'Game of Thrones': An Appreciation of Ramsay Bolton

Our tribute to one of the show's biggest sadistic bastards — and why he was one of its best bad guys

Iwan Rheon in last Sunday's 'Game of Thrones'; his character, Ramsay Bolton, was one of the show's most sadistic villains. Credit: HBO

Ramsay Bolton is dead. Scratch that: Ramsay Bolton is dog food. Fed to his own hounds by his former victim Sansa Stark after his defeat by her half-brother Jon Snow, he suffered a fate as grisly as the ones he'd dished out over his four-season run. During that time, he became Game of Thrones' most divisive character: Viewers and critics alike found him boring in his brutality, as he committed atrocity after atrocity the way normal people ate breakfast. What, many asked, was the point?

But that's just it: The pointlessness is the point.

In the Bastard of Bolton, the show gave voice to its darkest insights: the inherent corruption of power, the enslavement of the weak by the strong, the misogyny built directly into the system. His crazed violence was only exceptional in its sensational nature — different not in kind, but in degree. He was a symbol, brought to life by one of the series' most darkly compelling performances. And if nothing else, that symbol deserves a close read.

For starters, it's worth comparing him to his closest counterparts. Joffrey Baratheon boasted Ramsay's combination of aristocratic impunity and sexual sadism, but he had none of the Northerner's twisted joie de vivre. The boy king had only three settings — sneering, fuming, and cowering — which made him deliciously insufferable but not particularly intimidating. Gregor “The Mountain" Clegane, the show's other natural born killer, has left a similarly long trail of bodies in his wake, but again, he lacks the Bastard's black humor. He towers, he glowers, he crushes people's skulls ... and that's about it.

But Ramsay? This guy loved his work, and it showed every moment actor Iwan Rheon was on screen. His bright eyes, twisted smile, and perverse good cheer gave him the vibe of a young Malcolm McDowell, who used to specialize in playing similarly upbeat nihilists like Alex in A Clockwork Orange and the title character of the Roman-emperor run amuck porn opus Caligula. Whether cracking jokes about Theon's severed penis or deadpanning "I prefer being an only child" as he feeds his infant stepbrother to his dogs, there was no violation so horrible that he couldn't find the humor in it (even if he was the only one laughing). This is why turning Jon Snow into his nemesis made so much sense: an aristocratic orphan dressed in black and waging war on evil, the Lord Commander was Batman, while the Bastard of Bolton was Westeros' answer to the Joker. And just like the Clown Prince of Crime, he stood out in a rogues' gallery already packed with killer characters.

Ramsay is also a cautionary tale about the Westerosi one-percent. Had he been lowborn, he'd likely have been hanged or sent to the Wall for his crimes. But the perpetrator was no peasant; he was the son of Roose Bolton, lord of one of the North's oldest and most powerful houses, and he benefited from this brand of “diplomatic immunity" even more than his old man. Roose was a dangerous predator, but also a cold and calculating one, acting if and only if he knew he could get away with it. By contrast, his kid was a berserker, apparently from a very young age — he bragged openly this season about frightening the family's maester when he was barely out of puberty. With his father occupied by the War of the Five Kings, he was free to truly let loose, with all the money and manpower of his House at his disposal. The elaborate psychological torture to which he subjected Theon, for example, required a support staff of soldiers and sex workers, all of whom he viewed as expendable assets, killing many of them himself.

By the time he began abusing Sansa — who was not his average victim, but a highborn lady and his ticket to political power — his depredations required virtually everyone in Winterfell to look the other way. Why wouldn't they? All he was doing was reveling in the marital rape that's a lynchpin of all of Westeros' arranged marriages, ones that must be consummated to be considered legitimate — whether the woman bartered into the bargain wishes it or not. His savagery simply highlighted an element of "the princess in the tower" trope that many comparable fantasies and fairy tales would just as soon sweep to the side. In every single case, his viciousness was so total as to be almost unbearable, whether he was tormenting loathed characters like Greyjoy or beloved ones like Lady Stark. What consequences did he face for any of this?

The answer: None whatsoever.

In that light, the Battle of the Bastards may have been his swan song, but it was also his apotheosis. Look at his face as he sits on his horse high above the action, watching the carnage below: Directing this sort of slaughter like a child torturing small animals — or a god who kills mortals for sport — is the fulfillment of his lifelong dreams of absolute power over life and death. Indeed, his entire battle plan depends on killing more people than necessary: He has his archers deliberately fire into the clashing cavalries, knowing many of his men will die but not caring because his side's superior numbers will win the day regardless. If you've ever wondered what it would look like to grant a serial killer command of an army, now you know.

This is why complaints that Ramsay was too one-note in his cruelty miss the mark. Does he have a "character arc"? Not unless you count his legitimization by his father, which only made him more of what he already was. Does he grow, change, surprise? Nope — once he led Theon back to that X-shaped crucifix, we knew what he was, and he never challenged that knowledge. But there's more to a character than this kind of by-the-numbers analysis lets on. There are the intangibles of Iwan Rheon's performance — how he made the Bastard's demented mirth feel so striking and singular amid an ocean of comparably cruel characters. There are the themes he helped articulate better than any other character — the inherent unfairness of Westeros' class system, the way rich and powerful men can quite literally get away with murder. And there's the spectacular nature of his brutality — how his extreme bloodlust forced every viewer to confront our own complicated feelings about violent stories, on-screen and off. We're glad the bastard's gone, but it's good we got to know him.

Joffrey Baratheon, Ramsay Bolton and Cersei Lannister — see who else made our list of the best 'Game of Thrones' villains. Watch here.