HBO’s Game of Thrones

Exhuming Lady Stoneheart: What We Lost in Game of Thrones’ Biggest Cut

I read the Catelyn chapter that details the Red Wedding in George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords during gym class, sometime during the spring of my senior year of high school. Because I was not supposed to be reading at the time, I remember having to modulate my emotional response. I sat on the indoor bleachers by the basketball court, panicking and flipping through the remaining pages to see if another Catelyn chapter appeared. When I finished the novel later in the week, I was greeted by this haunting bit of prose,

When she lowered her hood, something tightened in Merrett [Frey, a lesser son]’s chest. No. No, I saw her die. […] Raymun opened her throat from ear to ear. She was dead. […] her eyes were the most terrible thing. Her eyes saw him and they hated.

“She don’t speak,” said the big man in the yellow cloak. “You bloody bastards cut her throat too deep for that. But she remembers.” He turned to the dead woman and said, “What do you say, m’lady? Was he a part of it?”

Lady Catelyn’s eyes never left him. She nodded.

I remember not being able to sleep after finishing it. I did not start reading A Song of Ice and Fire until 2000 when the first three novels had been published, so this was, in addition to the end of the novel, the first time I did not have more of the series to satisfy me. The first glut of reading was over, and it ended with a morass of feelings that my seventeen-year-old self was not fully prepared to cope with.

[Spoilers for HBO’s Game of Thrones and the Song of Ice and Fire novels]

Catelyn appears only once more in Martin’s currently published books—a Brienne chapter in A Feast for Crows. It is in the indices for that novel that Martin gives this undead Catelyn Stark a plethora of new names: “Mother Mercy,” “The Silent Sister,” “The Hangwoman,” and the one that fans have adopted as both primary epithet and de facto spoiler tag, “Lady Stoneheart.” Fans of this turn of events, myself included, eagerly awaited her appearance in Game of Thrones and were somewhat shocked when she was not the season finale-ending stinger of the show’s fourth season in 2014.

Early on, there were signs that the character might have been cut entirely, with the director of season four’s finale, Alex Graves, stating, “[W]hen you get into taking Michelle Fairley, one of the greatest actresses around, and making her a zombie who doesn’t speak and goes around killing people, what’s the best way to integrate that into the show?” Over the next two seasons, speculation over whether or not Lady Stoneheart had been completely written out or was merely being saved for a critical moment grew to a fever pitch: fans attempting to read the tea leaves of one of Lena Headey’s Instagram posts, which turned out to be the actress “drunk in Palm Springs,”  and The AV Club’s Myles McNutt, devoting an entire section of his reviews of season six to a “Lady Stoneheart Truther Corner.”  By the time the season six finale aired and Beric Dondarrion—who, in the novels, sacrifices himself to bring Catelyn Stark back to life—returned to the screen, it was painfully clear that Lady Stoneheart would not appear, and Martin began insisting that her inclusion was the one change he’d fought for above all others.

So: why the endless agitation over her inclusion? In a show that has left many characters on the cutting room floor, why is Lady Stoneheart the one that so many fans of ASoIaF still yearn for? And, what, if anything, does the show lose in refusing to exhume Catelyn Stark?

In many ways, the resurrection of Catelyn Stark is the turning point for the novels. It is the original halfway mark of Martin’s proposed six-book series (a structure that was compromised by the decision to release 2005’s A Feast for Crows and 2011’s A Dance With Dragons as two separate novels). It is an ameliorative for the Red Wedding where Catelyn, her son Robb, and the majority of the Starks’ bannermen and soldiers are murdered. It is the tipping point for the presence of magic in the famously low-on-fantasy fantasy novels, where a narrator is so altered by magical forces that magic is no longer a matter of plausible deniability. It is also pivotal insofar as it marks the first time Martin reversed his dead-is-dead rule, bringing back a major character.  

