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.