, they weren’t there to ennoble nondisabled characters or inspire the audience, and most importantly, they didn’t in themselves imbue the story with tragic significance or sentimental inspiration.
Until season eight happened.
How does the final season betray the disability community?
The first, and worst, way the series’ disability messaging flips is with Daenerys’s choice in “The Bells” to set fire to King’s Landing.
Second is Tyrion’s hijacking of Bran’s life story for the tale of inspiration he thinks we all need after the war.
1. The Mad Queen
Most reviewers agree that Daenerys’s transformation is unearned. After the city had surrendered and she had won her victory, she takes off on her dragon and torches everything, killing tens of thousands of civilians, including countless children, and demolishing everything in sight. Millions of stunned fans were left to the conclusion that Dany “went full Mad Queen” and made good on her father’s threats to “burn them all.” What is unforgiveable here is the way in which the show establishes this turn of events as in Daenerys’s blood: inherited madness from her father.
Fans were desperate for an explanation. Why did she do it? Haven’t we been watching Daenerys liberate slaves and talk about ruling without cruelty for seven seasons? Isn’t this the same woman who locked her dragons in a cave after they killed one innocent child?
The only explanations the show actually offers are genetic. And they come from Varys, of all people.
“I worry about her state of mind.”
One episode prior to Dany turning tyrant, Varys learns Jon Snow is a secret Targaryen, and he immediately turns on Dany, the ruler he’d spent the past three and a half seasons working to make queen. Varys’s first response is to say, “He has the better claim to the throne,” and then, “I worry about her state of mind” (S08 E04).
But Daenerys had not, to that point, done anything you could call “mad.” The only thing that had happened was Tormund Giantsbane praising Jon, saying, “What kind of person climbs on a fucking dragon? A madman, or a king!” (S08 E04). Daenerys looked envious and lonely in that moment, and Varys was watching. Tormund’s words took on a lot more significance than was meant, with Jon as the “king” and Dany left to the role of “madman.”
Then, at the start of “The Bells,” Varys writes letters about the truth of Jon’s birth and attempts to poison Daenerys. She’s just lost another dragon, and watched her best friend get beheaded — she’s understandably depressed, but she still hasn’t done anything “mad.” Varys waits for Jon Snow on the beach, and loses no time trying to draw him into his plan:
JON: She shouldn’t be alone.
VARYS: You’re worried for her. I admire your empathy.
JON: Aren’t you worried for her?
VARYS: I’m worried for all of us. They say every time a Targaryen is born, the gods toss a coin and the world holds its breath. (S08 E05)
Varys’s betrayal, based on genetic determinism — and possibly an anticipation of the realm’s preference for a male ruler — could be read as a self-fulfilling prophecy of Shakespearean proportions. The extent to which he turned on Dany, and so quickly after learning of Jon’s heritage, is a big part of what rattles her cage. So in the end, when she does become an irrational and genocidal tyrant, Varys turns out to have been right, but we’re left questioning whether she would have done it if he hadn’t acted so sure that she would.
This “plot twist,” if we can be so generous as to call it that, reinforces a message popular among racists and eugenicists alike that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” and that children are doomed to be like their parents, despite other influences on their development.
The words of House Targaryen are “Fire and Blood.” Blood signifies power — war, violence, and death — but it also signifies bloodlines. To keep their bloodlines pure, “the Targaryens wed brother and sister for thousands of years” (Cersei Lannister, S01 E07). The show has always dealt problematically with the connections between incest and disability. Cersei Lannister wonders if her son Joffrey — a Mad King if there ever was one — was so vicious because he was born of twincest with her brother Jaime (S02 E07). Personally, I always thought it was obvious that Joffrey’s cruelty was the result of toxic masculinity and his having been spoiled. Born a prince with the world to inherit, Joffrey was corrupted by power. I didn’t read him as mentally ill or disabled, just evil. But perhaps this reading was wishful thinking on my part. Maybe I wanted to see it that way because I thought the show was otherwise so smart in its representations of disability. Conflating evil with mental disability is pretty much the worst thing a disability representation can do. However, the incest explanation was always there.
