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Game of Thrones' shocking "twists" grow emptier by the episode

Ramsay Bolton is the show's worst character — and a perfect example of its core weakness.

Game of Thrones
Ramsay greets his new baby brother. Awwww.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every week throughout season six, a handful of Vox's writers will discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Before you dig in, check out our recap of this episode, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date. This week, we'll be hearing from culture editor Todd VanDerWerff, culture writer Caroline Framke, executive editor Matt Yglesias, foreign policy writer Zack Beauchamp, and politics writer Andrew Prokop. Come back throughout the week for more entries.

Todd VanDerWerff: Last May, as Game of Thrones' fifth season approached its end, our own Zack Beauchamp opined that the series had turned Ramsay Bolton into an unstoppable supervillain, and it was hurting the whole show.

And after "Home" featured a scene where Ramsay killed his father (when you'd think Roose would have suspected just such a thing was coming), then sicced a bunch of ravenous hounds on his stepmother and her newborn baby boy (a challenger to Ramsay's throne, given the babe's pure, royal lineage), it's not hard to imagine that many viewers are thinking roughly the same thing.

Indeed, in chatting with friends immediately after the episode ended, they all — regardless of how much they liked "Home" as a whole — told me that Game of Thrones has a big Ramsay problem. But if you think back to the books the series is based on, those, too, have a Ramsay problem, because Ramsay is by far the weakest of the major characters in George R.R. Martin's stable. He's like Joffrey Lite, and that's a horrifying proposition.

But I would suggest that, on both the show and in the novels, any problems with Ramsay are actually extensions of the corresponding works' most central problems, period: Martin and showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss all struggle to tell stories without relying too heavily on shocking moments that exist simply to be shocking. (I wrote a little more about this here.)

But let's be honest: Don't these moments feel more and more empty as the show goes on? Don't they feel less motivated by character and more motivated by the showrunners' desire to keep making us squirm? Doesn't every single one hollow out the series' core a little bit more?

To that end, Ramsay is almost the perfect expression of this tendency. Joffrey had some degree of psychological complexity, and he had relationships with other characters in the show's universe that kept him in check here and there. You always knew he was a ticking time bomb, but you also knew that Cersei or Tyrion or someone could prevent that time bomb from exploding. That gave him an exciting, unpredictable quality.

That's not the case with Ramsay. Oh, sure, Roose occasionally said things about Ramsay being a good ruler or producing an heir or something, but you could tell his heart wasn't in it. (Roose's banner, after all, is the flayed man. Hard to see why he would have much of a problem with his torture-happy son.)

No, Ramsay is a psychopath, and no one's ever been able to see his psychopathy coming, not even Littlefinger. This means he can function as a pure expression of the Game of Thrones' will. Need a shocking but ultimately shallow moment? Why, here's Ramsay to kill someone or rape someone or torture someone! He Isn't a character; he's a collection of brutal tics, designed to generate think pieces (like this one!).

So what can you even say? Ramsay having his dogs devour a minor character and a baby is, on the one hand, a vile, detestable scene that is everything this show becomes at its worst. It has no reason to exist, it's cruel for the sake of being cruel, and it uncomfortably intersects with the moments when the series has been cavalier about violence against women.

But at the same time, it's such a thinly veiled attempt to push buttons that I rolled my eyes at it. What should be provoking a visceral emotional reaction in me, one way or the other, just left me scoffing at Game of Thrones' brazenness.

Now, couple this with Jon Snow's resurrection. In and of itself, the resurrection is a good story development. Jon remaining dead would have been pretty stupid, since he has so much more story left to tell. But it also suggests that we've long passed the point at which death on this show will mean anything, and it probably won't until the endgame. For the most part, the show's major characters are "safe," and that seems likely to be the case going forward.

Maybe Game of Thrones is setting up a confrontation between Jon and Ramsay (about which a few of you have more to say, I believe), but after these first two episodes of season six, it's difficult to escape the notion that this season is mostly going to be about clearing out legions of minor supporting characters, while everybody else looks on.

Recently, Rowan Kaiser, former editor of the Game of Thrones-centric site Winter Is Coming, wrote a piece about the various contexts in which the books and novels were produced ('90s fantasy, and then the very different TV industries of the '00s and '10s). Kaiser suggests that Martin's attempts to deconstruct the fantasy tropes he was surrounded by started out in thrilling fashion, but eventually ran into the fact that when you try to break storytelling convention at every turn, it can be awfully hard to get back on track toward a cohesive, exciting story.

Martin has been frustrated with trying to wrap his own tale up for years now. And I'm starting to fear at this point that the show's producers can't figure out a way to move forward that doesn't involve a long, gradually numbing checklist of brutality.

Read the recap, and come back for more discussion tomorrow.

Last week's discussion

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