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Bran As King Makes Some Sense. The Storytelling That Got Us There Didn’t.

The Three-Eyed Raven was named protector of the realm in Sunday’s ‘Game of Thrones’ finale, making the show’s handling of him to that point all the more confounding

HBO/Ringer illustration

Since Aegon the Conqueror established Westerosi power in the hands of a single ruler 300-plus years ago, most of the continent’s kings have collected descriptive sobriquets. Some were flattering, from Jaehaerys the Wise to Daeron the Good; more were bitter and distasteful, from Maegor the Cruel and Aegon the Usurper to Aegon the Unworthy and Aerys the Mad.

The last king in Game of Thrones followed that Targaryen pattern, after several interim rulers without. Bran the Broken, the first Stark king of the continent, gained control midway through the series finale—yet in a final hour that saw otherwise fitting, emotionally touching endings for his Stark relatives, the close of the new king’s arc was the most baffling moment.

Bran’s rise from broken Bran to Bran the Broken—an inversion of words that makes all the difference—makes perhaps the most sense from a raven’s-eye view, when considering the totality of his character progression. The Thrones pilot climaxed with Bran’s fall from a tower, courtesy of Jaime Lannister’s friendly shove, as the boy who sought knighthood lost the use of his legs instead. His subsequent development into not just a knight but a king, the king, works for a story that tries to subvert traditional tropes and expectations.

And in a meta sense, in a story that at the end especially tried to say something meaningful about stories themselves, this development fits too. Why is that the case? Here, I’ll let Tyrion explain (in a council meeting that came across as hasty and contrived and rather silly, in some respects, but that’s not the point here):

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. The wars, weddings, births, massacres, famines. Our triumphs, our defeats, our past. Who better to lead us into the future?

Given that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss reportedly discussed the broad concluding plot points with author George R.R. Martin more than a half-decade ago, it would now be a safe bet that in Martin’s mind, too, Bran becomes king at the end of his series of books. There, too, Bran’s rise fits: He was the first book’s first point-of-view character (the introductory prologue aside), and his POV chapters in the show’s later books, though not as numerous as those of a Tyrion or Jon Snow, are some of the novels’ most affecting and magical.

But it’s in the show’s treatment of Bran between his becoming the Three-Eyed Raven and his becoming Westerosi king that the arc flickers and dims. The future king spent an entire season sidelined, as he reached the predecessor Three-Eyed Raven’s hovel beyond the Wall and the show pressed pause on his story line. Notably, he is the only major character to miss an entire season after being introduced.

When he does return, the show uses him more as a key for plot conveyance (most notably, through learning Jon’s true parentage) than a real character himself. His personality effectively disappears—see: his awkward reunion with Sansa; his awkward goodbye with Meera Reed—and he becomes more meme than man. As Ben Lindbergh wrote for The Ringer about Bran earlier this season, the character’s default stare “could detract from the drama and turn pivotal plot lines and a serious character into comic relief.”

The purpose of Bran’s position as the Three-Eyed Raven, moreover, is only shallowly explained, which seems important when the basis for his assumption of the throne rests on his ostensible role as storyteller. Earlier in Season 8, Bran tells the assembled war council at Winterfell that the Night King wants to kill him because he is the world’s memory. But his predecessor lived isolated from the world, huddled in a cave far beyond the Wall, not sharing that memory with any living human. He’s not the first Three-Eyed Raven, either, Bran reveals, but rather just the latest in a long line of memory holders, The Giver–style. How can we square one Three-Eyed Raven who lives apart from humans and one who rules them, and assume they fulfill the same strategic function?

Martin also famously believes that the quality of a king’s character does not determine his success as a ruler. The unexplained nature of Bran’s powers as applied to his new post seems strange in this light too. Why, for instance, does Bran even need a master of whisperers, which he asks about in his one small council meeting in the finale? He can see everything, and hear all the whispers! And what does it even mean for the realm when its king can see the future, and apparently knew his own future all this time already? As he says in the finale, he traveled south only because he knew his destiny; how long has Bran known, and did any other characters have agency and choice along the way?

More importantly, for a show that has disregarded or downplayed so many elements of the fantasy genre since surpassing Martin’s books, the turn to the character most connected to those very fantasy elements at the end underwhelms. If Bran were to become king, why cut him from a full season of the show? Why reduce his personality? Why cut short the yin to his magical yang, the Night King, and ignore a possibility at his personality, too? Why resolve the White Walker plot so suddenly? Why give Bran so little to do during that fight? Remember, during the Battle of Winterfell, Bran tells Theon, “I’m going to go now,” scouts via ravens for a brief moment, and then does nothing for the rest of the episode. Perhaps this was a nod to Bran’s ability to see the future, the idea being that he knew the humans’ plan would work already—but is that inaction a model for his reign? If so, the implications are far from compelling in a show about power.

The show wasn’t always just about fantasy, and it wasn’t just about political power. It was a blend of the two, and in that sense, Bran as king brings the two threads together—the character with the most fantasy power gaining the most political power, too. Yet because the exploration of those two sides of the story has grown so imbalanced, in Season 8 particularly, that fusion falls forced and flat.

None of this criticism is to say, again, that Bran’s ultimate fate is wrong or against the spirit of the story. But it seems underdeveloped specifically in a show that hasn’t known what to do with this magical character for seasons on end. Like much of Season 8, it works more in the moment than it does as the endpoint to a series of connected moments; in this case, every vote from the assembled high lords and ladies for Bran’s rule contrasts sharply with every uncomfortable syllable he uttered to Meera’s heartbroken face last season, since which Bran has exhibited no real signs of social growth or tact.

Bran might well make a strong king for Westeros. The wonder of stories isn’t just their past but their unexplored futures, the dreams of unwritten plot that will never come—the march of Jon and the free folk to the far north, the sail of Arya on her direwolf-branded ships to the west. The realm broke the wheel with Bran the Broken, and the whole world might be better for it. But the storytelling that led to that point was ultimately broken, too. Bran the Broken, indeed.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.