In Defense of Theon Greyjoy. WHAT?

Posted: November 9, 2013 in Game of Thrones, Opinion, TV
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Relax, you people, relax. This isn’t going to be a six-part series defending Theon Greyjoy’s actions or character like I did with Jon Snow. (Or my one-part post defending Ned Stark, for that matter.)

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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.

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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?

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The Most Interesting Man in Westeros (or would be, if he drank)

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.

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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.

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Meera, Jojen, Big Walder, Small Walder, Reek, and Various Political Events Replaced with Rickon Smashing Walnuts

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?

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Oi! At Least My Mom Wasn’t My Dad’s Hot Sister!

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.

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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

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Comments
  1. Rachel R says:

    For me, it wasn’t so much the torture porn that was the big problem… it’s just that it KEPT GOING ON the same way. Almost every episode there’d be another scene of Theon getting tortured. The same thing. I get what you’re saying in this post, but there was a point where I was going “yawn, more Theon torture. Can we move on?”

    Like

    • Rachel, thank you for the feedback!

      I don’t necessarily agree that it was the same thing every time, but I can appreciate the gist of what you are saying. The most compelling part of Theon’s story arc was in the first three appearances where he escapes, is rescued, travels with Ramsay and has a moment to reflect and regret. From then on, narratively, he’s stuck in the dungeon and there’s less variety.

      So there’s less character examination as the season moves on. Ramsay doesn’t necessarily grow as a character once we see he’s a creep. He just increases his vileness. I can see how that’s not necessarily interesting, especially in contrast with Jaime’s story arc which is excellent and beautiful in its way.

      But I don’t think Theon’s tortures are repetitive. Once he’s back in the dungeon, not a lot happens, but there’s only three scenes in the season.

      There’s the Guess Where I Am torture, there’s his castration, and the post Red Wedding scene in the last episode.

      The final episode of Game of Thrones was somewhat of a let-down emotionally, but there’s no way it wouldn’t be after the Red Wedding. It was very expository, and the final scene of Theon and Ramsay was no different.

      But I think it was significant in bringing in the name “Reek”, and introducing the concept that Ramsay was trying to use Theon as leverage against the Ironborn, on the chance that Balon cared if his only son was a captive in the Dreadfort. Of course, Balon didn’t care, but Yara certainly did. I’m looking forward to seeing how that tracks in the next season.

      Thanks again for your feedback. Please don’t think I’m arguing with you or trying to tell you that you were wrong to find the Theon storyline ineffective. I totally see where you are coming from.

      Like

  2. Lea Ault says:

    I’m loving your posts on GOT! I agree that it was necessary to show Theon’s experiences with Ramsay in order to explain how messed up he is later. If it was just one scene it would be hard to understand how completely crushed Theon becomes. But nobody enjoyed seeing the torture! Every time the dungeon appeared we’d all cringe and throw blankets over our heads.

    Like

  3. sarahdaltry says:

    I admit that, at first, I was happy to see Theon tortured, because I hate him. I don’t like him because he has been arrogant for nothing – he pretends to be sad and heartbroken, but he gets all touchy with his sister and the unbelievable attitude that she would be lucky to have someone like him? Ew.

    BUT… Ramsay is insane. At first, it was amusing and it felt like comeuppance, but eventually it began to feel like… okay. We get it. Maybe a dragon can just eat them both.

    Like

    • Hey, thank you for dropping by!

      Theon’s a tough character to sympathize with, I know. But I can’t help myself. He’s been through so much, I can’t help but think he’s super-important.

      (I’m sure by saying that, I’ve doomed Theon…)

      Like

      • sarahdaltry says:

        He’s just so obnoxious in hitting on his sister. I kind of wish she had been the one to torture him, though!

        Liked by 1 person

        • To be fair, he didn’t know he was hitting on his sister. But your point is valid. Theon’s so smarmy…

          Like

          • sarahdaltry says:

            That’s true – but right after he was with someone on the boat (this is the show, so I know I should remember that HBO just likes to add nonsense sex), and I just feel like he’s so focused on degrading women that he deserved what came to him. Then again, I think HBO might do that more than any character!!

