Ramsay Bolton/Snow and the Complicity of Violence in “Game of Thrones”

Warning:  Full spoilers for the show follow.

Like millions of other TV viewers, I have long since grown tired of Ramsay Snow (lately Bolton), one of the few unambiguously evil characters in HBO’s Game of Thrones. While I think that Iwan Rheon deserves a lot of credit for bringing this character to chilling life, I think the writers have made a bit of a misstep by having Ramsay be so straightforwardly bad (and I blame Martin for this as well). Frankly, I’ve been hoping for his death since at least last season, and even somewhat before that. One can only tolerate pure evil for so long.

Fortunately, the most recent episode of Game of Thrones gave us what we have been asking for:  Ramsay Snow, defeated by his fellow bastard Jon and ultimately fed to the dogs that have been his preferred weapon for far too long. In a wonderful bit of poetic justice, it was our own beloved Sansa that was the instrument of his death and who delivered a chilling curse upon him in his final moments. While this was preceded by a wonderful scene in which Jon pummels his enemy into near-oblivion, it was really the (mostly unseen) mauling that packed the greatest punch and that proved the most satisfying.

There was something intensely, viscerally satisfying about seeing Ramsay receive the punishment that he so richly deserves. It was hard not to feel one’s heart pounding with exhilaration as Jon Snow pummeled the man responsible for the gradual descent of the North back into chaos and barbarity, and  I literally felt my body responding with a queer sort of thrill when that dog began licking his face and finally made the lunge, my skin crawling with a mingling of visual (and sensual) pleasure and revulsion. There is something particularly heinous and terrifying about the thought of being eaten alive by dogs, one’s body and being rendered into nothing more than a body.

Of course, part of the reason for this affect has to do with the many, many, many things that Ramsay has done to the characters that we love. His callous murder of Rickon in this episode alone would have been enough to enrage those who remain loyal to the Starks, but let’s not forget the fact that he gelded Theon (after months of torture), killed the wilding Osha, and fed his own stepmother and half-brother to his dogs. If anyone in this series deserved this horrible way of death, it was Theon.

And yet…and yet. Despite my cheers and thrills at seeing this bit of justice, a little voice in the back of my mind kept reminding me of my own complicity in the vision of violence and torture that Thrones continues to feed us. How was it possible, I ask myself, that I, a relatively enlightened and reasonable person, could find myself so thrilled at the sight of horrific dismemberment? Was the fact that Sansa was finally able to reclaim a bit of her agency really enough to justify this mental behaviour on my part?

It’s hard not to read Game of Thrones in light of the fraught political climate in which we currently live, in which emotion and passion has come to dominate rational discourse and enlightenment. Given that, I find my responses to this scene in Thrones even more disturbing, and this realization has reaffirmed my fervent belief that now, more than ever, we must indulge the better angels of our natures. Otherwise, we all risk becoming no better than the monsters, like Ramsay, that we have struggled so mightily to overcome.

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