More than any of these things, however, the resurrection of Catelyn Stark is a perfect object lesson on the perils of getting what you wish for. Fans of ASoIaF and GoT likely understand all too well the singular pleasures of despairing at the death of a beloved character. Simply looking up YouTube results for “Ned Stark death reactions” might give the uninitiated a window into the complicated ballet of fury, frustration, shock, resignation, thrill, and catharsis that such moments provide. The Red Wedding is the gloomy apotheosis of that routine: Robb, who, in another author’s hands, might be the young protagonist of the series, fails to avenge his father’s unjust death and leaves his fledgling kingdom in disarray to be carved up by his enemies. Similarly, Catelyn, who has been the voice of sober reason throughout Robb’s campaign, is caught up in his mistakes and killed for nothing more than loving her son and attending her brother’s wedding.

It is the bleakest and most nihilistic moment in a series that regularly subjects its readers to the trauma of parting with beloved characters—made all the more horrible as the chapter is centered on her, sticking to a close third person that details first her (mistaken) realization that all of her children are dead or married to her enemies, followed by a descent into madness where she claws the skin off of her face, murders an innocent, and has her throat slit while we read her increasingly nonsensical thoughts: It hurts so much, she thought […] It tickles. That made her laugh until she screamed […] a hand grabbed her scalp […] and she thought No, don’t cut my hair, Ned loves my hair.”  The remaining third of the novel has plenty of twists and turns, but readers often spend it in a state of distraction—trying to confirm whether or not the horror they just experienced really happened or hoping, against hope, that somehow Robb and Catelyn have made it out alive and unscathed. And then Catelyn closes out the novel, neither alive nor unscathed, but still a force to be reckoned with. It is exactly what the reader has been yearning for; it is not at all what the reader wants.

Martin has famously compared Catelyn’s return as a reaction against his childhood disappointment over the resurrection of Gandalf, telling interviewers, “That’s, in some ways, me talking to Tolkien in the dialogue, saying, ‘Yeah, if someone comes back from being dead, especially if they suffer a violent, traumatic death, they’re not going to come back as nice as ever.’”  Martin rebukes the trope of magical-resurrection-as-deus-ex-machina so often used to correct a plot hole or give readers the reassurance that good will triumph in the end because it transcends death. Martin uses it to show us that justice is unavailable, and coming back from the dead is not preferable to remaining such. The Catelyn that returns from death is not the woman we’ve followed through two thousand-odd pages; instead, she’s an avatar of blind vengeance. In A Feast for Crows, Martin uses Lady Stoneheart’s tortured physicality as a sign of her inability to fully be Catelyn Stark: “[S]he reached up under her jaw and and grasped her neck, as if she meant to throttle herself. Instead, she spoke… Her voice was halting, broken, tortured. The sound seemed to come from her throat, part croak, part wheeze, part death rattle. The language of the damned.   Lady Stoneheart is, in part, Martin’s horrifying meditation on why death—even the cruel and untimely death that he is so liberal in dispensing to beloved characters—is simpler, cleaner, and kinder than magical solutions. It’s Martin letting us bend the finger of our monkey’s paw and forcing us to live with the awful consequences.

As many fans who frequent internet forums know, Catelyn’s resurrection is a source of intense debate. Much of this runs along sexist lines, with Catelyn Stark cast as a stand-in for all harridan wives/mothers who keep their husbands/sons from having adventurous fun; her caution and political savvy are misread as overprotective worry and meddling. While this sort of critique is clearly beneath contempt, it is worth noting that Catelyn Stark is one of the few female narrators who comfortably inhabits a traditionally feminine role in Westeros. Brienne, Arya, Asha (Yara in the show), Daenerys, Cersei, and Arianne Martell (cut from the show but arguably parallel to Ellaria Sand) all chafe at the restrictive feminine roles they have been given and find ways to take on traditionally masculine ones.

While Martin’s series is certainly capacious enough to have female-identifying characters take on any number of roles, and it is certainly a benefit to have male-authored, epic fantasy feature women who question the extremely patriarchal rape culture in which they live, there is also an important, representative perspective that is fulfilled by having a woman who operates entirely within the traditionally feminine sphere and is, nevertheless, perceptive, serious, and able to influence the larger world of Westeros. For those readers and viewers who are unnerved by the toxic masculinity of Westeros’ martial, honor-obsessed culture, Catelyn Stark is a clear and compelling alternative. She argues for her husband and son to exercise the diplomacy that she is barred from personally performing. She continually reminds the audience that, while women and children have no direct power in Westerosi society, their lives are always at stake even when they are not on the battlefield.

