Game of Thrones: The Rains of Castamere

The Red Wedding was powerful. But it had the potential to be so much more.

This post contains book spoilers through the end of A Storm of Swords.

Here’s the truth that Game of Thrones has failed to acknowledge: you cannot spend weeks, seasons even, erasing a character, putting her in the background, taking away her lines, changing her very ethos on events around her, and then expect us to be as affected by her untimely death. Michelle Fairley gave a truly powerful and heartbreaking performance as Catelyn this week, but the wedding itself could have punched so much harder, if only Catelyn had been allowed to shine before.

Because for all the cute scenes between Robb and Talisa, for all the focus on Robb standing over Talisa’s dying body, even the show understood that the Red Wedding is Catelyn’s tragedy. The final scene was shot with a focus on her, from her perspective, as everything breaks down. She is the one who has misgivings about the wedding. She’s the one who knows something is amiss when she hears the Rains of Castamere, and she (in the show, at least) is the one who first discovers that Roose Bolton has betrayed them. She fights to save her son as everyone is dying around her, and she dies broken, a woman who has lost everything she loves.

But Catelyn is no longer the woman she was in the books, and so all of her tragedy lacks sting. The writers scrambled to make amends for past mistakes in order to make the scene more powerful, by actually giving her lines, by acknowledging that she gives good advice and that Robb does rely on her, but it was too little, too late. Imagine how much more powerful Catelyn’s plea to “let it end” would be, if we had seen, over an extended period of time, how Catelyn understands the cost of war, how all she wants is for the war to end so that the people she loves can be safe. Imagine how shocking it would be to have her threaten to cut Walder Frey’s wife’s throat, if Catelyn had been shown to be someone who is not all about revenge, who is honorable and kind and would never do something like that unless she was desperate. Imagine what a strong moment it would be when she then cut that innocent girl’s throat, as a woman who’s lost everything, a woman driven to be someone that she’s not because everything has been stolen from her.

This is the cost of the writers’ meddling, of their habit of undervaluing female characters and narratives compared to male ones. They get to the most dramatic and shocking moment of the entire series, one that they themselves said they were anticipating, and it doesn’t quite work as it should, because it turns out that those undervalued women were pretty important to the narrative after all.

But even in this episode, there were many changes. The most obvious one is, of course, Catelyn’s reaction to Robb’s death. In the books, Catelyn goes insane and tears at her face with her fingernails in grief. It’s absolutely horrific, and not something I would relish seeing on my TV screen… but it’s also powerful and significant that Catelyn Stark, a woman of sense and honor, is so broken that she’s driven to attack. She’s mutilating herself, driven out of herself by these events. It’s the action of a helpless woman who still wants to fight, who wants to do something, but more significantly, Catelyn’s self-destruction symbolizes not only the tearing up of her face, but of herself, of the peace-supporting, anti-vengeance woman that she has always been. Catelyn Stark has been driven too far. Even if she lived, she would not be Catelyn Stark any more.

In the show, however, Cat reacts with blankness. She cannot fight any more. She just stands, unmoving, until someone comes to cut her throat. She is a broken woman who has lost everything, but her response becomes passive and quiet. And just as Cat’s presentation in the rest of Season 3 diminished her death in this episode, changes to her death in this episode will diminish the power of her later return as the broken, mutilated, pitiless and vengeful Lady Stoneheart. Disappointing.

And then there’s Talisa. How interesting that both of the show’s original female characters have died painfully in ways that seem targeted on the fact that they’re women — Ros strung up by Joffrey, and Talisa stabbed repeatedly in her pregnant stomach. Of course, stabbing her in the stomach makes sense from the Freys’ perspective. Walder Frey’s comment that “he always knows what’s going on under a dress” strongly suggested that he knew she was pregnant, and so he wanted to both ensure that no heir of Robb’s could live AND make the point that this child was the result of his betrayal. But the show did not need to make her pregnant. Jeyne Westerling, Talisa’s book equivalent, is potentially (but unlikely to be) pregnant in the books, but certainly no-one is aware of the possibility at the wedding. She isn’t even there. So the show brought Talisa to the wedding, defying logic, so that she could die tragically with Robb. And the show made her pregnant, and discussed that pregnancy extensively through the episode, just so that they could shock us by showing graphic violence against a pregnant woman and her unborn child. How truly revolutionary.

