Game of Thrones: “Hold the Door” — A Service Interruption


It’s easy to reduce “The Door” to its big reveal. For all of the mysteries and unanswered questions floating around in the background of Game of Thrones, sometimes the most moving reveals are the ones that fill in gaps you didn’t even realize were there, in surprising and unexpected ways.

But Hodor’s tragic origin story–which stands out as the most dramatic moment in the episode–is part and parcel with the larger theme that weaves its way through every story in “The Door.” As Mrs. Bloom pointed out, the episode explores what it means to be a faithful servant, whether it’s right to question, to advise, to disobey, and to expect sacrifice. Hodor is simply the most extreme example of this idea in action, and a symbol of the notion that fealty can come at a cost, that like many of the power structures in Westeros, the price paid by those in the weaker positions of society, those who serve, can seem questionable and disproportionate, even when it’s for the greater good.

That sort of hypocrisy at the heart of so-called nobility comes through in Arya’s slice of the episode. As she’s sent to spy on her new target, she is slowly but surely realizing that the Faceless Men may not be the virtuous devotees of a righteous path that she thought they were. Instead, Arya’s beginning to see that they’re mere assassins for hire, albeit talented ones, who will ply their trade for whoever is willing to pay.

Or so it would seem. It’s hard to know whether, as with everything coated in the doublespeak of The House of Black and White, this is just another test for Arya. Yet, it seems like Jaqen H’ghar wants more from his pupil than for her to forget who she once was; he wants her to forget what she believes in. To become a Faceless Man, Arya must abandon her ideals, to let go of the idea that while she may wreak vengeance, it’s vengeance with a purpose, delivered to people who deserve it, not just on behalf of bad actresses who want meatier parts.

 

"Man, I could sure go for some oysters, clams, and cockles right about now."

 

The play that actress stars in is a testament to what being a good servant gets you in Westeros. Both Ned Stark and Tyrion Lannister served admirably in their tenures as hand to the king. While they pushed their respective monarchs in directions that they didn’t always like, both tried to be good servants to their rulers, to do what was in the king’s and the nation’s best interests, even if it meant making some difficult choices.

But what fate did this earn the two of them? Ned’s dead; Tyrion is in exile after his nephew, his sister, and possibly his father all plotted to have him killed. And if the play is any indication, their good deeds will be twisted by the scribes and poets of their age until any goodness in them will be forgotten. History is written by the victors, and with the Lannisters in power, the former head of House Stark is portrayed as a dim-witted, power-hungry swine, and Tyrion as a sniveling, lecherous villain. Good servants are not necessarily rewarded in the cruel world our heroes find themselves in.

And sometimes even bad servants get away scot-free. One of the most striking scenes in “The Door,” apart from the fireworks of the episode’s final sequence, is Sansa confronting Littlefinger over what he did to her. It’s a blunt, appropriately accusatory exchange, where Sansa radiates anger, pain, but also conviction. She makes Littlefinger own up to his actions, and the pointed silence that hangs in the air, the searing glances that bore into Baelish as he’s forced to face the reality of his deeds, make the point that he is not the humble servant he pretends to be.

But Sansa also has a good advisor, the pure and noble Brienne, who stands by her side and gives everything she has to legitimately protect the lady she serves. It’s an incredibly harsh version of “goofus and gallant” when Brienne and Littlefinger share a scene as Sansa stands between them. Littlefinger knowingly permitted unspeakable acts of horror to be visited upon the woman he claimed to be looking out for, while Brienne helped rescue her from those horrors. Amid the cruelty of this land, a true servant, a legitimate protector, can help drive away the terrors of the false friends who pretend to have your best interests at heart.

 

Cause I'm baaaaaack in blaaaaaaaack!

 

Some masters, on the other hand, truly do have their servants’ best interests at heart. In “The Door,” Dany shares a moment with her own most loyal servant, and Ser Jorah finally confesses his love. He admits the obvious — that his loyalty is not simply the courtly devotion to which a queen is entitled; rather he truly cares for her.

There’s a stoicism to Dany in that moment. She acknowledges his words with a subtle look, but gives no indication that she returns his affections, nor would she. While the Mother of Dragons may enjoy the occasional dalliance with Daario, there’s long been a sense that she is above romance now, that after the death of Khal Drogo her purpose in life became to rule, and any flirtations or bits of affection are either the Khaleesi blowing off steam or mere means to an end.

But when Jorah reveals his affliction, her true feelings betray her. I don’t mean to suggest that Dany shares Jorah’s romantic intentions. There’s multiple ways to read their scenes together, but I don’t take Daenerys to be enamored of Jorah in the same way he is of her. And yet, she cares deeply for the man who has guided her in her journeys beyond the narrow sea. The knowledge that he is fated to perish slowly but surely as the greyscale takes hold leaves her struggling to maintain her regal composure.

One of the signs that Dany is meant to rule, meant to become the leader that Westeros needs, is that she uses her power over Jorah for good. She orders him to find a cure for his affliction. Daenerys is not merely his queen; she is someone who cares for him enough to feel wounded by his betrayal and shaken by his revelation, and who wants her dear friend to be well again. Jorah has proven his devotion to her time and time again, and for once she uses that devotion for his own benefit.

