Features and Columns · TV

Game of Thrones: The Truth About Coldhands

By  · Published on May 26th, 2016

Are show watchers going to finally get a look at a mysterious character from George R.R. Martin’s books? We explore.

A magic seal has been busted. Two well-liked (I’m not going to say beloved, not after last week) characters are running through the woods unprotected with an army of the undead hot on their tails.

If you don’t recognize this story and where it fits within Game of Thrones season 6, it’s probably time for a spoiler warning.

With Bran and Meera narrowly escaping the wights in last week’s episode, “The Door,” thanks in large part to Hodor’s sacrifice, they are now off and running and without the protection of either a magical tree person, the guilt-ridden Children of the Forest, or a very large man into whose mind Bran can warg. They are truly alone in the most dangerous place in all of Westeros.

Someone has to be coming to their rescue, right? Not to say that Meera isn’t strong enough to drag Bran back to The Wall, but no one is going to be pulling the sled and fighting off the undead. This question alone has created a fervor this week over the return of a beloved book character. Or maybe another beloved character who existed for a short time on the show. Or a combination of the two. Maybe a lot of things, as is usually the case on Game of Thrones.

Here’s what we know: Based on the episode 6 preview, we know that Bran and Meera are still on the run and in some trouble. We also know from the season 6 trailer that a mysterious, hooded horseman shows up in the woods somewhere and kills things with fire. If we assume that these two scenes go together – which is a huge assumption and could be wrong – then we can safely assume that someone is coming to rescue Bran and Meera. If we’re going to go down that rabbit hole, let’s explore our options as to the identity and motives of this mysterious frozen warrior.

Coldhands by elleneth on DeviantArt

The Case for Coldhands

In the books, Coldhands is an enigmatic figure – a black-cloaked member of the undead who is friends with the Three-Eyed Raven, can talk, and fights on the side of the living. He’s described as a hooded wight whose hands are black from pooled and congealed blood. He also rides a massive elk. We meet him through the stories of two different characters. First he aids Sam and Gilly in getting from the Craster’s Keep to The Wall. He refers to Sam as “Brother,” leading many to believe that he may have once been a member of the Night’s Watch. He also explains to Sam that he is not able to pass with them through The Wall, due to The Wall’s magic. This is something that I explored in my column this week, a reason why Bran’s new “Mark of the Night’s King” might be the key to the army of the undead crossing into the Seven Kingdoms.

Coldhands reveals to Sam that he should encourage Bran to come north of The Wall, where he helps guide Bran and his party to the Three-Eyed Raven. When they arrive at the cave, Coldhands is unable to enter, further proving that even though he’s a good dude, he shall not pass the magical wight fence.

Coldhands would be an easy sell for the show. He’s basically an agent of the Three-Eyed Raven, who might be lurking in the woods outside the cave waiting to assist in any way possible. It also makes sense as to why the show hasn’t delivered Coldhands yet. It’s a visual effects-intensive character who fits better with the idea that Bran and Meera need help getting back to The Wall than he would have in helping Sam and Bran earlier. Both Sam and Bran needed to accomplish some things on their own first. The only problem with introducing Coldhands and not explaining his origins is that there’s a lot of baggage that comes with that character, specifically around Benjen Stark.

Just a pair of maybe undead guys.

The Case for Benjen Stark

For years, book readers have always theorized that Coldhands is really Benjen Stark, Ned’s brother who helped recruit Jon to the Night’s Watch and then immediately went missing. Thematically it’s satisfying to think that the same character, in two different capacities, could help lead the two longest surviving Stark boys to their destinies. The show may have even been playing with this idea in a meta way last year, when the name of Benjen Stark was invoked to lead Jon Snow to his death party.

But there’s a problem. About a year ago, an intrepid Redditor went to the Texas A&M’s Cushing Library and found an original manuscript for George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons, complete with notes between the author and his editor. On the subject of Coldhands being Benjen Stark, the author was very clear:

The coldest hands wield the red pen.

To get to “Coldhands is Benjen,” we have to assume that George R.R. Martin would lie to his editor. That seems unlikely. Talking around a theory with fans in a way that obfuscates the truth? Sure. But it’s not likely that he’s going to keep the truth from the person who edits his work.

The easier answer for the show is that the mysterious rider in the trailer would simply be Benjen Stark. Not Coldhands, just Benjen. His story is a dangling thread that the show has pretty specifically never given up. He’s been mentioned several times over the past few seasons and it would be nice to see them bring him back in some meaningful way. For the purpose of not confusing show watchers, having him simply be Benjen, who has been out in the wilderness tracking the army of wights, is the path of least resistance. He doesn’t have to be undead or magical, he could just have been a skilled ranger of the Night’s Watch who ended up in the right place at the right time.

The Case for a Hybrid

Let’s not rule out the possibility that the show might do something that isn’t perfectly in-line with what GRRM is going to do in the books. This is something they love to do, even when it involves characters who are seemingly major players (like sending Sansa to Winterfell to marry Ramsay instead of Jeyne Pool, a.k.a Fake Arya). Coldhands might not be Benjen Stark in the books, but he could very well be Coldhands in the show. If, say, GRRM doesn’t have any plans to wrap-up Benjen’s storyline in the books – he’s just missing forever – or Benjen’s story isn’t pivotal to the endgame, the show could play around a little bit.

It’s clear they need an agent of good to assist Bran with his next steps and both Coldhands and Benjen fit the bill. Combining the two makes sense. The explainer is simple: Benjen went off into the Lands of Always Winter in search of answers, died, and when he was resurrected by the frozen magic behind the wights, he resisted what appears to be the Night’s King’s ability to control his ice zombie army with warging. Now he wanders north of The Wall, knowing that he can’t go back to Castle Black due to the enchantments, doing his best to assist the battle against the wight army, perhaps even communing with and aiding the Three-Eyed Raven.

When we discussed this on A Storm of Spoilers this week, we called this character Benhands. He’ll have a little bit of both – the benign undeadness of Coldhands with the familiar face of Benjen Stark so that audiences (and Bran) have a connection to the past. And what does season 6 love to have? That’s right, a connection to the past.

The Case for Nothing

The final possibility is that Bran and Meera escape on their own and the above shot from the trailer is from somewhere else in the season. We’ve been burned by picking apart single frames from trailers before. We’ve also been burned by IMDB cast listings before, which may happen again this week. On Monday, IMDB readers noted that actor Joseph Mawle was listed for episode six as “The Brother Beyond The Wall.” I’ve vowed before not to let IMDB get me again and I’m going to try to stick to that.

But Benjen’s return at this point in the story does make sense. If it’s ever going to happen, this would be a perfect time and rescuing Bran and Meera would be a perfect task for Coldhands/Benjen/Brother Beyond The Wall/Undead Agent of Good/Anyone Riding a Great Elk.

I really just want to see a Great Elk on-screen. Come on Game of Thrones, make it happen.

For more Game of Thrones goodness, check out our Game of Thrones archive. For more spoiler talk, go subscribe and listen to A Storm of Spoilers.

Related Topics: ,

Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)