Game of Thrones producer on the return of that character
Note: This story contains a major revelation from Game of Thrones season 6, episode 6, "Blood of My Blood"…
A long-absent Game of Thrones character returned Sunday night. No, not that one. Or that one. And definitely not that one. Nope, it was Benjen Stark (Joseph Mawle) who came in from the cold — for real this time — making his first appearance on the show since the first season.
The character — Ned Stark's brother and the former Night's Watch First Ranger — vanished at the start of the series after venturing North of the Wall. Technically, we've seen Benjen one other time since, as earlier this season viewers glimpsed a much younger version of the Stark sibling during one of Bran's visions of Winterfell. But this marks the return of the grown-up Benjen, though — as fans discovered — he's not the same. Benjen has turned into an undead human after fighting with the White Walkers, becoming a character who is known in George R.R. Martin's books as Coldhands.
Book-reading fans first expected Coldhands to appear in the show to guide Bran to the cave a few seasons back, but Bran Stark actor Isaac Hempstead Wright was enthusiastic about the show's approach. "I think it's much cooler to have him show up now instead of guiding Bran to the cave, because Bran already had Jojen and Meera for that," Hempstead Wright told EW. "Instead he's there to help pick up the pieces when their safe haven is destroyed and to give Bran to have that family connection again [after Hodor dies]."
Below we spoke to co-executive producer Bryan Cogman, who wrote Sunday's episode, "Blood of My Blood," and he tackled some of our burning questions (and had to dutifully ignore some of our queries that were on more sensitive topics).
Entertainment Weekly: Has the reaction to Hodor's demise over the past week been surprising to the GoT team? There's also been some speculation that he could come back, in theory, as an undead figure of some kind — like Benjen does. Am I right to assume we've seen the last of him, save for potential visions, flashbacks and the like?
Bryan Cogman: I can't speak for [showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss], but I figured the Hodor sequence would get this kind of reaction. First, simply because the character is so beloved by the fans. And second, because the sequence moves the story and mythology into such a new and mind-bending direction. I'm very pleased that it's been so well received. I watch the show every week in a screening room with a bunch of friends, and it was pretty thrilling gauging their reactions throughout the sequence.
As for whether or not we'll see Hodor again… As you know, I can't comment on anything that may or may not happen in the future.
And then there's the return of Benjen Stark. Perhaps no character in TV drama history has spent so much time off screen, going from [the first few episodes of season 1] to reappearing midway through season 6! Was this something you guys had always planned? And what does it mean to actually gain a Stark on a show that's so notorious for killing them?
It's hard for me to talk about Benjen's return without getting into the nitty gritty of the adaptation process. But, yeah, season 6 is rife with Stark reunions! That's another thing that's been very heartening to track with the fans. The show is so sprawling and there are so many threads, but — at it's heart — it's largely about this good family that was torn apart. So seeing some of them connect again (Jon and Sansa; Benjen and Bran) was very satisfying to write and to shoot. And it was great to have [actor] Joe Mawle back with us — it must have been a trip for him to step back into the character after so long — but he's also decidedly not the Benjen of season 1. So that was fun to explore.
Another decision that's gotten a huge online reaction is the death of the direwolves, Shaggydog and Summer. Some assume the reason is budgetary (as they're difficult to render), or for simplifying storylines (what do you do with a direwolf anyway?), and there's also a theory out there that all the direwolf names are prophetic (Summer killed by demons of winter, Jon was resurrected so he has Ghost, etc.). Can you shed any insight on the internal reasoning?
For me, the cave sequence was largely about Bran's protectors giving everything so that he could move on to the next phase of his journey. Meera survived, but hard sacrifices had to be made — Hodor, the Children, the Three-Eyed Raven… and, yes, very sadly, Summer.
Speaking of reunions, we also had that dinner scene with Sam and Gilly, which was as awkward as we pretty much expected.
I don't know how this happens, but I get to do a lot of bathtub scenes and awkward dinner scenes! That was a lot of fun because Sam might not have a lot of screen time this season, but he's got this big meaty chunk trying to pass off Little Sam as his own bastard son. And as much as Sam has gone through, I love exploring those family dynamics. His mother and sister and brother are all fundamentally decent people but his father is just a cold hearted bastard when it comes to his distant son. There's a painful part of the scene where his father just unloads on him and tells him every hateful thing he ever thought about him and Sam can't defend himself. We found that fascinating — Sam has killed a man, he's killed a White Walker, he's emerged as such a great hero, but he still can't stand up do his dad.
There are so many bad dads on this show.
Yeah, well, there are so many bad dads in life! One way to go is have Sam say, "I'm not going take this anymore, Dad, I'm a man now!" But that stuff runs the deepest. But he decides not to leave Gilly and the baby there because what's most important is the people that he loves. He's not going to go by the rules. When he steals the family sword it's a final f— you.
The theater troupe scenes have been really fun too. It's like you're meta commentating on the way the show itself gets depicted.
I come from theater and being able to comment on the show and the reactions to the show through the players were so much fun. The show is often accused of being gratuitous in all kinds of way — the violence and the bigness of the characters. It's a huge operatic story. We're able to lovingly spoof ourselves but also play with ideas about how audiences view the show, good and bad, and how a perspective of a story changes. Plus there's the dramatic deliciousness of Arya watching her own life play out on stage.
Cersei sends Jaime away too. This feels like a new side to Cersei, less reactionary than we've seen in the past. I feel like a couple seasons ago she just would have taken Jaime up on his offer to kill the Sparrow.
The High Sparrow has played a long, patient, game, and played it well. Yeah, I think Cersei has never faced an adversary quite like the High Sparrow before and it's causing her change up her strategy somewhat.
I know you can't talk future episodes, but do you have any tease for next week's episode, "The Broken Man"?
All I can say about next week's episode is there was a week of shooting a particular sequence/storyline that was my favorite week on set in six seasons of Game of Thrones.
MORE: Read our Game of Thrones deep-dive recap for "Blood of My Blood", our chat with Edmure Tully actor Tobias Menzies, and don't forget to subscribe to our Game of Thrones Weekly podcast (new episode posted below). <iframe width="540" height="540" src="http://embed.acast.com/ewgameonthrones/ep.6-coldhands-warmhearts" scrolling="no" frameborder="0" class="" allowfullscreen="" resize="0" replace_attributes="1" name=""></iframe>