            Liked by 1 person

            • All valid points! (I don’t want you to think I am arguing with you…)

              Theon was a super-cad. Both in the books and the show, he went straight from using his assumedly princely privilege with the Boat Captain’s daughter to hitting on his sister.

              It is kind of fitting what happened to him at the Dreadfort.

              Like

            • He does degrade women in the books, but they were willing participants, in the book not even whores… and he only seems to look down upon weak women and desperate women. In the book when he meets his sister and doesn’t recognize her, he starts to fall for her right away. In his inner monologue he has great admiration for her and idealizes her. So I think it’s more about him expressing his insecurities and wanting to be a proper iron born like in the stories. He tries very hard to be cruel, but when he sees real cruelty, even before Ramsey gets his hands on him, it becomes very clear in the books that he isn’t really a cruel person at heart. It’s great stuff. He tries to bury his regrets and be cold and hard but it torments him and by the time he starts to be honest with himself it’s too late, Ramsey has him in his clutches.

              So yeah, he’s a shithead early on, but he’s a psychologically complex and fascinating shithead in the books. When he becomes reek he no longer has any illusions about himself, only regret. I think he was a good man deep down who tried all his life to be bad because it was the only way he could hold onto some sense of identity and worth. I do hope he survives Stannis. I think his narrative is too compelling to waste by letting Stannis sacrifice him.

              Liked by 1 person

        • The show didn’t do Theon and Asha/Yara justice at all, to be honest. In the book she flirts openly with him because when she realized he didn’t recognize her she thought it would be a hilarious prank. In the book they banter, long and bawdy and she pretends she wants him. She also gropes him later when he’s angry at her over it just to fuck with him for acting so prude all of a sudden.

          I think they made him too wimpy, dumb, and pathetic on the tv version, and they toned down his sister as well. This is a common problem with the show… they make the women bigger victims and the men a bit worse by comparison.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. This post was well made and I enjoyed your overview of the character Theon Greyjoy and his situation. In spite of everything that he’s done I feel really sorry for Theon and think Ramsay is 50x worse than Joffrey.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I am so late to this discussion, but I’m reading the books and have to talk about this character.

    I think the torture scenes were necessary on the tv show, not just to show how bad Ramsey is, but to show Theon being broken, so that we understand Reek. After all, on the show we don’t get the inner-monologue of the main characters, so we can’t just understand Theon’s suffering through his thoughts long after the fact. There is just no way around it.

    My problem is more with how Theon is characterized on the show before Ramsey. They made him too pitiful and moronic. The actor acts way too awkward and talks like he has a mouth full of pebbles and will be whipped if he drops one. (Hey, there’s an idea, Ramsey!) In the book he’s a handsome lady’s man with a sharp tongue. They also toned down his sister’s bawdiness.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Better late than never, Nicole. Thank you for wanting to come here and share your insights about Theon. Now that he and Sansa have escaped from Ramsay on the show, we can see how his personal story progresses, and ultimately how it stacks up with him and Jeyne Poole in the books.

      I’m so happy you came by!

      Like

  6. authorames says:

    Really really late, but I wanted to comment.

    I personally do not have anything against the torture scenes (except for what you said about the two whores. Cuz who’s dumb enough to believe they just happened to wander into the torture chamber.) Mostly because, it was needed.

    Because for the sake of arguement, lets say we had no torture scenes and went from season 2 where he was knocked out to season 4 where he’s the loyal servent. Non book readers would of had no idea what happened to him, how he became so broken and would of had no reason to fear Ramsay and understand what a villain that guy was.

    I did think he broke a bit too easy on the show, but until one has been in that position, it’s hard to say how far someone will last under torture.

    Last random thought: I was amused how in season 2 almost everyone was calling for Theon’s blood and terrible things to happen to him. Then it did happen next season and everyone was like WOAH, I didn’t mean THAT much!

    Careful what you wish for.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We’re pretty much on the same page, and thank you so much for leaving feedback on this older post.

      I am pleased that people still read these.

      You’re right about how people’s attitudes towards Theon bounced up and down over the seasons, and he went through the literal grinder.

      Like

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