Spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire.
Theon Greyjoy is Westeros’ most popular punching bag. Since his introduction in the show as a ward of the Starks — not exactly a prisoner, but certainly not there of his own free will — we’ve watched him transform from a horny ne’er-do-well to a pitiable shell of a person. For a while, Theon had it coming. He pledged himself to Robb Stark, then betrayed Robb Stark in favor of Theon’s jerk of a father. He murdered two innocent boys and passed them off as the corpses of Bran and Rickon Stark. When he was finally captured by Ramsay Bolton, his misfortune felt karmically fitting. What do child-murdering traitors deserve, if not to lose everything? But Theon’s punishment has never ceased. His story has been the most difficult arc to follow, involving sexual trauma, mutilation, and the establishment of his alternate, humiliated persona Reek at the hands of Ramsay.
For a moment, it seemed Theon had clawed his way up from the nadir of his journey: saving Sansa Stark, returning to his family, supporting his sister Yara’s claim to the throne, getting to ride on some very cool sailboats. Things, it seemed, had turned around for this poor lost soul.
Unfortunately, Game of Thrones’ creators have no desire for the youngest Greyjoy to experience real joy. In last week’s episode, Theon abandoned Yara, certain torture, and death, and lept off the side of one of those very nice sailboats.
What now? Is there any way forward for Theon? And what does his fate tell us about the show’s soul, one that’s often so hard to find?
Theon Greyjoy is the most tragic character on Game of Thrones
Kaitlyn Tiffany: Though last Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones was sort of scattershot and not exactly my cup of tea, I’ve already gone back a few times to the moment when Theon has to make the crucial choice between fighting his uncle to protect his sister or, you know, diving off the side of a ship into an ocean, with nowhere to go. In the first place, I think Alfie Allen is the most talented actor in the cast, and this scene benefits from his performance, but the choreography of this make-it-or-break-it moment is key.
theon’s most recent tragic turn is choreographed as a punchline
It’s literally a punchline — Euron cackles while Yara looks about ready to vomit — which makes sense because tragedy is often very funny when you look at it objectively. There’s undeniable physical comedy involved in holding painful, tense eye contact with someone you love and then turning around and diving into the ocean. We can’t even call this a dive. Theon hunches in shame, runs, and his legs never stop moving, even when there ceases to be a surface beneath his feet.
Watching the scene again, it seems like Theon is just about ready to fight when he makes the mistake of looking down. On the floor of the deck, Euron’s men are cutting out some of the losing Ironborns’ tongues (a gory detail straight from Martin’s books). It’s then that he starts visibly shaking, and though Theon has said repeatedly that he’s not afraid to die, wants to die, and deserves to die, the threat of further physical mutilation is what scares him over the side. He’d rather be adrift in the middle of an ocean than face that.
God, it’s so brutal. It’s so impossibly sad, and I can honestly say nothing else on this show genuinely moves or intrigues me anymore.
Megan Farokhmanesh: Since Theon helped Sansa escape from Ramsay, I’ve been surprised by how far he’s come, seeming to, in some fashion, overcome his torture. Up until his overboard moment in this episode, Theon has a future. He has loyalty and love, and a sister that trusts him with her own life, who, just minutes before, declares to Ellaria the he’ll act as her protector. And then to see him fail her on such a profound level... it’s gutting.
Do I blame him? Nah, not really. Euron is a caricature of a psychopath, a battle-spattered, leather-loving machete of a man who looks like he’s a second away from licking his own blood off Yara’s face. When he screams Theon’s name, he sounds like a demon. Hurling yourself off a boat in that scenario, however comic it may be (and oh, you’re so right that it’s hilarious, especially in GIF form) seems like the most logical thing for anyone to do. Could he possibly save Yara? Not a chance in seven hells.
The little detail that really clicked for me is when Alfie Allen has that single sort of eye twitch. In that fraction of a second, we watch Theon Greyjoy retreat back into Reek. Yara’s single tear is also a nice touch, but I can’t decide who she’s crying for: herself or her irreplaceably damaged little brother.
Theon’s arc is the soul of the books and the show
Kaitlyn: When he was first introduced, Theon Greyjoy was a rude asshole and a narcissist, but he was also an entertaining underdog with great comedic timing and a fascinating face.
He was a comic relief character, a million years ago. Now he’s this example of what it would be like to live totally and completely without relief. His arc is so demented in that sense. And weirdly, the tongue-cutting possibility that scares him off the boat in “Stormborn” isn’t only a faithful adaptation of the tongueless crew of Euron Greyjoy’s ship Silence. I’m pretty sure it’s also a reference to Theon’s time under Ramsay’s control in the books. In A Dance with Dragons, Ramsay doesn’t marry Sansa. He marries Jeyne Poole, a childhood friend of Sansa’s who’s being forced to pretend that she’s Arya. There’s a particularly grotesque scene, too terrible even for HBO, that occurs on their wedding night, in which Ramsay says to Theon: “If she’s not wet by the time I’m done disrobing, I will cut off that tongue of yours and nail it to the wall.”
