Game of Thrones’ Season 8 premiere, “Winterfell,” reinforced just how much our perceptions of certain characters have evolved over the course of the series. When Jaime Lannister first set foot in Winterfell in the pilot episode, he was a smug Prince Charming who provided the show’s first big twist by pushing Bran Stark out of a window when the boy interrupted the Kingslayer having sex with his queen-sister. Back then, it was easy—encouraged, really—to hate Jaime. Now, he’s returned to Winterfell with a salt-and-pepper beard, having turned into a man of quiet integrity and empathy (with a helpful assist from Brienne of Tarth), and is opening himself up to the wrath of Stark and Targaryen alike.
But by and large, fans are now rooting for Jaime, praying to the Old Gods and the New for nothing bad to happen to him as he’s surrounded by people who despise him. It speaks to the power of Thrones: Even the asshole who pushed an innocent kid from a tower is capable of redemption. But there is perhaps one character whom redemption has eluded. Will—can?—fans forgive Theon Greyjoy?
The list of Theon’s screwups is long, but worth repeating. At the start of the series, Balon Greyjoy’s last living son was taken prisoner by the Starks as punishment for Balon’s unsuccessful rebellion against the Iron Throne. But instead of treating Theon as a hostage, Ned Stark raised the Greyjoy boy among his own children (and Jon Snow, but, semantics). He may not have been a Stark by name, but Theon was respected at Winterfell—someone Robb Stark trusted to be at his side when he was proclaimed King in the North. But then Theon betrayed Robb in an ill-fated effort to impress his father in the second season, capturing Winterfell, executing Ser Rodrik Cassel, and burning two farm boys and claiming their bodies were the corpses of Bran and Rickon Stark. It might not have been the death knell for Robb’s rebellion, but Theon’s betrayal was a pivotal moment in the Starks’ downfall. His own reign over Winterfell was then cut short when his Greyjoy lackeys mutinied and handed him over to then–Ramsay Snow in exchange for their lives. ([Narrator voice] They still lost their lives.)
Theon’s time spent under Ramsay—we’ll call it the Age of Reek—was almost as unbearable for the audience as it was for Theon. His torture was the character’s entire arc in Season 3, punctuated by the loss of Theon’s favorite toy. Ramsay demolished Theon’s psyche, to the extent that he was afraid to run away with Yara during a rescue operation in the fourth season. Theon’s cowardly behavior reached its nadir when Ramsay asked for a close shave with a razor in front of Roose Bolton—a presentation to demonstrate how skillfully Ramsay had stripped his Greyjoy prisoner of flesh and identity. Theon’s lack of resolve in that moment made possible the epic Battle of the Bastards, but it’s still irritating—and was much more so at the time—to watch Theon in that moment, to see him pass up the chance to slit the throat of his abuser and rid the realm of one of its most ruthless inhabitants.
Alas, it took many brutal episodes, including when Ramsay forced Theon to watch as he raped Sansa Stark on their wedding night, for Theon to finally come to the elder Stark sister’s aid. Saving Sansa from Ramsay’s clutches was a promising start on Theon’s path to redemption; backing Yara’s claim to the Salt Throne was another important step. He no longer had ignorant pretensions of presiding over castles: He was willing to serve under someone who deserved to rule.
But Theon never quite rid himself of Reek. When Euron Greyjoy attacked Yara’s fleet in the seventh season, Theon opted to jump ship instead of fight for his sister’s life. He may have been outnumbered—and Euron’s men mutilation of Yara certainly triggered Theon’s PTSD—but it was a tough look nonetheless. It required a pep talk from Jon Snow—who told Theon he was both a Greyjoy and a Stark, and that his earlier transgressions were forgiven—to set Theon on a better path. His goal by the end of the penultimate season was to rescue Yara from the clutches of their sadistic uncle. But given Theon’s depressing track record—not to mention a noticeable lack of Yara in Thrones promotional material—Yara’s odds of surviving the season didn’t exactly seem high.
Obviously, an overview of Theon’s exploits on Thrones is overflowing with self-owns and horrific torture. He has perhaps suffered—physically, psychologically—more than any one person on the series. And yet: He remains one of Thrones’ most reviled characters, and maybe the single most despised person who isn’t a straight-up antagonist like Cersei Lannister. What makes Theon so hateable? Maybe it’s the cowardice inherent to much of his behavior—from being goaded into betraying the Starks by a bunch of Ironborn to his unwillingness to kill Ramsay, all the way to bailing on a fight to save his kin. There are honorable characters in Thrones, and there are abhorrent cretins, but there are very few cowards. Even Samwell Tarly, a self-proclaimed coward, has time and again proved his capacity for courage, from protecting Gilly from a White Walker to disobeying the orders of his father and Archmaester Ebrose. Conversely, Theon is not just a traitorous jerk who royally screwed the show’s most beloved family. He’s a character who has continually skirted death by giving in to fear, rather than by relying on honor, pride, fighting ability, or savvy political maneuvering.
That makes Theon a bit of a loser, sure, but he’s also a necessary piece of faulty wiring. As we draw nearer to its conclusion, Thrones is filled with an uncharacteristically high amount of great people. Brienne of Tarth is knightly honor personified; Jon is a mopey spitting image of Ned Stark; Sam is reading every book he can in an effort to find a key to defeating the Night King; Jaime has left the side of his scheming sister to face his enemies and fight for the living. Up and down the Thrones roster, there are characters who are complicated heroes, but heroes nonetheless. Perhaps the collective hatred aimed at Theon is because his cowardly behavior feels so familiar. There are surely more Theons and fewer Jons in the world.
However, with five episodes remaining in Thrones’ final season, the tides can still shift. Is Theon still capable of redemption this late in the game?
“Winterfell” was, once again, a step in the right direction. A vaguely explained rescue operation by Theon and his Yara loyalists was able to free his sister from Euron’s fleet. (Euron himself was too busy figuring out the intricacies of Cersei’s sexual preferences to do anything about it.) Yara and Theon’s reunion was not among this season’s most anticipated, but Yara’s decision to head-butt her brother was definitely one of the episode’s most satisfying. The actual process of the rescue operation left a lot to be desired—it was the moment in the episode that most evoked Thrones’ derided seventh season, with an unrealistically quick and vague (how exactly did Theon sneak up on Euron’s armada?) resolution. But on the bright side, at least we will now see the Greyjoy siblings doing something productive for the rest of the season. The rescue is not just a path away from their punk pirate uncle—it should be toward something much more interesting.
With Euron occupied in King’s Landing, Yara can now lay claim to the Iron Islands. It’s an important political vantage point if the White Walkers decimate Westeros, since it’s ostensibly free from the Night King’s clutches thanks to the buffer created by the sea. But Theon isn’t joining Yara at Pyke, at least not yet. He wants to return to Winterfell to help the Starks in the fight against the undead. What Theon will do in Winterfell is anyone’s guess, but with so little time left in the series, another setback or act of cowardice seems unlikely. Theon wants to fight for the family who raised him, who treated him with respect when they didn’t have to. If Jaime can come back to Winterfell and fight the good fight after the Stark-related atrocities he’s committed, surely Theon is allowed to do the same. It’s not a battle with the living against the dead if the living are still infighting.
Nothing may ever heal the sting of his initial betrayal, but Theon seems like a prime candidate to make a noble sacrifice against the White Walkers—one, perhaps, explicitly in the name of saving a Stark or two. Fans aren’t wrong to hate Theon Greyjoy, but maybe it isn’t too late for him to be redeemed—even if redemption is possible only in death. After all: What is dead may never die.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.