The Bastard Letter is a fan-given name for a letter which Ramsay Bolton sends to Jon Snow at Castle Black. Book fandom has popularly nicknamed it either the "Bastard Letter" or the "Pink Letter" (the Bolton sigil in the novels is a flayed red man on a pink background, thus the wax seal was pink). In the TV series, the background is black and the seal is red. As a result, the "Pink Letter" wouldn't really apply to the TV version of the Bastard Letter.
After Sansa escapes from Winterfell with help from Theon, Ramsay correctly assumes that she will head to Jon at Castle Black, where he is Lord Commander of the Night's Watch and will offer her shelter from the Boltons. Ramsay suggests that they attack Castle Black and kill Jon, though Roose dismisses the idea of murdering the Lord Commander as outrageous. Though Ramsay later kills his family, he heeds his father's words enough to stand down and instead first send Jon a letter demanding Sansa back:
- "To the traitor and bastard Jon Snow,
- You allowed thousands of wildlings past the Wall. You have betrayed your own kind and you have betrayed the North. Winterfell is mine, bastard, come and see.
- Your brother Rickon is in my dungeon. His direwolf's skin is on my floor, come and see.
- I want my bride back. Send her to me, bastard, and I will not trouble you or your wildling lovers. Keep her from me and I will ride North to slaughter every wildling man, woman, and babe living under your protection. You will watch as I skin them living. You will watch as my soldiers take turns raping your sister. You will watch as my dogs devour your wild little brother. Then I will spoon your eyes from their sockets and let my dogs do the rest. Come and see.
- Ramsay Bolton, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North"
Behind the scenes
- Sansa's storyline in the Vale was omitted and she was given Jeyne Poole's storyline of being married off to Ramsay. In the novels, Sansa's storyline shows her gaining in political influence, while Jeyne was just a prisoner of Ramsay. Sansa never even meets Ramsay in the novels, much less gets raped by him like Jeyne did, though a similar element remains that Sansa was going to enter into a political marriage (in the Vale) intended to gain a position to harm the Boltons with.
- The Boltons play no factor at all in the motivations presented for the Mutiny at Castle Black. Instead, the TV series purely switched the motivation to the fact that Jon let wildlings through the Wall, and has Alliser Thorne confirm this as his motivation up until he is hanged. This introduces several plot holes: Thorne is shown opening the gates to let Jon and the wildlings through the Wall, which raises the question as to why he would kill Jon for letting wildlings through the Wall after he had been the one to let them through.
- Some have suggested that Thorne feared openly turning on Jon at the time, but if so this was not made explicitly clear on-screen. If Thorne thought letting wildlings through the Wall was a threat to the existence of the Night's Watch, he would have barred the gates and openly turned on Jon then despite the odds.
- Even if Thorne didn't turn against Jon when he let the wildlings through the gate purely because he didn't know if he had enough support to mutiny against him yet, killing Jon after the wildlings were through the Wall achieved little. Killing Jon after the wildlings were already through the Wall wouldn't make the wildlings simply go away. When Thorne gives a public speech to defend his actions in the Season 6 premiere, he says that Jon would have destroyed the Watch by letting wildlings through the Wall: wildlings that are already through the Wall. Thorne makes no attempt to explain how the barely 50 men left in the castle are going to deal with these thousands of wildlings now.
- One other possible explanation is that Thorne's murder of Jon Snow was pretty much purely ideological. This is supported by dialogue in Oathbreaker where Thorne says he would do everything again even knowing the outcome. Conversely, he also felt honor bound to Snow as Lord Commander (which he outright states in the season 6 opener) and could not in good conscience disobey a command. It just so happens that Jon Snow never explicitly said, "Don't stab me."
- Another thing to consider is that the wildling prisoners Jon and Stannis took at the end of season 4 numbered in the thousands. Snow would almost certainly have allowed them to settle on the other side of the Wall before leaving for Hardhome. Indeed, in Kill the Boy Jon tells Tormund to gather the "remaining free folk". Thorne would have still had a large chance of being attacked by wildlings even if he had not let Jon in.
- However, while Thorne's motivations are somewhat explainable through consideration of certain pieces of dialogue, what motivated his conspirators (besides Olly) to join him in killing their Lord Commander is not clear.
