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A Thousand-Meme Stare

Bran Stark has one of the more compelling story lines on ‘Game of Thrones,’ but after Sunday’s premiere, he’s mainly been reduced to being the butt of Twitter jokes. Does this help or hurt the show?

HBO/Ringer illustration

“I’m not Lord Stark,” Bran Stark told the late Littlefinger in Game of Thrones’ Season 7 episode, “The Spoils of War.” At the time, viewers believed Bran was referencing his status as the newly anointed Three-Eyed Raven, which had elevated him above such worldly matters as heading a house. Now we have an alternate interpretation. Maybe Bran realized he couldn’t be Lord Stark because he was about to be appointed to a more important post: the series’ reigning memelord.

Earlier this month, we introduced the Game of Thrones Meme Bracket, which was won by Jon vs. Everyone. Bran was nowhere to be found on the bracket, but were we to redraw it today, he might be a 1-seed. Bran was the breakout character of the Season 8 premiere, which cemented the meme that’s now his character’s trademark: the Bran Stark Stare.

Bran’s ascent to internet stardom started in Season 7, when his reunion with Sansa went a lot less warmly than his sister expected. Expecting a show of filial affection, Sansa instead received the soon-to-be-famous Stare, cryptic comments about being—but also learning from—the Three-Eyed Raven (“It’s difficult to explain”), and a creepy confession that Bran had watched her on her wedding night. Bran’s blank expression while enduring a one-way hug summed up his new in-person presence; as my Ringer colleague Zach Kram put it to me, “Bran’s the only person to go through puberty and lose all his emotions.”

Screenshots via HBO

The internet, meanwhile, reacted like the pair of unidentified soldiers standing behind Bran: bemused, amused, or a combination of both.

In the wake of that episode, the joke tweets only slightly outnumbered the blog posts that aggregated them. But last Sunday, Bran truly committed to the bit. First he stared at Jon Snow, permitting only the slightest trace of a smile to slip through his trance.

Then, after rudely interrupting introductions and small talk to tell Dany about her undead dragon, he stared at Tyrion.

Most memorably, he stared at Jaime across the courtyard. The uncomfortable target of his gaze varies, but Bran always wins.

Even Drogon got in on the act. Bran wasn’t pictured during the Dany-Jon tryst, but odds are that somewhere in Winterfell, he was watching too.

Thus did the Bran Stare explode, with domestic data from Google Trends showing a sudden spike in image searches for “Bran stare” during the premiere, followed by a gradual decline as more memes proliferated and a wide array of websites rounded up the most viral examples and bent the knee to the new meme master.

Perhaps all publicity is good publicity, but there’s probably no piece of IP less in need of extra attention than Game of Thrones. Eight years into the HBO series’ run, the internet is on it, and there can’t be that many persuadable parties on Twitter or Reddit still making up their minds about whether to watch. Either you’re already invested, or you’re forever out on dragons, incest, and ice zombies and no number of inside jokes starring an expressionless pale person can make you reconsider.

It seems likely, then, that the capacity of the Stare to attract new viewers is limited, and no one’s going to tune out five episodes from the end because they’re sick of seeing Bran’s face. It’s possible, though, that there’s still a slight downside to the Stare. Could Bran’s late emergence as a meme, comic icon, and surprise punch line come back to bite the show?

Let’s stipulate two truths. First, we’re all here to have fun. We’re watching a show in which no one does a double-take when a one-eyed dude who has already died and been resurrected six times casts a spell that lights his sword on fire and then uses it to torch the zombie body of an 11-year-old lord, which is pinned to the wall in the center of a spiral of severed body parts. Sometimes it’s best not to take this text too seriously, even though years of reading, watching, and speculating has rendered it important to many millions of people. Here at The Ringer, we treat Thrones as a subject for serious scholarship, but we also like to laugh. We made a meme bracket! Watching Bran dispense with social niceties and awkwardly interact with his earnest companions while treating his immediate surroundings as a second-screen experience is just as jarring and humorous as the memes make it out to be.

