Game of Thrones’ Problems Started With Ramsay Bolton
So, the Game of Thrones finale happened on Sunday, and it was extremely disappointing. Obviously, I really like Game of Thrones, and it was a rough ending to a show. Other people on the internet have already put their thoughts behind some of the bigger issues with the finale (King Bran! Mad Queen Daenerys! I guess Grey Worm didn’t die? What even was the importance of Jon’s resurrection?), I want to dive a little bit more into where the show started to go downhill.
For me, the show started to go south earlier than Season 8, before Season 7 even. This downturn happened in Season 5, and only got more pronounced over the next few seasons. And no, I’m not talking about Dorne. The show started to go downhill when David Benioff and D.B. Weiss began to center Ramsay Bolton.
Ramsay Bolton is first introduced in Season 3, but he doesn’t really gain prominence until Season 5. Iwan Rheon does a great job portraying Ramsay. He’s sinister in a deeply creepy way, with a pale smile and icy-blue eyes that remind us all that there are plenty of monsters in the world without needing to look for White Walkers. The issue is that he isn’t given very much.
You get very quickly that Ramsay is a deeply scary and sadistic monster who tortures Theon, Sansa and everyone around. But the writers don’t surround Ramsay with any characters who have anything interesting to say to him. Yes, Ramsay is sadistic and terrifying. But that’s it! The only characters around him are people for him to torture and horrify, so he becomes one-note really, really quickly. Ramsay’s horrifying actions don’t grow his character, or drive another character’s journey. It’s just torture porn.
To find a more compelling and better-written villain, take a look at Joffrey Baratheon in Season 3:
Here, as with Ramsay, Joffrey is a malignant psychopath, a monster who has no empathy and absolute power over the kingdom. But he’s not surrounded by characters for him to torture. He’s with a wide range of diverse characters, who all acknowledge Joffrey as a monster and deal with him in different ways. Cersei tries to use motherly affection to calm him down. Varys deflects. Tyrion tries to deflect at first, and then when that fails, pushes back hard. Pycelle stokes the king’s anger, trying to use that anger to hurt Tyrion. And finally, Tywin shuts him down completely.
Tywin, obviously, is the headliner in this scene. But all throughout Joffrey’s life, he’s surrounded by complex characters who may not equal him in power, but try to maneuver around him. It’s fun and compelling to watch this psychopath get seduced by Margaery, reprimanded by Tyrion and chided by Cersei. And it makes it even scarier when Joffrey is with someone who can’t get away, like Sansa, because you suddenly see how terrifying he can be.
It makes sense that Ramsay’s best scenes come when he’s paired with Roose Bolton. Roose is one of the very few characters who actually can hold something over Ramsay, and does so frequently. These scenes are tense and contain real energy. For instance, this is one of Ramsay’s best scenes:
You can feel the tension crackle in this scene, as both Roose and Ramsay discover in real time the new reality of Ramsay’s younger brother. When both characters move, it’s extremely unclear what they will do, and it’s tense and awesome.
Of course, they follow this scene with Ramsay feeding his helpless mother and little brother to the dogs, because I guess we just couldn’t get enough torture porn out of this show. Ugh.
Actions and Consequences
Ramsay’s weakness as a character has wider implications beyond his individual arc. The world of Game of Thrones is a world of action and consequences. Characters drive the plot forward, and the choices characters make drive different choices for other characters.
For instance, people act the way they do around Joffrey because that is how people would behave around a deranged psychopath in power. Some try to stay out of the king’s way (Littlefinger), some try and help the king grow into his role (Cersei), some try and steer the mechanisms of government as far away from the king’s insanity as possible (Tyrion & Varys), and those powerful enough to do so tell the king to shut up (Tywin). And yes, sometimes there are characters who don’t have any power to deal with the king, and their fates are generally appalling (Sansa). Finally, someone gets pushed far enough that she murders the king (Olenna Tyrell). This is all consistent with how you would expect people to behave around a powerful, unhinged monster.
Ramsay, by contrast, has none of that. The only person who tries to control him is his father. After that, there is no one else to try and steer the ship around him, no one trying to control his sadism, no one tries to keep the North headed in the right direction, no one tries to use him to further their own selfish goals.
Why does this matter? Because of context and worldbuilding! This is the North! Throughout the show, it’s been made clear that ruling the Northerners is one of the most difficult things you can do. The Northern houses are feisty, independent, and very difficult to keep in a straight line. These are the people who murked Robb Stark just because he banged the wrong girl. And now they’re falling in line behind this deranged monster? How does that make any sense?
The Karstarks and the Umbers
Two of the least used characters in Season 6 are Rickard Karstark and Smalljon Umber, who serve as a proxy for Northern support of House Bolton. It’s unfortunate, then, that these characters are SUCH non-entities. Both of these characters are completely behind Ramsay from start to finish. And this choice is never justified whatsoever! Why, when they realize that Sansa Stark has escaped, and is leading an army with Jon Snow, do they not start to shift their allegiance? When their loyalty to Robb Stark was so fickle, why is it suddenly ironclad for Ramsay Bolton?
Harald Karstark — okay, so his father was killed by Robb Stark. He’s ride-or-die for Ramsay Bolton because he hates the Starks. But why does Smalljon Umber stay with Ramsay?
