Thinking Through Catelyn Stark’s Monologue in This Week’s ‘Game Of Thrones’

I cover Game of Thrones every Sunday night as one of my regular duties at The Week, but as I’ve followed the fan chatter from last Sunday’s “Dark Wings, Dark Words,” I wanted to use this opportunity to take a more in-depth look at the most polarizing scene from this week’s episode: Catelyn’s confession to Talisa about her role –- perceived or imagined –- in Jon Snow’s near-death experience as an infant. If you missed it, here’s the scene:

This exchange gets at the heart of something Alyssa and I talked about on Bloggingheads last week: The differences between HBO’s Game of Thrones and George R.R. Martin’s original novels, and the very, very different goals of each. Though I’ve read all five of the “A Song of Ice and Fire” books, I’ve never been interested in the kind of criticism that meticulously dictates the differences between an adaptation and its source material, though I don’t begrudge anyone who is. (For what it’s worth, I don’t actually see any reason that Catelyn’s story couldn’t fit within the narrative of the original novels –- but that’s a different debate for a different time.)

However, the controversy over the very idea that Game of Thrones might be taking Catelyn on a different path than the books has overshadowed what Catelyn’s confession means for the show, and I’d like to ignore the books entirely to discuss why the scene –- which I’d argue was Michelle Fairley’s best scene as Catelyn to date –- was so significant for her character on the series.

Over the course of the series, we’ve seen Catelyn lose her husband, believe she’s lost her sons Bran and Rickon, and fear for Sansa and Arya’s fates as the hostages she believes both to be. That’s an immense amount of loss for any one character, but the idea that Catelyn has been holding herself responsible adds new resonance to her desperation to make things rights – a desperation that led her to release Jaime Lannister. Game of Thrones is set in a cruel, senseless world, in which a character like Ned Stark can end up beheaded due to the whims of a sadistic young boy. Given the immense powerlessness of her situation, it’s heartbreaking to watch Catelyn blame herself for all the tragedy that has befallen the Starks since the series began. We know, as Catelyn doesn’t, that the tragedy that has befallen the Starks was caused not by a moment of personal weakness or the anger of her seven gods, but by the deliberate actions and machinations of a series of people. Catelyn calls herself a murderer, but we’ve repeatedly seen what murder means in Westeros -– even murder abetted by a god –- and Catelyn isn’t guilty.

And Catelyn’s inability to love or accept Jon Snow extends a strange, fascinating parallel between Catelyn and Cersei Lannister that hearkens back to Game of Thrones’ first season. In “The Kingsroad,” Cersei visited Bran’s bedside and told Catelyn about the vigil she had once kept for her own child, who did not survive. As Cersei’s brother Tyrion has remarked, her one redeeming quality –- aside from her cheekbones -– is how much she loves her children. As it turns out, it’s a quality she shares with Catelyn, who has sacrificed everything to protect her children, but never found room in her heart for Jon Snow. And now, as both women contend with beloved sons that have assumed leadership and pushed them out of the game of thrones (Robb for Catelyn, and Joffrey for Cersei), they remain diametrically opposed even as they undergo a similar trial. Catelyn’s grief and anxiety over the horrors she believes she’s wrought mirrors Cersei’s own fear that the tragedy in her life is “the price we pay for our sins,” which she confessed to Tyrion in season two. As Game of Thrones continues to blur the lines between our heroes and our villains, it’s a worthwhile and powerful reminder that no one on this series is innocent.