The last season of Game of Thrones was bound to put an end to the suffering of many fans who were waiting to see what faith had in store for their favorite characters. In episode 3 we finally got a resolution to the longest and (probably) most painful redemption arc in the story: the one of Theon Greyjoy.
What is a redemption arc?
Every story has a character that, for one reason or another, is doing “the wrong thing”, sometimes it’s the villain, sometimes just an anti-hero and other times it might be the hero himself.
Most stories just let the “bad boys be bad boys” and have someone defeat them in an epic final battle, but there are stories that aim at making those characters understand their mistakes and redeem themselves.
A redemption arc follows 3 steps:
- the mistake
- the punishment
- the redemption
It’s pretty obvious that in order to have a redemption arc a character must have done something terrible before. But the question is why?
Just like any other action that the characters take, even their mistakes must have a motivation. Someone who commits evil deeds “just cause” is not a real character, just a poorly made attempt at raising the stakes of the story.
In the book “Creating character arcs”, K.M. Weiland explains that a character who goes through an arc must have two things:
- Something he wants: the desire to reach a certain goal that motivates all his decisions but, in the end, drives the character to his doom.
- Something he needs: a difficult step that the character is afraid to take, but that ultimately is the only way for him to grow up and get better.
Theon, Balon Greyjoy’s least favorite son, made many mistakes because he decided to pursue the things he wanted, rather than do the hard thing and move towards the things he needed.
As the only male heir to house Greyjoy, Theon wanted to prove himself worthy of his father’s name. But since he grew up with the Starks, he needed to understand that he should have been grateful to the people who raised him.
Theon made the terrible mistake of betraying the Starks in order to gain his father’s approval.
Unfortunately for him, once he succeeded in doing that, he realized that not only it was useless (since his father would never be able to look at him as a son); but that he managed to alienate the only people who had always been by his side.
This element is not present in every redemption arc. In many stories a character simply has an “epiphany” and goes straight to the redemption without facing any punishment for his actions.
The problem with this kind of story is that it’s hard to keep the audience by the protagonist’s side when they see that he/she can get away with anything without facing consequences.
Sometimes the punishment is necessary to keep them engaged in the plot and rooting for the protagonist.
In Theon’s case, the punishment takes up almost half of the story, and it’s certainly the part that everyone remembers the most.
After all his terrible misdeeds, Theon is captured by Mr. waking nightmare himself, Ramsay Bolton. He is tortured both psychologically and physically until he loses all sense of self and becomes the Boltons’ servant, Reek.
The punishment has the function to give catharsis to the audience (who has been waiting to see this character pay for his mistakes), and to help the character himself regain a little bit of sympathy.
While he was with the Boltons, Theon was stripped of his family’s name and mutilated. Because of this, everything he wants (to be recognized as a Greyjoy and as a man) is officially out of reach. The only thing left for him to do is to finally pay attention to what he needs.
This is when the redemption part of his arc can finally begin. Now that he has been punished, the audience can “forgive him” and see him move on.
To put it in simple terms: the redemption is a series of actions or decisions that help the character mature and get him closer to his goal. And this is where Game of Thrones deviates the most from the classic redemption arc of other stories.
Theon’s redemption starts with him helping Sansa escape from Ramsay and ends with his death by the hands of the Night King, but in between there isn’t just a long heroic fight for good, quite the opposite.
The trauma experienced by Reek with the Boltons stays with him for a long time even after Ramsay’s death.
Theon wants to do what is right, but his fear has the best of him, so he still makes the mistake of running away when someone needs him.
His mistake now is to prioritize his adopted family at the cost of sacrificing his real family, which is the opposite of what he was doing at the beginning of his character arc
The climax of his redemption arc occurs when he decides to finally stand up and take responsibility for his actions: he decides to go into battle to save his sister even if it means that he will have to face danger once again.
The end of Theon’s redemption arc
It’s pretty evident that George RR Martin (the author of “A song of ice and fire” for those who don’t know who he is) likes to sprinkle irony all over his endings.
What is not so evident is that even in other stories the character’s mistake and the consequential redemption are intertwined.
In most redemption arcs the character who needs to be redeemed has to do something linked to his past mistake in order to be at peace. Most of the time, “something” involves self-sacrificing.
Mistake: running away from the battlefield and let others die
Redemption: sacrificing your own life to save someone
Before, Theon made the mistake to take Winterfell from Bran and the Starks. Now, he makes the decision to defend Bran and Winterfell from the White Walkers.
The end of Theon’s arc is (at least in my opinion) a happy one. Because the last words that Bran told him:
“Theon, you are a good man. Thank you.”– Bran (Game of Thrones season 8 episode 3)
are both what he wanted from the beginning (recognition) and what he has been trying to earn since his punishment ended (forgiveness).
After hearing Bran, he cries a single tear and runs towards his enemy knowing full well that he is going to suffer and die.
Theon’s redemption arc is a great example of how important it is for a character to have proper motivation and to give the audience the catharsis they need. Without those two things, Theon’s storyline wouldn’t have been nearly as impactful and emotional as it was.