game of thrones

King Bran? Really?

Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO

Nobody expected King Bran.

Okay, yes, there were some episode leaks that may have made him a favorite with Vegas oddsmakers, and a few people did predict Bran’s sudden rise to the monarchy in the Game of Thrones series finale might be the endgame. But given the option of a tyrannical woman with a dragon, a guy who was secretly the rightful heir to the throne, a strong female ruler who’s proven herself in her own kingdom, and a powerful former Hand of the Queen who’s demonstrated a newfound passion for mercy, and then Bran … well, there was a lot less energy in Bran’s corner.

In most ways, frankly, King Bran is a strange choice. Yes, he did get some brief training in how to be a steward of Winterfell when he was a boy, back before he became the Three-Eyed Raven and spent most of his time being shuttled around the North. His psychic status also means he’s absorbed all the lessons of generations of rulers, which is quite an enviable body of knowledge for a king to have. But we don’t see much in “The Iron Throne” that suggests that he’d actually be good at the job. His first council meeting is a fun collection of goofs that ends with the only female member, Brienne, mildly suggesting that ships might be a higher priority than brothels. King Bran dispenses no wisdom. He exhibits no charisma. His primary qualifications seem to be that he doesn’t want the job, no one is scared of him, he can’t create a dynasty, and there’s a decent story to tell about his rise to become the most powerful man in Westeros. Apparently he can also see the future, which is surely helpful for any king, but remember: In this final season, he never saw fit to mention any of his visions until they’d already happened. He can also warg into other animals, a skill that, like his predictions of the future, rarely does much to help him or anyone else.

In essence, a vote for King Bran is like voting for the guy on the reality show who had a good story, who never made alliances with anyone, and who won not because of his fantastic skills, but because he never pissed anyone off. Bran did not come here to make friends, but he also didn’t throw anyone under the bus. Bran was the king of least resistance, with the added bonus of some superpowers that definitely are real, but which are dubiously useful at best.

In spite of Tyrion’s speech, Bran’s story is also far from persuasive. It’s fine on its own: boy falls from the tower, boy endures painful recovery, boy mind-melds with a mythical figure that gives him access to the whole history of humanity. Still, that tale seems mild when put in the context of the rest of the series. Is Bran the Broken more impressive than Arya, the Hero of Winterfell, the girl who witnessed her father’s execution, fled across the Narrow Sea, trained as a faceless assassin, and then killed the Night King? It also doesn’t make any more sense than letting Sansa rule all Seven Kingdoms, especially if she’s already strong enough to will the North into independence. (There’s no more Iron Throne, so why couldn’t Winterfell become the new capital?) Bran may be the funniest option thanks to his generally weird, affectless demeanor, but he’s not an inspiring choice.

In a deep way, though, King Bran is the culmination of a message Game of Thrones has toyed with since its first season: If human weakness leads to corruption, the things that make people people are also the things that end up destroying them. Cersei was blinded by her need to put her children on the throne. Robert Baratheon was brought down by his vices. Joffrey was the embodiment of petulance and privilege. Daenerys had a dragon at her disposal, and when you have a fire-breathing dragon, everything starts to look like tinder. Whatever else Bran is or is not, whatever his skills may lack, there is one thing that makes him oddly fitting as the ruler of Westeros. He is not a person.

It is the most consistent element of Bran’s character in the later seasons: He’s not really Bran anymore. When he finally makes it back to Winterfell after years of isolation in season seven, Sansa declares him the Lord of Winterfell. “I can never be Lord of Winterfell,” Bran says. “I can never be lord of anything. I’m the Three-Eyed Raven.” He can see everything, he tells Sansa. Jaime comes to him to apologize in season eight, and Bran tells him, “I’m not that person anymore. I’m something else now.” Like Sansa, Tyrion asks Bran about being Lord of Winterfell, and when Bran tells Tyrion that he is not Winterfell’s ruler, Tyrion replies, “You don’t want it.” “I don’t really ‘want’ anymore,” Bran tells him.

If the lesson from the start has been that no one can sit on the Iron Throne, that all kings and queens are corrupt, and that no human can withstand the pressure and the power without eventually caving to madness or cruelty, Bran is the only option that makes sense. His freedom from wanting — his freedom from his own personhood — inoculates him from the temptations and risks of the throne. If he doesn’t want, that makes him less susceptible to the things that brought down everyone else: The desire for power, the pleasures of hedonism, the ties to family. After seasons of remarkably inhumane rulers, Bran’s true inhumanity is also the thing that makes him the most sensible choice.

Game of Thrones ends with Bran in power, and with the promise that because he cannot father children, the next ruler will be chosen by committee rather than by inheritance — presumably chosen by another council, although Tyrion doesn’t make these new rules very clear. (He really should, though. A succession crisis will bring down New Westeros very quickly!) It is a happy-ish ending, as happy as a show like Game of Thrones could possibly be. It’s hard not to think about what made Bran such a triumphant choice, though, and wonder how this could possibly work for future generations. If the only acceptable king is one who isn’t really a person, what happens when someone else gets the job? What will Westeros become when it’s ruled by a human being again, someone with desires and a family and pesky, troublesome emotional ties to the physical world? Bran may be an unexpectedly good king for this moment, but his rule almost necessarily implies that one day, bloodshed and tumult will return. Game of Thrones is over and the Iron Throne is gone, but one day the wheel will almost certainly turn again.

King Bran? Really?