Catelyn in Dark Wings, Dark Words

(I’m going to review this week’s Game of Thrones in two parts: this first part will talk about Catelyn, and tomorrow’s part will discuss the other more awesome parts of the episode).

A Song of Ice and Fire is all about subverting tropes, and Catelyn’s story is no exception. Rather than focussing on Robb, the heroic young king, we see all of his battles, his successes and his failures, from the point of view of his mother, a sensible, compassionate woman who just wants everyone to grow up and go home before they all end up dead. She’s not focussed on vengeance for her husband’s death, or ambition for her son, but neither is she purely a traditional fantasy mother figure, someone who steps back and worries for her sons and plays no part in events. She is an important figure, who is involved in politics, who occasionally makes mistakes, but who is generally sensible and under-appreciated by those around her.

And, of course, many people hate Catelyn for it. She’s hated because she is flawed and makes mistakes — something a mother figure should never do. She’s hated because she doesn’t treat Jon Snow the same as her own children, because she interferes in politics (and is usually right), because she acted against the Lannisters instead of trusting them and hoping for the best (something that ultimately got her husband killed). In my opinion, these things all make her a more interesting, realistic character, but according to others, she shouldn’t be interesting or realistic. She should be perfect, she should be out of the way, or she should leave.

Unfortunately, the TV show seems to support this opinion.

The addition of Catelyn’s early resentment of Jon Snow isn’t necessarily a terrible thing. Considering that her new husband, who she barely knew, disappeared off to war and came back with a son, it’s unsurprising that she wasn’t thrilled with Jon Snow’s presence, and hoped that he would disappear, without really meaning what that would entail. And it’s not problematic that she cared for Jon Snow when he was ill and prayed that he would recover, as Catelyn is generally a caring woman, and, despite her refusal to treat Jon Snow exactly the same as her own children, she’s not someone who likes to see other people suffer.

But this history was clearly added as a way to put Catelyn in her place. She did not just feel resentment for this child, as she does in the books, but prayed to the Gods that he would die. It’s explicit, and it’s extremely out of character for a woman who doesn’t even want to see her enemies die. Especially when she wasn’t motivated by discomfort with her husband, or uncertainty over her own son’s future, but by jealousy for a woman she has never and will never meet. She is, as she says herself, “the worst woman who ever lived” for wishing death on this boy — and it is a pretty terrible thing to do. The writers of the show have transformed Catelyn’s dislike for Jon Snow, and her one-time grief-fueled declaration that he should have fallen instead of Bran, into a passionate, almost murderous kind of hatred. For if she does not love Jon Snow enough, she must be that terrible. It is an either-or proposition.

And in order to make up for her horrific behavior, she must swing far in the other direction, and treat him exactly the same as her own children, including giving him the name “Stark.” And we get the sense that this would be the normal thing to do, that this would be the thing any caring person would do, rather than an extreme. This is proper behavior, how she should have acted from the beginning, despite the fact that she isn’t his mother, has no obligation to be his mother, and that giving him the name “Stark” breaks all expectations in Westeros and could potentially threaten her own children’s inheritance. But motherhood, to the writers, seems like a binary system. Either she’s perfectly selfless and loving to all children, no matter who they are, or she is a horrid woman who deserves misery. No other options exists.

So when she says that she couldn’t keep that promise, it isn’t a declaration that this was something said in desperation, something unrealistic. It is treated as a sign that Catelyn is in fact the “worst woman who ever lived.” And then Catelyn, intelligent, compassionate Catelyn, takes entire responsibility for all the horrors that have come to her family — Ned’s beheading, Sansa’s imprisonment, Bran and Rickon’s deaths. All because she did not love Jon Snow. And no one corrects her. She makes that declaration, and the scene ends, because although assumedly the viewers aren’t meant to agree that this is all her fault, we are meant to find her grief and regret reasonable. We’re meant to agree that she is not a good person, and consider her regret and self-loathing as a kind of redemption. If she sees how awful she’s been, and despises herself for it, then perhaps she can be an acceptable character. Otherwise, she deserves all the hate she receives.

It is complete character assassination, disguised in an attempt to redeem her. And that’s not the kind of “development” of female characters we need to see.

13 comments on “Catelyn in Dark Wings, Dark Words

  • Vanessa , Direct link to comment

    I was okay with parts of her monologue, but they really overdid it and I can totally understand why fans of her character (I’m rather neutral on her in both show and books) are angry.

    1.) I could see Cat having an impulsive thought about Jon dying once (maybe twice) for like half a second, but praying for him to die? No. She certainly wanted him gone from her field of vision, but she never wanted him to die.

    2.) I can see Cat sitting on Jons bedside and praying for him to get better, because she knows his husband and children love him and because he’s a suffering child… but promising the Gods that she would ask Ned to give him the name “Stark”? No.

