Catelyn Stark

Game of Thrones: The Red Wedding

By Mark Abraham · Jun 03, 2013
Spoiler Warning!

Just FYI, this article contains material that might be considered spoilery based on our spoiler policy. In this instance, that includes discussion of some major plot things that will be spoilers if you haven't read the third book (or watched the third season) yet, plus a couple of references to minor, vague things from the books if you're only watching the television show.

I dunno. For all the gnashing happening on twitter over the several deaths of last night’s episode, I’m not sure I found the Red Wedding (what it’s called in the books) quite as engaging on television as I did on the page.

To be clear, the actual filming and execution of this sequence was pretty great: having Talisa present (her book counterpart, Jeyne, wasn’t) allowed them to add Walder Frey’s sick appraisal of her looks to the passive aggressive shit he takes on Rob’s honor (and both speeches were retroactively made to seem even more petty once you know he knew he was going to kill them anyways); Edmure getting super excited about his bride actually being attractive was kind of funny, but more importantly seemed to relieve all of the characters and therefore us; Catelyn’s look as the door was closed and “The Rains of Castemere” played filled the room with tension again. Outside of a bigger budget to better convey the scale of this slaughter, I’m not sure this particular sequence could have been filmed better.

But as an emotional or cathartic moment occurring at the end of a season of television I think the Red Wedding worked less well. Why do I feel that way? Part of it, I think, is the show’s continued inability to balance screen time with the character’s emotional arcs. Rob and Talisa, for example, have been onscreen as much as they need to be, probably, but their actual storyline this season, bogged down as it was in introducing Catelyn’s family, wasn’t particularly engaging, either as a plot point or as character arcs. Like, once your story is basically, “even though we were winning this war, Tywin Lannister has basically stopped fighting us, making it hard to actually win the war,” things seem to sit in a lull. Consequently, hinging the emotional devastation of your season on the deaths of a few characters who haven’t seemed to be doing much of anything doesn’t work in a strictly narrative sense. The show worked hard to make Robb a character (he isn’t much of one in the books), but it never really tried to make him a main character, which is why this wasn’t the same television gut punch that Ned’s death was.

Part of it is also the show’s transformation of Jeyne Westerling to Talisa. The choice makes sense on paper. Jeyne’s a non-entity in the books, so it probably was important to flesh out Rob’s attraction to his wife. The issue, maybe, is that because Talisa is so different from Jeyne most book readers couldn’t help but assume that Talisa was some kind of spy or Jeyne in disguise or something—that there was some compelling reason to deviate so dramatically from the book character, rather than simply to make the book character have the same background but just be more interesting. For book readers, consequently, it was hard to invest in that relationship because we were also partly waiting for the other shoe to drop, meaning my reaction when Talisa died was basically “oh. I guess she wasn’t a spy. So…why not just name her Jeyne, then?”

But the biggest part of my misgivings, I think, is Catelyn, who despite Michelle Fairley’s best efforts has been poorly written and kind of destroyed as a character on the show, and remains one of the biggest disappointments of this adaptation.

In the books, Rob is several years younger, so his demeanor is different. When Ned is killed, Rob is kind of forced into the position of king, even though it’s incredibly clear he isn’t ready. In part, this whole story is kind of a commentary on the North in general: that their enthusiasm for revenge and honor is all based on the misguided notion that a boy can immediately assume the mantle of his great father, and that Northern men are imbued with a specific kind of masculine power (because they are descended from the First Men as well as the Andals). Of course, you don’t even have to look at it through the lens of gender to see the problem: like most plots in A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin is interrogating a stock fantasy plot, in this case the one where a young prince learns to become a great leader after the death of his father. Martin is posing the following question: “what happens when that young prince is brash and headstrong and horny and enabled by a bunch of war-hungry men who are merely looking for a symbol to rally around?”

Catelyn spends most of her time in the books urging Rob to take what seems to be the correct course of action, but, bolstered by his early victories and because he is inexperienced, youthful, and wants to prove himself to be his own man, he rarely listens. Because we understand Catelyn’s advice to often be solid, we see this as a story of Catelyn being marginalized. When Rob marries Jeyne (who just happens to be the daughter of a Lannister bannerman), after an injury forces him to demand recovery time at the Westerling home, we’re already on Catelyn’s side: she can’t believe how stupid Rob was, and never once is her disapproval framed like Talisa does as stock mom-in-law haterade.

To be fair, the books have the benefit of dwelling far more on Walder Frey’s general demeanor and pettiness, which means we’re more acutely aware of exactly what Catelyn is afraid of. But what’s also true is that the primary reason Jeyne and Rob are together is that they’re both horny teenagers. Rob doesn’t marry Jeyne because he falls in love; Rob marries her because he has lustfully compromised her “virtue” and honor demands that he marry her, even if it means breaking his word to Walder Frey. Rob is following a stupid action with a stupid choice, in other words, because the urges of his teenage body and the impulses of his teenage mind seem more important than the predilections and penchant for pettiness of an old man.

