WARNING! Spoilers below for “Game of Thrones” Season 7!
In the final minutes of Sunday’s “Game of Thrones” episode, Jon Snow’s hero complex flares up in a big way as he and his ragtag squad face an onslaught of murderous wights.
Instead of reaching just a little harder to grasp Daenerys’ (Emilia Clarke) hand, Jon (Kit Harington) casts aside his will to live, turning instead to strike down a few more of the undead, who have the living outnumbered in the extreme. As Jon hacks away, Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) and the others scramble to safety aboard Dragon Force One, idling on the runway until Jon’s fate ― drowning in a frozen lake ― appears tragically sealed.
But Jon, to quote Sam, always comes back. And although he emerges sopping wet onto a frigid landscape with his allies just a speck in the distance, Jon escapes the scene thanks to the sudden appearance of an undead man on a horse: Benjen Stark (Joseph Mawle).
It might seem a little too perfect, until we take a closer look.
Benjen makes his first appearance back in Season 1, as the living, breathing brother of Ned Stark (Sean Bean) and uncle to the Stark kids. He takes a particular shine to Jon, but disappears beyond the Wall soon after Jon joins the Night’s Watch. He’s then presumed dead — a victim of the White Walkers — until Season 6, when he shows up out of the blue to save Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) and Meera Reed (Ellie Kendrick) from approaching wights.
When he meets Bran, Benjen explains how a White Walker had stabbed him with a sword of ice, leaving him to die. The Children of the Forest showed up just in time to stab dragonglass through his heart and save him from total death ― although Benjen says he is still prevented from passing south of the Wall by the same spells that keep out the dead. (So he’s dead but not dead-dead. Get it?)
In the books, however, there’s a parallel character called Coldhands ― and he has a bigger part to play in the story.
While Coldhands has a lot in common with the Benjen Stark we see on the show ― who showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff also refer to as “Coldhands” ― his identity hasn’t been revealed yet in the books, and it might turn out differently. Many fans cite a note from George R.R. Martin in an original manuscript as concrete evidence that Coldhands will not be Benjen in the books; after Martin’s editor wrote “Is this Benjen? I think it’s Benjen,” Martin responded, “NO.”
Similar to the show, Coldhands helps Bran and Meera beyond the Wall (although the circumstances are rather different) in the books, and he also helps Sam and Gilly escape South after the Night’s Watch mutiny at Craster’s Keep. (And he rides an elk, not a horse, which is honestly far more badass.)
In the books, though, Coldhands also seems to control a flock of ravens with his mind ― similar to the way we see Bran use ravens as scouts in Season 7 ― so he probably knows a good deal about what’s going on in the real North. And that might explain the show’s apparent deus ex machina moment between Jon and Benjen.
Maybe Benjen knows more than meets the eye, too.
Thanks to the vast and complicated nature of the “Game of Thrones” source material, Weiss and Benioff have already had to eliminate or combine characters for the sake of their audience. While Coldhands and Benjen Stark might be separate in the books, they definitely overlap on the show.
But, at least on the TV series, it appears his watch is finally ended.
The “Game of Thrones” Season 7 finale airs Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.