    3.) I can see Cat maybe regretting that she wasn’t able to love Jon some times, while her husband was alive and she saw he loved Jon, because she’s human and as such she understands that Jon is not to blame for her husbands cheating… but I can’t see her angsting about it or thinking it makes her the worst person in the world, because she certainly isn’t… and certainly not NOW after her husband is dead and most of her own children are god knows where.

    4.) The argument that her not loving Jon lead to all this is even dumber than the one that she started the war when she kidnapped Tyrion.
    It’s times like these when you can clearly see that the show is written by fanboys, who don’t understand some kinds of women at all, even if they’re good at writing other stuff.

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      Cat always seems like a woman who takes religion and prayer seriously (especially in the show, when she makes those talismans). To pray for his death would be a horrible, serious thing… I just don’t understand why the writers made it SO INTENSE, instead of just saying she wished he didn’t exist or didn’t want to be around any more. She could still feel guilt for that, without having an evil-stepmother kind of attitude.

      And you’re right that the “worst woman who ever lived” comment makes even less sense considering the world she’s living in. Surely she’d consider Cersei just a tiny bit worse than herself, considering all she’s done to her family?

  • Mark , Direct link to comment

    In the books Catelyn says she wished that Bran would stay with her in Winterfell and blames herself for the injury that keeps him in Winterfell. When Bran gets injured and Jon Snow goes to visit him (in the books), doesnt she say something like “it should have been you”.

    Catelyn has been screwed by the show. Instead of spending time caring for her dying father, she just learns he died. Her decision to release Jaime seems dumb when she isnt driven by the grief of learning Bran and Rickon died.

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      The fact that she didn’t hear about Bran and Rickon’s “deaths” was pretty much my least favorite change in the show, because it doesn’t make ANY sense. Without that information, Catelyn *is* acting completely randomly and irrationally, suddenly deciding to release Jaime for no particular reason. The writers are distorting her character into the unlikeable figure that some people find in the books, removing evidence to the contrary… it’s not a comfortable thing to watch.

  • Nair Núñez de Paz , Direct link to comment

    I must admit that one of the reasons I read this blog is because I hated Catelyn from the very beginning. I realized it had to do with some of the internalized notions of the mother role, both in fantasy and real life. I then came to the conclusion that I should, by any means necessary, confront myself with some opposite ideas. I write this to tell you that I care and I am not torlling, and that I write for dialogue.
    Many Catelyn fans regard her as a very well rounded, complex, flawed character. I agree, and still struggle with her. And yet, those fans, and you yourself in this article, it seems to me, are denying Catelyn of her past. It appears to me that for all of you Catelyn has always been that solid, thoughtful, non vengeful woman. I think I remember reading in this same blog that you draw a parallel between Catelyn and Sansa, and then fail to accommodate such similarities in the eyes of the mother. When Stark came back Catelyn with a newborn, she must have been around 18-19. Now, remember that she was not to marry Eddard, but Brandon.
    So let see it this way Cately was supposed to marry a man Brandon from the age of 12. She was a southerner educated girl –the way she educated Sansa, a very traditional uprising, the motherly figure (one of the gods she favors), the delicate princes, the good wife, etc.- She did not knew the man, but must probably grew accustomed to the fact that she would marry him. His dead, as far as we can presume, was at least upsetting. What we know was upsetting –her words, somewhere in the book- is that she passed to be Eddards bride. [Firs offense] Now, barely meeting with him, and knowing of his honest aura, sees him part to war; he might die, there are no more Starks, being educated you should agree it might be a frightening future. [Second offense] Then here comes the so called honored man with a newborn, a bastard. [Third offense] Now she should be angry with her father –for treating her like merchandise- and with this cheater of a husband and yet who is she angry with? A baby. Is it so unreasonable to believe this young woman channeled all her fury in a pray for this child to die? I don’t think so.
    I actually believe that this scene makes her even a greater character. She grew out of it, she learned in time, in isolation, afar from her uprising to be who she seems to be in the books. Why is it so hard for the fans to accept that this praying for death and then unfulfilled vow to the gods IS the reason she grew to be the solid, reasonable woman she is now?
    Most of us used to hate her, as you pointed out because she neither excel at being a traditional motherly figure nor a completely opposite, and thus when she acted motherly –as you said we were expecting her to do- we got angry. And now, I don’t really get why you deny her this duality. It is what she is, much like Sansa, a front runner, battling with herself and the role imposed. She is a selfmade woman, let her have this weakness, let her cry and feel guilty –much as she felt for Bran’s fall- it makes her more real.

    • Mojy , Direct link to comment

      I agree. And all of these very visceral reactions – promising the gods to raise Jon like a son, wishing Jon had fallen instead of bran, and thinking herself the worst woman in the world – have come at times of great emotional upheaval, when a person could certainly be excused for being melodramatic.

