Warning: Spoilers ahead for “Game of Thrones.”
“Game of Thrones” has a villain problem.
In a series once known for subverting tropes and offering up bad guys with many shades of grey, the villains are more black than ever and it’s leaving a previously empathetic audience in the dust.
Season six delivered some well-earned Stark revenge with the deaths of Ramsay Bolton and Walder Frey — arguably the top two candidates in the running for the “Most Coldhearted Man in Westeros” award. Though their murders were met with cheers by the audience, behind-the-scenes interviews with Kit Harington (Jon Snow) and Maisie Williams (Arya Stark) revealed a troubling pattern with the writing of these characters.
The penultimate episode of season six ended with Jon Snow beating Ramsay’s face into a pulp before allowing Sansa to feed him to his own dogs. In HBO’s “Inside the Episode” segment, Harington reflected on the scene.
“It’s a horrible moment when you see your hero go a bit too far,” Harington said. “The audience should feel ‘Yes, yes, Ramsay’s getting what he deserves, he’s still getting what he deserves … ok stop … could you stop now?’ You go from hating the person that’s being punched and then something should slightly turn into ‘Oh this is my hero becoming a monster.'”
But you’d be hard pressed to find a “Game of Thrones” fan who was feeling anything remotely like sympathy for Ramsay in that moment. Jon Snow didn’t “go too far” in punching the living daylight out of the Bolton bastard, just as Sansa was well within her right to take over and kill Ramsay herself. So why does Harington expect we’d feel that way?
Harington’s perspective on the scene between Jon and Ramsay throws a larger writing issue into sharp relief. The “Game of Thrones” showrunners are missing the mark when it comes to writing complex villains the audience might be empathetic with when their time to die finally comes.
This issue wasn’t isolated to Ramsay alone. In a post-season six interview with Variety, Maisie Williams responded to a question about whether Arya’s clear enjoyment of killing Walder Frey was a “good progression” for the character.
“I’m going to steal something that Kit Harington said in an interview, because it sounded really great — it’s sad when our heroes take it too far and they don’t just do their job, they actually enjoy it and you see a twisted spark behind the eyes,” Williams told Variety. “It’s worrying. I think it’s worrying because I care about this little girl, and she is still a little girl.”
Again — was anyone watching at home really concerned with Walder Frey’s death? We’d guess not. Her surprising appearance in the finale was more of a fist-pumping “Hell yeah!” moment. Arya, who spent all of season five and most of six in the convoluted House of Black and White plot, was not only back in Westeros but she had finally avenged the deaths of her mother and brother from the Red Wedding. The perverted backstabber Walder Frey was dead at the hands of a Stark.
The series hits the emotional mark in almost every other regard when it comes to writing. Hodor’s death was poignant and heartbreaking and left fans gutted. Jon Snow’s metaphorical rebirth in the midst of the Battle of the Bastards had everyone breathing a sigh of relief. Daenerys sailing across the sea was an awe-inspiring ending to the season. But villain deaths? The audience and the writers are disconnecting when it comes to these moments.
Moving forward in season seven, we hope to see a more nuanced approach to villains. With Ramsay Bolton and Walder Frey both dead, the series is more scant than ever when it comes to bad guys and gals. Cersei Lannister is quickly following in the footsteps of Joffrey and Ramsay. Her mass murder at the Sept of Baelor was followed up with the torture of Septa Unella, and she seems unconcerned by Jaime’s disapproval of her actions.
Cersei was a more sympathetic character in earlier seasons, when her status as a woman caused her value to be dismissed time and again by Robert Baratheon and Tywin Lannister. Her love for Jaime and her children was a redeeming quality, but that seems to be out the window after her actions inadvertently caused Tommen’s suicide.
Euron Greyjoy is another character with potential for wreaking havoc while gaining support from the viewers at home, but we aren’t too optimistic. His introduction to the show was charismatic and compelling, but he lost footing when his kingsmoot speech was reduced to dick jokes and the declaration that he wants to kill Yara and Theon.
Littlefinger is the most interesting “bad guy” left — his manipulative talents and affection for Sansa are creepy but unpredictable, which keeps fans engaged and on their toes.
Then there’s the Night King. The final two seasons will focus more on the White Walkers than ever before as the Night King heads south with his undead minions. He is evil in its most pure form, and perhaps the only character we can forgive the writers for making so one-note.
Though “Game of Thrones” has always been building towards an epic fantasy battle between fire-breathing dragons and ice zombies, the heart of the story has always been about people. And when villains become caricatures and stop being realistically awful people, the fans lose out on experiencing the full scope of the drama.
Hopefully the mistake made with Ramsay won’t be repeated again with the remaining baddies, and fans at home can begin relating to the actors’ intentions of delivering a mixed-bag of emotion with each new death.
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