(Spoilers ahead for the July 23 episode of “Game of Thrones,” “Stormborn.”
In the closing moments of “Stormborn,” the second episode of “Game of Thrones'” seventh season, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) was dealt a major setback when her fleet, commanded by renegade Ironborn Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan), was ambushed — and seemingly wrecked — by the fleet commanded by her uncle, King Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbaek).
The shocker came after an entire episode spent lulling viewers into a false sense of safety with fan service moment after fan service moment, but made all the more shocking by the final scene. Yara’s brother, Theon (Alfie Allen), who only recent escaped from slavery and abuse under Ramsay Bolton, has been valiantly defending their ship, slaughtering who knows how many of their attackers and miraculously surviving. Only in the end however does he come across Euron, who has bested Yara in single combat and has his sword against her throat.
“Come on you c—less coward,” Euron says. “Come and get her!”
After a few seconds, a familiar, terrified look creeps into Theon’s eyes. He seems to be falling back into the cowering, servile wretch he was under Ramsay Snow, back when he was called “Reek.” He glances at his sister, then at the side of the ship they’re on. One more glance at his sister and the resignation in her eyes (and tear rolling down her cheek) says it all. He’s not gonna fight. Instead, he leaps into the ocean while Euron cackles with glee.
The response from fans was largely one of scorn. This could have been his big moment, but instead of fighting he ran way. The general sentiment was that he’s still the same old Theon.
But that’s a shortsighted way of looking at it, because Theon’s actions were more than justifiable. Not just justifiable, really, but his only workable option.
Yes, Theon’s sideways glance, his shiver, his stoop, recall his “Reek” persona. Yes, we were meant to see him having been triggered by his uncle’s taunts. Yes, we were meant to think he abandoned his sister to a fate worse than death. But did he?
Euron probably didn’t attack Yara’s fleet in order to take her alive. More likely, he intended to make good on his threat at the end of Season 6 to kill her. No, he was there to capture Ellaria Sand, mother of the Sand Snakes and current ruler of Dorne, who murdered Cersei Lannister’s daughter. And maybe Tyrion as well if he happened to be there.
So, he bested Yara and had her at his mercy. But when very quickly after he found himself facing Theon — who it must be noted had probably killed more than a dozen people during the battle by this point — he paused. Certainly, Euron is a superior warrior to Theon. He’s demonstrated that numerous times. But, judging by the glee on his face at every moment in the scene, he loves fighting for the sake of fighting. He doesn’t just want to defeat Theon, he wants to humiliate him, then kill him.
So it is that he taunts Theon for having been castrated, then clearly threatens to kill Yara in front of him. It’s almost a reverse of Ramsay Bolton’s cruel murder of Rickon Stark in Season six.
Theon must have known this. He must have realized that attacking Euron would only get Yara killed.
It’s important to remember also Theon has no particular love for his own life. He’s been essentially suicidal since escaping from Ramsay, both because of his shame over having been castrated, and his shame over having betrayed his best friend (Robb Stark). He’s been seeking redemption through death ever since.
And yet he didn’t rush into the sword of his crazy uncle, which would have certainly given him the death he craves. Instead, he leaps into the sea, leaving a gleeful, but apparently sated Euron and a very-alive Yara on ship.
By fleeing, he saved them both, at least for a little longer.
It’s probably not a coincidence that at the beginning of this episode we got a tense moment between Daenerys and Varys in which the queen berated the Spider for all of this ruthless behind-the-scenes machinations over the past few decades — including that time when King Robert’s assassins tried to kill her back in season 1. Assassins given their orders by Varys.
Dany accuses him of having no greater motivation than looking out for his own skin. Varys insists that, because of his lowborn background, his stint as a slave and that whole thing with the wizard who castrated him, all he really cares about is the people. Not the noble houses, or kings. Just the people. And his long game has been about trying to make sure the folks who rule do right by them.
The subtext there is that Varys is definitely the only person who’s been in a position of power who thinks that way. All the other high-ups are too concerned with their own personal drama to care about what happens to the regular people. Tens of thousands of people died in the War of the Five Kings, but that only ever mattered to said Five Kings in terms of military strength. They never really cared at all about the lives lost in their respective quests for power.
Which means Varys knows he needs to stay where he is, because there’s nobody else who can do what he does. The game of thrones is a very long game, with the highest stakes — if Varys wants to win, he has to be careful.
Likewise, if Theon wants to save Yara, and if he wants to defeat Euron, he can’t die on that burning ship. It may look like cowardice for him to run away there, but it’s really just the long game.
Making those sorts of decisions is what all of “Game of Thrones” is about, really. The noble sacrifice isn’t really all that noble if you lose the war because of it. Living to fight another day may require making a distasteful choice but it also gives you options for the future. Remember: when you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.
In that moment, with Euron holding that dagger to Yara’s throat, Theon would at best accomplish nothing by charging in.
At worst, Dany loses the entire Iron Islander portion of her fleet because both he and Yara are dead — not all their ships were present for the battle, but it seems unlikely that the remainder of their Iron Fleet would continue fighting against Euron if he’s the only Greyjoy left alive in the world. Even if Euron killed Yara after Theon jumped, the fact that he’s still alive leaves a glimmer of hope. But Euron hasn’t killed Yara.
Which means that this defeat could just be a major setback, rather than a crippling one. And Theon lives to fight another day.
Given all that, Theon did the only thing he could do. He made the right choice.