The torture scenes involving Theon Greyjoy in Game of Thrones were incredibly difficult to watch. Ramsay Snow, later Bolton, subjected Theon to years of torture, revealing his twisted and villainous nature. Theon's journey in the show was complex, with moments of heroism and villainy, but a significant portion of his story revolved around his torment at the hands of Ramsay.
This prolonged and dark storyline transformed Theon into a broken version of himself known as Reek, solidifying Ramsay's status as one of the show's most formidable villains. Despite eventually escaping his persona as Reek and finding redemption, Theon's suffering inflicted by Ramsay lingered with him. The storyline initially unfolded with intrigue, as the identity of Theon's tormentor was kept a secret during part of Game of Thrones season 3. This secrecy, combined with Ramsay's sadistic nature, caused confusion surrounding the reasons for Theon's torture.
However, there is a simple yet brutal explanation. The torture of Theon Greyjoy served House Bolton's broader purpose, as he was an enemy of Robb Stark and wanted for the supposed murder of the Stark brothers, Bran and Rickon. Ramsay seized control of Winterfell from Theon at the behest of the Northern army, intending to use Theon as a hostage to rid the North of the Iron Islanders. However, Ramsay's sadistic nature led him to torture Theon for his own pleasure and to see how far he could break him, ultimately transforming him into a loyal servant. In the A Song of Ice and Fire books, there is additional context surrounding Ramsay's torture of Theon. The original Reek was an individual from the Dreadfort known for his repugnant odor.
This Reek became close to Ramsay and participated in various acts of cruelty alongside him. One such act included the capture and murder of Lady Donella Hornwood, who had exposed Reek and Ramsay's heinous behavior, prompting a pursuit by Ser Rodrik Cassel and his men. Ser Rodrik eventually killed the original Reek, mistaking him for Ramsay Snow. Ramsay, disguised as Reek, was taken to Winterfell as a prisoner and remained there when Theon arrived to seize the castle. Ramsay even served Theon, becoming a trusted ally and influencing the plan to fake the deaths of Bran and Rickon.
However, he eventually revealed his true identity when his men from the Dreadfort attacked Winterfell. It is possible that Ramsay's torture of Theon was influenced by his previous service to him, as the memory of being subservient may have fueled Ramsay's desire to reverse their roles. Game of Thrones season 8 faced criticism, but Theon's character arc was not among its flaws. Theon Greyjoy experienced one of the most satisfying and impactful journeys in the series, evolving from a minor annoyance to a villain under pressure to finally completing his redemption at the Battle of Winterfell. His redemption was particularly gratifying thanks to Alfie Allen's exceptional performance and the compelling storytelling, which garnered audience investment in his character development.
While Ramsay's torture played a role in eliciting sympathy for Theon, it was his subsequent actions, standing up to save those he had wronged, that solidified him as one of the show's great heroes. In George R.R. Martin's books, Theon's torture is an integral part of his character journey but differs in significant ways. In "A Clash of Kings," when Theon captures Winterfell, he encounters a squire named Reek, who appears lowly and unclean. Reek claims to have served Ramsay Snow but was supposedly executed for his crimes in the North. Reek convinces Theon to allow him to leave Winterfell to gather reinforcements. Reek returns with an army, but instead of aiding Theon, he reveals himself as Ramsay Snow and proceeds to massacre Theon's men and burn Winterfell.
Following this event, Theon disappears from the story in the subsequent books. However, in Martin's latest book, "A Dance with Dragons," one of the point-of-view characters refers to himself as Reek. Though this character's memories are fragmented and he can barely recall his life before becoming Reek, it becomes evident that this character is Theon Greyjoy, transformed into Reek as a result of Ramsay's torture. The reveal of Theon's transformation in the books is incredibly effective, as readers have had little information about him for quite some time. The imagination of the horrors endured by Theon is even more distressing than witnessing them on Game of Thrones.