clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Game of Thrones finally killed the worst part of itself

New, 116 comments

And the show is better for it

Spoiler alert!

This article is intended for folks who are caught up with Game of Thrones, and will include a description of its events up to and including the most recent episode. Check out all of Polygon's Game of Thrones coverage.

It can be tricky to pick the top image for a Game of Thrones story with the word "killing" or "death" in the headline.

You want to pick someone who isn't actually dead, in order to avoid the appearance of a spoiler. Or perhaps you choose an image of a character who has been dead a long time, as I doubt anyone would call Joffrey's death a spoiler at this point. But that runs the risk of making your story seem old and out of date.

I went with Jaime in this case because, while he's still alive, his existence is part of what I'd like to talk about.

Ramsay Bolton was a terrible character

I've spent the past few hours digging through the history of Ramsay as a character, focusing on how he was portrayed on the show, and I have yet to find anything that really justifies his existence.

He wasn't just someone who enjoyed hurting others. He was a man who took an ungodly amount of pleasure in torture, both physical and psychological. He was a rapist. His need to be as vile as possible in every situation hurt him in many ways through the show's run.

Sure, he was born a bastard into a family whose sigil is a flayed man, and he may have been raised in a place called the Dreadfort. His father, Roose Bolton, seemed to have more ambition than honor, but he was always a man who seemed to understand how fear and dread could be used as scalpels instead of hammers. But Roose's inability to instill the same restraint in his son led to his own death.

ramsay bolton HBO

And the show was complicit in the one-note nature of the character. It rubbed our noses in every terrible deed. I've spoken before about how neither the show nor the books have any need for brevity, and in fact both are richly rewarded for dragging things out as long as possible. In the case of Ramsay Bolton that meant we needed to be told, and then shown, over and over, that he is a villain. An irredeemable monster.

If another scene where Tyrion repeats that he's good at talking and drinking is annoying, another scene where Ramsay delights in his own sadism is hard to stomach at this point. Many of this season's best episodes took place without mentioning the little shit once, and they were better for it.

Ramsay was never, ever able to walk past a puppy without kicking it

Let's look at two scenes from last week's episode. The death of Rickon was actually a great piece of character building from Ramsay, because it made sense. It showed him to be a formidable and smart foe. Rickon had to die, because he was a trueborn male Stark. Jon Snow is a bastard and Sansa is a woman married to a Bolton by law. Neither had a very strong claim to Winterfell. But Rickon? Rickon had to go if Ramsay had any hopes of hanging onto the North after this battle.

Ramsay was also, for all his bluster, likely scared of Jon Snow. Bullies are often scared of people who don't have to abuse others for their power. And killing Rickon with the arrow in this way was an effective means to honor and demoralize Snow and break up his forces. It was an effective gambit, and underlined Ramsay's cold-blooded nature and ability to read and brutalize his enemies.

I mean, Rickon could have just run to the left, but what the hell ever. He was a kid and we've demonstrated that Ramsay is a skilled hunter. It's likely if he had began to run to the right and left Ramsay would have simply let his archers do their thing. But he guessed the kid would be too scared to run effectively, and it was a bet he won.

Rickon's death was an example of Ramsay done right, but later in the episode we had to see Ramsay put an arrow through the head of Wun Wun just to illustrate, one more time, that he was a hateful guy who we were supposed to despise. As if we had to be reminded. Ramsay was never, ever able to walk past a puppy without kicking it, and the camera often zoomed in every time that little pupper flew through the air.

I mean, one could argue that trope is technically incorrect in this case because Ramsay at least seemed to have some respect for the hounds he used for his dirty work, but we're getting a bit in the weeds here and my point is this: Thank God he's gone.

Why this was an issue

We can have a long discussion about whether Game of Thrones is trying to rise above the standard pitfalls of genre television or even subvert them, but Jon Snow vs. Ramsay Bolton was so clearly a standoff between a character we're supposed to like and one we're supposed to loathe.

The best thing I can say about the Battle of the Bastards was that, even though everyone was fairly sure Snow was going to survive, the direction and editing of the battle still made us feel his desperation and pain throughout the battle. Watching him claw up through the mass of bodies and gasp for air was riveting, yet hard to watch. Visually it was one of the best battles the show has ever delivered, and it's going to stand up against even epic films in terms of action sequences.

But we knew Jon was safe. He was the good guy in this situation, and he had already been killed once. The earlier conversation with Melisandre did nothing to make it seem like the character was ever in real danger. The payoff was finally going to happen, and no one expected Ramsay to make it out of the episode alive.

The Battle of the Bastards worked visually, but the questions about the outcome of the battle were few. Compare that situation to this one:

A good character should always be convinced they're doing the right thing, or at least you should understand why they're doing what they're doing. A villain with recognizable motives is much more interesting, and in many ways much scarier, than a character who seems to carry an ember of cruelty purely for shock value.

And in this scene we have Jaime Lannister, a character who is neither good nor bad but complicated, facing off against a seemingly honorable but brutal man, the Blackfish. It's riveting because we don't know exactly who to root for, but we are shown that the battle will be interesting.

But then Jaime uses Lord Edmure to undo the defenses of Riverrun completely and the Blackfish chooses to die honorably in a battle that's never shown. It's possible that this sequence was cut in order to save budget — showing those dragons is very expensive — but it works. Jaime does something monstrous for reasons we understand, against another character we respect. He may be a villain, but we know how he got there.

He became a villain, he became a monster, and we know why. It was earned. Which makes scenes like this much more chilling. We know people who might act in this manner were they backed into a corner. It's unlikely we know anyone who would castrate their enemies just for fun.

Cersei is much less of a monster than Ramsay, but we're given much more information about how she became who she is. Ramsay always stuck out like a sore thumb, a ghoul who grinned from the shadows in a show that often presented itself as prestige television. No death was worth the scenes we were asked to tolerate throughout the show's run, even though watching him getting eaten by dogs was kind of fun. But "kind of fun" isn't worth episode upon episode of cringe-worthy moments or overdone violence and assault.

I'm just glad we don't have to think about him anymore, and his death allows other, more interesting characters to take the spotlight. The only thing better than Ramsay's death would be news, delivered via a random conversation, that Dorne had sunk into the ocean and would never be spoken of again.


Telltale's Game of Thrones - TV Cast Featurette