Why Benjen Stark Could Totally Be Alive After Saving Jon Snow
It's amazing that most of the humans who journeyed north in Game of Thrones Season 7's "Beyond the Wall" end up surviving. There were some major losses in the battle against the Army of the Dead: a wight bear mauled and mortally wounded Thoros; poor Viserion took an ice lance to the neck (although The Night King might save him from complete death); even Daenerys and her dragons found themselves retreating before saving Jon Snow, who stayed to fight off wights, only to be pulled below the ice. Luckily, that wasn't a total loss; before the poor bastard Stark -- er, Targaryen? -- succumbs to the wight-filled water, he pulls himself out of the water, picks up his sword and… in rides deus ex masked figure.
Did you catch who that was? With only quick-cutting shots and Jon's frozen breath huffing out his name, it was easy to miss that none other than Benjen Stark rode in to the rescue, wielding his chain of fire death. It appears Benjen sacrifices himself to save Jon Snow, but does he? Is he even capable of dying? And where did he get that horse? It's time to go deep on one of the least ceremonious deaths in Thrones history. If it even was a death.
First: everything that happened to Benjen before "he died"
Benjen, the youngest of the Ned Stark generation of Stark boys, has been around since the first season, when he convinces Jon Snow to join the Night’s Watch while stopping by Winterfell to tell Ned about the potential threat North of the Wall. He escorted Jon to Castle Black, then ranged “Beyond the Wall” and never came back. In fact, Benjen’s horse comes back without him, and eventually the Night's Watch finds the two other Rangers Benjen left with -- Othor and Jafer Flowers -- dead. A closer look at their bodies was our first real introduction to wights on Thrones. We didn’t learn about what really happened to Benjen Stark until Season 6, when he showed up to help Meera drag Bran, now the Three-Eyed Raven, back to Westeros.
In between his appearances, Benjen was used for some expert trolling by HBO. Before the Season 5 finale, “Mother’s Mercy," a crafty "Previously on" recap editor slipped in a clip of Benjen’s horse returning to Castle Black. When Jon Snow was told his Uncle Benjen was back in the final minutes of the episode, it was a rare example of the show using the past as full-on misdirection to toy with our emotions. It wasn’t Uncle Benjen, but Olly and Alliser Thorne ready to stab him in the heart.
The Benjen/"Coldhands" connection
In the books, the fate of Benjen is still unknown. When he returned again in Season 6 in his infected form, some readers of the Song of Ice and Fire novels thought that the character was an adapted version of the novel’s “Coldhands” character, a mysterious ranger who rides an elk and helps Bran on his journey towards the Three-Eyed Raven (in the fifth novel A Dance With Dragons), plus saves Sam and Gilly from Craster’s Keep (in the third novel, A Storm of Swords).
George R.R. Martin has explicitly stated that in his narrative, Benjen is not the mysterious “Coldhands," but in a Behind the Scenes feature on Benjen's Season 6 return, creator D.B. Weiss even refers to him as “Coldhands,” even though that moniker never made it into the dialogue of the show. The differences between the two have only increased with the scant few episodes we’ve had featuring Benjen/Coldhands.
The show replaced Coldhands's storyline featuring Sam and Gilly with Sam learning how to use a dragonglass dagger and summoning the courage to trek out on his own. The killing of Night’s Watch mutineers at Craster’s Keep was given to Jon Snow, who needed something to do for a few episodes that season. Jojen and Meera Reed absorbed the task of getting Bran to the Weirwood tree cave and meeting the Three-Eyed Raven. It wasn’t until after Bran had taken on the Three-Eyed Raven responsibilities that Benjen showed up, claiming to have been told by the previous Three-Eyed Raven that he needed to protect Bran.
Presumably, Benjen didn't find them at the Weirwood Tree Cave because the same magic that held the Night King outside (until Bran messed it up) would also keep Benjen away. On the show (not in the books), Benjen tells Bran that he was attacked by White Walkers and transformed into a wight when the Children of the Forest stepped in and shoved dragonglass into his heart, stopping the wight process but making him technically undead. This is also something we saw happen to the Night King in one of Bran’s visions. Which, in a way, complicates the Night King’s character. Benjen keeps some semblance of his personality in his transition to undead, which suggests the Night King isn’t a mindless force of winter, but a character that could (potentially) have motivations to punish both the Children of the Forest and the Realms of Men.
Benjen sticks around with Bran long enough to deliver him an ominous-yet-encouraging message about the impending war with The Night King: "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."
The part where we nitpick Benjen's horse
Undead Benjen likes to fight wights with a weaponized censer while on horseback. This week, he holds them off while sending Jon back to Eastwatch on his horse. But hold on -- how'd he get that horse in time for this very special purpose? Put on your overthinking caps.
First, the horse had to appear out of nowhere, as it is a living horse and Benjen’s ranging horse is what returns without him to Castle Black in Season 1, Episode 7. Second, Undead Benjen takes Meera and Bran to The Wall, but can’t pass through it because of enchantments against the undead. Then he leaves Meera to drag Bran the remainder of the distance while he leaves the young girl and the cripple on his perfectly good horse. Poor Meera takes a whole off-season to lug Bran the remainder of the distance, and it takes long enough that the rest of Brandon Stark’s personality froze and broke off somewhere along the ride.
At this point, why not give him an elk to ride on? Like, he found an elk and can ride it because he’s an undead badass, then he didn’t give Meera and Bran an elk, because only undead badasses can ride elk, not just any magical Stark. Think about it.
The question of Benjen's death
Back to the point: show Benjen says he has dragonglass in his heart, which raises some very morbid questions about how we see him go out this week. "Beyond the Wall" reinforces some rules about wights and White Walkers: they can only be killed by fire and dragonglass. Then, when Jon Snow is realizing defeat, right before Daenerys arrives with her dragons, we see the wights pull apart a wilding that falls into a mass of them. These two things combined suggest that Benjen isn’t actually dead. He should, in theory, be a sentient pile of dismembered body parts.
Benjen Stark, the first person on the show to honestly be worried about the Army of the Dead, might be cursed to live an undead existence. Since he was created by the Children of the Forest and not the Night King, the defeat of the Army of the Dead would destroy every White Walker and wight (as we learned this week: kill the Night King, kill them all), except poor Benjen who is an entirely different undead person… or in this case a pile of dismembered body parts with memories of being a Stark. Will he make one more victorious move before the Long Night is over? I'm just saying it's possible.