Game of Thrones manages to land the gut-punch of the Red Wedding insofar as it cruelly and abruptly ends Catelyn’s life; it spends the last twenty-three seconds of “The Rains of Castamere” (Season 3, Episode 9) in an agonizing, lingering shot, the majority of which is taken up by actress Michelle Fairley’s tormented, silent expression. The show even suggests the hole they are leaving in the narrative by having the camera continue to hold for a few seconds after Catelyn’s throat has been cut and she drops out of frame. But for all the emotional impact of the scene, it cannot capture the nuance of Catelyn’s complicated relationship with patriarchal authority. Catelyn is often, unfairly, dismissed as a martinet (a criticism that, without the aid of her internal monologue, is more apt on the show), advising her son to make hardline, unyielding decisions where their enemies are concerned. But the most fateful actions she takes as a living character are focused on the safe return of her daughters. She grants her daughters the kind of humanity that Robb and his lieutenants’ military stratagems cannot afford to grant them: insisting that their lives are worthwhile even though they have no martial prowess and command no armies.

The show cuts against this by changing her last living act from the murder of Aegon “Jinglebell” Frey, an aging, cognitively-disabled grandson of Red Wedding architect Walder Frey, to the murder of Joyeuse Frey, the elderly villain’s fifteen-year-old wife, whose blank stare speaks volumes about her joyless matrimonial imprisonment. While both characters are complete innocents—cementing some of Martin’s feelings about the futility of revenge—Joyeuse is an on-the-nose analog for Catelyn’s daughter Sansa, thereby rendering Catelyn’s act a backpedal of her espoused female solidarity. The show drives this home by altering Walder Frey’s response to Catelyn’s murderous threat. In A Storm of Swords, the exchange is:

“On my honor as a Tully” she told lord Walder, “on my honor as a Stark, I will trade your boy’s life for Robbs. A son for a son.” […]

“A son for a son, heh,” he repeated. “But that’s a grandson… and he never was much use.”

[…] Robb had broken his word, but Catelyn kept hers. She tugged at Aegon’s hair and sawed at his neck until blade grated on bone.

Whereas the dialogue in “The Rains of Castamere” is:

Catelyn: On my honor as a Tully, on my honor as a Stark, let him go or I will cut your wife’s throat.

Walder:  I’ll find another.

The differences are minor but telling. Martin has Catelyn desperately attempt to play by the patriarchal rules of Westeros, understanding, it would seem, that bastions of toxic masculinity do not care about the feminist values that define her. Her calculus is off: Aegon is not a valuable son, and the hollow, meaningless deal is rendered moot. Catelyn’s choice to go through with Aegon’s murder is a further, pointless capitulation to the harsh rules of the game of thrones. Benioff and Weiss’ script, on the other hand, have Catelyn attempting to play off of Walder’s (non-existent) love for his wife. Instead of a political bargain that mirrors what Catelyn has been attempting to push aside, the dialogue is simply a referendum on the disposability of Westerosi women. Without access to Catelyn’s internal monologue, the show cannot capture the nuance of her decision to go through with the murder, making it a tacit acceptance and endorsement of Walder’s position. So says the show: thus ends Catelyn Stark, a bastion of feminist solidarity until she isn’t.

Essentially, the show attempts to give us Catelyn Stark’s descent out of empathetic justice and into cruel revenge in truncated miniature. Martin’s choice to transform Catelyn Stark into Lady Stoneheart in the books provides a more valuable tale about the poisonous nature of revenge. Seeing as Catelyn ceases to be a narrator—and how could she be, given the dramatic horror of being unable to understand her motivations in full?—Martin leaves a lot of our auguring of her thoughts to descriptions of her appearance. At the close of A Storm of Swords, Martin has the unfortunate Merret Frey note that:

[Her] flesh had gone pudding soft in the water and turned the color of curdled milk. Half her hair was gone and the rest had turned white and brittle as a crone’s. Beneath her ravaged scalp, her face was shredded skin and black blood where she had raked herself with her nails.

