Warning: SPOILERS for Game of Thrones season 7, episode 6 ahead
The Stark family keeps watch over their kin. In Game of Thrones season 7, episode 6, “Beyond The Wall,” Jon Snow missed his dragon ride beyond The Wall and was essentially left for dead. As the horde of wights surrounded him, he tackled a group of ice zombies and plummeted into the freezing water. Though he managed to pull himself out of the lake, the King of the North was now drenched to the bone and surrounded by the Night King’s army. In those sub-zero temperatures, Snow would have surely frozen even if he somehow managed to escape the wights.
As he stumbled on his way to dry land, using Longclaw as a cane, he prepared to make his last stand. The shrieking of the wights grew nearer as they ran at top speed, but just as Jon’s life seemed to reach its end, a hooded rider appeared amid the morass. Swinging a flaming flail, the mysterious figure lit the wights on fire and galloped towards Jon. As he dismounted the horse and removed his mask, Jon Snow immediately recognized the man: “Uncle Benjen!”
It's a familiar refrain for the Stark boys beyond the Wall. While we have only seen Benjen Stark a few times in Game of Thrones, each of his appearances has been vital to the survival of his nephews. Prior to rescuing Jon, Benjen came to the aid of Bran and Meera in season 6. Following the death of Hodor, Meera bore the burden of the paralyzed Bran and toiled to take him back to The Wall. When the wights tracked them down, however, they seemed hopeless until the masked rider appeared, staved off the ice zombies, and took them to safety.
This was a surprise appearance for Benjen, considering he had entirely disappeared in season 1. As the First Ranger of the Night’s Watch, he and his men embarked on an expedition beyond The Wall but never returned. While the bodies of his companions were found, Benjen’s horse returned to Castle Black without its rider. To everyone at The Wall, Benjen was a goner.
Though he didn’t actually die, Benjen was still mostly dead. After saving Bran and feeding him a cup of raw rabbit’s blood, he explains that the White Walkers had cornered him and rammed their magical ice swords into his stomach, leaving him to die. Were it not for the Children of the Forest, he surely would have perished. Though they saved his life, the Children also turned him into a quasi-White Walker by sticking a piece of dragonglass into his heart (as we saw them do with the First Men). This left Uncle Benjen as a scarred and pale hybrid of both the living and the dead. As a result, he cannot pass through The Wall’s ancient magic and must forever remain in the wilderness of the far north.
Benjen is also the show’s version of a mysterious figure in A Song of Ice and Fire, “Coldhands.” As an undead veteran member of the Night’s Watch, Coldhands comes to the aid of Sam, Gilly, Bran, and several other characters at crucial moments in the books. Leaf informs us that Coldhands is hundreds of years old and that he has a special connection to the Three-Eyed Raven. While it’s easy to look at his perfectly timed rescue missions and murmur “deus ex machina,” Coldhands is essentially a physical extension of the Three-Eyed Raven, who responds to the greenseer’s orders without question.
In Game of Thrones, Benjen appears to have a similar function. During his encounter with Bran in season 6, he affirms his reliance on the Three-Eyed Raven and even acknowledges that Bran is the Three-Eyed Raven. Given how we just saw Bran warging into ravens over Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, could he have seen that Jon was imperiled? And could he have ordered his masked rider to save him? Though Uncle Benjen's heroic watch has now ended, it may well be revealed that Bran is equally responsible for Jon Snow's survival.