Beyond The Wall

'Game of Thrones' Deserves a Better Villain Than Ramsay Bolton

Game of Thrones, Ramsay, Home
Helen Sloan/Courtesy of HBO

This article contains spoilers for "Home," the second episode of the sixth season of Game of Thrones. Proceed with caution.

Ramsay Bolton, the Game of Thrones villain played with puckish menace by Iwan Rheon, has always been an evil dude. That's been true ever since he gleefully flayed the Ironborn in Season 2 and then solidified his Big Bad merit badge through three other seasons of torture, castration, murder, and rape. On a show filled with schemers, back-stabbers, and religious fundamentalists who will make you walk through town naked, Ramsay remains the character with the most punchable face and the least number of fucks to give.

But on last night's episode, the now-legitimized bastard of Roose Bolton not only stabbed his father to death -- and twisted the knife as he looked deep into daddy's eyes -- but he also unleashed his rabid pet dogs on his stepmother and newborn half-brother. Game of Thrones finally reached peak Ramsay in the process, and I'm here to tell you why that isn't a good thing. Let's take a look at how the show can recover from Ramsay's new low.

Game of Thrones, Roose Bolton, Ramsay, Home
Helen Sloan/Courtesy of HBO

How can they top this? 

It's unlikely that Ramsay will ever be more hateable than he is right now. There's not much he could do to get any more villainous. Maybe he could murder his dogs. Maybe he could capture Brienne and do even worse things to her than he did to Sansa. Maybe he could move to Dorne and force viewers to watch more boring Dorne shit. The problem is, anything terrible he does from here on out will be overkill.

We get it. Ramsay is pure, unadulterated evil. He has zero redeeming qualities. And because we get that, the show's creators, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, have backed themselves into a dramatic corner by having Ramsay treat other characters like chew toys. 

In some ways, this was inevitable. Part of the fun and anxiety of watching a zeitgeist-chasing water-cooler show like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, or The Walking Dead is anticipating the ways the show's creative brain trust will discover new ways to excite, shock, and, yes, occasionally horrify you. The "now top this" quality has been an essential part of GoT's DNA ever since the pilot ended with Jaime Lannister having sex with his sister and shoving wee little Bran off of a tower. "Damn," you probably said to your friend back in the innocent days of 2011. "I can't believe they went there."

That action set a precedent early on, and the show has gleefully topped it with acts of cruelty that make Jaime look like Andy Griffith. (For real, though: he's now the show's most reliable dispenser of problematic fatherly advice.) But that type of Evel Knievel storytelling can lead to ridiculous moments like last night's Ramsay plot, one of the few missteps in an otherwise thrilling episode.

It's not that the killing of Lady Walda and her baby crossed some sort of ethical or moral line this time that the show hasn't trampled before -- don't forget that Talisa Stark was brutally stabbed in the womb during the Red Wedding. But the positioning of Ramsay as the show's Big Bad is disappointing from a larger storytelling perspective. Without his father around to torment him, the character has no worthy foil and very little motivation beyond a nebulous and under-explored quest for power. There's no gradation with Ramsay. No shading. No depth.

Obviously, not all villains need to have rich, complex backstories -- the head-squishing shenanigans of Gregor Clegane don't require flashbacks to hit home. But GoT's best villains, like Tywin Lannister, are never just psychopaths. As the show's characters continue to spread across the map and the good guys slowly amass more cause for hope, it's become increasingly clear that Game of Thrones has a villain problem. The unfortunate death of Joffrey left a void that the show has struggled to fill, and Ramsay and the High Sparrow's sadistic violence and religious fundamentalism just haven't been compelling-enough substitutes.

Game of Thrones, HBO, Home, Ramsay, Roose Bolton
Helen Sloan/Courtesy of HBO

What's wrong with Ramsay?

On a narrative level, it's possible to see Ramsay as the perfect villain to face off against the freshly revitalized Jon Snow: both are (purportedly) bastards raised by troubled father figures, both spent time in exile, and both lost the women they loved. You should be eagerly anticipating a showdown on the level of "Battle of the Blackwater" or "The Watchers on the Wall" between their two armies that will likely occur later this season. The conflict has so much poetic and dramatic potential. On paper, it's the perfect action-movie finale. 

But in execution, the Ramsay character is a cartoon. He has more in common with Wile E. Coyote or Boris Badenov than Hannibal Lecter. That's not to discredit actor Iwan Rheon, who has done an admirable job of bringing mischievous humor and hints of compassion to a completely despicable human being on the page. If there's a way for the Ramsay storyline to recover as the season continues, the answer likely lies in Rheon's expressive eyes.

Game of Thrones, Ramsay, Home
Helen Sloan/Courtesy of HBO

How can Ramsay be redeemed? 

If you have the stomach, take a closer look at the dog sequence from Sunday's episode. It's a familiar type of GoT scene, where an innocent character walks into a dangerous, clichéd situation that on any other fantasy show would end with the arrival of a brave knight coming to the rescue. But by now, viewers know that the cynical worldview of the show demands that the conventional story beat be upended: the innocent is murdered, evil wins, and the bad guys get the last word. 

"I prefer being an only child," says Ramsay, perpetuating a hilarious only-child stereotype that has to sting for anyone without siblings. It's a silly quip that undersells the gravity of the moment. It probably would've been less over the top if he had turned to the camera and said, "Can you believe I went there? Look at me. I'm a naughty boy!"

But rewatch the scene, and maybe you'll notice a funny look on Ramsay's face. Was that, for the first time, the slightest glimmer of regret? Is this latest atrocity the tipping point that will lead to a friendlier, more human Ramsay? I don't think I'm misreading the moment, either. "It's not calculated, it's reactionary," said Iwan Rheon about the killing of Roose Bolton in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. "And it has an effect on him, which he didn't expect."

Those comments, along with the emotions he displayed following the death of fellow sadist Myranda, suggest that Ramsay might have a hint of humanity that will be explored in the next few episodes. But it also feels like too little, too late. At this point, most viewers are just eagerly anticipating his death every time he pops up on screen.

The only way to make Ramsay a more compelling villain is to turn him into a tragic sweetheart. Imagine a character capable of feeding a baby to a dog and bringing you to tears -- now that would be horrifying.

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Dan Jackson is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment and is not going to miss Roose Bolton. He's on Twitter: @danielvjackson.