It was a wise move for “Blood of My Blood,” an unexpectedly merciful hour of Game of Thrones, to ease off misery the week after Hodor’s heart-wrenching death. True to its title, the episode dwelt mostly on family, as long-lost faces (hello, Benjen) returned to wind up momentum for the clashes to come.
Jaime is now on his way to Riverrun, for a battle that will pit him opposite Brienne. The treacherous Freys are back, but so is the Brotherhood Without Banners. Tommen has given the Faith Militant more power than ever in King’s Landing. And Bran, whether he’s ready for it or not, now knows the entire history of Westeros, including what happened to the Mad King Aerys Targaryen—and, as we’ll likely see, Jon Snow’s real parents.
Benjen’s return was the hour’s show-stopping revelation, and a moment of sweet vindication for fan theory enthusiasts who’ve had the undead Coldhands’ identity figured out for years. Ned’s younger brother, a former First Ranger of the Night’s Watch, disappeared on an investigative mission north of the Wall shortly after bringing Jon Snow to Castle Black in Season 1. His horse returned riderless and he was never heard from again. Until now.
Fans long suspected that a character dubbed Coldhands, who shows up in Martin’s A Storm of Swords to save Gilly and Sam from wights, was actually Benjen Stark—hence the mysterious character’s Night’s Watch cloak. (George R.R. Martin has flat-out denied that Coldhands is Benjen, even to his editor, making this another welcome instance of the show tying up loose plot threads the way it sees fit.)
But unlike the uncle the Stark kids knew, the Benjen we meet in “Blood of My Blood” is a man neither dead nor fully alive. As he tells Bran and Meera, he was attacked and fatally stabbed by a White Walker’s icy sword during his expedition north of the Wall, then left to die and rise again as another wight in the Night King’s army. Lucky for him, the Children of the Forest found him and staved off the White Walkers’ magic the same way they created the monsters: By plunging a dragonglass knife into his heart.
Whether this method would work for anyone unlucky enough to be stabbed by an ice sword is not clear (we may never know now that the Children are all dead—thanks again for that, Bran), but Benjen’s reappearance is exciting for reasons apart from the fate of mankind. He tells Bran that the Three-Eyed Raven sent for him, presumably to guide and protect the boy as he gets the hang of navigating the world-spanning knowledge hastily uploaded into his mind at the end of “The Door.”
That knowledge will be key in winning the war against White Walkers: “He will find his way to the world of men,” Benjen tells Bran, referring to the Night King, “and when he does, you will be there waiting for him—and you will be ready.” Part of that knowledge is another secret the show keeps hinting at, one Bran might finally piece together with Coldhands’ help: Jon Snow’s parentage.
Just before Bran wakes up, we see blips of flashbacks depicting young Ned Stark at the Tower of Joy, the Mad King Aerys Targaryen, green wildfire, and the doomed king’s crazed, final orders to “burn them all” (the cruelty that prompted Jaime, then in the Kingsguard, to stab him in the back, earning him the “Kingslayer” nickname). That every image is from the final days of Robert’s Rebellion—the war that began when Rhaegar Targaryen “stole” King Robert’s betrothed, Lyanna Stark—is probably no coincidence. Bran now has access to all the Westerosi history instrumental in mankind’s fight against White Walkers. The identity of Azor Ahai, the Prince Who Was Promised (whom Melisandre and more than a few book readers swear is Jon), would certainly count as essential.
Not only that, but Benjen and his sister Lyanna were close during her life, before she was kidnapped by Rhaegar (or fell in love and ran away with him, depending on who you believe). If anyone besides Ned ever knew that she actually loved the Targaryen prince, bore his son, and made her dying wish for Ned to hide him from vengeful Robert, it would be Benjen.
Elsewhere in Westeros, the High Sparrow finally succeeded in exploiting King Tommen’s love of his queen Margaery and leveraged a new, “holy” alliance between the crown and the Faith. The arrangement makes a kind of superficial sense, at least to Tommen: It’s a promise of peace and a reason to spare Margaery the walk of atonement. But while Margaery appears to be playing along for the sake of protecting both herself and her brother, Tommen seems to take the High Sparrow at his word, guided by a new sense of holy purpose. The boy is doomed.
At the Twins meanwhile, another familiar face returned: Walder Frey, the traitor responsible for the Red Wedding. He wheezes and whines about taking back Riverrun from “the Blackfish,” aka Brynden Tully, uncle to Catelyn and Edmure Tully (who’s been a captive of the Freys ever since his bloody nuptials). Coincidentally, both Brienne and Jamie are now headed for Riverrun as well—she on behalf of the Starks, he on behalf of their enemy, the Lannister-allied Freys. How will the star-crossed ex-travel buddies react to seeing each other on the wrong side of a battlefield?
Over in Essos, Daenerys’s story continues to plod along with fire, spectacle, and very little actual progress. After sending Ser Jorah to find a cure for his greyscale, she’s reunited with her favorite son Drogon on the way back to Meereen—putting her in roughly the same position she was in two seasons ago (different khalasar, bigger dragon, same direction).
Still, the scene delivers what Dany’s story always does when it’s at its best: a sense of righteous exhilaration. The queen rides in on the back of her dragon and delivers a speech which mirrors Khal Drogo’s from season one. It’s all stuff we’ve heard from her before, and yet it’s irresistible. (It’s also particularly effective when contrasted with Mace Tyrell’s laughably feeble call to action over in King’s Landing.)
In Braavos, Arya has finally rejected her bid to become No One and given in to her bloodline’s greatest legacy: A crippling sense of honor and morality. Arya has killed both children and grown men, but she sees something in the actress Lady Crane—who plays Cersei in the show’s farcical play-within-a-play—that inspires her to put her own life at risk to save hers. It’s not hard to figure out why: Both Arya and Crane share a craft, assuming others’ identities for a price. Both are underestimated by boorish, egotistical men. And now, both have co-workers who want them dead.
With only four hours left in a season that, so far, has rocketed forward at top speed, the relatively quiet “Blood of My Blood” is a welcome chance for viewers—and the characters—to catch our breath. It’s the latest proof that the show learned its lessons from Season 5, a run of episodes so relentlessly bleak and unfocused that it nearly sucked the fun out of Westeros. No one died in this hour, except for a few wights. But as Season 6 has already proven so well, Game of Thrones doesn’t always need misery to tell a good story.