- Only afterward does the TV series introduce its version of the Bastard Letter. Ramsay openly tells Roose he wants to attack the Night's Watch to kill Jon as a potential Stark heir who might be harboring his runaway bride, which Roose dismisses as insane because the entire North would rise up against them if they did that. The TV series then depicts what was suspected from the novels: Roose considers Ramsay a failure, so the instant that Roose's new wife gives birth to a son, Ramsay realizes his position has become precarious so he kills them all, leaving him free to attack the Night's Watch (although he does decide to take a more diplomatic approach first by sending Jon a letter demanding Sansa back instead of outright attacking).
- The TV series sent Rickon and Osha to stay at Last Hearth with the loyal Stark vassals House Umber - who then hand over Rickon and Osha to Ramsay as a sign of good faith, stating they need to ally together to kill the wildlings Jon sent through the Wall. This may or may not have been a trick, given that Osha later tries to kill Ramsay. Osha thus somewhat echoes Mance's spearwives from the novels, while instead of having Mance Rayder as his prisoner, Ramsay has Rickon Stark himself prisoner at Winterfell.
- Only at this point does Jon receive the letter from Ramsay, after he has quit the Night's Watch, and when "Ramsay's bride" (Sansa in this case) is actually with him.
In the books
The TV series significantly moved around a series of interlinked major subplots between the letter, the Mutiny at Castle Black, Sansa, and Rickon, compared to what happens in the A Song of Ice and Fire novels. In the books:
- Jon Snow allows the wildlings through the Wall, and while the older officers of the Night's Watch are upset by Jon's efforts to save the wildlings and object to the Hardhome mission, they allow Jon to let them through and don't mutiny over it - given that nothing in their vows explicitly forbids Jon from doing so.
- Jon also doesn't personally go to Hardhome, he sends a mission there and hears reports by messenger-raven. Prior to receiving the Pink Letter, Jon intended to lead a ranging to Hardhome himself. The wildlings he lets through are the remains of Mance's army who had retreated back into the forest a short distance away from the Wall.
- Sansa remains in the Vale, where she is getting ready to marry Robert (Robin's first name in the novels) Arryn's cousin and presumptive heir Harrold Hardyng. Robert is sickly and not expected to live to adulthood (it is implied that Littlefinger intends to "help" him die). This will pave the way for Sansa - and thus, Littlefinger - to take over the Vale and Winterfell. Sansa has no idea about what's going on in the North (or in any other region of Westeros), including the battle between Stannis and the Boltons and Jon's assassination. She does not even know who currently holds Winterfell. In fact, the only piece of information she hears all that time is that Jon became the Lord Commander of the Night's Watch.
- At Sansa's last chapter of the fourth novel ("Alayne II"), Littlefinger says nothing about the Boltons in particular and the current affairs at the North in general. Therefore, it is unclear whether at that point the Boltons have already come to Winterfell, and how Littlefinger intends to deal with them, if at all.
- Obviously, Littlefinger's plans will take years to accomplish - he cannot have Robert Arryn die so soon after his mother's death, for it will look very suspicious in the eyes of Lord Royce and other lords of the Vale, who loathe Littlefinger and keep an eye on him. By the time his plans come to fruition, the Boltons may be long destroyed either by Stannis (who is still alive) or northern houses, and it is impossible to predict who will have possession of Winterfell. Therefore, Littlefinger does not plan any military campaigns at that point, but focuses on the first stage of his plan: Sansa must charm her would-be-husband.
- The Boltons can't find Sansa or Arya, since the former got away and everyone thinks the latter is dead. Thus the Lannisters give them Jeyne Poole, Sansa's childhood friend who grew up with her at Winterfell, to impersonate Arya. She was captured when Eddard Stark's household was destroyed in King's Landing and - despite being a minor noblewoman - Littlefinger kept her alive, but sexually enslaved in one of his brothels for the past few years (either because he thought she might be useful or out of abject sadism, it is unclear). For lack of better options, the Boltons intend to pass off this "Fake Arya" as the real one, to help secure their claim to the North. No one has seen Arya in years, Jeyne looks plausibly like what Arya might now, and because she grew up with the Stark girls she can pass any interrogation to test if she is Arya (i.e. when asked who Winterfell's blacksmith was she correctly answered "Mikken", though she slightly hesitated). One close look at her eyes (whose color is brown rather than grey) is enough to give her away, but if anyone noticed that - he wouldn't say anything since it is unwise to mess with the Boltons.
- It is reported that Rickon and Osha headed to Skagos, an island inhabited by cannibals, not to Last Hearth. It is unknown whether they are alive.
