What’s in a name? A whole lot, as it turns out. Bran’s visions of the past have been a big story in this season, slowly illuminating a lot of the mysteries that have teased Game of Thrones fans for years (decades, for readers of the books). While young Ned Stark and the fate of his sister, Lyanna, have been the big stars of these flashbacks, another character got a curious amount of screen time. Hodor, the mentally handicapped giant who can only say his own name ad nauseam, was once a relatively normal stableboy named Wylis. What happened to change him? As it turns out, his ward Bran Stark is responsible, thanks to some reckless, inadvertent time travel.
Despite the presence of dragons and zombies, Game of Thrones has generally been very “low fantasy.” Magic is kept on the periphery, and despite how fervent some of the religions are, very rarely does it seem like any god is working in Westeros. That seemed to change tonight — as Varys and a priestess of the god R’hllor debate the existence of the Lord of Light and fate, Bran’s reckless use of his greenseer abilities sets Hodor’s fate from childhood, leading to his sacrifice at the end of tonight’s episode.
But let’s start at the beginning. Bran’s training with the Three-Eyed Raven is progressing, although much to his — and the audience’s — chagrin, he is still only seeing glimmers of the past. Among these is the oddly casual reveal of the origin of the White Walkers. The Children of the Forest, losing ground to humanity in their war a thousand years ago, created the first White Walker as part of a ritual, shoving an obsidian dagger into a human’s chest. One of the most recurring themes in Game of Thrones is that actions have drastic unintended consequences, and it seems this applies even to nonhuman races. The Children wanted to create a weapon that could turn back the tide against humanity. They got one, but it seems it was too powerful to control.
While the Raven sleeps, Bran is eager to continue his training. After trying unsuccessfully to wake the Raven, he decides to explore the visions on his own. Appearing before an army of the undead, he strides through their ranks until he sees their leaders. Unfortunately, the White Walkers can see him as well. The Night’s King grabs his arm, and although Bran escapes the vision in time, the damage is done. His physical body has been branded and, according to the Raven, this means the Night’s King can pierce the magical shield that protects them. The dead are coming.
The Raven tries to rush Bran through more visions, but there is not enough time. An army of wights marches on the Raven’s cave. While Meera tries to calm Hodor and move Bran, the Children of the Forest attempt to hold off the wights using magical grenades. Alas, they cannot hold. The White Walkers press forward using magic of their own and slaughter the Children. As the wights break into the cave and Hodor seems paralyzed with fear, Meera calls for Bran to use his warging ability and possess the man.
Bran does, and uses Hodor’s body to drag his own deeper into the cave. Their escape is not without casualties. The Night’s King slay’s the Raven, and, in a sad bit of symbolism, Bran’s direwolf, Summer, dies trying to fight off the hordes of winter.
Meera, Hodor, and Bran’s body come to the door at the end of the tunnel, the last obstacle in their escape. They break through, and as Meera carries Bran out into the snow, she yells at Hodor to “Hold the door!” Hodor, hold the door — how similar those phrases sound. Meera’s voice is apparently carried back into the past where Bran is still having a vision of the young Hodor/Wylis. Wylis hears her shouts and falls into a seizure, repeating her command over and over as his mind seems to shatter. Eventually, “Hold the door” becomes simply “Hodor.” Bran inadvertently carves this command into Hodor’s mind, leaving him a simple-minded man.
He carries out that command, however, holding the door as the wights slowly chip through it. Wylis’s last words are, in a cruel twist of fate, the last words he later hears as Hodor.