The Banality Of Evil: Ramsay Bolton's Dogged Cruelty On 'Game Of Thrones'

Jun 20, 2016
Originally published on June 20, 2016 7:26 pm

This post discusses events of Sunday night's episode of HBO's Game of Thrones, "Battle of the Bastards."

Fans of Game of Thrones, and the book series on which it is based, like to compare the moral universe created by author George R.R. Martin to that of his literary predecessor, J.R.R. Tolkien.

Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is black and white, they say — a place where pure, unremitting Eeeeeee-vil threatens pure, noble-hearted Good.

They're not wrong about that: even hardcore Tolkien fans (hi) concede that things can get awfully Manichean in Middle-Earth. That was by design, of course. For us, it really only becomes an issue when Tolkien allows that worldview to seep into his depictions of race — his evil men tend to be "swarthy," while his noble men are more inclined to fair skin and high cheekbones.

Martin's Westeros, his fans will too-happily point out, is a place of moral ambiguity and relativism. Characters are neither wholly good nor cartoonishly evil, but continually make choices that help or hurt others. It's a world much like our own, they say, in which the ever-shifting needs of self-interest are what truly shape behavior. Nuanced, they say. Complicated, they say. Shades of gray.

But then a character like Ramsay Bolton comes along, and they start clearing their throats and manifesting a sudden, intense interest in their Florsheims.

Bolton, played by Iwan Rheon with a smirk so omnipresent you wonder if wee Ramsay once made a face and got stuck like that, met his end last night. It was fittingly bloody and noisy, the petard he got hoist upon.

It was also at least two seasons overdue.

If Westeros can be a cruel place, Bolton was its Sadist-in-Chief, a villain written and performed solely for us to hiss. And pelt with rotting fruit. And imagine getting run over by a steamroller.

Slowly.

Feet first.

The show consistently found Ramsay far more interesting than viewers did. With his every act of gleeful, sadistic violence, the showrunners seemed to be nudging us in the ribs: See? Hanh? Isn't he just awful?

Now heading into its final seasons, Game of Thrones has begun the process of weaving its disparate plotlines together. Characters speed heedlessly toward the apogee of their various narrative arcs.

Except for Ramsay Bolton. That dude's arc was a highway strip.

Showrunners made a few half-hearted feints at giving him an inner life by pairing him with a steely, unforgiving father played by Michael McElhatton. But that all ended in the worst possible way for Ramsay's dad, because that's the law.

The problem with Ramsay wasn't the sheer number of his cruel acts, but their unwavering consistency. In scene after scene he dutifully, doggedly, did the worst thing you could imagine him doing. It was meant to make him seem volatile, horrific, terrifying, but it made him something much worse: predictable.

His cruelty didn't escalate, because it couldn't. Really, after rape, dismemberment, flaying, dog-siccing-upon, and lots and lots of stabbing, where is there left to go? Live kitten filleting? Sea otter vivisection? Mass puffin poisoning?

No. It was his time. As a dramatic device, he served his purpose: He was an obstacle. But as a character, Ramsay Bolton was more one-note than a Philip Glass score.

Rest in pieces.

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