TV Club

Dark wings, Dark Words recap: Catelyn feels bad about being mean to Jon Snow.

Catelyn expresses some remorse about Jon Snow. That’s not a bad thing.

Michelle Fairley as Catelyn Stark on HBO's Game of Thrones
Michelle Fairley as Catelyn Stark on HBO’s Game of Thrones

Photo by Damien Elliott/HBO

It was one of the most-talked-about scenes of Sunday’s Game of Thrones, and not necessarily out of affection. The Starks and their bannermen stop to rest on the way to Riverrun for Lord Tully’s funeral. We see Catelyn working on some kind of prayer wheel for Bran and Rickon. Talisa, trying to make ins with her mother-in-law, offers to help. Catelyn, consumed by grief for her father and her home and worry for her sons, snaps that only a mother can do it.

And then she calms down and explains that she’s only made prayer wheels twice before. Once for Bran, of course. And once, many years ago, when “one of the boys came down with the pox.” Jon Snow. The bastard son whom Ned brought back to Winterfell after helping Robert Baratheon defeat the Targaryens and claim the Iron Throne. Turns out that Catelyn prayed that he would die and then, when he got sick, she prayed that he would get better. And she promised her seven gods that if Jon Snow lived, she would treat him like a son and ask Ned to name him Stark. Which, of course, she didn’t.

Fans of the books have complained that not only does the scene not take place in the books, but that it is a huge departure for Catelyn’s character in both media. (As Slate commenter TawdryHepburn put it, “I just wish they hadn’t shoved her in the silly-emotional-lady box so early.” ) She’s never been nice to Jon Snow at all. Remember in Season 1, when he was about to leave for the Night’s Watch, and he came to visit Bran, who was recovering from being pushed out of a tower by Jaime Lannister? He said he came to say goodbye and she said, “You already have.” And then she asks him to leave. You can tell she wishes it had been him.

So yes, having Catelyn break down with guilt over Jon Snow was jarring, at first. But after watching the scene a few times, I like it. I won’t pretend to be in the heads of show-runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, or to know precisely why they handle material differently between the books and show, when it’s not just to condense the very complex material. But I see at least one benefit in thawing Catelyn at least little bit.

Even in its abridged-for-TV version, this show has a kajillion characters. We don’t even get to check in on every major storyline in each hourlong episode. (Missed you this week, Danerys!) So to keep us watching, and to help us keep everything straight, the characters must be compelling. They don’t have to be likable, obviously, but they have to be interesting. And honestly, Lady Catelyn just hasn’t had that much to work with since Season 1. The show did not allow her to indulge much in her grief over Ned (bringing his bones to her at Renly’s camp—really?), and they couldn’t show her internal anguish about leaving Bran and Rickon for months.

All of which leaves her looking not just cold, but boring. The revelation might upset fans, but it doesn’t change that much. She’s still a flawed woman. Proper and honest and honorable and fiercely protective of her (trueborn) children, but flawed. But by admitting that, and by saying that she blames herself for her family’s considerable recent woes, she’s opened herself up just enough to make us curious about her.