Warning: Season 6 spoilers abound.
Ever since Ramsay Bolton revealed himself as Westeros’s villain-in-chief, Game of Thrones fans have wanted him dead. He first appeared in season three disguised as a Northern ally sent to help Theon Greyjoy but quickly turned out to be a lunatic whose appetite for cruelty only grew as the series progressed. (Last year, Atlantic readers voted him the actual worst character on television.) After several colorful and nauseating years of rape, torture, murder, and bad visual puns, speculation about the Bolton bastard’s looming death has reached its peak this sixth season. But “Will Ramsay die this season?” also gives way to a slightly more complicated question: “How should Ramsay die?”
“That day is definitely coming, no mistake about it,” said Iwan Rheon, the Welsh actor who plays Ramsay and who was dubbed the “Most Hated Man on TV” by The New York Times. “And I hope when it does it’s epically nasty, and preferably dragon-related. He needs to go out with a bang.” This ideal of the villain death—epic, memorable, with a hint of divine design—has informed some of the best antagonist sendoffs on television. Shows like Breaking Bad, Fargo, Orange Is the New Black, The Wire, and Jessica Jones have all dispatched their Big Bads in ways that felt artful, appropriate, powerful, and original.
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?)
Such an ending would also be uncharacteristically simple for a series that kills off beloved characters as easily as it allows its monsters to live—a series that delights in reversals and asymmetry, a.k.a. people not getting what they want or deserve. Meaning it’s possible Ramsay won’t die at all—or if he does, he could succumb in the most anticlimactic way possible. (Deadspin’s Tom Ley has bet that “Ramsay gets whatever Westeros’s version of the Spanish Flu is and dies in his bed.”)
Beyond this, the question of how Game of Thrones should kill its most hated villain also dovetails with a more serious, ongoing challenge: How can a series known for upending narrative expectations offer a conclusion that’s both true to its subversive ethos and enjoyable from a storytelling perspective? TV more so than film or fiction has to abide by narrative conventions in order to sustain a single story over the course of multiple seasons. This is why even anyone watching a kill-happy show like The Walking Dead knows that Rick Grimes cannot die, no matter how many fans might want him to. But Game of Thrones killed its apparent hero in its first season, in an effort to put itself “beyond the reach of movie cliché, and even beyond the reach of show business itself,” wrote Clive James for The New Yorker. He noted that “show business usually depends on fulfilling our wishes”—something Game of Thrones repeatedly refuses to do.
Fulfilling wishes and audience fantasies is something that every good story does eventually, and it’s possible that the books and the show will go in completely different directions for Ramsay. (After all, Jon and Sansa’s reunion in “Book of the Stranger” could have come right out of a fairy tale, while the books had no such encounter.) The show is arriving at a moment where an elegant ending that conforms to long-established tropes is the one that might make the most sense—even if it means losing what made it so distinctive in the first place. Ramsay dying in his sleep would be a tragically Martinesque ending for a person who deserves nothing less than eternity in each of the Seven Hells being munched on by the spirits of all the dead Stark direwolves. Given the ever-widening split between the show and the books, there’s no reason fans should rule out either option.