 

It's a shame, really. He was two weeks from retirement.

 

That same exploration of masters and servants is present in the other brief yet momentous revelation in the “The Door.” The Children of the Forest, the same earthen creatures who seek to help Bran defeat the White Walkers, are the very being who created them. The Children meant to make the White Walkers their servants, creations who were meant to protect the Children from the men who were driving them to extinction. But somewhere along the way, the White Walkers lost their will to obey, either because they were mistreated or because they simply chose their own path. The unintended consequence of that decision to irrevocably alter innumerable lives to protect their own led to a scourge that how threatens to consume the whole world.

But one small, but important piece of that world is also consumed in “The Door.” The episode culminates in Hodor’s last stand. The scenes leading up to that captivating if terrifying moment is one of the most vivid and visually impressive in the show’s history. The eerie stillness as Bran wanders through a horde of Wights until the peace is broken by the Night’s King stands out in its unsettling glory. The stop motion-like movements of the Wights as they descend upon the Three-Eyed Raven’s keep give the sequence a Jason and the Argonauts-like quality. It’s unsettling how the servants of the Night King, with their herky-jerky motions, surround the tree, descend from above, and swarm like spiders through the tunnels beneath.

It is they who consume poor Hodor, but they are not the first cause of his demise. I’m a skeptic when it comes to the use of tropes like “strong magic” and time travel when telling stories, because too often it leads to some kind of game-breaking arms race. Suddenly, despite displaying some new supernatural skill, the good guys can only change the past or unleash their overwhelming power when it suits the narrative, and conveniently ignore these abilities when they’re not necessary for the plot.

But this is different. When Bran, who is in in the process of absorbing the Three-Eyed Ravens’ last bits of wisdom, wargs into Hodor in the past, he causes his companion to break into a terrifying seizure. It quickly becomes apparent that Hodor’s single-worded simplicity is not the product of some unfortunate accident or genetic abnormality. It is the result of a choice made by the man he serves, one that turned him into a living sacrifice, without his having any say in the matter.

 

That sundial looks a little off.

 

There is a price to Bran’s choice, to his inexperience, to how he uses these abilities which bestow upon him the power to change the shape of events to come in ways he does not yet fully understand.  Bran is not simply a wizard with the talent to cast the right spell at the right time. He is a conduit of forces he cannot control, which not only led sweet Hodor to his death to preserve the lives of Meera and Bran, but which also robbed him of the life he might have lived between that past and the present.

Maybe Hodor was never destined for greatness. Maybe he’s even a more useful and happier person as a caretaker, as someone who can look after Bran and Rickon and be a force for good, than he ever would have been caring for those horses into his old age.

But Bran has a responsibility to his protector. Hodor was as good and loyal a servant as a young man could ask for. Hodor gave his life, effectively twice, to protect Bran. He tirelessly ferried his young ward all over the map. He’s done everything that’s ever been asked of him without complaint, or even necessarily understanding.

And yet Hodor didn’t choose this life. Bran turned him into a tool, into a means to an end, into yet another common person’s existence being sacrificed at the feet of one of Westeros’s noblemen, albeit one with the potential to save the whole world. That fact, I hope, is a bulwark for Bran and his new magic. I hope Bran recognizes what he takes from those around him when he uses these abilities, and that it gives him pause when he contemplates whether to try mold the past in order to shape the future.

 

"Choke on it!"

 

Much of Game of Thrones operates as a deconstruction of the tropes of high fantasy, and “The Door” shows the darker side of the blind devotion and loyalty that’s often lionized by works in that genre. Many have been killed on Game of Thrones. Many have died thoughtlessly, cruelly, or tragically. But few have died with the pure pathos of Hodor, who perishes as a piece of collateral damage in war he never fully understood. The reason that Hodor was so simple and thus so loyal was that Bran, intentionally or not, violated him, and left him as something less than he was or might have been otherwise.

That can still feel necessary when there are Wights at the door and White Walkers at The Wall. Someone has to make a stand. Someone has to suffer these losses. Someone has to hold the door.

But it feels wrong, or at least tragic, to have that sacrificial lamb be a kind young stable boy who never had the chance to decide if this is what he wanted, let alone what he believed in. Hodor had his entire being stolen from him, and then had what was left of his life given away to a pack of ravenous demons. That is a sad, uncomfortable fate for a quiet, happy young man, impressed into service to the very nobleman who made him the diminished creature he became.

There are times when sacrifices must be made. Sometimes people have to give their lives for the greater good. But when they don’t have the autonomy to make those choices, when they don’t even understand the choices that are being made for them, then the ways in which a master employs his servant seem all the more troubling, all the more questionable, and all the more concerning in a world where those in power extract their price from those without it, be they slaves, assassins, or just kind young boys who grow up to be simple, gentle giants. Goodbye Wylis. Goodnight Hodor.


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