(Update: Just finished watching season 7? Me, too. This post was written before its airing, so please read the primer in Bran’s villainy below, and then head over to read my season 7 update.)
Forget Joffrey and his crossbow. Or even Ramsey Bolton and his dogs (and his knife, and his sausage, etc.). It could just be that the biggest, most monstrous villain that Westeros has ever seen is, in fact, Bran Stark of Winterfell. Bran, the climbing boy who was pushed out of a tower window. The boy who dreamed of being a knight. It just might be that he found a lurking inner darkness and heeded the call of his very sinister destiny.
How All Great Villains Begin
Once upon a time, there was a boy who was shoved from a tower window. Until that very moment that the air whooshed past his flailing body, Bran was a sweet, innocent boy with a loving family and a promising and privileged future ahead of him.
Of course, this is exactly how so many villain stories start.
Then, in keeping with villainous themes, this tragic thing happens to him. He is nearly murdered by a queen and her brother, and is left crippled. Gone are his dreams of being a knight. Gone are his days scaling the rooftops. The bitterness sets in. He cannot remember what has happened to him, so he doesn’t understand why or how. He was cheated.
Let this mark the beginning of his darkness. TV Bran wants to hear only dark and morbid stories, and he despises his mother’s absence (another common villain theme). He cares not anymore about learning or caring for his father’s subjugates.
But, what of it? He’s an adolescent who has been crippled. Wouldn’t anyone’s mind be in a dark place? Absolutely. It’s what Bran does next that defines his character.
Bran Murdered Hodor
Suddenly Bran finds purpose–Jojen Reed tells him to go north, that doing so will save the world. And now, equipped with a Hodor and the Reeds to guide, protect, transport, and feed him, Bran heads north.
The problems truly start the night of the rainstorm when the northbound party shelters in the abandoned tower at Queenscrown in The Gift. A desperate Bran wargs into Hodor’s brain in order to calm the giant and save them all from being discovered by wildlings / Thenns. This isn’t a problem on its own, as it was done to save the group, including Hodor. But at this point, any archetypical hero would recognize the danger of robbing someone of their freewill and silently vow to use it sparingly, if ever again.
Bran doesn’t do that.
In the context of the book series, his act is historically categorized as an abomination by other skinchangers. Yet TV Bran easily resorts to it again at Craster’s Keep. As soon as their party is in danger, he enters Hodor and causes him to kill a man with his bare hands. When Hodor emerges from the invasion, you can see the look of horror and confusion. This isn’t something that heroes do. Bran’s acts scare and disgust Hodor.
Arguably, of course, one could say that since this was done to save the group, including Hodor, that this was a necessary evil. But in many ways, this put Hodor more in danger, especially as opposed to having Hodor run or aid Bran in hiding. Did Bran decide to live out his battle fantasies with Hodor? Is that why he was so violent with the giant? All of a sudden, Bran’s motives and justifications are getting murkier.
Once the group approaches the cave of the three-eyed raven and the wights/skeletons appear to attack them, Bran recklessly vaults into Hodor’s mind to battle once again. The books describe that as this is happening, Hodor can begin to feel Bran’s presence in his mind and is so scared that he has to mentally retreat and hide from Bran. Think about that. Hodor is so scared of Bran’s skinchanging, that he hides from him. This certainly doesn’t sound like the act of a hero.
And then we learn the tragic truth about Hodor. The sweet giant could have run. He could have run fast, run far, until he was the only one left. But instead he held the door.
Why did Hodor hold the door? Was it because–as so many Facebook memes have suggested–that he was a true hero? Sadly, no. Hodor wasn’t a hero; he was a victim.
Decades before, an innocent boy named Walder (aka TV Wylis) with an entire full life ahead of him had his brain invaded by an invisible force that warped his mind so badly he became simple, muttering only “hodor” for the rest of his days. Bran broke him. Bran cheated him out of the chance for a full and normal life. Why? Because Bran needed him to hold the door so Meera could drag his body to safety. Walder lost his life that day. And while that may have been an accidental byproduct–an unanticipated consequence of skinchanging–what wasn’t accidental was Bran’s decision to force Hodor to stay behind and meet his death. Bran used him like a doorstop, and sacrificed his friend and servant so that he, Brandon Stark, could live another day. Walder was murdered that day by Bran Stark. For the second time.
Time and time again in literature and pop culture, robbing others of freewill is a hallmark trait of villains. J.K. Rowling said so in the Harry Potter books–the Imperius Curse is considered an Unforgivable Curse in those stories, and is commonly used by Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters. In Rosemary’s Baby, the devil possesses Rosemary to procreate with her. In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Mola Ram uses Kali’s blood to control Indiana’s mind and have him murder others. Bran is not in good company here.
