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In Game of Thrones' next battle, it's obvious who we're supposed to root for

Ramsay Bolton and Sansa Stark.
Ramsay Bolton and Sansa Stark.
HBO

Every week, three of Vox's writers will discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, deputy culture editor Jen Trolio is joined by executive editor Matthew Yglesias and politics writer Andrew Prokop. Come back throughout the week for entries.

Andrew Prokop: Jen, what I find most interesting about the setup for the Battle of Winterfell is that our sympathies are clearly meant to lie with one side, and one side only.

First we have the Boltons, who are stunningly wicked and cruel. Obviously there's Ramsay, who spent all of season three torturing Theon and hunted his own former mistress for sport the following year. But if you thought Papa Bolton's cruelty might have been limited to his betrayal of Robb Stark, you were disabused of that in "Kill the Boy," when Roose casually explained to Ramsay how he used rape to enforce his rule. The Boltons are compelling to watch, but there are absolutely no shades of gray to them — they are bad guys who need to be defeated.

Then we have Stannis Baratheon riding south to attack them. Now, Stannis did have his brother murdered by a magical shadow assassin a few years back, and he's spent a lot of time being boring since. But starting at the end of season four, and continuing this year in season five, Game of Thrones' showrunners have worked overtime to make us like him. He saved the Night's Watch! He loves his daughter! He even bravely stands up to crimes against grammar! (Well, that was always true, but we were reminded of it again this week.)

Stannis's victory would mean the liberation of the North, the freedom of Sansa Stark and Theon Greyjoy, and a responsible and savvy ruler in charge of helping the Wall resist the White Walkers. A Bolton victory would mean some very bad things for many people, from little Shireen Baratheon to Sansa to perhaps even Jon Snow.

So this is a change from the battles of Game of Thrones' early seasons. When the Starks and Lannisters raised armies and stepped onto the field in season one, we liked the Starks more but cared about Tyrion on the Lannister side. In season two, when Stannis attacked King's Landing, our sympathies were quite complicated. Stannis had just killed his own brother, but the regime was led by the awful King Joffrey. It was hard, though, not to root for Tyrion, who was heroically leading the city's defense.

The Winterfell situation does, however, resemble the big battle at the end of season four, when we were obviously supposed to side with the Night's Watch to defeat the attacking wildlings. Even there, we had Ygritte to sympathize with among the attackers, and Tormund Giantsbane is pretty cool, too. With the Boltons, there's really no one. The only sympathetic characters in their vicinity also want them to lose — with Sansa hoping Stannis will beat the Boltons and name her "Wardeness of the North."

This trend toward clearer "good guys against bad guys" conflicts is something I worry about a bit as far as the future of the series is concerned. With the White Walkers looming, it does seem possible that the interesting and morally complex conflicts we've seen so far will eventually boil down to an all-out struggle for the survival of humanity. That can certainly be done well, but it's a much more conventional story.

I won't prejudge, though. Last week, I suggested that Dany could become a villain, and I think that's even more likely after "Kill the Boy," when she had her dragons burn a captured Meereenese ex-slaver to death in retaliation for Barristan Selmy's murder. So that could certainly complicate viewers' feelings. And Stannis could, of course, lose his noble quest to depose the Boltons, which would present some interesting questions about what the other characters in the North and at the Wall do next.

The other big news of the week is that Jorah Mormont has contracted greyscale. Now, I’ve never found Jorah particularly interesting, either on the show or in the books. Iain Glen does his best with the material, but the character simply isn't very complicated or compelling. As far as "devoted muscle for a major character" goes, I'd take Brienne of Tarth, her tragic history, and her complex grappling with the gender politics of Westeros over Jorah's "I love her but she doesn't love me back" any day. (Showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss nicknamed him "Jorah the Explorer" because they relied on him so much for exposition.)

So the revelation that he now has greyscale in a show-only twist didn't make too much of an impact on me. Indeed, it seems to go overboard in making an already rather pathetic character even more depressing and doomed. At least before, Jorah was able to hope that he might rule by Dany's side in Westeros. Now he knows for certain that unless he has stubborn Stannis overseeing his treatment regimen, he'll eventually become an insane rock zombie, while also contaminating anyone he touches.

Is the conflict between Stannis and the Boltons too one-sided? And do you feel for poor Jorah?

Read the recap. Come back soon for more discussion.

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