- Mance Rayder is still alive, as Melisandre used her magical glamor to fake his death. He knows how to sneak into Winterfell so he infiltrates it along with six spearwives disguised as a bard and his kin. Their direct attempt fails, but give Theon an opportunity to escape with Jeyne.
- Roose Bolton wasn't stupid enough to attack the Night's Watch due to their politically neutral status, but Ramsay is that impulsive. As for Stannis: his fate is unknown, but even if he failed, his attack might have weakened the Boltons - or at the least, allowed cover for Theon and Fake Arya (Jeyne) to escape. It is strongly implied that Roose may have threatened to disinherit Ramsay for this strategic failure (losing men he didn't need to lose against Stannis, then letting his captives escape), and that Ramsay may have killed Roose in response (similar to the TV show). Ramsay signs the letter as "Lord of Winterfell", with no mention that he holds it under Roose - which may be a clue that Ramsay has killed his father.
- Stannis's wife, daughter, and Melisandre remain behind at Castle Black; Theon and Fake Arya are with Stannis's army. The fact that Ramsay demands not only Stannis's family but Theon and Fake Arya may imply that he as lying about defeating Stannis, given that if he did, he would probably have recaptured both of them.
- Ultimately, Jon received the letter from Ramsay before the mutiny - and indeed, it was one of the causes of the mutiny. Jon reads the letter aloud in the courtyard and says he ride south and fight the Boltons, compromising the Watch's neutrality - he can't defend the Wall from the White Walkers on the north side while the Boltons tear apart the realm to the south. Jon also points out that he would refute any man who claims he is "breaking" his vow, because the neutrality goes both ways, and it was illegal for Ramsay to threaten to kill the Lord Commander of the Night's Watch (instead of threatening to cut out his eyes and feed him to his dogs, Ramsay closes by saying that if Jon doesn't hand over his bride, "I will cut out your bastard heart and eat it").
- In the books, Jon reacts with fury to the letter and reads it aloud to his men, enraging everyone present. Jon tells them, "The Night's Watch takes no part in the wars of the Seven Kingdoms. It is not for us to oppose the bastard of Bolton, to avenge Stannis, to defend his widow and his daughter. This creature who makes cloaks from the skins of women has sworn to cut my heart out, and I mean to make him answer for those words, but I will not ask my brothers to forswear their vows. The Night's Watch will make for Hardhome. I ride to Winterfell alone, unless......is there any man here who will come stand with me?" Though the wildlings and the bulk of the Night's Watch are sympathetic to Jon's cause and agree to ride with him, Jon makes three serious mistakes:
- He does not send scouts to verify the contents of the letter and to obtain information about the Bolton troops - he has no idea how many there are.
- He does not consider the simple fact that since the weather has worsened so much recently, any armed force that tries to march from Winterfell to Castle Black or vice-versa - will be in a very poor shape when reaching its destination, if at all (Tycho and his escorts made it to Winterfell and then to the village in less than 32 days because they were few and travelled light), hence Ramsay does not pose any real threat and there is no point going to Winterfell.
- He underestimates the reaction of his subordinates, who have grown dissatisfied with his conduct as the Lord Commander, especially about accepting the wildlings to the Watch.
- The older officers are horrified, because the fear that 1 - Jon is still breaking his vows, 2 - if Jon attacks Ramsay and fails, Ramsay will kill the entire Night's Watch in retaliation, and they cannot hope to stop him. As Jon heads out to inform Selyse of Stannis's death and enlist Melisandre in helping him locate Ramsay, the mutineers stab Jon in the courtyard "for the Watch", led by Bowen Marsh, who openly weeps while doing so (who got condensed with Thorne in the TV version). Neither side is entirely "right", as no matter what they do there will be risk.
- "Your false king is dead, bastard. He and all his host were smashed in seven days of battle. I have his magic sword. Tell his red whore.
- Your false king's friends are dead. Their heads upon the walls of Winterfell. Come see them, bastard. Your false king lied, and so did you. You told the world you burned the King-Beyond-the-Wall. Instead you sent him to Winterfell to steal my bride from me.
- I will have my bride back. If you want Mance Rayder back, come and get him. I have him in a cage for all the north to see, proof of your lies. The cage is cold, but I have made him a warm cloak from the skins of the six whores who came with him to Winterfell.
- I want my bride back. I want the false king's queen. I want his daughter and his red witch. I want this wildling princess. I want his little prince, the wildling babe. And I want my Reek. Send them to me, bastard, and I will not trouble you or your black crows.
