WARNING: Spoilers for season six, episode nine below.
Ramsay Bolton—rest in pieces—was never a great villain. Sure, he was sadistic as hell, but he never strayed far from his narrow, cringe-inducing pathway that's now ended in a rather fitting way, with his body devoured by his own hungry hounds as Sansa calmly watched, even cracking a Lemonade-esque smile at the end. With the erstwhile Warden of the North in the bellies of dogs, the Starks have taken Winterfell.
Like many, I'm perfectly happy that Bolton is dead. Alas, we now have a villain gap. Who will fill it? Who will we love to hate in the final 14 episodes (one more this year, 13 to come in two final seasons)?
My hope is not for more old-fashioned villains like Joffrey and Ramsay—who, with craftsman-like intensity, wreaked havoc on individual bodies with artisanal care toward exacting the most pain from their victims. Instead, I think it's time for a real villain, someone who works on a grand scale, to step forward and claim his or her rightful place on the show.
Here are our options:
My favorite Cersei moment saw her sitting on the Iron Throne, holding Tommen in her lap, poison in her hand. The Battle of Blackwater was raging, and Cersei thought her side was likely to lose. She was calm, maternal, affectionate—and ready to off herself and her youngest child.
Cersei's also been so abused by her late husband, by her father who never saw her true value, and most recently by the High Sparrow (though of course she was responsible for his rise, as a vehicle to take down her rival, Queen Margaery). In addition, she's failed to achieve, really, any of her goals. She's a tragic figure as well as one of the show's most interesting characters, responsible for so much death, but never truly attaining capital-V villain status. I'm a little afraid for Tommen, but Cersei is more Medea than Lady MacBeth, avenging betrayals with the worst possible acts, rather than successfully plotting her way to power, which makes her a less-than-ideal candidate.
On many occasions, we've caught a glimpse of what would happen if Daenerys truly embraced the power of the dark side, and it's not pretty—just ask the masters she crucified or the Khalasar she incinerated. The Queen of Dragons is all too willing to respond to crisis by vowing to kill everyone on the other side—and their cities, too, as we heard last night—but recently she's learned to step back from the brink, helped along by timely advice from Tyrion. The Khaleesi isn't exactly heroic anymore, but she's still a ways from becoming public-enemy one, when there are so many worse characters out there.
The High Sparrow and Melisandre
If there's one thing we've learned from the show, it's that zealots (and weddings) are dangerous. The Red Woman has burned alive a young girl and birthed a demon to assassinate a prince. Jonathan Pryce's High Sparrow hasn't done either of these things and seems comparatively nice, but that actually makes him more terrifying, not less. Still, while the Faith Militant have fun tattoos, until their leader starts barbequing children, he's second-rate for religiously fanatical villains. Meanwhile, when Melisandre removed her necklace at the end of episode one and revealed her tired, aging body, it became impossible to sustain the well-deserved hate. Then she brought our hero Jon Snow back from the dead. There's plenty of drama to come with her, as Davos looks to make her pay in next week's episode, but she's just no longer the sinister mastermind, rather another vulnerable and complicated minor player in the game.
The Night King
Hating the Night King is like hating winter itself. Sure, you've got to defend yourself against the killing frost, but there's just not enough personality for real emotion. He's like Sauron in Lord of the Rings—a malevolent force that one should fear—but hatred is reserved for the humans (or wizards) who choose to serve his ends. True villainy requires intent and choice; the Night King just is. Still, he's definitely coming, and defeating him will surely occupy a significant portion of the final two seasons.
Euron Greyjoy and Ellaria Sand
The world is dark and full of terrible people. We're clearly supposed to despise Euron Greyjoy, but I just can't get super worked up about internal Iron Islands politicking, no matter how Trump-like he may seem. It's true that Ellaria Sand has done some nasty deeds—gut-stabbing her country's leader, ordering the assassination of the leader's son and young wife—but I still sympathize with her desire to kill Lannisters and avenge her lover Oberyn (who, in turn, just wanted to kill the Mountain for raping his sister). Moreover, Dorne is stuck at the edge of Westeros, deliberately isolated from the other kingdoms, so it's not likely we will get many opportunities for true, Stark-betraying, man-flaying, Joffrey-esque evil.
There is one man, however, whose villainy quite literally made the entire show possible. In fact, he's just galloped to the rescue, smirking as he rides beside Sansa Stark.
The real villain of Game of Thrones is, and always has been, Littlefinger.
Do you remember how the story started? John Arryn, Lord of the Vale and wise Hand of the King, died. Looking for a new chief minister, King Robert went north to Winterfell to ask his old comrade, Ned Stark, to take the position. Everything bad that's happened to the Starks, not to mention the whole civil war, followed.
Littlefinger was responsible for Arryn's death, having persuaded Jon's wife, Lysa, to poison him, so that they could marry. Later, he shoved her out the Moon Door in order to protect Sansa, with whom he's got a creepy daddy-lust vibe (due, in part, to his love for Sansa's mother, the sister of Lysa, Catelyn Stark). Between those two murders, he arranged to have King Joffrey poisoned, and while we cheered the death, it didn't really help calm things down in Westeros. Most recently, he gave Sansa to the Boltons (in a move that made no sense, really, and isn't in the books), but now has motivated the Vale to reclaim her. He's a hero!
But what's he want?
Answering that question requires returning to season one and a scene that popularized the term, "sexposition." While the prostitutes Ros and Armeca practiced fucking, Petyr Baelish saw fit to explain his whole raison d'être. Littlefinger talked about his love for Catelyn Stark and the many humiliations he's suffered at the hands of the great lords of Westeros. He tells Ros that in revenge, all he wants is, "Everything, my dear. Everything there is."
Ramsay Bolton was a distraction. The real villain has always been here, scheming, with limitless ambition, and without scruples. My prediction: Next he's going to try to get rid of Jon Snow, to make sure Sansa depends only on him.
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