I’m a late adopter to Game of Thrones, but I’ve brought all my game to the yard; I find this show utterly fascinating and compelling, even as it’s ripe with material to analyse. At the same time that the scope of the world is amazing and the worldbuilding is immense, epic, and beautiful, it’s also misogynistic, rapey, and horrific. Even as I love the characters, I get frustrated that so many of the women are turned into pawns to be used in a complicated game of power and control by the men around them. While I adore the majestic and beautiful settings, I wonder how responsibly HBO is behaving with respect to paying their workers well, protecting the environment, and taking care of the numerous animals used in the series — especially considering the problems with horses in The Hobbit.
But there’s one character in Game of Thrones who stands out, and with whom I’m unabashedly in love with: Tyrion Lannister, played by Peter Dinklage. He’s won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for the role, which is one of the few representations of disability on television, and, even more rarely, one of the few played by an actor who shares the disability. Dinklage has achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism, and has been a prominent little person in film and television for decades, but in Game of Thrones, he really shines.
Lannister doesn’t fall into the bitter cripple stereotype. In fact, he has a lot of commentary on disability, both directly and indirectly, that challenges viewers to rethink the way they conceptualise dwarfism while still acknowledging that it is, in fact, a disability, and one that tends to put people at the butt of jokes and inappropriate commentary thanks to the fact that it’s so evident.
‘If you’re going to be a cripple,’ he says at one point, ‘it’s better to be a rich cripple,’ targeting the fact that the society he lives in profiles him for being a little person, but that he’s found his own way in the world. Tyrion Lannister is wealthy, powerful, and a brilliant schemer, and all of these things operate independently of his disability — the show doesn’t frame him as triumphing over adversity, not letting his disability stop him, or any number of other irritating things. He’s just a Lannister — as scheming, brilliant, and terrible as the rest — struggling to make his mark on the world, and facing more obstacles than the rest of his family.
There’s a great scene in which he provides Bran with the plans for an adaptive saddle so he can ride even though his legs are paralysed, illustrating that adaptive technology could provide disabled people with independence in an era when many characters, including Bran himself, considered his disability to be the end of the world. In a way, Tyrion was a strange backwards mentor for Bran, showing that it was possible to live with a disability and to take control of the disability and the surrounding environment — while Tyrion may have belonged to a family that wanted to destroy the Starks, he clearly felt a kinship with Bran and the issues he faced after his fall.
Tyrion is also shown having sex rather a lot, and while he’s often seen with sex workers, this isn’t played as pity sex or the only way he can find a sexual companion (a point of view about disability and sex that’s insulting to disabled people and sex workers alike), as evidenced by the fact that Shay comes with him to the capital, clearly of her own volition, and chooses to stay with him at great personal risk. He debunks the myth that disabled people aren’t sexual and aren’t sexually desirable, at times taking on multiple sexual partners, something we don’t see very many other characters doing despite the fact that Game of Thrones is filled with sex (and rape, a separate issue).
He leads Kings Landing to victory over Stanis Baratheon, using his military skills and charisma to organise the defense of the city, conduct a planned and skillful battle, and hold the city when Joffrey shrinks into hiding. Even then, he’s given no credit for his brilliant work as the King’s Hand, instead being forced to shuffle to the background while Joffrey takes credit for the victory — another common issue for disabled people, who are frequently discounted when they do accomplish things, when they’re not being gawked at for completing basic activities like going to the store. For his hard work, he’s punished by being made Master of Coin, but what others don’t seem to realise is that putting him in charge of the Treasury actually gives him tremendous power and influence, and he’s more far-thinking than the rest of his family when it comes to exercising his power.
His relationship with his father is also fascinating, and another example of deep, complex interrelationships within the series. In a conversation with Jon Snow early in the series, as Snow pouts about not being understood because he’s a bastard, Tyrion points out that a dwarf is always considered a bastard by his father. It’s the first of many references to the tense relationship between father and son, one in which Tyrion feels constantly pressured to prove himself worthy of his father, while his father continually passes him over because of his disability. Tyrion, like many disabled people, faces the challenge of justifying his own existence not just to society, but to his family, who should ostensibly embrace him as one of their own.
The honest, open depiction of Tyrion Lannister is a take on disability that I don’t see as frequently on television. He’s not a supercrip, he’s not inspiring, and he’s not a bitter cripple. He’s a conflicted man and his disability is integrated wholly into his character, without letting it define him. Somewhat shockingly on a show that gets so much wrong, Tyrion Lannister feels, in many ways, so very right.