The corruption of her body moves directly to a questioning of her mental state: have her mental faculties also gone “pudding soft”? Is the loss of her hair a metonym for the loss of her wits? Furthermore, Martin, who has always positioned Catelyn as a mother first and foremost, invokes language that speaks to the end of her motherly empathy and love with his reference to “curdled milk,” and the comparison to a crone (who represents a post-motherly stage of female life both in traditional European mythology and in Martin’s fictional Faith of the Seven). By rooting our assumptions about her psychology in the physical, Martin drives at the point that Catelyn’s mercilessness is rooted in physical trauma and magical transformation. Violent death has changed her; she is not compromised by the failure of her ideals and values but by a literal break with the living world. Finally, Martin reminds us of the fact that Catelyn’s single-minded vengeance is a direct response to the ways in which she has been crushed by patriarchal culture. In having her “throat cut too deep,” she is literally and figuratively silenced. The members of the Brotherhood Without Banners, who serve her, do not actually listen to her counsel: they interpret her meaning and act on her unvoiced testimony. In that same epilogue mentioned at the beginning of this article, it is critical that we note how her follower lays out the terms of Merret’s trial without her spoken input. He says, “What do you say, m’lady? Was he a part of it?” She merely nods in response. The choice to kill is still left in masculine hands.

Game of Thrones attempts to tie off the storylines of the Red Wedding (which Lady Stoneheart dominates in the novels) by offering its viewers pure revenge-thriller schadenfreude. During the season six finale, “The Winds of Winter,” and the season seven premiere, “Dragonstone,” viewers are given, first, Arya’s assassination of Walder Frey and then her assumption of his identity to poison the entirety of his house (save his new wife, as though attempting to make up for Catelyn’s actions in “The Rains of Castamere”). Both scenes are shot for maximum viewer satisfaction, waiting to reveal Arya’s identity until after the deaths are carried out, and the latter having Arya-as-Walder lecture the Frey clan on exactly why they need to die:

I’m proud of you lot. […] Brave men, all of you. Butchered a woman pregnant with her babe. Cut the throat of a mother of five. […] But you didn’t slaughter every one of the Starks […] that was your mistake. […] Leave one wolf alive and the sheep are never safe. When people ask you what happened here, tell them the North remembers. Tell them winter came for House Frey. 

It’s stirring, satisfying stuff. But there’s no nuance in it. The show treats Arya’s killing spree as pure justice and audience wish-fulfillment. Compare that to the Storm of Swords epilogue, where we are forced to see Lady Stoneheart’s murder from the perspective of her victim. Furthermore, Merrett Frey’s execution comes at the end of an entire chapter spent in his head, detailing his sad existence as a hapless lesser son and clarifying that his only part in the Red Wedding was to keep Robb Stark’s most fearsome bannerman as drunk as possible. It is not merely that Lady Stoneheart is pitiless and un-nuanced compared with the woman she was in her previous life, it is that her revenge is a methodical eradication of the Freys, picking off the weakest and least responsible one by one in an attempt to make the entire, voluminous clan pay. We have not yet seen how Martin plans on resolving this plot. Knowing his propensity to veer away from moments of purely satisfying revenge, I suspect that Lady Stoneheart will either be unable to exact her revenge on Walder Frey himself or that the moment will be made uncomfortable by an evocation of sympathy or pity for one of Martin’s least sympathetic villains. Either way, I highly doubt that Walder Frey’s death will be the stand-up-and-cheer moment that the show provided.

At the end of the day, a lot of analyses of what does and does not work in a piece of adaptation come down to the deeply personal relationship between IP and fan. When it comes to the fate of Catelyn Stark, I still feel a keen loss on behalf of fans who did not read the novels; the loss of that particular moment of hope, relief, elation, despair, revulsion, and terror all at once. It may be a selfish feeling. After all, one can find numerous thinkpieces on how the show is vastly improved by leaving Catelyn Stark dead on the rushes of the Twins.

I cannot help but think that the very process of adaptation is, in and of itself, a reflection of what Lady Stoneheart provides the reader. After all, the show is breathing life into something dead. As with Catelyn, there is no reclaiming the past in full, and nothing ever comes back quite the way you wanted.

Tyler Dean is a professor of Victorian Gothic Literature. He holds a doctorate from the University of California Irvine and teaches at a handful of Southern California colleges. More of his writing can be found at his website and his fantastical bestiary can be found on Facebook at @presumptivebestiary.

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