No, no, you're right: the last thing HBO's blockbuster fantasy series needs is more characters. Anyone who can wrap their mind around every cranking cog in the Game of Thrones plot machine deserves an honorary engineering degree from George R.R. Martin University. But Thrones' dedication to political realism, especially since Joffrey's rapturous demise, has fostered stagnation. It's like if The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers had been broken into two seasons -- characters siloed in their own universes on their own individual quest, but no one's going to complete them until colliding in the grand finale.
Thrones has complicated this in its post-Joffrey period by avoiding a Level Boss-style villain -- someone that nearly every one of its characters can rally against. And few of its characters are so heroic that anyone who gets in their path becomes an adversary by default. Yes, Cersei is diabolical, but she earned genuine sympathy points after an even more calculated religious organization shamed her in the streets of King's Landing and Ellaria Sand murdered her daughter? The White Walkers are pests bent on mass freeze-icide, though their motivations are animalistic at best.
And then there's Ramsay Bolton, currently the show's chief sadist. He has done his best to fill the Joffrey void by abusing Theon Greyjoy, Sansa Stark, and others. But whereas Joffrey could piss off a band of warriors halfway across the continent, the Bastard of Bolton's evil moves rarely ripple into the outside world. Instead, his extreme behavior only serves to test the audience's will.
While he is certainly hateable, as are many other characters on the sprawling series, there's no one on Game of Thrones who is fun to hate anymore. And while the weekly machinations draw us in, the show relies on the audience's projection to grease the wheels. We can conjure a villain with theories and fan fiction, look to the books for clues, fan the fire of a hero's journey to separate Thrones from a week of Doonesbury cartoons.
That's why I loved Joffrey. He sped the machine up, and every character reacted like Lucille Ball gobbling chocolate off a conveyor belt. He wasn't the end goal, but a reliable wild card, drunk on his own ideology (like so many real-life political provocateurs) and capable of rippling the fabric in every other plotline. When Joffrey was in the mix, we sat on the edges of our seats wondering if blood would spill because of his unpredictable urges. Now the Thrones death count is a joke. Who will die this episode? With the anarchical Joffrey, we never knew. He was the Joker to everyone else's Batman.