Jojen’s Unlikely Gift
Naysayers may be sitting back believing that Bran had to force Hodor to sacrifice himself. After all, TV Bran is the chosen one, right? The world will end if he doesn’t reach the weirwood, meld with the tree, and grow his powers? And Book Bran is just plain determined that this is something he’s destined to do. Such righteous possession is pretty typical of emerging villains. They’re not all Gru or Scott Evil, born into evil as a family business. Usually a driving purpose turns them dark. And Bran has his purpose–he has to get to the tree, above all else.
But why does Bran believe this is his destiny?
Because Jojen Reed tells him it is.
Jojen has been dreaming of Bran’s quest to find the three-eyed raven and blazes the literal trail right to the weirwood tree. Without him, Bran would have been sitting comfortably in front of a fire at Castle Black after escaping Theon Greyjoy. Jojen is the reason they sneak past the wall and evade Jon Snow so their journey won’t be hampered. Jojen is the voice that sets this all in motion.
Really, though, is that not quite the coincidence? Bran’s childhood friend whom Bran implicitly trusts just happens to be the destined guide north? Why Jojen? Of all the people. The Reeds are not known as greenseers. They have no affinity or skills in this trade. So where does this come from? The books hint perhaps the gift’s genesis is a fever. But is it more?
Maybe Jojen was compelled. By Future Bran.
After understanding Hodor’s story, we now know that Tree Bran can manipulate the minds of people in the past. What if Bran thought of his childhood playmate, and chose him as the messenger. He knew that Little Bran would trust him. He knew that Jojen could reach him quickly and safely, escaping the throngs of war. He knew Jojen to be a strong and determined little boy. So he sent him greendreams. He whispered to Jojen as he slumbered that Bran’s mission to get to the weirwood is paramount. That he must sacrifice everything–including his life–to make sure it happens. I mean, this creates quite the bootstrap paradox, but presumably at some point, Tree Bran made a choice.
Bran secured his own future and power by reaching into the past and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy through the manipulation of his little friend. Jojen was used and discarded, just like Hodor was.
Discarding the Hero Trope
If right now you’re thinking that these were all noble sacrifices and that Bran’s quest for power is to serve a greater purpose–maybe even to somehow save the world from the White Walkers, then you are still thinking in terms of the hero frame. Nothing suggests this except our own preconceptions that the Starks are the “good guys”.
But, if you discard that notion–just as G.R.R.M. discarded the trope that protagonist Ned Stark was going to be saved at the end of the first book and continue on as the hero of the series–Bran’s motives and role are still very much unknown to readers and viewers alike. The best we can do is suss out what is most likely based on the information we have.
To review: We know Bran does acquire power to control the minds and free will of others, including in the past and present. We know that Bran has no qualms about using these powers to control the minds and fates of others to suit his own needs. We know that Bran believes himself to be all-important, moreso than the lives and well-being of friends and companions (again, probably because he told Jojen to tell himself so). Ability. Motive.
What else might we observe about Bran and the many threads that were tugged and snapped to get him to the weirwood? What clues has G.R.R.M. left for us–little bread crumbs trailing in the wake of a part-giant carrying a crippled boy through the snow?
The Children of the Forest
The first bread crumb we might examine is the notion that Bran and his traveling party never encounters the Others / White Walkers. Sam, Gilly, Benjen, assorted rangers from the Night’s Watch, they all couldn’t throw a snowball north of the wall without hitting a White Walker. But somehow a slow-moving party of a lumbering part-giant carrying/dragging a crippled boy, a weakling boy, and his young sister all managed to plod through the north without once encountering the blue-eyed baddies. Not only are they slow, but they’re plenty noisy and feel free to hunt and light cooking fires. Not so stealthy.
While this could be a plot hole of convenience, G.R.R.M. tends to be more thoughtful in detailing how characters interact with their environment. And accordingly, the absence of the White Walkers on Bran’s quest is a very startling omission.
Could it be that Bran’s party was being protected from afar? It is entirely possible that the children of the forest were watching Bran’s party and shielding them from the White Walkers to enable them to reach the weirwood in safety. Granted, this does not necessarily suggest anything nefarious in their motives, especially given the commonly accepted premise that Bran is going to help defeat the White Walkers based on what he learns/acquires at the tree. And this would, logically, be something that the children of the forest would favor. Riiiight?
Except…it was the children of the forest who created the White Walkers. They made them to fight back against humans who had been invading their lands, slaughtering them, and destroying the heart trees. Unruly allies they may be, but the White Walkers exist to destroy humans at the behest of the children. Never forget that. After all, the song of ice and fire that is playing out very well might be the final battle between the children and humans.
True, at the battle at the heart tree, it is evident that the children’s power has been eclipsed by their own creation, as the so-called television Night King grows his army and his own magic. Their own cold, murdery mad dog that they loosed on the world for vengeance, snapped at another of their Shelley-esque creations, Bran. They knew it would be alright, of course. Their greensight gave them the vision to create Benjen “Coldhands” Stark, Captain of the Bransguard.
So, knowing that Bran is dancing on strings held by the children of the forest, it raises the question of their motives. The children and their greensight know what will come of Bran’s link with the tree. What do they see coming of this? Why do they favor this? Could it be that Bran is the villain that warps history and pits man against man? Is he another weapon for the children? Bran could be the Darth Vader to the children’s Emperor Palpatine.