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      You make a good point about Catelyn’s past. I’m rereading Clash of Kings right now, so I’m going to be on the lookout for anything about her reaction to Jon and Ned early in their marriage. I don’t recall her reaction to Jon being anything beyond “I shouldn’t have to be a mother to him or include him in my house” and her comment that he should have fallen instead of Bran — both of which lack compassion for him, but I don’t see them as true hatred (except in a moment of real grief).

      I like that Catelyn is a woman who struggles with herself, as she is in the books. She takes a lot fo responsibility on herself, and those emotions, even when they’re not justified, are interesting to explore. But to me, the scene was too extreme. She seemed to swing from one extreme to the other, praying to the gods (which she takes very seriously) for his death and then vowing to raise him up to be a Stark, which would be fairly unprecedented in this society and put her own children’s inheritance at risk. I don’t necessarily think there’s anything wrong with her having confused feelings about Jon, but making that her emotional focus in this episode, when so much else is happening for her, seemed a poor decision to me.

  • INeedACleverName , Direct link to comment

    This review speaks to me. I think it was a poor choice to drop this scene in so late in the game because it comes off like they want you to feel sorry for her to redeem her for her sins, but her sins aren’t really worse than anyone else’s in the first place, so why does she have to be redeemed through pity?

    They could have had a scene where Catelyn reflects on Jon’s illness and how conflicted it made her feel, without going so over the top and making her alternately want him dead and then want to legitimize him and treat him like her own child. They could have had Robb and Talisa talk about conceiving if they wanted to bring up the legitimization and inheritance issues. They could have had Cat blaming herself for arresting Tyrion if they wanted to give Michelle Fairley a big emotive dramatic monologue.

    Cat just learned that her children are dead, so it makes sense that she’d be a little overly emotional now. But in the memory she recollected, she had no real reason to be so off kilter, so we’re supposed to take her behavior in that recollected memory as standard Catelyn behavior. I find it off that standard Catelyn behavior was wishing that Jon was dead, and I find it off that we’re supposed to be heartened by the fact that at least once, Catelyn wanted Jon to be her own son when she’s really not obligated to be his mother.

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      I agree, it was the extremeness of it that really got to me. There are interesting things to say about Cat’s relationship with Jon, and those could be explored beyond what we see in the books, but not when her feelings and behavior are contorted to be so extreme, and not when not being a true mother to Jon is presented as Catelyn’s greatest sin. She just found out her two youngest children are probably dead — some reflection on that, rather than on Jon, would have been more suitable, I think.

      But then again, Catelyn’s feelings of guilt are always going to be difficult to tackle, since there’s so much negativity towards Catelyn in the fandom, and she gets blamed for things that are far out of her control. Any musing that isn’t handled very carefully is going to appear to be supporting that perspective.

  • Laura T , Direct link to comment

    Brilliant post. I would disagree on one small detail – I can see Catelyn wishing Jon dead (although not praying for it, which is too extreme) because I think she does wish her enemies dead, and has an emotional, vengeful side to her that she keeps completely under control until later events reverse this (avoiding book spoilers here). My reading of the character is that, by nature, she may have been much like Arya – minus the interest in swordfighting – but that she has suppressed that part of herself enormously effectively, seeing that it has no place in her world and in the role she has to play. (I wrote more about this here: The one thing I liked about the HBO added scene is that it did speak to this side of Catelyn, rather than casting her as a saintly mother, but in the context of what they’ve done to her in the rest of the series, I agree with you entirely. A travesty.

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      Thanks! I’ve just started rereading A Clash of Kings, and I’m really excited to have another look at Catelyn’s character with this in mind. The show has definitely painted her as quite a vengeful figure, but in the books, I remember her frequently calling for peace and common sense. I’m looking forward to seeing how these two sides interact, and how much she, as you said, is suppressing any desire for vengeance and justice in the name of avoiding greater tragedy.

  • Foxessa , Direct link to comment

    One would think that over the years as Catelyn and Ned grew to love each other, to trust each other, making a true marriage, that somehow, somewhere in there they might have actually talked about Snow and those who made him ….

    Poor planning and writing of the books, which the the HBO series takes ever further. Or so it seems to this reader-watcher: you can’t build a solid house when the foundation is flawed.

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      I think it only makes sense if the theories that Jon is Rhaegar and Lyanna’s son are true. If it was a secret that protected Jon’s life and that he promised his dead sister to keep, then I think Ned’s honor would force him to keep it secret from everybody. However, if Jon is his son, then I’d think his honor would, at some point, make him talk to Catelyn about it, if she asked. So yeah… depends how it ends up going, for me.

What do you think?

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