- Keep them from me, and I will cut out your bastard's heart and eat it.
- Ramsay Bolton, Trueborn Lord of Winterfell."
At the point that the fifth book ends, it is unknown whether the contents of the letter are true, and what is the status of Stannis's host - though it is strongly implied that Ramsay was partially lying in the letter, given that Theon was actually with Stannis after he escaped Winterfell and couldn't have made it to the Wall on his own at all (if Ramsay did defeat Stannis, he would have no reason to think Theon was at the Wall).
On the other hand, the letter claims that Mance Rayder is a prisoner and is wearing a cloak made from the skins of the six spearwives who accompanied him to Winterfell, leading Jon to speculate that this part of the letter is true, since Mance left Castle Black with six spearwives, a number Ramsay could not have known any other way. Also, Ramsay signs the letter as "Trueborn Lord of Winterfell", implying that he has already killed Roose Bolton and usurped his position. As neither Roose or Ramsay are POV characters in the books, it is likely Roose's death at Ramsay's hands would play out "offscreen" like Balon Greyjoy's, and Ramsay will casually mention it in the next chapter he appears, likely one from Jon's POV.
The most conspicuous anomaly about the letter is that no piece of skin is enclosed to it, in contrast to Ramsay's former letters. This led to fan speculations that it was not Ramsay who wrote the letter. In view of how far the show deviated from the novels, it is possible that the writer's identity was changed too.
Another strange thing about the letter is the phrase "black crows" - a nickname for the Night's Watch members, which is mostly used by the wildlings.
A sample chapter from The Winds of Winter reveals that Stannis is actually still alive and preparing for battle against the Boltons, contradicting Ramsay's letter, though it is unknown if this chapter takes place before or after the letter is written.
This significantly changes Sansa's storyline and possibly Rickon's as well (depending on what he does in the next novel). Benioff and Weiss themselves have given few statements about the drastic condensation of merging the Sansa and Jeyne storyline, such as how this affects Sansa's story arc - only giving a brief mention that they didn't want actress Sophie Turner to have to spend a year off-screen while the Vale subplot was in the background.
Meanwhile, the motivations of the men who mutinied against Jon Snow do not make logical sense in the TV version. If Thorne was afraid to lock the gate to Jon because he didn't have enough support, this wasn't verbalized clearly, and even if this was the writers' intention, fundamentally, it was never coherently explained how killing Jon after letting more wildlings through the Wall was going to help the Night's Watch deal with the thousands of wildlings already through the Wall. When Benioff and Weiss discuss Thorne's motivations in the "Inside the Episode" featurette for the Season 6 premiere, they even give somewhat contradictory explanations: Weiss says it was for selfish reasons and Thorne wanted to kill Jon for years, while Benioff insists that Thorne only did this just now for the selfless reason of saving the Watch. Benioff's statement, however, is vaguer in terms of who he is actually referring to, talking about 'the men' feeling what they are doing is right, comparing the situation to the one in 'Julius Caesar'.
Moreover, particularly in the "Inside the Episode" featurette for "Book of the Stranger", the showrunners repeatedly insist that Jon was killed for "doing the right thing", and in dialogue from "Oathbreaker", Jon similarly is in shock that he did the "right thing" to save the wildlings but got killed for it. In the novels, most people on both sides of conflicts think they are doing "the right thing" - even in the TV version, Thorne says with his dying words that he still thinks he did the right thing to save the Watch. In the books, there is no purely right or wrong answer. Actions on both sides of the conflict are provided with understandable motivations and consequences. Jon's decision to fight the Boltons was not presented so simplistically but as a complex and difficult decision that Jon has to wrestle with - and the mutineers similarly thought they were explicitly saving the Watch from destruction by the crazed Ramsay Bolton - neither side was purely doing "the right thing".
It might be argued that given the extreme condensations in Season 5, there wasn't enough time to set up the Bastard Letter before the mutiny in the season finale, and it simply took less time to make it due to anger over letting wildlings through the Wall. While previous seasons adapted one book per season (Seasons 1 and 2) or even half a book per season (Season 3 and 4), Season 5 condensed most of the fourth and fifth novels into a single season (for major storylines such as Jon Snow, Daenerys, Tyrion, and King’s Landing – some storylines could not fit entirely within the season such as Arya or Samwell, and the Greyjoy subplot was entirely omitted from Season 5). The question of why the showrunners chose to attempt to adapt two novels into one season is a separate issue unto itself.
