I’m more interested in discussing HBO’s Game of Thrones showrunners’ decisions in regards to Theon Greyjoy’s storyline, as presented in Season Three of the show. His torture, and the cagey and dodgy manipulations of keeping his captor’s identity secret have been somewhat controversial. And I have some opinions on that.
Spoiler warnings: Obviously, I’m going to be talking through Season Three Game of Thrones and spoiling stuff. In fact, if you have not seen the show you have already been spoiled by reading the above paragraph that Theon gets tortured. That’s my bad. Sorry about that.
I’ll avoid dropping future book plot spoilers, except where the TV show has *already* spoiled some stuff. To clarify, I won’t be spoiling anything that hasn’t already been spoiled by the TV show regarding plot points in books 3,4, or 5.
BUT, I am going to be talking about details from Book Two, where elements are different from the televised adaption of Theon’s storyline. Fair warning: if you are not a reader of the books, and totally want to avoid book details, I understand you not reading this blog. You just won’t find out why I support Season Three’s torturous depiction of Theon’s fate.
Super Quick Seasons Two/Three Recap
Near the end of Season Two, Theon and a plucky band of whacky Ironborn have taken Winterfell. They’re surrounded by an army presumably of northmen. Theon opts to go out fighting, his men have other ideas and knock him out. At the end of the season, Winterfell is a burnt ruin and the fate of Theon and his men are unknown.
Between seasons there were many rumors and theories about what happened, but book readers pretty much knew and had to keep their mouth shut. Did Theon’s men set fire to Winterfell? Not telling. Maybe they weren’t northmen outside the walls, but Ironborn? Interesting theory… not telling.
Season Three started with Theon held captive. He gets tortured a little bit, is given aid in escaping but is brought back to his personal dungeon, and tortured a lot more. His captor’s identity is purposefully obfuscated on the show. Finally, Theon gets castrated, and it’s made clear that Roose Bolton’s bastard son, Ramsay Snow, is not only the one holding Theon but the one who burned down Winterfell, symbolically weakening Robb Stark and helping set the stage for the Red Wedding.
This information annoyed non-book readers. Roose Bolton’s bastard? Who was this guy? That totally came out of the blue!
Except that it didn’t, blah blah blah. Look, I’m not going to go ahead and point out that no one was paying attention to Roose Bolton in Season Two when he said that he was going to send his bastard up to engage Theon at Winterfell, or that Roose Bolton (who loves flaying people, Our Knives Are Sharp) was just a creepy snaky guy. I’ll even grant you that the show underplayed all that, and the payoff that Theon was being held by Ramsay Snow was kind of lame. But it didn’t matter that it was. It was more important that going in to the Red Wedding, no one was suspecting a trap with Bolton support.
But… couldn’t the Red Wedding happen without all the Ramsay/Theon stuff? After all, if Ramsay isn’t seen, the burning of Winterfell could just continue to be a mystery and no one would be looking suspiciously as Roose Bolton. Right?
Sure. I guess. Although I don’t know if show-watchers would be cool with not knowing what happened to Winterfell for a full season. I mean, I guess Roose could still confess his son’s involvement with Walder Frey, and next season have a lot of Theon being tortured by Ramsay Snow? Even though it’d have been months between Winterfell burning and the Red Wedding?
Because, at some point, we would have had to have had some insight into Ramsay Snow’s character. My feeling is that there was a point to the lengthy and relentless torture of Theon in Season Three, to establish the bastard of Bolton as a truly despicable character. Because anyone who had read Book Two should be totally up on what a creep Ramsay was.
Or maybe not. I know there were some people who had read Book Three, and when they saw Theon getting tortured by enemies unknown, they were completely mystified. There were the usual accusations that “this didn’t happen in the books!”
I get where they were coming from, but they either weren’t paying attention while reading Book Two, or didn’t remember what had happened to Theon, or something. Before I say more, I’m going to bring up some relevant info from Book Two in regards to Theon’s storyline. And how Ramsay Snow works in. Again, if you haven’t read the books and don’t want to know book details, you may as well stop reading. I’m not going to spoil any future stuff though.
Theon Greyjoy, the Prince of Winterfell, Book Two Version
Season Two of Game of Thrones, and Book Two (A Clash of Kings) are pretty close in regards to Theon’s storyline. Theon expects to recruit his father to Robb Stark’s cause, but instead finds Balon Greyjoy not willing to take anything offered by the hated Stark family, and instead will take the North from them. Theon is pressured into supporting his father’s campaign with raids, but the ambitious Theon captures Winterfell castle instead, effectively holding the North hostage by controlling the acting Lord of Winterfell, young Bran Stark.
When Bran and Rickon escape, Theon substitutes two children as replacements, disfiguring them so they would not be identified as children other than the little Starks. He hopes to keep control through fear while awaiting Greyjoy reinforcements. When aid is refused, he stubbornly plans to hold Winterfell regardless. Eventually, he is betrayed.
There are differences in the execution of these events, and to really get at them, it’s best to talk about Bran’s story in A Clash of Kings. Because that’s where the book really establishes the legend of Ramsay Snow.
The show couldn’t possibly make every storyline as rich as the storylines in the books. After all, they only have 10 episodes, the Battle of Blackwater would have to be epic and used a ton of resources, and televising Bran’s role as Lord of Winterfell on the show would just not have been compelling. It’s sad, because Bran’s story illustrated the problems going on in the North once Robb took the bulk of loyal, honest men down south to fight.
