On the Unholy Matchup of Ramsay vs. Joffrey

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The God of the Seven plus the wisdom of the Internet have resulted in the actual best round in our Actual Worst bracket: Joffrey Baratheon vs. Ramsay Bolton, a.k.a. the battle of Game of Thrones’s most awful characters. The matchup is a version of the bargument that commonly breaks out between super-viewers of the HBO show (and, I imagine, super-readers of A Song of Ice and Fire)—who is the real villain of this very complicated, often unpleasant, morally nuanced story?

The answer to that question obviously is … Littlefinger. C’mon. But his do-badding is too obscure for him to have earned a seed in our competition, in which the idea of “actual worst” remains gloriously subjective yet reflects a character’s conduct within a show and viewers’ feelings about that character—all of which in Petyr Baelish’s case are ambiguous, complicated, only able to be judged tentatively. So given the choice between two more conventional forces for evil—two violent, cackling meanies—who’s worse?

Joffrey and Ramsay have some big similarities. They’re both disturbed young men raised by bad people in a violent society. And both tormented Sansa. But Joffrey’s badness is, dare I say, deeper, more relatable, more frail, more human. He has the stereotypical fascinations of teenage boys (confession: my brother and I had a toy crossbow, yes we did). He has a Napoleon complex, by virtue of being small and young in a job meant for the mighty and wise. And more than anything else, his story is a classic one about absolute power corrupting absolutely. You can have nature/nurture arguments about him. You can also take solace in his stupidity, and after the Purple Wedding, his killability.

Ramsay, though?  I wrote up the basic rationale for his inclusion already: “His character offers the uncomfortable suggestion that cruelty—mankind’s and Game of Thrones’s—ultimately has no motive.” That characterization, I will admit, is not 100 percent inarguable. His dad is a hideous person, and his house is known for skinning enemies alive, and he has unwanted-stepchild syndrome: all nurture-based reasons for soul damage. But rather than those things combining into a recognizable ball of foibles, they have metastasized into something resembling the essence of evil. Plus, he’s scary-competent; creating Reek or sabotaging Stannis took comic-book-villain levels of genius. I’m glad to say I can’t recognize Ramsay in real life, and that fact makes him more frightening, less sympathetic, and harder to watch. He is the actual worst.

Cast your own vote here.