In Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones, the villainous Ramsay Bolton finally got his long-awaited comeuppance: After losing the Battle of Winterfell, he died a death of great Dramatic Irony, devoured by the same bloodthirsty hounds he had so often unleashed on his victims. It was a gratifying moment for Sansa, a woman who had suffered horribly at his hands, and for the audience as well.
It was a shame, really. Not because Ramsay Bolton isn’t a horrible person, or because his death doesn’t come as a relief, but because it was the rare moment where Game of Thrones made a moment of horrific violence feel neat and justifiable rather than queasy and complicated.
Graphic murders, tortures, and rapes are clearly commonplace in HBO’s great fantasy epic, and often criticized—somewhat fairly—as gratuitous. But compared to the hilariously unnecessary female nudity and sex scenes that pander openly and obviously to viewers, the violence of Game of Thrones has generally been different: instead of merely trying to titillate viewers, it sets out to disillusion us. By and large, violence in Game of Thrones is ugly, uncomfortable, and unsettling—and that’s what makes this show so unique.
In the beginning, Game of Thrones was a subversion of fantasy tropes about noble heroes and happy endings. Ned Stark gets his head chopped off unexpectedly; Robb, his Disney prince of a son, seems poised to avenge his father’s death but is instead murdered, his corpse turned into a macabre piece of performance art; Sansa ends up brutalized by the golden boy she’d dreamed of marrying; Oberyn, the dashing hero who arrives to give the villains their comeuppance, gets his head crushed to a pulp at the exact moment we believe he’s triumphed.
This season, when young Bran is transported to the past to see his father Ned fight in his legendary battle at the Tower of Joy, the young Stark heir learns that his father’s great triumph wasn’t quite as heroic as legend had made it out to be. Instead of claiming an honorable victory, Ned was actually defeated by the vastly superior swordsman Arthur Dayne, who was only brought down because of a less-than-noble knife to the back from Ned’s friend Howland Reed. It isn’t a very neat or pretty story, because violence is rarely neat and pretty.
Today’s prestige TV is full of confectionary violence, engineered to deliver it to us in ways that feed into some of our most precious and perilous cultural myths: that real violence is straightforward, glorious, satisfying. But on Game of Thrones, the most brutal practioners of violence are often among the most complicated moral characters. In a recent episode when a man drunkenly mocked Cersei in absentia for her walk of shame, his comeuppance is almost immediate: The moment he walks outside, the vengeful Mountain crushes his skull against the wall. This is how Cersei sees her enemies: as a long series of nails in need of a hammer. To Cersei, violence is the ultimate trump card, the answer to every challenge, and the only kind of power she understands. But her “power is power” ethos has resulted, ironically, not in more power but in less; her recent decision to “choose violence” in response to the High Sparrow might have been satisfying in the moment, but it left her with less political clout than ever.
Again and again, we’ve seen violent characters either reconsider their path in life or come face to face with the consequences of their violence: The Hound walks away from Joffrey; Arya walks away from the House of Black and White; Jaime loses his sword hand, and god knows that Theon pays the price for the sins he committed. Even Daenerys, the Targaryen queen with vengeance in her veins, finds that unleashing awesome fire-breathing dragons on the world comes with a price, and sometimes that price is the charred bones of little girls. And then there’s Ramsay Bolton.
Since his introduction in Season 3, Ramsay has been an almost elemental force of violence, devoid of any humanity and custom-made for audience hatred.* Again and again, he does things designed to disgust and appall us: He hunts, rapes, and murders women; he flays old people alive; he castrates and tortures Theon; he brutally assaults Sansa; in perhaps the most over-the-top example, he murders his father and feeds his stepmother and baby brother to his ravenous dogs.
Ultimately, Ramsay is little more than an excuse for us to take pleasure in violence. No viewer wants to think of herself or himself as a sadist; as Edmure Tully observed so wisely, all of us need to believe we’re decent. But if some unpleasant little part of us does relish the idea of seeing violence, we have to create monsters terrible enough to deserve it. It’s the reason why so many enemies in shooting games are Nazis: because if you want to enjoy limitless violence, your villains have to be awful enough to justify it.
In a show that is famously peopled with complex antiheroes who do awful things for comprehensible if not sympathetic reasons, Ramsay is painfully one-dimensional. Remove the visceral horror from the acts he commits and he’s little more than a cartoon character, twirling his invisible mustache from the parapets of Winterfell and tying people to crosses instead of train tracks. Although Joffrey may have been nearly as villainous, even his death was depicted as ugly and pathetic rather than grimly satisfying.
The worst thing about Ramsay wasn’t even how “bad” he is, but rather how boring he was. Instead of subverting the tired old fantasy tropes about heroes and villains, he reiterates them: He is violence made simple, easy, stark—and stale. As Game of Thrones inches towards its endgame, here’s hoping that the show that made its name by defying expectations and denying easy gratification doesn’t end by giving us everything we want, especially if it turns out that what we want is to be just a little bit more like Ramsay Bolton ourselves.
Correction, June 21, 2016: This post originally misstated that Ramsay Bolton first appeared in Season 4. He appeared in Season 3.