Bordering on Bolton lands was the territory controlled by another Stark bannerhouse, the Hornwoods. Lord Hornwood had died fighting on behalf of Robb’s campaign, and Lady Hornwood had problems which brought her to consult with her acting lord, Bran Stark.
Ramsay Snow had been engaging in all forms of unlawful and abusive activities on Hornwood lands, and she was without fighting resources to properly counter the activities of the Boltons in general. Her description of Ramsay Snow was particularly gruesome, he was a vicious, murdering rapist.
Bran offered her support, but before Ramsay Snow could be brought to justice, he abducted Lady Hornwood, held a marriage ceremony publicly and raped her (in public to deny any allegations that the marriage had not be consummated) and then locked her away in a tower to starve to death. Which she did.
Ramsay declared that he was now the ruler of the Hornwood lands, after marrying Lady Hornwood who had no heirs.
Ser Rodrik Cassel took a force of men to capture Ramsay Snow. Ramsay was killed, and Ramsay’s manservant Reek was brought in chains to Winterfell. Reek had been a notorious accomplice in all of Ramsay’s crimes, and remained locked in Winterfell’s dungeons until Theon Greyjoy stormed Winterfell. Reek swore allegiance to Theon.
On the TV show, Theon would listen to the advice given by his thuggish Ironborn lieutenant Dagmer, who convinced him to murder and burn the bodies of some children as replacements for the escaped Bran and Rickon. In the book, Reek suggested the ruse, and skinned the faces off of the boys (rather than burning the bodies as in the TV show.)
Winterfell eventually is besieged by Northern forces, led by the loyal and honorable Ser Rodrik Cassel. But Theon had sent Reek away from Winterfell with gold to bribe Bolton men to assist. Reek, who was actually Ramsay Snow, commanded the Bolton army at the Dreadfort to ride to Winterfell and break the siege. Grateful, Theon allowed the Boltons in, where they promptly slew the Ironborn and captured Theon. The Boltons burned Winterfell.
What? Reek is Ramsay? Didn’t I say Ramsay was killed by Cassel’s forces? That’s what we all thought. Ramsay’s manservant, the unlucky Reek, was forced by Ramsay to impersonate his master and was killed during the capture, so Ramsay could avoid some measure of justice. His impersonation of a lowborn worked well when Theon freed him and arrogantly assumed that the lowborn Reek would serve him well.
So, Ramsay Snow in Book Two is established as a murdering, treacherous rapist who is handy with a flaying knife. The reports attributed to him in Book Two are pretty gruesome.
In the televised adaptation on HBO, that detail was lost and the story was constructed so Theon’s storyline did not include Reek/Ramsay. So the show needed to get things up to speed and establish Ramsay as awful. Super-awful. Someone as bad as Joffrey, perhaps?
Thoughts On the Seasonal Torture of Theon
Could the television show have toned down the explicit nature of Theon’s torture? Sure. It’s not like the show would break down and not make sense. The show could also tone down the boobs and beheadings I guess. People talk about that, but there seems to be a resigned acceptance that HBO is going to push that in our faces. But a lot of ire is spent on Theon’s tortures. I think that the hate is out of proportion to what was going on. Theon was probably in slightly over half of the episodes. The scenes were pretty short. He probably had not that much more screen time than Bran. It really wasn’t that big a deal.
If I could change any one thing, it would have been to tone down the scene leading up to Theon’s castration. I’m fine with Ramsay thinking it would be hilarious to send two extremely clean and well-groomed ladies to tease Theon, but is there any dude on the planet who’d fall for that after being held on a cross for days, malnourished, dehydrated, tortured, and terrified? Sexy time would be the last thing on my mind. So it felt dumb to me.
But the Westeros Jeopardy Game of Theon being asked to guess who Ramsay was? Great. Seriously, that was great. Because it perfectly captured Ramsay’s sadistic nature. You weren’t going to win with Ramsay. You would always beg for him to cut something off. And that’s necessary to drive home how messed up Theon was becoming. To clarify, I’m not saying Theon was asking to have things caught off because he’s messed up, I’m saying Theon is just getting messed up. It’s a process that you don’t get through without getting unhinged.
Theon being released by Ramsay, almost brought back but saved by Ramsay just to trick him into coming back to the Dreadfort dungeon? Great great great. The best part was when Ramsay killed his own men. Ramsay is committed to his mind games, especially because he could probably get rid of men more loyal to his father than to himself. And blame it squarely on Theon.
Game of Thrones, the TV show, is showing things not necessarily in the order that things were in the books or more to the point, the show is showing us things that we’d hear about in the books, like Robb’s campaigns, or how shadow-demon-assassins are specifically created (you lucky dog, Stannis), or just what happened to Theon after Winterfell was burned. I think it’s important, timing-wise, to establish Ramsay’s nature, and also Theon’s totally broken nature, for future storylines on the show to really make sense.
Okay, obviously this is my opinion, but I’d be happy to hear from someone who thinks I’m completely wrong. Or someone backing me up.
Did the scenes work for other book-readers? For show-watchers?
For those who don’t know what happens in the future for Theon, is there anything that could happen that would justify the torture? I don’t mean justify “torture”, I mean could Theon’s storyline do things that were so compelling and integral, that the extensive scenes of Theon’s abuse be considered essential and not random torture-porn?
Again, if you want to talk spoilery details, contact me and I’ll be happy to have a dialogue without spoiling anyone else.
Hey, I feel like doing another poll!
Most images from HBO’s Game of Thrones, obviously.
Artwork of Theon Greyjoy found at http://www.amoka.net.
I make no claim to the artwork, but some claims to the text here, so there.
© Patrick Sponaugle 2013 Some Rights Reserved