ALL THE BOOK SPOILERS, THEY ARE HERE.
Hoo, boy. For the record, guys, I do realize what I'm getting into, writing this. So let me set a few points straight before you all throw me into a pit to a rousing chorus of "The Bear and the Maiden Fair."
1. I do agree with the common consensus that George R.R. Martin handled it better in the books.
2. I do agree that it is dragging on.
3. I do agree that by this point, we should probably know who the hell the torturer Bastard is playing (I mean explicitly stated in the show. We all KNOW, but we don't know.)
4. I am, in fact, NOT a fan of torture porn, and that is pretty much what this is.
5. I am probably a little biased here because I deeply adore Iwan Rheon.
ALL OF THAT SAID.
I am now Going to argue that DESPITE ALL OF THIS... I do feel that the Theon storyline is accomplishing something rather well, and that in a way, it is necessary to do it the way they are doing it on the show.
::Ducks flying tomatoes and dogeared paperbacks of Storm of Swords::
Okay, here's why.
In the book, the Reek chapters of ADWD are incredibly effective. We slowly piece together what has happened to Theon. We begin to see how much his tone has changed — even his words feel cowed. We grasp, horrified, that he has been completely broken and divested of identity, and we feel the cringing fear he feels as we realize precisely what Ramsay is, and what he is capable of. Most of this is accomplished through Theon's memories, which in the book makes it horrible. We can only begin to grasp the things he has been through, and we know deep in our bones that it is not over.
The show can't do that. It can't shelve Theon for two or more seasons, then dramatically reproduce him, ta-da, here's a dude you completely forgot about and who now looks like a shell of himself, and we shall now provide lots of exposition to explain why this is now so!
Nope. Narrative exigency, people. And I get that - I think most of us do.
But another thing this accomplishes, and I think it does it well, is showing us the transformation Theon undergoes. It is one thing to say a man is broken, it is another thing to see him broken. It's showing us what it takes to grind Theon down, which I think will make his eventual rebellion that much more powerful — WE KNOW without any question what awaits him if he fails. WE KNOW, because we will have to suffer it too. So we are that much more invested in Theon stealing "Arya" from Ramsay.
Bolton, You Bastard
But where I think this long, exploitative Theon storyline really carries its weight is in the depiction of the as-yet unnamed Ramsay Snow.
Here's the thing — Westeros is full of bastards and psychopaths. It is teeming with cruel people who enjoy cruel things. We've seen Joffrey, who is a murderous, spoiled psychopath, and we count the days til he bites the dust.
But with all we've seen, Ramsay Bolton is supposed to be worse. He may even be the worst. He is supposed to be fucking TERRIFYING, manic, with that special brand of insanity that makes you start shaking the minute he shows up because HIS MERE PRESENCE MEANS PEOPLE ARE PROBABLY GOING TO DIE.
How can the show convince us that he is previously undiscovered levels of evil, given that we've seen quite a bit of evil thus far? We are meant to fear him the way Theon fears him, we are meant to be revolted by him, we are meant to tense up every time we see his face, and we are meant to deeply, truly, 100% want this Bastard to die as painfully as possible.
For all its failings, this prolonged Theon storyline is accomplishing that. It is teaching us the hopelessness that comes with Ramsay's particular brand of insanity. It is teaching us that no choice is safe here.
Martin had his words, and he used them to great effect. HBO has two incredibly talented actors, a sick, sick relationship, and a visual means of showing us exactly how we get to the point where the only thing that feels safe is repeating "My name is Reek, it rhymes with weak. You have to remember your NAME."
Yes, last night's episode felt exploitative in a lot of ways. But I keep remembering that at a certain point, the show creators are very invested in making us feel exploited, and manipulated, and horrified. That's the point of the game Ramsay plays.