Catelyn is incensed, of course. Non-book readers may raise an eyebrow at that emphatic “of course,” and that’s fine, but let me tell you: Book-Catelyn is not to be fucked with. Show-Catelyn has been tampered with solely because of the fact that they’ve aged Rob up. It’s no surprise that the Show-Catelyn that most resembles Book-Catelyn is the one who travels to treat with Renly and takes Brienne into her service; that’s the Show-Catelyn who doesn’t have a Show-Rob around. In the books, the primary dynamic between them is an exasperated Catelyn struggling to keep her horny, revenge-hungry teenager from doing any more stupid things to fuck himself over. Yes, she still releases Jamie, but that’s largely because she thinks it’s the politically expedient thing to do—even if it does mean that, like in the show, it allows Rob to comfortably ignore her advice. Book-Catelyn immediately recognizes the political utility of Ned being Hand and essentially laughs when he tries to duck Robert’s offer. She also is generally on board with him taking the girls (less so with Bran, but his fall solves that) with him to King’s Landing. Book-Catelyn thinks Rob is being reckless in his military campaigns. Book-Catelyn knows damn well that what her stupid horny teenage son has done is going to piss Walder Frey off, and she is pretty convinced that something like what happens (i.e. the Red Wedding) is going to happen. She doesn’t always make the right decision, certainly, and haters will point to her hatred of John and her failed assessment of Tyrion as evidence of her flaws, but: those are just her flaws, and otherwise she is largely shown to be a reasoned and politically-savvy thinker.

I get that making Rob older means the mother-son dynamic from the books would seem pretty weird. Absolutely. But I continue to wish that the show had found a better solution than what they did, which was essentially to transform one of the most complex characters in the story, and certainly the most complex Stark, from a politically savvy, calculated risk-taker who is suspicious and cautious in ways that her husband and son aren’t to…well, the mom character, whose primary concern is the safety of her children. Book-Catelyn was distraught at the plight of her children, certainly, but she also understood that a Jaime Lannister was worth more than a Sansa Stark and Arya Stark combined. Book-Catelyn gets distraught over Bran and Rickon’s deaths, but she lets Jaime go because her discussion with him reveals a couple important plot points to her (and maybe some to us, though I’m blanking on the order): that Littlefinger may have been involved in the assassination attempt on Bran’s life, that Tyrion and Jaime weren’t.

Now, Catelyn is still making a choice based on misplaced honor: she assumes that Tyrion and Jaime will both hold to their word. And many of her choices, while sound, unfortunately rely on the idea that her husband and son will also make the right choices (spoiler: they don’t). But in general she makes reasoned choices, and with Jaime specifically she is making a calculated choice against what she perceives to be Rob’s recklessness. She isn’t consumed by emotion, as the show presents it; she is consumed by her own determination to clean up after her son’s mistakes. Is she erroneously invested in Jaime’s honor? By now we know she wasn’t. Is she erroneously invested in his ability to control his father? Absolutely! But the books also kind of make it clear that nobody is quite clear what lengths Tywin Lannister is actually willing to go to. The Red Wedding is a shocking outcome; not an expected one. It is extraordinary, even for Tywin Lannister. In that light, Catelyn’s choices seem well-reasoned.

In the book the story is Rob Stark making one mistake after another because he is horny, because he is a teenager, and because he is prodded along by a bunch of angry, unthinking men. Catelyn is only trying to fix those mistakes, except that every time she cleans up one mess Rob goes and creates an even bigger one. What makes the Red Wedding—most of which is told through Catelyn’s perspective—sad to me is watching Catelyn’s descent as she increasingly realizes that this, finally, is a scenario that she does not possess the ability to fix. Having Show-Catelyn kill Frey’s wife was kind of badass, but it’s way more pathetic in the books, ‘cause Book-Catelyn’s big final gambit is to grab a grandson of Walder named “Jinglebell” with a developmental disability. Walder just laughs at Catelyn’s threats as the hollow posturing that they are. She slits Jinglebell’s throat, but there’s nothing powerful about it; it’s just a woman backed into a corner with no escape.

…which makes Catelyn’s entire story, in retrospect, about the limits of a woman’s power in Westeros, and parallels the Catelyn/Rob dynamic nicely against the Cersei/Joffrey dynamic. Which doesn’t mean it wasn’t still sad to watch Catelyn die last night. I just wish she had lived closer to what she was in the books, and that Michelle Fairley had been asked to play some of that complexity. She would have nailed it.

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