Team Ice and Team Fire
As a jaunty little exercise, let’s make a list. Let us lay out who is on the side of ice and who is on the side of fire.
– R’hllor and the Red Preists / Priestesses
– The New Gods
– The pyromancers of King’s Landing
– The Night’s Watch (“I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn…”)
– White Walkers
– Children of the Forest
– The Old Gods
– The Three-Eyed Raven/Crow (whoever the hell he is…old Bran, is that you?)
– Brandon Stark
Yes. Yes, I think this is all lining up pretty clearly now. This is the song of ice and fire. The war that has already begun, and has been brewing for thousands of years. Bran thinks he’s on Team Fire, but when you align with the children and the old gods, you are really fighting on the side of winter. And it is coming!
Ned Stark’s Execution
To delve further into Bran’s story along his icy path–further than the books or TV show have taken us–let us consider how Bran may be used by the children and the old gods. They want him for some reason, and now we get to have the fun of wildly speculating how he might go dark(er).
For instance, if Bran was willing to sacrifice Jojen and Hodor to reach his tree, who else might he have been willing to sacrifice? Was there anything that would have stopped him? After all, Bran thinks he is on a righteous crusade.
Perhaps we should consider that one force that could have obstructed Bran’s journey was his father, Eddard Stark. Ned was very nearly sent to take the black and live at the wall. Had he done that, young Bran may not have been able to resist the temptation to join his father. Surely Ned would have never let Bran north of the wall.
In fact, Ned’s presence, even as far north as the wall, might very well have been enough to frighten Theon Greyjoy and prevent Winterfell from ever being sacked. Would a well-guarded Bran sitting in the halls of Winterfell be able to escape so easily for his journey? Would he want to?
If Ned’s safety at the wall was seen as an obstacle, it is entirely possible that a powerful someone with greensight made sure that Joffrey heard the whispers of doubt in his ear while he stood on the steps of the Sept of Baelor. “Are you really going to listen to those weak women? Sansa and all the Starks will laugh and laugh at your pathetic mercy.” After all, it is a ghastly shock to Queen Cersei, to everyone on the small council that Joff changed his mind and called for Ilyn Payne. Maybe Joffrey was really that reckless and unpredictable. Or maybe he had a little help.
Mad King Aerys Burns Them All
When first we heard Walder shout uncontrollably, “Hold the door! Hold the door!,” it reminded me of another story. Another madman who shouted “Burn them all! Burn them all!”, just as his world was crashing down around him. What was going through the Mad King’s mind? So many have assumed that he was thinking of the stockpiles of wild fire under the city–but could it be that his love of fire wasn’t derived from his dragon blood, but rather another type of interference?
As stretchy as this particular theory seems, it could very well be that Bran–accidentally or not–invaded the Mad King’s mind at some point. If we assume Bran did so deliberately, this may have been to facilitate Robert’s Rebellion, which set Bran on his course (and also aided the children’s goals for the destruction of humanity).
Or perhaps he was accidentally meddling and planted a seed of a thought into Aerys’s brain that came from Bran’s own wish to burn all the White Walkers. “Burn them all!”
The End Game
Ultimately, only GRRM (and perhaps the HBO show runners) know just how much chaos and damage Bran will cause (or, rather, has caused already). We can guess that the whole series is going to boil down to three Targaryens (Daenerys, Jon, and [?]) riding dragons to vanquish the white walkers, probably destroying that miserable Wall in the process and merging the segregated civilizations of the children, the wildlings, and the southrons (if the children survive). Some have even speculated that Bran could be the other dragon rider. But he won’t be.
In fact–if my theories are right–the Targaryens will rain down fire on the north not just to vanquish the frozen armies of the dead, but ultimately to destroy Brandon Stark. Bitter, desperate Bran never set out to destroy the world, but he is a tool of destruction with a dark streak in his soul. He is a pawn of the children and the old gods (who ever said the old gods were loving and benevolent? Ned Stark? Pshh. That man knew even less than Jon Snuhhhh.), who was chosen because the old gods had watched the Stark family from Winterfell’s heart tree and knew that Bran would become susceptible to acting as the instrument of destruction the children needed.
If this is all true, then I am more in love with GRRM than ever. He is the first author who ever really had me frightened for the wellbeing of the major protagonists in a book series. And now, if he is secretly telling the tale of how the Starks were puppets in an ancient war of men versus children–old gods versus new gods (including R’hllor)–I will bow down to a storytelling master. I will lay my sword at his feet and pull a Brienne.
And I think that is exactly what will happen. The gullible Starks have been played like lutes by small men and small women already. It turns out that bigger forces have probably been at play in Winterfell as well. Winter was coming for them all, and it finally arrived.
(Update: This post was created before the airing of season 7. To read an update on how the new season fits in with all this branliciousness, click here.)