Winter was a MacGuffin


Really, after all this time, is that all we get?

Obligatory spoiler warning — I’m about the talk about last night’s episode of Game of Thrones. Quit reading now if you haven’t seen it and intend to catch it later.

The White Walkers, and the dire warning that “Winter is coming” have been a constant of the both the novels, and the HBO production since the literal beginning. It was the looming existential threat that put the worldly machinations of noble houses and their quests for power into perspective.

The Night King, as leader of the White Walkers and reanimator of the legions of the dead, was the very embodiment of that fatal, destined winter. Until he wasn’t.

Thanks to Arya’s mad ninja assassin skills and her trusty, well-travelled Valyrian-steel dagger, the Night King and the existential annihilation he represented was gone without so much as a whisper of explanation of his nature, motivation, or purpose. After driving the plot for seven seasons (and five novels and counting), the Night King and his minions are ushered off the stage, destined to be forgotten in the final scramble for the Iron Throne.

Frankly, I found it all deeply unsatisfying. Which is when I realized that the Night King was no more than a MacGuffin. In fiction, a MacGuffin (a term coined, depending on whom you believe, by famed filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock), is a plot device — an object, goal, or other motivator — that protagonists pursue but with little or no narrative explanation itself.

As the team over at Slate remarks, this captures the Night King perfectly:

[O]ther than Bran’s little monologue last episode about destroying human memory, I never really understood what the Night King’s motivation or backstory was. Yes, he was created by the Children of the Forest for … some reason, but I feel like his villain arc was a very icy one note.

That’s because his villain arc was peripheral to the real plot. Instead, like any good MacGuffin, the point of the Night King and his permanent winter was not about the Night King and his permanent winter at all. His role was to drive the other characters, shaping their motivations and actions.

The team at The Atlantic understood this as well, and were less enthusiastic about it:

The White Walkers were a means to unite ice and fire—Jon and Daenerys—and build an alliance in the North in order to sort out all the lingering conflict in the South. They served no plot purpose other than to threaten to bring about the apocalypse, and the only thing more boring, story-wise, than defeating the Night King would have been letting him win and cover the world in mute zombies.

In this the Night King joins other famous examples of film MacGuffins, the shiny briefcase in Ronin, the Ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the grail in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Maltese Falcon in the classic film of the same name. In each of these examples, the nature of the MacGuffin is immaterial to the actual plot of the story.

For me that’s kind of a drag. I really did want to know more about the Night King (Just like I really, really wanted to know what was in that shiny briefcase in Ronin. It still annoys me that Robert De Niro’s character keeps the secret to himself at the end.)

Still, I guess it makes sense. George R.R. Martin has made blowing up the tropes of heroic fantasy a central element of this series. So dumping the supernatural army of the undead, whose main point seems to have been to take most of Daenerys’ army and dragons away, yanks the story out of traditional swords-and-sorcery territory and re-anchors it once and for all in the down-and-dirty politics and intrigue of dynastic succession.

Fine. But I’m still going to miss the Night King.

Farewell … We hardly knew ye.

Hodor Hodor Hodor!


Seriously, if you read the title of this post you should have already guessed that spoilers abound. Fair warning.

There was one noble act of self-sacrifice in last night’s Game of Thrones episode, but it wasn’t Hodor.

No, that belonged to Leaf, who took a whole bunch of wights down with her when she detonated her Holy Handgrenade of the Children of the Forest.

No, Hodor was sacrificed all right, but it wasn’t a death he chose for himself.

Nope. Bran killed him, just as sure as if he’d thrust a dagger into the gentle giant’s giant heart. Of course this runs counter to some of the Internet’s prevailing day-after narrative. Take this passage from a piece at The Atlantic:

The episode considered time travel. It considered the machinations of fate. In all that, it considered the circularity of violence: the notion that a violent act cannot be understood as a single event, but rather as something that will reverberate across people and space and time. As something that will, indeed, linger in the air.

The most striking instance of all that was, of course, the straining, clawing, and self-sacrificial death of Hodor.

Or this from Slate:

On Game of Thrones, death is sudden. It is cruel and stupid, brutal and inevitable. But it has never been as heartbreaking as it was at the end of “The Door,” when the taciturn giant, Hodor (Kristin Nairn), gave his life so that Bran and Meera might escape. George R.R. Martin doesn’t traffic in heroism, but if any character’s end qualifies as heroic, this one did.

Even the actors and showrunners themselves put this perspective forward in the after-episode commentary provided by HBO:

Pay attention to what Kristian Nairn, who plays poor doomed Hodor, has to say in the clip. “I like that he sacrifices himself for his friends. It’s very true to Hodor for me.” But he’s wrong. They’re all wrong.

At the moment when Hodor makes that decision, he’s not the one making that decision. Bran is. Hodor had been frozen in terror, useless as the White Walkers and wights were overrunning the cave where Bran, Meera, the Three-Eyed Raven, Leaf, and the other Children of the Forest were hiding.

And then Bran warged into him.

As we learned in earlier episodes, and certainly from the books (for crying out loud, read the books), when Bran wargs into another creature he shares its mind and controls its actions. This is true whether we are talking about Summer, Bran’s doomed dire wolf, or about Hodor himself.

Once Bran enters his mind, Hodor is nothing more than a puppet. A huge, powerful puppet.

This also explains how Wylis becomes Hodor. When time-traveling Bran wargs into the stableboy, he’s already mentally connected to Hodor, and becomes the bridge between past-Wylis and present/future-Hodor, allowing the later’s traumatic, horrific death to shatter the former’s mind.

So Bran is doubly guilty. He’s guilty first of killing Hodor, and second of mentally crippling Wylis’.

Of course this is all completely in keeping with the world of Game of Thrones, in which death is more often ignominious and pointless than it is noble. Ask Ned and Robb Stark, or King Joffrey, or Robert and Renly Baratheon, or Tywin Lannister. Or The Hound. Or Oberyn Martel. Or … take your pick.

It’s also a world in which the powerless die to advance the agendas of the powerful. And so Hodor joins the ranks of countless others, named and unnamed: Old Nan, Osha the Wildling, Shireen, Ollie, the shepherd’s boys, civilians and soldiers and men-at-arms without number.

But at least Slate got it right when they named Bran this week’s “worst person in Westeros.” It’s just not for the right reason.