Even taking as a given that Season 5 would adapt most of the fourth and fifth novels in this manner, however, several other issues would be raised regarding screen time.
It was confirmed in the Season 5 Blu-ray commentary that the showrunners originally never thought the TV series would ever actually introduce the Dorne subplot with House Martell: they knew that Oberyn Martell and Ellaria Sand would have to be introduced visiting King’s Landing in Season 4 – so Oberyn could fight Gregor Clegane – but otherwise they did not think they could show Dorne itself or the rest of House Martell. The reason for this is that they were wary about introducing a plotline that didn’t involve any previous major characters the audience was familiar with.
Only after work on Season 4 was finished did writer Bryan Cogman suggest that the show might be able to fit Dorne in if they sent Jaime Lannister as a viewpoint character, instead of a different minor Kingsguard character as in the novels. The showrunners enjoyed this suggestion but it meant that the Dorne subplot for Season 5 was put into production very much at the last minute. The resulting Dorne subplot received widespread negative reactions from professional critics, even non-book readers, citing its hasty production values which resulted in lackluster fight scenes (the Sand Snakes fight scene in "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken") poor characterization and bizarre dialogue for the Sand Snakes, and under-use of other major characters such as Doran Martell.
As a result of the last-minute decision to attempt to introduce the Dorne subplot:
- All of the Dorne scenes in Season 5 put together add up to a runtime of about 38 minutes.
- All of the scenes in Season 6 of Ramsay Bolton introducing the TV version of the Bastard Letter (all of his scenes from episode 6.1 to 6.4 when the letter is read) add up to about 22 minutes.
Had the showrunners not attempted to hastily introduce the Dorne subplot with what was later admitted to be little long-term planning:
- The poorly received Dorne subplot as it appears in Seasons 5 to 6 would never have happened; instead, Dorne wouldn’t have appeared at all.
- The TV show could have put all of Ramsay’s scenes introducing the Bastard Letter as the primary reason for the mutiny against Jon Snow, in nearly half the time that was devoted to the Season 5 Dorne subplot – and still have 16 minutes left over.
This count doesn’t even include the scenes in early Season 6 of Sansa escaping from the Boltons, which lasted about another 10 minutes. Had the TV series not attempted to squeeze in the Dorne subplot, it would have had anywhere from 16 to ~25 minutes to spend on Sansa’s brief storyline in the Vale, and thus wouldn’t have needed to condense Sansa’s subplot with the Boltons, becoming Ramsay’s abused prisoner in Winterfell – at least, not due to time constraints. On the other hand, the showrunners said that they intended to merge Sansa with Jeyne Poole since back in Season 2, because they felt they didn’t have time to set up Jeyne in prior seasons and the eventual subplot of Ramsay’s marriage would lack emotional impact if it wasn’t a character the audience already knew – so it is possible that even with a full hour of extra screentime for Sansa in Season 5 they still would have merged her subplot with the Boltons due to other structural issues.
Putting the issue of Sansa aside, therefore, at some point at the beginning of Season 5, the TV writers were breaking down the season outline, and decided to at the last minute squeeze in the Dorne subplot – at the expense of time taken away from all of the other subplots in what they self-acknowledged was an already over-stuffed season, due to condensing most of two novels instead of only one. As simple math, all of the screentime devoted to setting up the “Bastard Letter” could have fit within only half the screentime devoted to the Dorne subplot – in which case no plot holes would have been introduced regarding the motivations of Jon’s attackers, or what they could possibly hope to achieve by killing Jon after the wildlings were already allowed through the Wall at Thorne's own orders. The only real problem would have been that some time would have still needed to be devoted to finding a reason for Jaime to leave King's Landing, which would have demanded either the character just vanish from the season after being sent to either Dorne or the Riverlands, or would have required the inclusion of the Riverlands plot a season early. This would have likely necessitated Brienne to be in the Riverlands too, which then would have necessitated Sansa to remain in the Vale, and ultimately would have demanded the introduction of an essentially new character (Jeyne Poole) for season five, arguably overstuffing the season even more.
References and notes
- "Book of the Stranger"
- Omitted from the TV show, Mance Rayder's wife dies in childbirth, but his infant was left at Castle Black along with his sister-in-law Val - they get nicknamed the "wildling princess" and Mance's "little prince", even though the position of King-Beyond-the-Wall isn't hereditary.