The idea of a whole major side in a war, the characters we’ve supported from the beginning, being wiped out all of a sudden at a wedding? That’s shocking. That’s a plot twist people would not expect. Graphically attacking a pregnant woman in the stomach? That kind of violence is so common, it’s positively passe. It’s thrown in to make us hate the Freys even more, to make the wedding even more painful to watch, but unlike many of the trope and expectation-subverting events in ASOIAF, it’s not new.

It’s similar to the change that has Catelyn kill Walder’s wife, instead of one of his sons. There’s little reason behind this change, since the audience is unfamiliar with either character. Perhaps they thought it would be more affecting to see a young, innocent-looking girl die, rather than a young boy. Who knows? And Walder’s line that he can always find another wife is shocking. It’s upsetting to see the life of a woman thrown away so callously, because she can always be replaced. The show is using the fact that brutal misogyny shocks to increase the horror of the scene. And perhaps that’s good — at least it’s not supporting that misogyny. But by choosing to depict it over other kinds of violence, the show almost feels lazy. Violence against women is not something new on television. It’s almost expected. It still has the power to horrify us, but it’s a safe kind of horror, and there’s something distinctly uncomfortable about the fact that the writers shifted the characters and the focus of the scene to include more of this misogynistic violence. Is it because they thought the scene needed mutilated pregnant women and threatened young wives to be effective? Did it just seem a natural part of this sort of scene? Was it narrative laziness, or reflective of a far more sinister perspective on the role women must play on the show? I don’t know.

All I know is that the Red Wedding was brutal and upsetting, as it was in the books. But thanks to the  show’s lack of respect for its female characters, both book mothers and sexy not-like-other-girl additions alike, it failed to achieved its potential. Stabbing a pregnant woman in the stomach and having a mother watch her son die is brutal, but narratively common. Seeing Catelyn’s very being destroyed before our eyes? That would be a horror that would truly stay with us.

So value your female characters, show. It’ll be worth it in the end.

14 comments on “Game of Thrones: The Rains of Castamere

  • Alexa , Direct link to comment

    Great post. I’ve always said that stronger female characters make for stronger stories by default. It makes me less gaps in the plot and less need to rely on tired tropes. Seems like it’ll be forever before the majority of writers figure this out.

    Talisa’s death was the hardest part of this episode. I actually had a hard time sleeping afterward as a result. The parallel to Ros is a great and pretty disturbing point. I’m ok with the brutal realism that GoT subscribes to, but that doesn’t make such highly gendered violence necessary or excusable.

  • Asha , Direct link to comment

    I love all your Game of Thrones posts so much that I actually referenced them in my English paper. Keep up the good work!

  • Sy , Direct link to comment

    “It’s similar to the change that has Catelyn kill Walder’s wife, instead of one of his sons. There’s little reason behind this change, since the audience is unfamiliar with either character. Perhaps they thought it would be more affecting to see a young, innocent-looking girl die, rather than a young boy. Who knows?”

    Anyone who’s watched season one knows, as that’s when they’ve actually introduced his wife and gotten the audience familiar with her.

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      Pretty sure it can’t be “anyone who’s watched season one,” since I’ve watched season one more than once, and I’d forgotten that we were introduced to her until this moment. And I really don’t think that us being told “btw this is Walder Frey’s new wife” randomly really counts as getting familiar with her.

      • Âne-Élan , Direct link to comment

        the only thing I remember about her first appearance is that he says she’s a young flower of fifteen or something equally creepy. He tells her to leave and gropes at her bum. I only remember because I felt really bad for her. I don’t think she said anything.

  • Chai Latte , Direct link to comment

    Pretty much. It reminds me of that one quote from Catelyn Stark, that the writers also cut:

    “Girls aren’t important enough, are they?”

    They’re trying to tailor EVERYTHING to appeal to the 18-30 male white hetero dudebro, and since that pretty much goes against EVERYTHING the books stand for, it’s not surprising that the final product is so uneven.

    Honestly, they messed up Robb’s character so much that I didn’t give a damn what happened to him. As far as I could tell, he was unbelievably selfish and fully deserved his fate. And I hate feeling that way, because I didn’t feel like that when I read the books.

  • Ana , Direct link to comment

    Thank you for voicing what I’ve been thinking so perfectly. I was horrified by the show’s treatment of Talisa and how they reduced Catelyn’s character throughout the season, only to use cheap violence against women to magnify Robb’s pain at the end of the day. Female characters on this show are apparently only meant to highlight things about the males – even their deaths are reduced to why men made it happen or how men feel about it.

  • Cal , Direct link to comment

    Not many people agree with me, but Cat was (is?) one of my favourite characters in the books. Michelle Fairley probably played a big part in that since I watched the first season before I devoured the books while waiting for the second season (she deserves more recognition).