Actually, Ramsay talks about Theon’s mouth kind of a lot. He brags to one of the Freys at one point, “He smiles less often now. I may have broken some of his pretty white teeth.” The show’s more interested in jokes about him losing his penis, but the books recognize more readily that there’s something uniquely horrifying about losing the parts of you associated with laughter and agency and speech. I don’t know that any other character (books or show) is given that level of nuance, considering most of them are just trying to stay alive or seize power or get revenge or do something much more tangible and direct than like, “figure out if I’m still a human being.”
Megan: By now I feel that viewers should know better than to expect that anything good will happen, ever. And yet we thought — or at least I thought — that we were watching a redemption arc. Theon had paid his dues, and, at the very least, would be given a glorious death that proved, in the end, he had overcome Reek for good. In that version of this story, Theon would have sacrificed himself in an effort to try and save his sister.
we thought we were watching a redemption arc — now what?
Why would I hold out hope for such a thing? Has Game of Thrones ever been that way? Did Ned, Robb, Oberyn, Margaery, and so on get what they deserved? Nope! This show, and the books, have always delighted in subverting those heroic stories in the most upsetting way possible.
Kaitlyn: It’s easy to forget, given all the sex and sword-fighting and magic and withering one-liners, but the A Song of Ice and Fire series has, so far, been a many-thousand-page tragedy about the cost of violence. It’s a cynical and punishing series that spends most of its time asking whether human beings are even capable of pulling themselves out of the violent cycles they’ve created. George R.R. Martin literally wants to know if people even have souls. It’s bleak.
If you ask me, everyone in this story is way past the point of no return, so far as chipping away at their own humanity with violence and hatred. I mean, should we be rooting for any of these people? Every single one of them is an absolute nightmare. I’m rooting for Theon only because he’s the only one with the decency to know he’s a mess. I don’t really know what “redemption” would mean in this scenario, but Theon’s the closest we have to a character who even cares about it.
Megan: I don’t know if I’ve ever rooted for Theon, now that you mention it. I want characters like Arya or Sansa to get their revenge, no matter who they have to take down in the process, but I can’t say I’ve ever had that wish for Theon. When it comes to him, I think I just want to see this poor guy run away and live in a cabin somewhere. And I don’t know, adopt a fluffy dog from a no-kill shelter. I just don’t want to watch him suffer anymore, even if I don’t think he should — or ever will — get a fairytale ending.
And of course, what can he possibly do now? Who would have him, a man who betrays his own blood when it matters most? I suspect there is no redemption left for Theon. No possible happy outcome for him. I’m afraid that he’ll finally take Yara’s advice and actually commit suicide, which might be the most tragic ending for this already heartbreaking character.
Can he be redeemed?
Kaitlyn: In the books, Theon’s internal struggle isn’t very nuanced. Over and over, Ramsay tells him, “You're Reek. You'll always be Reek... Remember your name. Remember who you are.” So every time Theon bends to Ramsay’s will he says some variation of this rhyme in his head: “Reek, my name is Reek, it rhymes with weak.” He goes by the name Reek for much longer in the books than he does on the show, because it stands as the main device by which Martin indicates how tightly wound up in the trauma he still is. The name is important, almost to a fault.
theon’s arc shouldn’t end with any more physical sacrifice
It’s sort of counter-intuitive — you’d think that writing could handle the intricacies of PTSD with greater fidelity and detail — but I think Alfie Allen externalizes a far more nuanced experience of enduring trauma and guilt. You’re really expected to pay attention at all times to the smallest physical ticks and verbal callbacks. So this is the rare storyline in which I’m more interested to see what HBO has to say than Martin.
I always assumed Theon would find some way to die for one of the Starks, given that most of his guilt stems from betraying Robb (he often wishes that he had been killed at The Red Wedding), but that seems unlikely now. I think a lot of people expected to see him kill Ramsay, but that storyline became Sansa’s for good reason. As recently as two weeks ago, I assumed he would die for Yara. Now, I honestly can’t think of a neat way for the show to tie up Theon’s story because his story is, in a world of really messy situations, the messiest. I think another suicide on this show would feel sort of empty. It would be ridiculous if the last we saw of him was this floating-off-on-a-board shot, but a clean, purposeful, selfless death would be almost meaningless as an end to his story, too. I guess I want him to find some sort of peace that doesn’t come from losing anything more of himself physically, if that makes sense.
Megan: I’m sure I’m being far too optimistic here, but I’m sure Yara is still alive — at least for now. While she lives, maybe hope does for Theon, too. I don’t think he’ll ever truly recover from what he’s experienced and the things he’s seen. But there is redemption in the love and forgiveness of others. Here’s to the very likely chance of being fooled once again.