Everybody shut up and listen to Catelyn Tully, Lady Stark. You fools ignoring her is why there was even a War of the Five Kings to begin with. Lady Stark had six ways to end the war before y’all blew it and gave Team Lannister an opening.
Ned, you had your turn, it’s time for Stark Justice II. Spoilers a-coming.
When I wrote about Ned Stark, I called it an apologia. I wanted to vindicate Ned’s choices, even if the outcome was still bad. Ned needed to be turned from a guy who messed it all up to a guy who was basically doing the right thing.
There’s nothing I need to hedge about Catelyn Tully. She was the queen Westeros desperately needed, and the leader it was denied only because of simple-minded resistance from the powers that be. She had a near-flawless understanding of the pieces on the board and nearly every move in the game, with only very limited blind spots. Her husband understood that the individual players were beyond his understanding, and he retreated to principle. Cersei, Tyrion, Littlefinger, and Varys all knew the players, but none could muster legitimacy. Cat, several times over, was able to combine principle and diplomacy, and only needed someone who would freaking listen to her.
From the top: Cat is the eldest surviving child of Hoster Tully, which would put her in line to inherit the Riverlands if not for the male-preference cognatic primogeniture succession laws which puts her behind her oafish brother, Edmure. Without a claim to a title of her own, Cat has only indirect influence, over the men in her family. Upon her marriage to Eddard Stark, her family includes two great houses, but it also meant departure for the frozen tundra of Winterfell.
But that’s not so bad, not after the horrors of war. Cat devotes herself to House Stark, is a trusted confidante and companion to her husband and an exceptional mother to her five children. She arranges for Sansa’s betrothal to the Crown Prince and raises her to be a queen who could command the loyalty of her subjects. She prepares Robb for the burdens of leadership, guiding him when he first takes command after Ned’s departure for the capital. She defends Bran from an assassin, and keeps him from giving up after his fall. And even Arya, the rebel of the Stark brood, was accepted by her mother for who she was.
Then, of course, the whole world went to hell, as capital politics consume the Stark family. Ned is arrested and Robb rides to war. But Cat keeps her feet under her. With an apparent Lannister attack on her son, Cat sets sail. With (planted) evidence incriminating Tyrion Lannister in the attack on Bran, Cat raises a loyal battalion to arrest him, all without leaving her dinner table. With the evidence available to her, Cat was set to put a just end to the matter. Here, Cat has her first opportunity to head off the disasters to come, and she’s set to deliver. But she was thwarted here only by unforeseeable outside forces—Bronn’s upset in Tyrion’s trial-by-battle. Anything less, and there would have been no war.
Tyrion was, of course, innocent of the charges against him; the key evidence was planted by Petyr Baelish. Still, had Cat been able to put him on trial in the Eyrie, he would have been convicted. The public presentation of evidence would have convinced all present of Tyrion’s guilt, and prevented the Lannisters from using his arrest as a pretext to strike against the Riverlands and the North. Defeat in a trial-by-battle would have had a similar result. Both the battle and the trial fail to deliver a conviction because of the dramatic collapse of civil society in the Eyrie, thanks to the deranged pair of young Robert Arryn and his mother, Cat’s sister Lysa. Young Robert’s bloodlust and Lysa’s indulgence compromise the possibility of a fair trial, and forces the matter to battle. Further, neither can provide any kind of alternative to Bronn, who could have been deterred from championing Tyrion in better times. Worse, Lysa refuses to back the Starks and Tullys as fighting continues, in defiance of their familial bonds. Cat’s ability to avoid war—or win it quickly—are thwarted in the Eyrie.
Regardless, as war looms over Westeros, Cat goes to the Baratheon boys, ready to strike a deal. Robb alone is capable of victory, with a united House Baratheon on the same side, the war would be over in days. Negotiations begin tempestuously, but Cat is still working when Renly is assassinated by Melisandre, in circumstances that cast suspicion on Cat herself. She’s able to flee (joined by her knight, Brienne of Tarth) but the alliance is doomed. Melisandre’s impatience—potentially with Stannis as a co-conspirator—snatches victory away. This is even further beyond Cat’s power; the Red God himself must intervene to break up this peace conference.
Cat’s top loyalty, obviously, is to her son, and she turns him from a boy with a sword to the man who never lost a battle. Robb’s army is bottled up at the Twins, where Walder Frey refuses to allow a crossing. Cat strikes a bargain which would have won the war for the North, even without Baratheon aid. The Lannisters never defeat Robb in battle, and their lands are open to him once he’s past the Twins.
This time, Cat is not betrayed by outside forces but by Robb himself. Part of the deal to secure Frey cooperation is Robb’s marriage to a Frey daughter. Robb’s not wrong to bristle at an arranged marriage, but he’s bound by the rules of his time and his position. After all, his parents were pushed into their marriage for similar reasons. Instead if rising to the task, this interruption of his sex life turns Robb from a king to a teenager annoyed at his mother. He limits her influence, marginalizes her in public, and ultimately, openly defies her by marrying Jeyne Westerling. Robb has now broken the alliance which secured the North, and the result is the Red Wedding. For a third, and final, time, Cat has delivered victory only to have it destroyed.
This is how you win the Game of Thrones, children: you respect Catelyn Tully. Three times, she had victory snatched away from her, either because she was ignored, betrayed, or via literal divine intervention. She is human, and I don’t mean to say that Cat is perfect. But godsdamnit, Starks, you didn’t know what you had.