Catelyn Stark is one of the major point of view characters in A Song of Ice and Fire. She’s the character with the second most chapters in A Game of Thrones. She has more chapters in the first three books than Daenerys. And she certainly has more focus than Robb Stark, who never has a POV chapter — we see his story entirely through Catelyn’s eyes.
Not that you’d know that from watching the show. If you exclude one out-of-character speech about Jon Snow, Catelyn has probably had less than ten lines this season, and none of them have had any real bearing on the plot. What happened? Why has Catelyn Stark been silenced?
The answer to me seems simple but depressing: Catelyn Stark, as the mother figure, simply doesn’t matter.
Please note: this post contains MAJOR book spoilers through A Feast for Crows.
I’ve talked a little bit before about the way the show has been erasing Cat’s emotional story arc. Her discovery that Bran and Rickon are dead, murdered by Theon Greyjoy, was a major turning point for her character. It’s a major reason why she released Jaime Lannister and attempted to exchange him for her daughters. It fills her with anger and the desire to see Theon dead, but also hardens her resolve that the war must end.
The decision to release Jaime remained in the show, but the reason behind it was taken away, turning the desperate, anti-war action of a grieving mother into something that seemed irrational at best. Robb’s reaction has also been changed, as he blames his mother, is furious with her, and treats her as a traitor. But considering the circumstances in the show, can we blame him? Her only reason is “I didn’t feel like it before, but I felt like it now.” Book readers may agree or disagree with her decision, but the text makes clear her thoughts and why she did it. The TV adaptation handwaves away her thoughts and reasoning, so that the only obvious option that remains is to disagree with her and condemn her. She is transformed from a complicated and sympathetic perspective character into the stereotype of the interfering mother who is too overcome by emotion to understand strategy and know her place.
But at least last season, Catelyn was involved. It was impossible for her not to be. The writers may have erased a lot of her motivations, but Catelyn has a distinct story of her own, as she goes to parley with Renly, sees his death, brings back Brienne, and frees Jaime. She cannot possibly be taken out of the story without many other plotlines falling apart.
Not so this season. As far as I can recall, she spends the entire third book in the same vicinity as Robb. She has conversations with him, is involved in the decision to marry Edmure to the Freys, must deal with her father’s death, and on and on, but these things either don’t affect the plotline outside of Catelyn herself and or can be done with a focus on other characters. And so her role is erased. To the show, Catelyn doesn’t matter. She’s not a character with her own emotional plotline. She is just a feature of Robb’s story, and as Robb is currently around, she’s not even needed for that.
And so she sits in the background of scenes. The last time we had any focus on her this season was in the second episode, when she gave Talisa a long speech about how terrible she is for not loving Jon Snow enough, and how everything that is happening to her is punishment for that. In that speech, all of her complicated emotions and motivations are reduced to the unfounded criticism that she’s a horrible character because she did not care for Jon. Some readers get this interpretation from the books, but it’s just one interpretation, and one that, I believe, fundamentally misunderstands Catelyn, how she acted around Jon, and the importance of her character. The show erases that by putting the words into Catelyn’s own mouth, making it the only interpretation that we can reasonably have. And since then, Catelyn has done almost nothing. Karstark says that she was as reasonable for the murder of the Lannister boys as he was, and she does not respond. She warns Robb not to kill Lord Karstark and suggests taking him as a hostage, but Talisa immediately joins in, and makes Catelyn’s usual argument for her. More boys will die until the war ends, she says, and Robb needs the Karstarks to do that. Catelyn is merely present in the scene. Her role in the narrative is taken over by Robb’s love interest, because love interests, we all know, are far more worthwhile than mothers.
In the books, the war of the boy king is Catelyn’s story, subverting tropes of the dashing young hero who beats the odds and triumphs over all. She adds an emotional level to the story, as the mother who worries for her children, but she’s also a strategist and deeply pragmatic. She’s one of the few figures who realizes that they’re not merely playing at war, and understand what that must mean. In the show, however, Catelyn is merely the mother of the king, and no one wants to see what the mother is thinking or doing when the true hero is elsewhere.
And this creates major problems for the show in the future. This both is and isn’t Catelyn’s final season. We’re hurtling towards a day when Catelyn will watch her son and all their allies be murdered, before being killed herself. We’re also hurtling towards her reappearance as Lady Stoneheart, the brutal figure blindly fixated on vengeance, killing everyone she can get her hands on. After Robb dies, he is mentioned occasionally, and the war for the North continues with Stannis and Jon and Jeyne Westerling, but Catelyn is the character with continuity. She’s the character with the ability to shock us, to break our hearts, and to continue to influence the world. And this only works because we knew Catelyn so well before her death. Stoneheart’s obsession with vengeance is only shocking because we know how careful and reasonable Catelyn once was. Her lack of mercy, and her brutal treatment of Brienne, are in blunt contrast to her previous sympathy and understanding. Yet none of this will work based on her character on the show. Her resurrection will be less shocking, because this season, it’s been fairly easy to forget that she exists at all. If we do remember her, we can think of a rash, interfering mother, someone who declares that they must “kill them all,” someone who was too coldhearted to even love poor, motherless Jon Snow. In this world, Lady Stoneheart seems a natural progression of Catelyn’s character.
In short, the TV show has turned Catelyn into every trope that the books attempted to subvert. She is the interfering mother, the wicked stepmother, the female character who puts her emotions above common sense. And when she can’t fill any of these roles — when she would need to simply be a character like any other — she is shoved into the background and replaced with boy kings, love interests, and even her newly introduced brother.
The only role that she hasn’t yet filled is the Evil Queen. How lucky that this trope will come along soon enough. In it, she can be both stereotyped and silenced, as the wicked crone whose words must be interpreted by others.