Thanks to its high unnatural death rate and expansive catalog of characters, Game of Thrones may boast the highest concentration of great villain deaths on TV: The series offered satisfying (and often demented) farewells for Viserys Targaryen, Joffrey Baratheon, Lysa Arryn, Tywin Lannister, Roose Bolton, Craster, etc. Most shows, including Thrones, cycle through one or two main story arcs with antagonists before getting rid of them—and yet Ramsay has stuck around long enough as a presence so cartoonishly evil that a simple stabbing or poisoning won’t leave most fans feeling vindicated after all they had to suffer through. He confounds many of the rules that would usually apply to small-screen villains, so it’s unusually difficult to imagine a departure that would hit all the right storytelling notes.
One of the show’s biggest flaws thus far has been how long it has kept Ramsay in play, especially considering that he’s not a particularly layered person worth getting to know, like Gus Fring or Stringer Bell. Many critics, including my colleague Chris Orr and Salon’s Sonia Saraiya, maintain that Ramsay is the weakest part of Game of Thrones, a cheap vessel for unnecessary violence who’s done little to justify having such a large role. The closest he’s come to character development is a scene in which he promises his dead paramour that he’d avenge her murder, seconds before ordering her body fed to the dogs. And what makes Ramsay even more frustrating is the fact that the show has few other villains to turn to for more nuanced portrayals of despicableness.
But even assuming the show decides to fix its Ramsay problem by writing him out of the story, it faces the additional challenge of producing an ending that will fulfill fans’ innate desire for justice. There’s a reason viewers love to watch “evil” characters meet grisly ends onscreen: In addition to offering pure spectacle (an awful king being poisoned at his own wedding in front of hundreds of guests, a drug lord having half his face blown off and walking several feet before collapsing), it affirms the notion that the chaotic, uncaring universe sometimes gets it right. It’s why revenge narratives like Kill Bill, Old Boy, Carrie, Inglourious Basterds, and Memento resonate so viscerally.
So if, according to the unwritten laws of TV-villain, the punishment should fit the perpetrators’ crimes, what punishment does Ramsay deserve? Even among Thrones’s big bads—the vile sadist Joffrey, the cruel Tywin, the husband-murdering Lysa—the Bolton bastard is singular. Unlike the others, he’s been around the longest, is the most blandly invulnerable, and has committed more onscreen crimes than anyone else. Which is to say: The possibility of true karmic retribution for Ramsay seems impossible at this point. Only the most bloodthirsty of Thrones fans would seriously want to see Ramsay castrated, flayed, raped, emotionally and spiritually destroyed, and/or mauled by dogs. (Though who could really blame them?)