Michelle Fairley’s Take on the Strong Women of Game of Thrones

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Michelle Fairley as Catelyn Stark. © HBO

One of the most compelling aspects of Game of Thrones is its strong female characters. In far too many medieval shows and films, attempts to create empowered women fall short and come across as cardboard anachronisms. Recently, there has been a tremendous amount of controversy over the series of rape scenes in the Season 4 television show. Some critics applauded Daenerys’ show of sexual assertiveness in the last episode (“Mockingbird”) — no doubt because of the contrast it provided with sexually victimized women in previous weeks.

While going through our archives, I found this article discussing an amazing interview with Michelle Fairley about Catelyn Stark and the strong female characters she admires. Even though nearly a year has passed since her departure from the show, the interview still provides great insight into not only her interpretation of the character but also one of the series’ most powerful scenes.

Fairley notes in the interview that she based her interpretation off of the Game of Thrones‘ showrunners’ interpretation and not necessarily that of George RR Martin: “Sometimes David [Benioff], Dan [Weiss] and Bryan [Cogman] take from the books and sometimes they don’t. ”

Not surprisingly given her skill as an actress, Michelle Fairley provides some thoughtful insights as to what Catelyn was thinking during the Red Wedding.

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© HBO.

Fairley explains how Catelyn misunderstood Walder Frey’s anger and desire for revenge. When she tries to bargain with him, she assumes that he would care more about saving his family than shedding blood. Catelyn badly miscalculates.

She tries everything with this man in order to save this son but he’s without care. She doesn’t know it was already planned.

When Catelyn holds a knife to Joyeuse Frey’s throat, she is trying to keep her wits in a last ditch effort to save her children. Since Ned’s death, her only motivation has been to reunite her children and become a family once more. Threatening Walder Frey via his wife is the only option that presents itself in the last terrified seconds of her life.

Still when Frey dismisses Catelyn’s threat by coldly stating, “I’ll find another” and Roose Bolton proceeds to kill Robb — the last moments of Catelyn, the eternal mother, are spent in vengeance. As Fairley notes, “I don’t think Cat ever thought herself capable of being able to slit someone’s throat. But that’s the journey she goes on.”

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Cersei (Lena Headey) is one of Michelle Fairley’s favorite characters.  © HBO

Michelle also has some compelling thoughts on why the Game of Thrones women are so powerful. “They’re all incredibly strong, but in different ways, with different moral fibers. They’re all acting for the own gain, whether for their children to be king or to get their family back together again. You can’t fault them for their drive or passion because they have to be stronger than the men. They’re the ones who stay behind. They’re the ones that have to run the family.” The emphasis here is mine.

This is a powerful and often overlooked aspect of Game of Thrones. These are the women of war. For millennia, women have stayed at home while their husbands and sons went off to war — possibly never to return again. During the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of the Roses periods, this would have been the experience of  many women, not just the noble ones. In the case of the Hundred Years’ War, some men would have been gone for months or years. This experience of staying behind and keeping everything going continues even today with military wives around the world.

Michelle also provides her take on some of the other major characters, ” I admire Cersei because of her drive, but I don’t agree with what she does. I admire Tyrion: He’s coming from such a disadvantage within a family like that yet makes the most of his life… For Tyrion and Arya, it’s about survival; knowing that this could be your last day on earth so you go out and live it.”

Michelle currently has a recurring role in 24: Live Another Day. Since Game of Thrones, she has also acted in Suits as Ava Hessington as well as the Montana, Ironclad: Battle for Blood, Philomena, and Common. Some of you may also remember Michelle as Hermione’s mom in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I.

To read more of the HBO interview, click here.

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Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

3 Comments

  • Reply May 21, 2014

    Grant

    Remember that Catelyn swore to the gods that she would kill the girl if Walder Frey didn’t let Robb go. Had she failed to follow through, it would have been just as much a disobedience as her inability to care about Jon that she confessed earlier (and came to the conclusion that the damage done to her family was her fault over).
    I can’t be sure of that, but it seems to follow the strong emphasis Catelyn and many others, peasant and noble, put on their gods. In such an uncertain world where your entire family can literally be wiped out and tens of thousands killed because of a feud between families, divine intervention may often be the only sense of control and solace you can find.

    As a note, I’m an atheist so that may color some of my views on ancient feudal society and the divine.

    And it’s rather nice to be able to actually read an interview instead of having to watch or listen to it. No accents to confuse and you can go back and reread important points. And there’s a very interesting comment in it:

    “Remember, the knowledge of these families has been passed on for generations. If there’s a flaw in the family somewhere, it’s likely it’s been passed on.”

    That really emphasizes the family-centric nature of Westeros culture. True, it also mentions that she’s known Theon, but I think it goes both ways. Theon might be influenced by his family’s culture, but Catelyn also sort of “inherits” knowledge about what the Greyjoy’s are like and passes on knowledge of the Greyjoy’s to her own descendants. Sort of familial oral history, “we, your elders and kinsmen, know this and we pass it on to you so that you can understand what you must do for the Family”.

    • Reply May 22, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Grant, what do you think of that quote “if there’s a flaw in the family”? What type of “flaw” do you think she meant? The unqualified use of “flaw” makes it an odd and powerful comment.

      Also my apologies to anyone reading this article from an iPad. I just checked the link and it won’t resolve (work correctly) from an iPad or by even clicking the link in the Google search results. I’ll look into this tomorrow and see if there is a workaround, but it might just be the mobile face of HBO’s site.

  • Reply May 22, 2014

    Grant

    There are three interpretations, some more fair than others.

    The first and somewhat fair interpretation is that she meant that if a family promotes general undesired customs, the children of the family will themselves promote the undesired customs. Of course that’s not very fair to Theon considering that he spent possibly most of his life under Eddard Stark’s custody, removed from Greyjoy influence.

    The second and less fair is that a perception of a sort of blood trait in the family that means that Theon would inherently be like the rest of his family. While there is evidence of genetic influences on mentality, genetics are not destiny; but that is the sort of belief that might be strong in Westeros with their limited knowledge.

    The third, which could tie in to either of the previous, is that the family is so central to life that even if Theon has no connection to them for years and wants to be different, his duty to follow his family even down the wrong path is absolute.

    Really, the more I look at it the more surprised I am at the points Martin made that show how important family is. Eddard telling Arya that Sansa had to support Joffrey, even in a cruel lie, because she was going to be his wife and how Eddard had to do the same by telling Robert he had ordered Tyrion’s kidnapping. Tyrion telling Jon that he needed his books to be of service to his family, even though Tyrion hates perhaps 99% of his family. Tywin sending Tyrion to Kingslanding despite his personal hatred of Tyrion, simply because Tyrion is his son.

    Looking at it like that, Lysa’s actions actually become much worse. She not only actively helped start the war, she outright betrayed her blood and husband to do so. To an American, that’s very bad, but to a person of Westeros in terms of moral outrage, she’s probably at the same level as the Rat Cook. A monster they tell stories about. In the show, probably the same for Jaime. He didn’t just break an oath made to his king, he murdered a kinsman (though I’m not sure the writers realized that when they wrote it).

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