This article contains spoilers for "Blood of My Blood," the sixth episode of the sixth season of Game of Thrones. Proceed with caution. You might also consider reading our full recap of the episode.
Amid all of the relatively bloodless events in "Blood of My Blood," the return of Ned Stark's younger brother, Benjen, stands out -- not only because he came into the mix swinging a bitchin' flaming ball-and-chain flail, but also because his long-awaited reappearance answers some lingering geeky questions and leaves us with a few more. So, as we dig into who (and what), exactly, Benjen is, let's first back up and answer the basic question.
Back with a Benjen-ce: who is Benjen Stark again?
Benjen, the brother of Brandon and Eddard Stark, and the youngest son of noted Affleck-Garner marriage enthusiast Lord Rickard Stark of House Stark, joined the Night's Watch for reasons that George R.R. Martin has yet to explain, but probably had something to do with Ned inheriting Winterfell after their father and brother's deaths at the hand of Mad King Aerys Targaryen II and a realization that he would have been bored just being a nobleman and purchasing swords he wasn't ever going to use at the outlet stores in Crofter's Village.
We last saw Benjen, the First Ranger of the Night's Watch, in episode three of the season one, after he'd welcomed his biggest fan, Jon Snow, as a new recruit. Talking with his bastard nephew on the Wall, Benjen tells Jon that he's going ranging east of Craster's Keep in the Haunted Forest, which sounds like the correct place to go looking for undead things. "There've been disturbing reports," says Benjen. "Reports I don't want to believe."
Jon begs to go, too, on the grounds that he had just beat up on a bunch of thieves and chubby people in training, but Benjen tells him that he hasn’t earned anything, that his hair isn't nearly luxurious or long enough, and that he hasn't even been killed by mutineers and been brought back to life by a red priestess yet. Then Benjen goes and bitches out quippy tourist Tyrion Lannister, and when Tyrion tells him that he thinks the only difference between the brothers of the Night's Watch and the wildlings is that when the Wall was built, the wildlings were on the wrong side of it, Benjen keeps up the foreshadowing: "It's not the wildlings giving me sleepless nights."
Nor should they have been. Of course, Benjen disappears, the rangers he was with are found dead (then turn to wights and have to be burned), his horse comes back at some point with a look that's like, "Will someone please sell me to a nectarine orchard outside of Highgarden?," and then Benjen doesn't show up again until episode six of the sixth season, when he's fire-thrashing every dead thing trying to kill Bran. But he isn't exactly the same handsome-haired uncle.
Introducing "Coldhands Benjen"
For as long as there have been Old Gods and New, people have speculated on the information superhighway about Benjen being a character from the book called Coldhands. Coldhands is a former ranger who shows up in A Storm of Swords and rescues Sam and Gilly from wights. In said books, he is the one who guides Bran, Meera, Hodor, and Jojen to the cave to meet the Three-Eyed Raven. He also rides an elk.
His hands are cold because dude is dead, and has black hands filled with congealed blood. Also worth pointing out: he does not have those sexy blue eyes that the White Walkers get when they're turned.
Now, in terms of the books, the speculation about Benjen being Coldhands was allegedly laid to rest once a Texas A&M library came into possession of an original GoT manuscript in which GRRM's editor asks him point blank if Coldhands is Benjen, and Martin responds "No," which is a pretty hard word to spin as "Yes."
But, in this post-book world, as Kevin Garnett might point out, anything is possible, and so the showrunners decided to tidy things up a bit and combine the two characters. And in case you think I'm just telling a Littlefinger-style truth, co-showrunner Dan Weiss even calls him "Coldhands Benjen" in the after-show. SO THERE.
"You are the Three-Eyed Raven now"
Once Benjen uses his Mario-post-eating-a-fire-flower powers to dispatch some wights and convince Meera that she and Bran should hitch a ride with him (argument closer: "The dead don't rest"), he takes them to safety and tries to make them feel welcome by chopping the head off a rabbit and squeezing its body above a cup to get blood. During this time, he reveals himself to Bran, and you can see that the skin on his face has the same sort of weather damage the ranger deserter who first saw a White Walker in the pilot had.
He talks about his ranging party and how a White Walker stabbed him in the gut with a sword of ice, and that the Children of the Forest found him and stopped the Walker's magic from taking hold by plunging a shard of dragonglass into his heart. Then, for our purposes, he says several interesting things.
One, he says that Bran is the Three-Eyed Raven now, and when his nephew protests by saying he doesn't know how to control his powers, Benjen acts like a life coach, calmly telling him that he just has to control it "before the Night King comes." And then he drops this: "One way or another, he will find his way to the world of men. And when he does, you will be there waiting for him. And you will be ready."
It's going down, aka how the whole damn show will end
So, according to Benjen, there is going to be a final showdown between Bran and the Night's King at some point, and it is likely going to take place at the Wall. Something to know about the Wall: it was allegedly built thousands of years ago by Bran the Builder (who also happens to be the founder of House Stark) using actual normal labor to stack ice and stone, plus the additional bonus of magic from the Children of the Forest to keep the undead out.
That magic is apparently the same magic that kept the whole crew safe in the Three-Eyed Raven's cave -- until Bran gets marked (Bran-ded?) by the Night's King in his ill-conceived solo vision. And that mark could very well mean that Bran himself now is some sort of non-walking spell repellent, and that if he attempts to pass through to the other side of the Wall, it could suddenly lose its magical aspects and become just a giant wall of ice. This could open up all of Westeros to attacks by the White Walkers. After all, winter is coming, dammit.
But if we look at all of the things happening right now, we have some really sexy big-picture potential for an End of Days-type battle to end all battles. Here is my Nostradamus impression: Dany and her dragons will eventually cross the Narrow Sea with the Dothraki, the Second Sons, and the Unsullied (and perhaps the Ironborn!), and start laying waste across the South. The White Walkers will find their way past the Wall and do the same to the North. Eventually, once it becomes clear that the Night's King and the Walkers aren't just there to watch historically inaccurate plays in Braavos, men will stop fighting among themselves and align themselves in some sort of coalition, ultimately under Daenerys.
As she is the youngest child of King Aerys Targaryen II, aka the Mad King, aka he of “burn them all” fame, that saying could now have an important new meaning when dragons are facing the White Walkers, two entities no one believed had existed for thousands of years, finally squaring off. That will be our literal song of ice and fire, and when it happens, I will remind you all and toot my own horn of winter.
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