Why cutting Lady Stoneheart from Game of Thrones was the right call

Michelle Fairley as Catelyn Stark in Season 1, Episode 4. Helen Sloan/HBO
Michelle Fairley as Catelyn Stark in Season 1, Episode 4. Helen Sloan/HBO /

We finally know why Game of Thrones cut Lady Stoneheart from the show, and at the risk of raising some ire, in my opinion…it was always the right decision:

Catelyn Stark dies at the Red Wedding. That’s true whether you’re watching Game of Thrones or reading George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. The difference is, in A Song of Ice and Fire, that’s not the end of her story. After the treacherous Freys dump her body in a river, it’s pulled out by Nymeria, Arya Stark’s direwolf, and found by Beric Dondarrion and his Brotherhood Without Banners. Beric, who has himself died and been resurrected several times by the Red Priest Thoros of Myr, gives Catelyn the kiss of life, and she rises again.

But she’s different. This Catelyn is cold and ruthless, with the wounds she sustained at the Red Wedding still on her body. Her skin is peeling, and she has to hold the flaps of her open neck together to rattle out words. Now the leader of the Brotherhood Without Banners, she stalks the Riverlands, hanging Freys in revenge for what was done to her family.

It’s a chilling turn, and obviously it didn’t happen on TV. For years, fans wondered why, and Entertainment Weekly’s James Hibberd finally got an answer from Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss. As detailed in his book Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon: Game of Thrones and the Official Untold Story of the Epic Series (yes, it’s a very long title), they had a few reasons:

  1. The first reason they can’t actually talk about, because it involves what Martin has told them about his as-yet-unpublished books. “Part of the reason we didn’t want to put it in had to do with things coming up in George’s books that we don’t want to spoil” Benioff said.
  2. They didn’t want to cheapen Jon Snow’s resurrection, which they knew was coming. “We knew we had Jon Snow’s resurrection coming up,” Benioff said. “Too many resurrections start to diminish the impact of characters’ dying. We wanted to keep our powder dry for that.”
  3. Finally, they didn’t want to blunt the power of the Red Wedding, or misuse Michelle Fairley as an actor. “Catelyn’s last moment was so fantastic, and Michelle is such a great actress, to bring her back as a zombie who doesn’t speak felt like diminishing returns,” Benioff said.

For his part, Martin disagrees with the choice to cut Lady Stoneheart. “In the sixth book, I still continue to write her,” he told Esquire China. “She is an important character in the set of books. [Keeping her character] is the change I most wish I could make in the [show].”

I’m sure many fans agree with him. Personally, I don’t. I think cutting Stoneheart was the right call, I always thought it, and I’d like to try and explain why.

I first found out about Lady Stoneheart when I read the epilogue to A Storm of Swords, the third book in Martin’s series. This was before the Red Wedding had happened on the show. While the epilogue itself is moody and well-written — Merrett Frey was not having a good day — I remember reading the bit with Lady Stoneheart and thinking, ‘Well, I don’t like that.’

I’m not entirely sure why I was uneasy with the character right from the start, but it might have something to do with the way death is treated in this story. In a lot of fantasy series, death is cheap. Take the Marvel Universe, for example, which is famous for resurrecting characters over and over and over to the point where you wonder why they bother killing anyone in the first place. Martin himself has dinged The Lord of the Rings for bringing back Gandalf after he dies in The Fellowship of the Ring. “And then he comes back as Gandalf the White, and if anything he’s sort of improved,” Martin said on The Great American Read. “I never liked Gandalf the White as much as Gandalf the Grey, and I never liked him coming back. I think it would have been an even stronger story if Tolkien had left him dead.”

But in A Song of Ice and Fire, death means something. When Ned Stark is dead, he’s dead. Ditto Khal Drogo and Renly Baratheon and Oberyn Martell and everyone else. It didn’t matter that readers liked these character: dead was dead. I appreciated the stakes that brought to the story, and respected Martin for going there when he could have found a way out of it.

And then there’s Catelyn Stark. It’s true that Lady Stoneheart is much changed from Catelyn — she is not “improved” as Gandalf the White was over Gandalf the Grey. But she’s still alive. I agree generally with Benioff and Weiss that bringing her back in any form takes away some of the power of the Red Wedding. I didn’t like it when I first read it and I don’t like it now.

It might be different if Lady Stoneheart went on to play a huge role in the story, and perhaps that’s what will happen in the final two books of the series, but as it stands, Lady Stoneheart simply hasn’t done much. She’s appeared in two chapters: the epilogue to A Storm of Swords and another chapter in A Feast for Crows. She’s hanged Freys, she may have hanged Podrick Payne, and she almost hanged Brienne of Tarth; that thread still isn’t tied up but it looks like Brienne has chosen to follow Lady Stoneheart and make a move against Jaime Lannister. That could be a very satisfying story, but this tale is so vast that somehow I doubt it will matter enough to justify the break from the rules of life and death that Martin had established. Those rules are foundational to this story, and while I’m willing to entertain a break, it has to be thoroughly earned and I don’t think Stoneheart is putting in the work.

At least not yet. It’s always possible The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring could come out and I’ll realize how vital Stoneheart was and is to the series, but somehow I doubt it. After all, Martin told Benioff and Weiss what he had planned and they decided that cutting Stoneheart was the best option. Martin says she’s “an important character,” but I sometimes suspect that his idea of what’s important to a story differs from mine. That’s especially true in Feast for Crows and Dance with Dragons, which have far more detours and slow patches than the first three books. So far as Stoneheart’s importance goes, I’ll believe it when I read it.

All that said, I do expect Martin to make interesting thematic use of Stoneheart as a counterpoint to Jon Snow, who is surely going to be resurrected following his murder by the men of the Night’s Watch. On the show, Jon is brought back more or less exactly the same person he was before. In the books, I’m betting he’ll be different, perhaps not full Stoneheart-scary but maybe more like Beric Dondarrion, a little lost and confused, unsure why he’s still here.

But I’m still not sure that’s a good enough reason to resurrect Catelyn in the first place. I also can buy that it may have worked even less well on the screen than it does on the page. Michelle Fairley did indeed give a splendid performance as Catelyn, and bringing the character back as a vengeful zombie would involve more than simply writing a new scene for her, as Martin could do. The producers would have had to ask Fairley to come back and sit in a chair and get zombie makeup applied to her for hours before every shoot, and then to glower at the camera and croak out a word or two before she wrapped for the day. Interpersonal relationships play a much bigger role on a collaborative TV set than they do during the writing of a book, and Benioff and Weiss would have been best positioned to know what they could ask for, and what they would get out of it.

All of this is moot, of course: the fact is that Lady Stoneheart didn’t show up on Game of Thrones and never will, but it was fun to work through some of these thoughts. What do you think?

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