“Cripple and Confidence Man:” Disability Representation in Six of Crows and Netflix’s Shadow and Bone
Words By Erin Clements
Spoiler warning for both Six of Crows and Netflix’s Shadow and Bone.
Despite being a life-long reader, I was an adult before I fully saw myself in a character. While there had been countless characters I related to in some way, all of them were missing a crucial aspect I was looking for. I finally found that in Kaz Brekker, the protagonist of Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows. Kaz is a cold-hearted, ruthless teenage gang leader, and he is disabled. Six of Crows depicts his disability in ways that I, a disabled woman, relate to as I never have before. So I was nervous and excited when Netflix announced their adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone trilogy and the fact that they would be giving characters from the Six of Crows prequel backstories to include them in the Shadow and Bone storyline.
Disabled characters, especially when handled well and not falling into ableist tropes, are not common in media. Additionally, most of this media falls into tropes including the disabled character taking a magical cure to rid them of their disability, seeking death to avoid existing in a disabled body, or serving only as a prop to further an able-bodied person’s narrative. Almost all of them rely on such ableist tropes and are ultimately more harmful than helpful to disabled representation. For example, Jojo Moye’s Me Before You features a disabled main character with enough money for the world’s best treatment and care, but he chooses medically-assisted suicide because he views his life as not worth living in a disabled body. And TV shows such as The Facts of Life and Breaking Bad use disabled background characters—Geri Tyler and Walt Jr.—to show a “more sympathetic side” of their able-bodied main characters.
While some recent media, such as Netflix’s Special and the ABC sitcom Speechless, have provided incredible representation, those stories are explicitly centered around the main character’s disability. Speechless is about moving through high school as a disabled child, and Special is about seeking independence as a disabled adult. Both shows have done a lot for disability representation, but they remain relatively obscure and their plots don’t expand past the main character’s disability struggles. On the other hand, Six of Crows depicts disability in an honest, raw, vulnerable, and relatable way through Kaz’s characterization, likely because Leigh Bardugo is also disabled and was writing from her own experience, but his disability is not the center of the plot. Kaz is disabled, and his disability is explored through his characterization, but it doesn’t dominate it. His disability isn’t a prop for another character’s narrative arc, in later books he (SPOILER!) explicitly rejects a magical cure, and much of his plot wouldn’t change even if he were able-bodied. Kaz represents what moving through the world as a disabled person is actually like: everything he does is influenced by his disability, but it’s not his reason for doing things. His disability is a part of him, but it’s not his entire being—something that other pieces of disability-related media often fail to comprehend.
In Six of Crows, Kaz’s disability and his cane are sources of strength and a vital part of his mythos. While a non-disabled writer might use Kaz’s limp and reliance on his cane as a way to garner sympathy and pity for him, Bardugo flips that trope on its head. Kaz knows that people will expect him to be weak and he uses that to surprise his opponents. Kaz’s disability is not only a source of strength but also an advantage.
[H]e’d broken his leg dropping down from the rooftop. The bone didn’t set right, and he’d limped ever after. So he’d found himself a Fabrikator and had his cane made. It became a declaration. There was no part of him that was not broken, that had not healed wrong, and there was no part of him that was not stronger for having been broken. The cane became a part of the myth he built. No one knew who he was. No one knew where he came from. He’d become Kaz Brekker, cripple and confidence man, bastard of the Barrel.
Bardugo’s personal experiences with osteonecrosis and cane usage allowed her to create a character that the disability community, myself included, favors. Since Bardugo did it so well, I wanted Shadow and Bone to depict disability the same way she had but I feared they wouldn’t be able to follow through.
That’s why I was initially apprehensive when Netflix announced that Freddy Carter would be playing Kaz. He matched what I expected Kaz to look like physically, but he didn’t appear to have a limp. But I knew of Bardugo’s involvement with the project and that she had final casting approval for some characters, so I was cautiously hopeful that Carter’s performance would still land. Before the show’s release, Bardugo spoke out about Carter’s casting, reminding fans that we don’t know that Carter isn’t disabled and that it’s invasive to assume. Based on interviews that Carter has done since it seems he is not disabled—at least not physically. Regardless, I wanted to go into the show judging it primarily on its actual content. Although I wish they would have cast a disabled actor, I was hopeful that they would at least do the character justice.
The show blew me away. Despite my hesitation about casting an actor without a limp to play a character whose limp is a massive part of their characterization, I think both Freddy Carter and everyone involved in writing Kaz’s disability into the show did an awesome job. In his introduction in the first episode, Kaz’s cane enters the frame before he does. His cane is immediately used as an extension of his body to stop Jesper. As he limps throughout the following scene, his limp is shown no differently than the way anyone else is walking. There’s no special shot to emphasize his disability or slow pan of the camera as he limps across the screen—nothing that others him from any other characters, which was a massive relief to me. His reliance on his cane is more subtle in the show compared to the book, where we were privy to thoughts like, “In that moment, he would have given up half his share of the thirty million kruge for the familiar heft of his cane.” But episode two helps to rectify this by having him lose a fight against two men when his cane is almost immediately ripped away from him.
In episodes four and five, viewers really begin to see how much Kaz’s pride affects his movement through the world, especially as a disabled man. Because he decides to “make [his] own way” in episode four rather than perform a trick to ride in the carriage with the rest of the stage performers, he has to walk the entire journey next to the carriage dressed as a guard. Post-journey, he is visibly exhausted and in pain. Once alone, he pauses to rub his leg before continuing, taking pained, deep breaths as he continues with his job. This mirrors the scene in Six of Crows when he struggles up the stairs in the Ice Court but continues with his mission anyways. After rejoining the group later in the episode, Inej tells him that he should have either her or Jesper with him for the rest of the mission. Kaz declines, saying, “I’ll manage”—a quintessential line for disabled people who are pushing themselves too hard to complete a task, but have too much pride and don’t want to feel like they’re inconveniencing those around them.
One change that I loved in the show was the inclusion of inoffensive disability jokes. Book-Kaz uses other people’s assumptions about his disability to his advantage and acknowledges his disability openly with no attempts to hide it, but nothing about him is comedic. He is cold, calculating, and ruthless, and while he has inner soft spots for those he cares about, even those closest to him rarely see them. On the other hand, the show injects some comedic relief into Kaz’s perception of his disability, with him making jokes like “unlike a spider, I only need one good leg” as he stands on a Grisha’s arm. In episode seven, Kaz and Jesper knock out two foes, with Kaz using his cane to do so. Jesper gestures to the two unconscious men, asking “are you going to help [move them out of the way]?” Kaz simply holds up his cane in response, earning a sarcastic “Oh. Well, isn’t that convenient for you,” from Jesper. In the final episode, Kaz is once again rubbing his leg and moving with a more pronounced limp than usual, showing how much pain he’s in from overexerting himself for the sake of the mission.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by Shadow and Bone’s depiction of Kaz Brekker. I’m still sad that they didn’t cast a disabled actor, but I appreciate how much care Freddy Carter has taken with the role and I can see why Leigh Bardugo was comfortable with him taking it on. While Shadow and Bone’s Kaz wasn’t as cold-hearted and ruthless as I expected him to be, I felt that the disability portion of his characterization was written incredibly well, and I’m excited to see how they handle him in future seasons. He might be Dirtyhands, the bastard of the Barrel, a ruthless teen gang leader, but he is such an important piece of representation for physically disabled people. I’m hopeful that especially with the booming popularity of the show, he will continue to serve as intriguing and accurate disability representation, perhaps even opening doors for more disabled characters and actors in the process.