This season of Game of Thrones is all about Winterfell.
Note: This article assumes you're up to date on Game of Thrones
That focus is kind of a problem. Game of Thrones has always been about the gray areas between good and evil. In almost every situation we can see why someone does something, even if those actions are horrid. The one truly "honorable" character was killed in the first season, and everything since has been a war of compromises and hard choices.
Winterfell is quite the prize, and the power of the Stark name is still felt within its walls. Placing Sansa there, to wed Ramsay Bolton, was an interesting play by Littlefinger, and of course it's more complicated than it at first seemed. Sansa was able to learn many important, and perhaps life-saving lessons, from Lord Baelish, but she still doesn't understand that everything he does is for his own benefit. He's set up Winterfell in such a way that no matter what happens, he wins.
There are plans within plans in Game of Thrones, and this Dune-like aspect of the show has always been appealing when everything comes to a head and we get to see who laid the more cunning trap. We're often forced to root for someone we didn't expect, or to examine why we want one side to win over the other. It's one of the most interesting aspects of watching the show.
And it's pretty much gone after this episode. We knew Ramsay was a monster, the writers and directors of the past few seasons have spent a significant number of scenes painting Ramsay as a dime-store monster; someone who is excited by torture and manipulation. There is no gray in his heart, nothing we see that can be redeemed. He's awful, and his father doesn't seem much better.
Vox has argued that the show weakens itself by making is so obvious who the "good" and "bad" people are in this season, even going to so far as to work its butt off trying to create a less boring, more interesting version of Stannis. Hell, his "fewer" joke was one of the most sly pieces of writing the show has ever seen, creating a brief moment of levity and humanity during an incredibly serious situation.
That joke serves no real purpose other than to wink at the audience, it's a way to get us to feel warmly towards a character who often has all the personality of a brick. This hard sell is working; Stannis has become a great character this season, fair in his dealings with the Crows and an obvious fan of Jon Snow's. He's also a good father! Who doesn't love Stannis?
Game of Thrones works better when the hands of the writers aren't quite so obvious. If they're working up a sweat to get us to enjoy Stannis, they're working just as hard to make sure we hate and despise Ramsay.
The final scene of the show offered almost no skin to the viewer, but it felt pornographic in a way that's rare for the series. It wanted to rub our noses in the fact that Ramsay is awful, and poor Sansa pays the price.
Game of Thrones works better when the hands of the writers aren't quite so obvious
Which is why that scene felt so gratuitous and wrong. It's one thing to put your characters through awful situations to move the story ahead, but what did that moment prove? One of the season's best characters was stripped of her agency and dignity in order to remind the viewer of something we already knew; that Ramsay is a terrible human being.
It's a shocking scene that's hard to watch, but it gives us no new information, nor does it move the story along. It feels like yet another horrific thing that Ramsay does for pleasure in a long series of horrific things the character has done, and when a piece of dramatic storytelling goes this far to rub our noses into someone else's terrible acts it's usually a sign that person is going to die and we're supposed to be feel good about it. It doesn't feel like clever writing or powerful drama, it feels manipulative.
It's possible that trope is going to be subverted somehow, but the moment felt cheap as it stands. We know who the villains are, and we're ready to cheer when they get taken down. For Game of Thrones that's a major step backwards.
Odds and ends
- The scenes in Dorne still feel like they were taken from another show entirely. Someone on Twitter joked to me that they feel like outtakes from an unaired season of Hercules, and that's kind of brutal but kind of true
- "Guess again."
- This season has some of the best, driest moments of dialog. Stannis' "fewer" observation was a great moment, as was Tyrion's clever way of getting out of being killed, and "what veil?" from a certain Tyrell was likewise great
- Is there a single person surprised that Margaery's lie was used against her so quickly? If Tommen was a bit more cunning and sure of himself he could take care of that situation fairly quick, even if it required bloodshed, but he's a young king who has no idea how to use power.