Second, no character was more in need of a bump with the fan base than Bran the Bland. As I wrote last week when we made our MVP picks for this season, Bran has been through a lot, and Thrones has done him dirty, disappearing him for a full season and otherwise relegating him to unsexy assignments. Small wonder, then, that the actor who brings Bran to some semblance of life, Isaac Hempstead Wright, has been milking the memes since Sunday night. To which we say: Let Isaac live. He went through puberty in public, he never gets to swing a sword, and he hasn’t made a full facial expression on camera in years. Just let him have this.

That said, Bran may be this season’s most crucial character. Not only is he the source of the spiciest gossip (and the most essential exposition) in the Seven Kingdoms, but with the Wall breached, Bran’s mystical superpowers may be the key to turning back the White Walkers and averting another Long Night. He’s an all-seeing, all-knowing being who exists outside of time and unbound by his physical constraints, and his million-yard stares and extended silences are reminders that he’s transcended the limitations of the boy he had been, at the cost of some part of his personhood. Fixating on his lack of social skills seems to sap him of some of the spookiness and gravitas that the previous Raven possessed. It was way harder to meme Max von Sydow.

It’s not easy to summon a precedent for Bran’s unlikely breakout. Barb from Stranger Things comes close in content units per scene, but because she was such a passing presence (RIP), the internet adulation—and subsequent, selective backlash to the adulation—that arose around her barely affected the experience of watching the show. At most, it may have skewed expectations among people who gave the show a shot because of Barb fever. The same goes for The Young Pope, which was memed (mostly ironically) before it began. Once the series started, it soon became clear that it would take a different tone. It’s common for reality TV stars to make memes of themselves, but that’s typically part of the plan, and often a feature, not a cause for concern.

Movies may make for closer comparisons. The much-memed trailer for A Star Is Born may have misrepresented the movie, but it boosted the box office, created communal moments in theaters, and didn’t disappoint audiences, who found the full film’s lack of camp a pleasant surprise. A better comp could be the Anakin-Padmé love story in the Star Wars prequels, which was spoiled by a lack of chemistry and a stilted script. We weren’t supposed to laugh when Anakin laboriously explained his love for Padmé in terms of her dissimilarity to sand (which, you’ll recall, he hated), but the scene was impossible to take seriously. While there’s plenty of purposeful levity in Thrones, it’s not clear whether Bran’s Three-Eyed Raven persona is intended to be funny fan service in the same sense as, say, Tormund’s lusting after Brienne. It’s not always a negative when the spectators’ reception strays from the creators’ intent, but blending Bran with Larry David endangers the suspension of disbelief that’s already strained by the supernatural setting. In the worst case, the Stare could detract from the drama and turn pivotal plot lines and a serious character into comic relief.

Ultimately, fretting about Bran may be making the Mountain out of a memehill. The Star Wars prequels hinged on the believability of Anakin’s forbidden affair, but Bran is one of many compelling core characters in the wide world of Westeros. Even if his Stare becomes the equivalent of a corny sitcom character’s catchphrase, it wouldn’t warp the final season into Attack of the Thrones. To put a more positive spin on the Stare, memes are one way we engage with—and express our affection for—the content we consume. The sudden ubiquity of Bran memes only enhances our awareness that Thrones is what we’re all watching, which in turn makes each episode feel like a larger event. The fact that Bran could become a fixture of the online lingua franca is a testament to the series’ unparalleled pervasiveness, which we’ll miss after the finale, when the conversation stops.

Of course, this question could be moot if Bran lightens up a little. Maybe confronting the person who partly paralyzed him will make that stoic facade slip! Let’s just check the publicity stills for the next episode and see how he—oh, OK.

Bran’s next staring contest could come against a heart tree, which is probably for the best; it’s the only living thing in Winterfell as wooden as him. From all appearances, the Stare is here to stay. And for better or worse, that means many more memes to come.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.