(Author’s note: The title reads “review.” This is obviously not a review of the episode, which by all measures I think is very strong up until its big, last-minute reveal. It is a breakdown of that last-minute reveal only, because the moment and the response to that moment have driven me to make my own response. This italicized preamble is brought to you by Clarity™.)
I hadn’t intended on writing anything in regards to Game of Thrones until the end of the season. It’s a case of split reasoning; half is logistical, because at present I simply don’t have enough time to write about the show, and the other half is out of concession. Game of Thrones‘ sixth season thus far ranks as “good,” but none of the episodes are satisfactory on individual merits, which means that they are not wholly satisfactory. They don’t work as individual chapters. They are mostly low-impact, save for a smattering of big moments here and there, as in Daenerys’ fiery declaration of selfhood in “The Book of the Stranger” or Jon’s resurrection in “Home.”
Writing in that capacity – in a guessing game mode where each development will work or not based on the ultimate outcome of this chapter in the show’s hierarchy – sounds like compressed hell to a man, so a man has chosen to put off penning his thoughts on the season until it is complete and we can thus fairly evaluate its pieces in tandem with one another. (He is also caffeinated and tempted to write the rest of this in the third person indefinite. “A man was heartbroken! A man was annoyed!”) But then “The Door” happened, and now I have to say something very unpopular: The climax of “The Door” is silly and aggravating in equal measure. (I should also say, even though I shouldn’t have to say, but I will because it’s the Internet, that if you haven’t seen “The Door,” go away. I’m about to ruin it for you if you don’t.)
Poking the beehive that is the Internet with the tip of your tongue is never a good idea, but the sheer outpouring of praise for the major feat “The Door” managed to accomplish – giving book readers the same sort of emotionally charged reactive moment that non-book readers have been feeling since Ned Stark lost his head in “Baelor” – demands a democratic response*. In the abstract and in practice, I understand the reaction, because I, too, felt an ache in my heart as Hodor held the swarm of wights at bay with his body, crying in terror at the dual realization of his fast-dwindling mortality and the culmination of his cruel destiny. Hodor isn’t really much of a character. He feels like one because Kristian Nairn is a gifted enough actor that he can take a man afflicted by expressive aphasia and make him human and empathetic**.
But the big reveal about how Hodor went from Wyllis to Hodor in his boyhood is insulting in its absurdity. There is logic here, of course, and the logic “works” if you’re the type of person who doesn’t care about causality loops and has no interest in pondering the fluidity of time. After losing too many arguments regarding the time travel of 2012’s Looper, I am no longer that person, but I can stomach loose plot mechanics if they’re straight-faced enough. “Hold the door” is not that. “Hold the door” is cringe worthy on multiple levels: As an aural cue, as an explanation for Hodor’s condition, as character progression. It works only as gross human tragedy, which Game of Thrones has plenty of already.
The problem here isn’t Hodor dying. Hodor dying to save Bran from Bran’s own recklessness is wonderful. Game of Thrones has, in season six, been all about characters slowly coming into their own as people and fulfilling roles that they have been figuratively cast in since birth. (See: Daenerys, Jon, Sansa.) But each of these arcs is packed with a component of choice that Hodor lacks. If Hodor was a better-written character, robust whether in his book or television form, the absence of choice in his demise wouldn’t be dramatically frustrating. If we knew even just a little bit more about Hodor beyond the meager basics the show has provided, then the big twist at the end of “The Door” – that Hodor has essentially been raised as a lamb doomed to suffer delayed slaughter since he was a teenager – would be a devastating turn of the narrative. We would care about Hodor not because Nairn is great or because the Internet is great at beating viral phenomenons to death, but because the character has depth and an arc, a beginning, middle, and end.
Hodor doesn’t have that, though, and “The Door” can’t give him that. He has a beginning; he was a stable boy at Winterfell who grew up watching Eddard, Benjen, and Lyanna Stark from afar, and who suffered temporal brain damage as a consequence of Bran’s warging. He has an end; he was Bran’s gentle, giant companion who lost his life carrying out an order he heard in his youth and which came to shape him as a person. That’s it***. The questions raised by the big paradox of Hodor’s existence are worth considering in context with the show, but the most likely conclusion is the simplest: That Bran warging into Wyllis in the past as Meera commanded Hodor to “hold the door” in the present fried the poor boy’s brain. Thus, Bran is responsible for both the lifetime Hodor spent enduring the judgments of others, and his lonely sacrificial death. This sort of makes Bran an asshole, but we can forgive him because people on Game of Thrones frequently make bad decisions that inadvertently and adversely affect people caught in their crosshairs: Robb and Ned, men who acted based on their personal honor codes and led their kin to horrible deaths, are two extreme examples of this dynamic in action. You can count Cersei’s empowerment of the Faith alongside them, too.
What is harder to forgive is how “The Door” unravels the meaning of “Hodor.” Did Hodor really have to have an origin explaining his nickname? Keep it simple. He’s a stable boy. Maybe he took a hoof to the face while “holding the door” for his lords as they took their horses out for a ride. That, at least, would make him more empathetic, but turning “Hodor” into a mark of irresponsible warging adds nothing necessary to Hodor as a character. If Hodor held the door sans the strings of fate, would that be any less sad than him dying because it’s his purpose to die by decree of Bran’s meddling? Hodor dying because he finally has a moment of clarity in which he sets aside his cowardice and gets to be the hero his station prevented him from being, even if only for a moment, is more gratifying and effective as a resolution to his arc. Hodor dying because Bran made an oopsie is, by contrast, the precise sort of meaningless cruelty that people routinely criticize Game of Thrones for indulging in, except that it is actually meaningless and flat-out contradictory to what the show has taught us about Bran’s powers. “The past is already written. The ink is already dry,” the Raven says in “Oathbreaker.” Bran has smudged that ink, though, so unless the Raven was withholding truth, this is a big, obnoxious cheat****.
Grant that we’re only halfway through season six, and that this particular wrinkle in what Bran can accomplish by warging back through time might be laid bare in its second half. If it does, it won’t scrub the tarnish off of Hodor’s departure. As a supporting player in Game of Thrones‘ ensemble, Hodor needed substance instead of subterfuge, artistry instead of artifice. His death hits us in the feels more due to Nairn than the writings of David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, and George R.R. Martin. (Benioff and Weiss did not and never could”out-murder” Martin.) That “The Door” incorporates predestination into its final sequence shows a stunning lack of confidence in its strength as a set piece and as drama, not to mention the love that the show’s fans have for even its lesser characters; by consequence it moves us through thinly veiled manipulation rather than honest emotion. Thanks for holding the door for us, Nairn. Game of Thrones sure didn’t hold anything for you.
*A term I find myself using quite a bit these days. (See: My review of The Nice Guys.)
**And because fans of the show have made “Hodor” into a meme far greater than a “Leeroy Jenkins” or a “doge.”
***This sort of makes him a thematic cousin to Varys, who is also haunted by disembodied words he heard at a pivotal moment in his upbringing. Varys, however, has agency and has achieved vengeance as well as station in his adulthood. Hodor, not so much.
****Note: This might be exactly the case.