Don’t Call Hodor A Hero
Don’t call Hodor a hero.
Don’t call him a friend. Or honorable, or passionate, or morally good. Don’t call Hodor a guardian or a beloved defender.
Because he wasn’t. Because he couldn’t be.
Not that Hodor was the opposite of any of those things through five and a half seasons of Game of Thrones. Far from it.
Outwardly he exhibited nothing but kindness, goodness, friendship. The kind of things we should strive to be in our relationships with one another. But while everything about Hodor — up to and including his final act since he first fell ill with a case of the Hodors — had the exterior markings of self-sacrifice, we can’t call it that. Because it turns out that Hodor didn’t have a choice.
How tragic really is the death of a character, which so many viewers have immediately begun lamenting, when that character was specifically imbued for the exact purpose of that death? If this view seems indifferent and mechanistic, it’s because the real tragedy here is that Bran (willingly, he’s the one who had a choice here, even if the set of options weren’t all that real) chose to strip Hodor of his agency — and therefore much of his humanity — as a child in order for Hodor to grow up for the express purpose of dying for Bran.
Hodor was a man without agency, suffused with a singular purpose. And while a distinct sense of purpose is more than a lot of us get, it also forecloses the possibility of acting out of a sense of heroism, honor, friendship, etc. Those are actions that require a choice, not an unbreakable mandate. An action is only truly heroic when it’s just one option out of a host of available possibilities within a given moment, and while it’s truly sad to see a beloved character die on behalf of others, that sacrifice feels lesser when it’s not a willing choice, but rather something he’d been programmed to do.
In a small screen world that embodies George R.R.’s adherence to a titillating version of the Great Man theory of history, in which the choices of individual characters set into motion repercussions that reverberate across several continents, Hodor’s lack of agency is a rare instance of determinism. This sense of inevitability is especially notable when it stands in stark contrast to the numerous choices made by several characters in episode 5, especially Theon, Sansa, and Arya, who had multiple courses of action available to them.
But Bran’s mind games, played out through Hodor as well as his little winter escape to Chateau Wight Watchers, hammered home the underlying question that’s been running through the series ever since we first found out that Iceman was leading a horde of the undead south to turn Westeros into (in the words of The Ringer’s Alison Herman) one giant, subzero “Thriller” video: What’s it all for?
The machinations of the show’s characters have been motivated by a number of reasons — sex, power, money, fear, loyalty, kinship, duty, not wanting to get broiled by dragonfire, you know, the usual — but they all pale in the eye of the impending doom that’s looming north of the wall. Although Game of Thrones takes great pleasure in reminding us that all men must die, again and again its players continue to act like an iron chair is the paramount goal, even if it won’t do a whole lot of good against an army of the undead and their cavalry of un-euthanized horsies.
Unlike Hodor, we aren’t given a purpose, but rather are forced to make up our own. As Sartre would say, “Life has no meaning a priori… It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose.” Or as Jaime would say, “Fuck prophecy. Fuck fate.” The only issue is that the purposes that the characters on Game of Thrones have devoted themselves to have been weakening their ability to fend off the ultimate enemy: an icy death stare from eyes so blue and crystalized they’d give Heisenberg a chubby.
Hodor didn’t have a choice regarding his role in the fight against that enemy. But the rest of the characters do, and what’s left is to see how they fare with their choices in the opportunities ahead.