As a reader of the Song of Ice and Fire books I am very happy about Game of Thrones season six. I don't know where the story is going anymore, and that means I'm watching the show fresh, without the one eye paying attention to what has been changed or streamlined. I don't know what's going to happen from scene to scene, and I'm absorbed in the show in a very different way. The series is still taking its cues from George RR Martin - last night's big reveal came from GRRM himself - but it has outpaced his ability to tell the story in prose.
That reveal - what a moment. It worked on every conceivable level, including being the answer to a question I'm not sure many of us even had. But more than that, it was a reveal that totally repositioned a beloved character, that totally spoke to many of the show's greatest themes, that deeply impacted other characters and that may have set up plot machinations that will take Game of Thrones to a whole other level of weirdness. Here there be spoilers, of course.
For the last six years of television (and twenty years for book readers) we have accepted that Hodor walks around saying only one word: his name. We never really considered that Hodor was anything other than his name, and if we did it never seemed terribly important. How Hodor ended up the way he did was interesting, but I always guessed it would tie into how Martin likes to demythologize things (see last week's revelation that the heroic battle at the Tower of Joy was actually a work of cowardly backstabbing). And for some reason - I'm not sure if this came from the books or from my brain - I thought Hodor ended up as he is because he got kicked in the head by a horse. In fact there was a scene of young Hodor - then known as Wilys - standing next to a horse last night that I was certain would kick him in the skull.
How wrong I was.
The real truth is bizarre and complicated and fairly scifi for a show about dragons and elves and the walking dead. Young Bran, the Stark child crippled at the beginning of the series, has been studying under the seer The Three-Eyed Raven. As a total doofus Bran did some astral scrying without the aid of his mentor, and he got into some royal trouble with the Night's King, allowing the White Walkers to finally enter the redoubt of the Children of the Forest, Westeros' version of elves. As a pitched battle between elves, zombies and undead warriors raged around them, the Three-Eyed Raven and Bran took one last trip together into the past.
Last week we saw that Bran could, if he tried hard enough, be heard while visiting the past. That paid off this week in an unexpected way; I thought for sure that Bran would spook the horse that would kick Hodor, but what the show - and George RR Martin, whose upcoming Winds of Winter will likely have this scene in it - had in mind was way more complicated. In the present Hodor is a terrified mess, unable to take any action to fight zombies or aid in dragging crippled Bran to the back door of the underground bunker. In the past Bran can hear the cries of his friends, and he knows he needs to do something. He attempts to warg his way into Hodor - in the past - and in doing so creates a bizarre metaphysical feedback loop. Modern day Hodor bursts into action, escaping the fortress with Bran and Meera while the Children of the Forest (and Summer the direwolf - c'mon, if you don't want to have the wolves in this story just don't have added them in the first place! They're almost all dead now!) give their lives to hold off the zombie hordes. In the past Hodor falls into a seizure, and in the present Hodor plants his bulk firmly against the exit, blocking the door. Meera drags Bran, still trapped in the past, into a whiteout snow storm, and she cries back to Hodor: "Hold the door! Hold the door!"
In the past Bran can hear this. And he watches, in horror, as young Wilys begins babbling in his seizure: "Hold the door! Hold the door! Hold the door!" and the words start to melt together into one jumbled mess that finally evens out into "Hodor! Hodor! Hodor!" In the present day Hodor is ripped to shreds by the zombies, giving his life to protect Bran. In the past he is trapped into a terrifying loop, giving up his life in a more powerful way than anyone could have ever imagined.
Hodor has always been something of a joke on the show, if a beloved one. The big strong guy who is a scaredy cat and who has the one word he can say over and over, he's like a more huggable version of Groot. But in recent seasons the show has seen our characters doing some things with Hodor that made some viewers uncomfortable; when Bran learned he could warg - project his consciousness into animals and control them - he learned that he could do the same to Hodor. No longer a mentally challenged oaf, Hodor under Bran's control was a powerful fighter and a useful tool in many situations. But that's what he was - a tool. No longer a man but a pawn of our heroes.
The titular game of thrones is played between the nobles of Westeros' many houses, but it truly impacts the regular people of the Seven Kingdoms. The books have had more room to explore this (albeit in passages that tend to be the least interesting) but the show rarely has... until now. This revelation positions Wilys/Hodor as the ultimate victim of the game of thrones, a boy whose entire life is ruined in the service of a lord who won't even be born for decades to come. The impact of the nobles of Westeros, the unthinking damage they do to peasants, extends in a radius of death and devastation that stretches out behind and in front of them in time. All of Bran's unthinking using of Hodor in the past has led to this point, where Bran is now confronted with the fact that he ruined Hodor's whole life before his own father was even old enough to have kids. It's trippy.
It's really important that Bran was there to see it. Isaac Hempstead Wright plays the scene perfectly - he is filled with shame and regret and terror in this moment as he realizes what is happening. The long arc of Game of Thrones has always been towards social justice, but it's only becoming truly clear now - Yara attempting to become a Queen, Daenerys destroying the patriarchy of the Dothraki, Tyrion working to end slavery - and it seems likely that Bran's contribution will be towards building a more egalitarian society, or at least fighting for one. There is no better way to understand the innate destructive force of the ruling class than to be the ruling class and being forced to watch it in action.
At the same time Hodor's fate is one of profound heroism. He chooses to hold the door. He, unwarged, makes the decision to give up his life. His sacrifice is meaningful - Bran is very clearly vital to the future of humanity, as evidenced by the Night's King desire to kill him immediately - and very painful. Painful in ways we can't understand - he's not just giving up his physical life but his whole life. He's allowing himself to be trapped in that feedback loop. He's not only giving up his future, he's giving up his past.
That both of these things could be happening at once - a furious denunciation of a class system where some lives are worth less than others mixed with a tragic appreciation of a lower class life given to a larger cause that doesn't even have his best interests at heart - is why Game of Thrones is so brilliant. And it's the kind of moment that could only happen in a longform story; the revelation of Hodor's Hodoriness wouldn't have the same impact after two hours of a movie as it does after six years of TV (or twenty years of books). This is what we talk about when we say 'epic' or 'saga' - it isn't just the scope of the tale but it's length and breadth as well. It's like journeying with Odysseus in real time. For the last century we've been a culture that thinks the only serious storytelling happens in discrete chunks, in small packages, but I am glad that there is now a return to this most ancient form of storytelling. You think Homer first heard the entirety of The Odyssey in one night around one fire?
What does all of this mean for Game of Thrones moving forward? Will Bran swear off meddling in the past, or will the fact that he knows he can make a difference embolden him to try and change what has come before? If so, he will likely learn a lesson that what is cannot be changed, but that he may still have a role in making things bad. I wonder if the Mad King Aerys Targaryen will be revealed to have gone mad because a boy from the future keeps whispering in his ear. On the one hand I think Hodor is a big enough payoff for the way that Bran can impact the past, but I always suspect that Game of Thrones has more hurting up its sleeve. The story is heading towards the end, which means we're going to see more triumph headed our way, but George RR Martin will always temper that triumph with tragedy.