    I totally agree with you that the Red Wedding was very much about Cat’s tragedy, and not Robb’s – it’s his fault anyway… I don’t recall any other instance in which I was so devastatingly heartbroken by a book as when I read Cat’s final chapter.

    Though I see your point of view regarding the change of Cat’s reaction to Robb’s death to a more subdued response, I have to admit that it was likewise heartbreaking to see her utterly give up, as signified by the dropping of her knife.

  • voodooqueen126 , Direct link to comment

    The red wedding in the books was devastating, but in the show it kind of left me cold, because by focusing on Robb (and making him even more foolish than he was in the books, thus rendering him unworthy of our sympathy) they missed the point that the red wedding was narrated by Catelyn for a reason

  • Emmy , Direct link to comment

    “Jeyne Westerling, Talisa’s book equivalent, is potentially (but unlikely to be) pregnant in the books, but certainly no-one is aware of the possibility at the wedding. She isn’t even there. So the show brought Talisa to the wedding, defying logic, so that she could die tragically with Robb. And the show made her pregnant, and discussed that pregnancy extensively through the episode, just so that they could shock us by showing graphic violence against a pregnant woman and her unborn child. How truly revolutionary.”

    I read recently in a interview with (somebody) that they specifically chose to make Talisa pregnant and attend the wedding. It was written that way so that when the King in the North and his leaders are killed, there’s not even a chance of there being a Northern heir. The potential silver lining is taken away by killing Talisa and their unborn baby. After all that struggle, they’re all killed and there is no way to revive their cause.

  • Aleera , Direct link to comment

    I preferred Show Catelyn’s reaction to the slaughter over her book counterpart if only because the “tearing and clawing at yourself breakdown” is so cliche. It’s the go-to Acting Class reaction to pain. “Just start tearing at your hair and clawing your face and wailing!” I agree that it would serve to perhaps showcase Catelyn’s shattering of self and the dignity she holds so close, but, like I said, I just don’t like the manufactured dramatics of it. For me, it sufficed that Catelyn murdered an innocent person almost in pure reflex – just swiped the blade right after Robb hit the floor. That showed me how far gone she was. And after that… Nothing. She went with whom she believed to be the last of her children. She died when he did.

    But before that, she very much impressed me with her fight and cunning and courage. Everything from shouting a warning to Robb, striking Bolton, finding cover, grabbing a hostage, trying to negotiate, and then taking what little vengeance she could… She was fierce. I don’t think clawing at her face and screaming would have shown her to be any more so. I don’t think it would have added anything.

    I do agree though, definitely, that what *would* have added to this scene was Catelyn having more attention before this episode. But I also feel the same about Robb and Talisa, who I think were both kind of idealized and not dug into. Robb was just the noble avenging son, the successful warrior, and the young man trying to take up his father’s bannermen and duties. Talisa was kind of this random beautiful noble (both by birth and character) foreigner. And then GoT kind of pulled a typical Whedon and tried to show them happier and more hopeful than ever before, well, murdering them. It felt a little contrived for the sake of the extra tragedy, as you noted. It was capitalizing on the “romance” angle – the loving marriage, the pretty wife, the unborn baby, etc. rather than the war angle.

  • Chi , Direct link to comment

    Agreed, Cat’s last bit of stream-of-consciousness was simply more devastating. The line about Ned liking her hair…chills all over.

    One comment, though: the show was terribly misguided in switching the threatened Freys because it inadvertedly changed Cat’s motivation. “I will take your new shiny toy” is petty and maintains the view of women valuable only as possessions (the girl, though older than Arya, puts up zero fight). GRRM Goes beyond this cliche. We have this man who’s kept rambling on and on half-amused that his many sons wish him dead while he thinks himself capable of, well, making more heirs…threatening him to kill a random grandson of his is a blessing in disguise. This showcases how despair makes Cat completely out of touch, ESPECIALLY since he’s just a kid she could probably liken to Bran on any other day. This is even worse when you consider the Old Gods symbolism strewn in the books, where Ned was the Father, Rob wanted to play the Warrior, Sansa fashioned herself the Maid while Arya was the stranger and…you guessed it. Just like Cersei, Cat was the mother. Sensessly killing a child and going mad with grief isn’t Drama 101: it’s poetic justice.

    tl;dr: a devastated mother killing a worthless never-to-be-heir is more impactful than an angry old woman holding the latest gal and ironically using her own wonanly object status against her

What do you think?

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