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Evil or Incompetent: The Bran Stark Edition

Let’s face it: He probably knew thousands of people would die just so he could become king. Not a great way to kick off his reign.

HBO/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

Since Brandon Stark returned south of the Wall, Stark has been a human Tickle Me Elmo. He doesn’t laugh, smile, or spark joy, but he does randomly blurt a handful of prerecorded lines:

  • “I’m not Brandon Stark. I am the Three-Eyed Raven”
  • “I don’t really want anymore.”
  • “I’m going to go now.”
  • [Vinegar Strokes face]

Bran telling people he isn’t Bran and that he doesn’t want any lordships or titles was his defining character trait during the last two seasons of Game of Thrones, so it is extremely sus that Bran was down to become king and be called Bran the Broken in the series finale on Sunday. Sure, it’s possible that he changed his mind about the only thing he’s cared about recently, but does Bran strike you as a mind-changer? Factoring in the way he responded to Tyrion’s request for him to become king, it’s even stranger.

“Why do you think I came all this way?” Bran said when Tyrion asked whether he wanted to be king. It seems like Bran knew this was going to happen all along. That makes him more Simba than symbol, and it also raises a strange question: If Bran knew that thousands of people would die for him to become king, is he, like Tickle Me Elmo, secretly evil? Or is he just blisteringly incompetent? Let’s run through the possibilities.

Option 1: Bran Is Evil

Let’s say for a moment that Tickle Me Evil Branmo wanted to scheme his way to ruling the Seven* Kingdoms. Convincing Sam to tell Jon about his true parentage and driving a wedge between Jon and Dany suddenly makes more sense. Once Jon knew Dany was his aunt, they stopped having sex, Jon started thinking with the right head, and Bran convinced everyone—especially Tyrion—he didn’t want power, making him the most innocuous candidate of all.

There’s a chance that we saw Bran’s ability to see the future earlier this season leading up to and during the Battle of Winterfell. He gave Arya that Valyrian dagger at the same spot where she later used it to kill the Night King. During the battle, Bran warged into ravens to scout ahead, but failed to share any of that information. While it’s tempting to say maybe Bran just, uh, forgot about the battle, the most plausible explanation is that Bran knew what was going to happen and was using the ravens to confirm things were going as planned. It’s worth noting when Bran comes back, the encouragement he gives Theon buys him some precious extra seconds. Bran seeing this sequence play out ahead of time is the most plausible scenario that explains his actions, but it also calls into question other things he did (and did not) do.

Dany burned King’s Landing’s population so thoroughly that Jon Snow felt murdering her was the right thing to do. If Bran knew this and did nothing, he is complicit in the crime as well. (If you greensee something, say something!) And if Bran knew it was going to happen, and that he would become king at the end of it, his inaction might be just as bad as Dany’s. We know Bran had a vision in Season 6 of a dragon flying over King’s Landing, so he definitely had an inkling that the city would burn—or at least more of an inkling there would be destruction than he would become king, based on what we have seen. Did he let all those people die so he could become king?

Option 2: Bran Is Blisteringly Incompetent

A wise person once said to never attribute malice when incompetence will suffice, and perhaps Bran is just a terrible Three-Eyed Raven (He’s certainly too incompetent to show any gratitude to poor Meera Reed, who got dealt the rawest hand in the entire series by dragging Bran around for three seasons then getting kicked to the curb before his come-up.) The whole point of Bran being named king is that he is wise and will rule justly, but the first thing he does as king is neither wise nor just. After he gets a unanimous aye vote from the Westerosi DNC (including Edmure de Blasio), Sansa tells Bran, respectfully, to piss off.

“The North will remain an independent kingdom, as it was for thousands of years,” Sansa says. Bran nods silently.

Just moments earlier, Tyrion had convinced the council to elect Bran because his inability to have children would stop familial nepotism. Then, his second act as king is to let the North secede right in front of Pirate Sex Queen Yara Grejoy’s salad. Telling Sansa the North would not be granted special treatment and would have to bend the knee would have gone a long way toward breaking the wheel. He does not do this, and the repercussions are obvious. In Season 7, Yara negotiated a deal with Dany to have the Iron Islands be independent when Dany won the war. Dany won, but then she got assassinated by a Stark, a different Stark became king, and then that Stark named a third Stark queen of their own independent kingdom while seemingly denying Yara the independence she had bargained. Sounds like a raw deal and the sort of grudge that people hold onto forever until it eventually sparks an uprising. That doesn’t even take into account Dorne, whose unnamed prince shows up and agrees to this raw bargain even though Dorne held out the longest of any kingdom in the original Targaryen conquest three centuries ago and has as much reason to be independent as anybody else.

If Bran’s goal was to break the wheel and unite everyone on equal footing, this is the worst way to do it. Instead, he decided nepotism still rules, and the subsequent power imbalance will surely irk characters in perpetuity and provide the energy to keep that wheel spinning.

Bran’s small council meeting adds to the case he is the dumbest Three-Eyed Raven out of, well, the two Three-Eyed Ravens we have seen. He enters the meeting and the first thing he wants to know is why the small council doesn’t have a spy chief. The guy who can see the entire past, everywhere, all of the time wants more information (being Bran Stark’s Master of Whisperers is probably like being Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator).

Bran’s next order of business is deciding he’ll be the one to track down Drogon, and then he promptly peaces. Why does he need to leave this meeting early? With all due respect to the king of the Six Kingdoms, he doesn’t have a lot going on. We know Bran doesn’t get shy about warging in front of other people, so he wasn’t seeking privacy. If they were comfortable waiting to find Drogon for a few weeks, surely an additional 15 minutes doesn’t matter. Bran got elected to be the wisest king in the realm and he’s putting in less work into his executive gig than Magic Johnson. Perhaps he should introduce some new lines to his repertoire:

  • “I’m not the Three-Eyed Raven. I am Bran the Broken.”
  • “I know what I said before, but roll with this.”
  • I don’t really want anymore, other than a Master of Ships. And Laws. And Whispers.”
  • “I’m going to go now.” (Some things never change.)

Like Tickle Me Elmo, it’s impossible to know for sure whether Bran’s good-hearted shtick is part of a sinister goal aimed at world domination, or just a sincerity so pure it comes across as creepy. The larger takeaway is that it doesn’t matter whether Bran is evil or incompetent. From a raven’s eye view, the two can look the same, and the Six Kingdoms are worse off either way.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.