Warning: spoilers about the fifth season abound.
As Stannis Baratheon watched his daughter go up in flames towards the end of episode nine of this season of Game of Thrones, I finally realized what the show had been missing lately—a great villain. In fact, many of the choices made by the show creators over the last 18 episodes, choices that have puzzled, depressed, and sometimes angered me, can be explained by their need to create a villain worth hating.
A villain, a good villain, is something special. I'm not talking about an anti-hero—a protagonist who does bad things, but for whom viewers find themselves rooting anyway—but a genuine villain. A villain must serve as an enemy or nemesis to characters that you like, or at least would like to win. A villain needs to devour their scenes (and sometimes, if they are named Hannibal, their foes), progressing in their villainy until their ultimate defeat (Voldemort), redemption (Caprica 6, Black Widow, and Hawkeye), or both (Darth Vader). Villains need a plot arc that intensifies their menace or leads to some kind of character change, because even evil-doing, when constant and predictable, grows tedious.
And that's the problem with Game of Thrones, its bad guys and gals have either gotten incompetent or boring.
To be sure, the show is filled with lots of nasty people doing terrible things, and the Night King's raise-the-dead shrug at Jon Snow and the Wildlings foreshadows the existential threat to come, but there's just not a character that I love to hate. And there hasn't been since the death of Joffrey Baratheon.
By the time Joffrey died early in season four, he had achieved peak hate-watch status. We had seen him grow up from snotty bully to sadistic murderer, no longer content to have his minions do the violence for him. Still, even at his worst, he remained a golden boy, immaculately dressed, courtly, and terrifying. His cruelty ascended, following the classic serial-killer progression, from bullying local kids, causing the death of a harmless animal, to eventually (and controversially) killing a prostitute and spy in his bedroom. He died at his own wedding, drinking poisoned wine after humiliating his uncle Tyrion, in a beautifully shot, lengthy closing scene, in the episode "The Lion and the Rose."
Like the best moments in Game of Thrones and the associated books, Joffrey's death surprised us, whether we first encountered it on the page or the screen. I remember re-reading the pages describing his death several times to make sure I understood them correctly. I did this during the Red Wedding too, in which other major characters were suddenly snuffed out (moral of the story: Don't get married in Westeros). I couldn't believe what I was reading either time.
Lately, plenty of characters have done fucked up things, but there's neither progression nor surprise. Cersei and Littlefinger, both good candidates for villains, have grown incompetent. Littlefinger has turned from a master manipulator to a tool for the show's writers to spread information and make plots happen. There's no center to him anymore. Cersei is at her best when she's coldly calculating, and she's had great moments this season, such as when she casually rid herself of every contender on the small council, or the times she lovingly dotes on naïve Tommen and coerces him to do just what she needs. Still, I found no pleasure in watching her slurp water from the floor of a cell. She's become someone to pity, trapped by the stereotypically gendered emotions of jealousy and possessiveness, and her downfall makes her sympathetic.
And then there's Ramsay Bolton and what I call the "Game of Theons." I have found that entire plot intensely boring, not because torture and horror are necessarily a problem to depict, but because the writing and action are so repetitive. Someday, the Man with the Bad Haircut will be killed by someone, and my feeling will be relief, not triumph. In the books, the transformation of Theon to Reek happens out of sight. One hears about the torturous methods of the Boltons, but they are hints used to set up the reveal of Reek's identity. Obviously, because the actor is who he is, Reek's identity couldn't have been hidden, but there's no reason to give him and Ramsay so much screen-time.
Unless, that is, the goal is to create a new Joffrey.
But just being doing evil stuff does not make for a good villain. Last week, I wrote about the hero's quest in Game of Thrones, arguing that Jon Snow is the best fit (although Tyrion and Daenerys may still emerge). One can flip this idea around, though, and think about the villain's quest. Writers Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals suggest that the villain's journey is "one of declining power, while the hero's story is one of rising power." They identify villains from Jaws to the Wicked Witch, to Nurse Ratchet. I think it's also possible for the journey to be about intensifying depravity, loss of control, or consequences of horror. Joffrey started with a wolf and little power beyond tantrums. He ended by killing many people and with the power to wreck Westeros. Ramsay, on the other hand, is pretty much where he started. He's a one-note character.
Which leave us with Stannis. As Amanda Marcotte has written in Slate, his murder of Shireen echoes the classical tragedy of Agamemnon and Iphigenia (Spoiler: Agamemnon's wife, Clytemnestra, kills him when he gets back home—does this fate await Stannis at the hands of Selyse?). I can easily imagine a pathway in which his growing religious fanaticism, uncompromising nature, and desire to win at all costs makes him into an enemy worth cheering against. I'm definitely ready to hate-watch him in conjunction with his priestess Melisandre.
He's not there yet, though, and that's because Stannis's season five plot has been handled poorly in terms of writing and execution. How did Ramsay and his 20 men get past the guards? Presumably Stannis, the great general, knows how to train his army to set good watches when camping out in enemy territory. It was so improbable, that Ramsay's infiltration happened off-screen. At what point did Stannis shift from the man who defended Shireen at all costs (just a few episodes ago!) to the man who murdered her while his men were lightly shivering? Jason Concepcion over at Grantland points out that Stannis once survived a year's siege by eating rats (until he was saved by the smuggler Davos, who then lost his fingers but became the Onion Knight), and now we're supposed to believe that he's going to sacrifice his beloved daughter because of a little snow? Again, I think show creators D. B. Weiss and David Benioff are searching, awkwardly, for a new villain.
Ramsay and Stannis are on a collision course with each other in the North. One of them will likely fall, though perhaps not die, and I'm going to greet it with my own rendition of the Night King's shrug. Still, there's plenty of time for the show to recover its stride, and turn one of its many merely wicked characters, into a master villain truly worth watching.
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