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Wednesday, August 17, 2022
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Theon Greyjoy's redemption story is messy; the struggle to belong and discover his identity as a Greyjoy or a Stark leading to one question: Can he be saved?

Road to redemption: The troubles of Theon Greyjoy in ‘Game of Thrones’

*This article is full of spoilers, please do not continue if you are not caught up with "Game of Thrones"!*

Whenever characters are in the process of redeeming themselves, they face the task of convincing the audience that they’re worthy, that whatever they’ve done that requires redemption doesn’t reflect who they really are as a person. Such is the case for Theon Greyjoy, who out of all the damaged characters in “Game of Thrones” has perhaps faced not only the most brutal acts of violence but the most pervasive forms of alienation and despair.

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Theon’s life has not been easy. When were first introduced to him in season one, we see him as Ned Stark’s ward, a servant of Winterfell who feels cut off from the Stark family despite his close bond with Robb Stark. Theon was raised at Winterfell after Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon defeated his father, Balon Greyjoy, during his failed rebellion against the Iron Throne in favor of independence and complete rule of Westeros. 

At Winterfell, Theon acts like a smart-ass, often poking fun at Jon Snow for being a motherless bastard — an easy target due to Jon also not fitting into the Stark family like Theon. Once Ned Stark is imprisoned and later executed in King’s Landing by King Joffrey, Theon loyally fights for House Stark alongside his friend Robb. 

Season two is when Theon’s life heads south. Theon, offering to get support from the Iron Islands in fighting the Lannisters for the Starks, betrays House Stark and conquerors Winterfell for himself when the castle is left unguarded during the war. He wants to win his father’s affection for once, confused as to whether he is a Greyjoy since his father abandoned him after his failed rebellion or if he is a Stark, despite not ever fitting in at Winterfell. Theon executes two small farm boys in the North, passing them off as Bran and Rickon Stark. At the end of the season, Theon is betrayed by his own Ironborn soldiers and given over to Ramsay Bolton as a prisoner off-screen. 

In season three, Theon is brutally tortured by the psychopath Ramsay Bolton (at this time Ramsay Snow). He is castrated  and  given the name “Reek.” In season four, Theon persuades the Ironborn who followed him up to the North to surrender Moat Cailin and allow the Boltons, now serving the Lannisters, to conquer Winterfell. This occurs after refusing to go with his sister Yara, who tries to rescue him from Ramsay. 

At the beginning of season five, it seems as if Theon had completely lost his identity. He is a traumatized, tortured slave. We see sparks of humanity left inside the broken soul once Sansa Stark arrives at Winterfell in order to marry Ramsay in an arrangement. Theon shows he still has something left in him, saving the girl he’s known ever since she was little from the terrors of Ramsay, and makes an escape from Winterfell.

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Come season six, Theon leaves Sansa in the safe hands of Brienne of Tarth and makes his way home to Pyke, where he reunites with his sister Yara and makes a claim for her to be Queen of the Iron Islands after their father was murdered. Euron — Theon’s ruthless uncle who murdered his father — takes the Salt Throne for himself trying to kill Theon and Yara before they steal their uncle’s fleet. The brother and sister head to Meereen and pledge their support to Daenerys Targaryen in order to try and stop their uncle. 

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Theon seems to have gained his strength back by season seven, yet his trauma comes back to haunt him when taunted by Euron during a grisly sea battle. Theon, scared and disturbed, abandons his sister in the hands of Euron and makes his way back to Dragonstone to serve Daenerys, where he unexpectedly reunites with an angry Jon Snow. Theon and Jon share a tender moment at the end of the season when he forgives him for his betrayal of House Stark and claims, “You don’t have to choose. You’re a Greyjoy. And you’re a Stark.”

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The last we saw of Theon was directly after this scene, in which he is nearly beaten to death by an Ironborn soldier. Theon keeps fighting and ends up defeating him, convincing his fellow Ironborn to rescue Yara from Euron.

Theon’s journey has always been a struggle. Not only has this man been brutally tortured, he’s struggled with alienation and a harrowing desire to belong. He feels disconnected from House Stark due to not being connected to them by blood and for being treated as their servant, and he obviously feels disconnected from House Greyjoy due to being abandoned and sold from his father. 

Theon’s main emotional burden is his identity. He doesn’t know who he is or where he belongs. In the season two finale when under seige at Winterfell from the Boltons, he asks Maester Luwin, “Do you know what it’s like to be reminded how lucky you are to be someone’ prisoner?” referring to his life at Winterfell. Theon’s frustration and grief at being treated and viewed as just a ward and not belonging to any family haunt his existence, causing him to conquer Winterfell and make horrible immoral decisions.

Despite Theon’s poor choices, this is a character whose consistent sorrow and role as a misfit are what caused him to do the things he did, not his heart. “I always wanted to do the right thing. Be the right kind of person. But I never knew what that meant. There always seemed like ... like there was an impossible choice I had to make — Stark or Greyjoy.”  Theon wants to be a hero like Jon Snow, Robb Stark and Ned Stark, yet doesn't know how to be because he can’t even figure out who he truly is. His soul-piercing personal dilemma prevents him from being the person he wants to be and truly is at heart, leading him to make the choices he does in season two. 

Alfie Allen’s versatile performance of Theon is perhaps the most underrated work of acting on the show. Few characters have been tasked with exemplifying so much raw emotion and grief as Allen has, his talent a tour de force. 

What makes Theon Greyjoy such a fascinating character is his unconventional, nonlinear storyline. This vulnerable and complex character is a brilliant portrayal of identity and personal crisis, a misfit who feels outcasted by a harsh society, which makes it impossible not to empathize with him. Theon may have taken time to understand, but after seven seasons we now know who Theon is at heart and where his destiny lies. 




Dominic LeRose is a staff writer for the Daily Cardinal. To read more of his work, click here.

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