In his introduction, Umber tells Ramsay he’s fighting Jon because he hates the wildlings and has been fighting them his whole life. Which, fine — but no one in Westeros loves wildlings at first, even Jon Snow didn’t like them before he joined Mance Rayder. That alone shouldn’t be enough to tie Umber to Ramsay.
Umber also tells Ramsay “Fuck kneeling, and fuck oaths.” Which is actually pretty interesting! Umber fights for his own self-interest, entirely. That’s an interesting character. But then, Umber doesn’t actually behave that way. There’s a moment in the Battle of The Bastards where it’s clear Ramsay is going to keep firing arrows into his own men. I thought this was going to be the moment when Umber said “fuck this,” and turns on Ramsay. That way Umber could ensure the gratitude of Jon Snow and Sansa, do well for himself and get a less psychotic king than Ramsay.
That doesn’t happen. Umber leads a charge into Jon Snow’s army, where he is eventually murdered by Tormund Giantsbane. But why? Umber said “fuck oaths,” right? What reason does he have to show loyalty? Again, these people murdered Robb Stark just because he didn’t fuck a Frey girl — why are they suddenly loyal to the point of death for Ramsay?
This is especially frustrating because in the books, Ramsay is not treated this way. In A Dance with Dragons Wyman Manderly outwardly bends the knee to Ramsay, but is secretly readying his men to strike back. His men murder the Frey guests, and are searching for the lost Rickon Stark. This makes sense! It makes sense that a murdering psychopath like Ramsay in charge would eventually face forces slowly organizing to overthrow him. No one’s openly opposing him, because they’re not idiots, but the great houses of the north are starting to make moves to counter the monster in Winterfell. This is so different from the show, where Wyman Manderly is just a fat old man who gets called out by Lyanna Mormont, and the two great houses you see are fully behind Bolton.
Hollywood Villains vs. Game of Thrones Villains
At the end of the day, Joffrey is written like a Game of Thrones villain, and Ramsay is written like a Hollywood villain. Joffrey has an army, and political power, because he’s the king and has the support of his powerful mother, but he also faces a number of constraints from the characters around him. In the end, his actions lead to his death at the hands of the Queen of Thorns, because one of the players around him had just had enough of his savagery, and was pushed far enough to take him off the board.
Ramsay has an army and political power because he’s the villain. He has the backing of the North because Jon Snow needs a villain to go up against to reclaim his home. He has the full support of Smalljon Umber because Ramsay needs a heavy to go up against Tormund Giantsbane. There’s never any sign that anyone in the North is anything but totally obedient to him, until Jon Snow kills him, at which point all it takes is one awesome Lyanna Mormont speech for everyone to be 100% Team Stark.
This doesn’t mean that being a Hollywood villain is necessarily a bad thing. The Joker in the Dark Knight is one of the most Hollywood villains possible — he has an unending string of loyal henchmen and constant access to high power explosives, as well as an unerring knack for being in the right place at the right time. He’s also one of the best villains in cinematic history. But the Joker takes place in a story where realism or actions and consequences have never been the main focus.
The problem with Ramsay’s story is it doesn’t fit within the context of the Game of Thrones. In a world where the story is driven by powerful characters bouncing off of each other, he exists in a power vacuum, with nothing to do except kick around weaker characters until the writers decide for the hero to show up and kill him. Saddled with writing like that, there’s only so much Iwan Rheon can do, and the show suffers for it.
Joffrey Baratheon > Ramsay Bolton > Euron Greyjoy
Ramsay is killed by Sansa in Season 6, but sadly, Ramsay was a sign of things to come. As soon as he exited the stage, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss brought in another heavy, who is clearly meant to bring the same level of brutality and savagery. This is Euron Greyjoy, and for all of Ramsay’s issues, Euron is so much worse in every single way.
Again, this is nothing to do with Pilou Asbaek, who does his best with what he’s given. But Euron gets the Hollywood villain treatment really, really badly. First of all, he has no believable interactions with any other characters. Ramsay at least had Roose. Euron doesn’t have anyone interesting to bounce off of at all.
Instead, he spends most of his time doing crazy things with no justification. He surprises and kills the Sand Snakes. He magically transports the Lannister army to Highgarden. He snipes Rhaegal out of the air with his scorpions. He emerges from the water to seriously wound Jaime. He ambushes and destroys Dany’s fleet on THREE separate occasions. These are all major plot points and none of them are explained in any way that is consistent with the character and the world. They happen because the script needs them to happen.
This doesn’t mean that Euron is necessarily badly written. In a fun, broadly written action series like Into the Badlands, Euron would have been an amazing and super fun character. But his writing doesn’t match the story he’s in, and that just makes him stick out, no matter how good an actor and director you put around his character.
Why Does This Matter?
So why am I even writing about this? Well, as fun as it is to get inspired by the things Game of Thrones did really well (amazing music, a strong arc for Arya through the series, all star acting performances), I think it’s also important to learn where Game of Thrones failed.
The later-stage villains of Game of Thrones demonstrate just how important it is that characters be written in the style of their universe. Ramsay and Euron aren’t badly written characters, they’re just written for the wrong shows. Ramsay is very similar to the Joker from The Dark Knight, Euron is very similar to Captain Barbossa from Pirates of the Caribbean. And those villains are great! But if you put the wrong character into your universe, no amount of great acting, direction or cinematography can save you.
So make sure you’re writing the right characters for your story! Otherwise you might end up in a situation where the Joker is going head to head with Jon Snow for control of Winterfell, and we all know how badly that turned out.
We Do Not Sow,