In a behind-the-scenes interview featured with season one, author George R. R. Martin said of the Targaryens,
They don’t really think themselves quite equal to normal humans, they think themselves godlike, and gods don’t interbreed with humans, so they marry brother to sister. But of course, all this inbreeding has produced the troubles that inbreeding usually does (“House Targaryen,” S01 extras, HBO).
In the finale, even Tyrion comes around to genetic determinism. “Our queen’s nature is Fire and Blood,” he says tragically (S08 E06). Clearly, he’s abandoned his message that “children are not their fathers.”
It’s not necessarily the fact that Dany turned tyrant in “The Bells” that I find repugnant. As a consequence of absolute power, I could understand her becoming believably corrupted, and becoming the very thing she set out to destroy. There is value in that message. What is so offensive in this storyline are the invocations of madness, conflated with evil, and the continual framing of this madness as something in the blood.
“Our queen’s nature is Fire and Blood.”
Dany’s madness is tragic, a metaphor for too much power, and she becomes a cautionary tale. The only way to resolve her story is through a mercy killing. Thus, at the end of Daenerys’s arc, we get several of the most familiar disability tropes shoved down our throats all at once. So much for “subverting expectations.” The show certainly managed to subvert my expectation that it would end with as much originality as it began.
2. Bran the Broken
The “sweet” part of the “bittersweet ending” Martin promised comes with the conclusion of Bran’s arc. In one of the least believably written scenes of the series, a council determines the leadership of the realm following Jon’s murder of Daenerys. Tyrion, though he is a prisoner in chains for treason, is given more authority than anyone else in the conversation. He nominates Bran:
TYRION: What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags? [Shakes his head.] 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. The wars, weddings, births, massacres, famines. Our triumphs, our defeats, our past. Who better to lead us into the future?
SANSA: Bran has no interest in ruling. And he can’t father children.
TYRION: Good. Sons of kings can be cruel and stupid, as you well know. His will never torment us. That is the wheel our queen wanted to break. From now on rulers will not be born. They will be chosen… (S08 E06)
Tyrion fixates on Bran’s disability narrative as the tale of inspiration the realm can get behind. Tyrion assumes the people, broken by war, will find hope in Bran’s story of overcoming. He reduces Bran’s narrative to the terms of every disability story ever. In short, Tyrion turns Bran into inspiration porn.
With a quick vote and a cry of “All hail Bran the Broken!”, a democracy of sorts is born in Westeros.
The fact that Bran is the one to end up as king makes me all the angrier that his role in the final season had been so useless. After acquiring all the knowledge in the world from the previous Three-Eyed Raven, why did he never do anything with it? Why did he not play a role in the battle against Cersei? He could have warged into ravens in King’s Landing and spied on her, at least. Couldn’t he have partnered with Arya to have Cersei discreetly killed, precluding Dany’s “madness” and saving tens of thousands of lives? When he says to Tyrion, “Why do you think I came all this way?” (S08 E06), we’re left thinking that Bran knew what had to happen for him to become king, and he made sure it did. Quite the little schemer. This could have been interesting, but every scene he was in was so… wooden (tree pun intended).
And it makes me all the angrier that Meera Reed makes no reappearance in season eight. What happens to her? Obviously she was cut for time, but are we to assume she was absorbed into the Army of the Dead off-screen? Are we forgetting that she killed a white walker? And how much she sacrificed to save one of the series’ most important characters? Bran’s abrupt dismissal of Meera in season seven was the beginning of his utter loss of humanity and personality.
Bran has become, in the end, an example of the “supercrip” stereotype. He gains special abilities to compensate for his disability, and as a result of his superhuman abilities he is no longer really a person. (I have published about this trend in narratives about autism.)
“Look at you. You’re a man,” Jon had said to him at their reunion at the start of the season. “Almost,” Bran responds (S08 E01). If that’s not dehumanizing, I don’t know what is.
Maybe George R. R. Martin will take the hint and change things up in the books. Or maybe those books will never get written. But in the meantime, the disability community has every reason to feel thoroughly let down. ■
Marion Quirici, Ph.D., teaches disability studies courses at Duke University, where she is also faculty advisor of Duke Disability Alliance and co-director of the Health Humanities Lab.