There’s a little bit of Don Draper’s New York in Westeros. Game of Thrones and Mad Men may seem unlikely bedfellows — Game of Thrones’ medieval “tits and dragons” vibe isn’t doing period drama like Mad Men’s meditations on ’60s/’70s America — but the parallels between the two seem especially stark when it comes to two particular characters: Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) and Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser). After last night’s Thrones season 8 premiere, in which Theon makes a seemingly uncharacteristic choice that put him back in the thick of things, the similarities are more striking than ever.
Despite being a noxious creep, Pete, a young account executive with a thorny relationship with his rich family, quickly proved himself one of Mad Men’s best characters. His continued attempts to emulate and become one of his alpha male peers (Don Draper, Roger Sterling, et al.) — without thinking about whether that lifestyle would actually make him happy — continually backfired, almost robbing him of his own chance at happiness and stability. Only genuine (and irreversible) tragedy and loss ever seemed to shake him out of his usual arrogance.
If you could chart Pete’s arc over the course of Mad Men’s seven seasons, his growth would look like the crest spines on a dragon’s back: a constant two-steps-forward-one-step-back zigzag. He’s a frustratingly volatile character, constantly flip-flopping and backtracking on any progress. For each good thing he does — helping Don conceal his true identity or thinking more progressively for the sake of the company — he has another extramarital affair or chip n’ dip incident. But he slowly, painstakingly matures nevertheless. He ends the series a better man than he started.
All things considered, that pattern of growth isn’t too far off from Theon’s. The son of one of the Great Houses of Westeros but raised as a hostage and ward to another, Theon has spent his entire life struggling with who and how to consider his family, as well as having grown up in Robb Stark’s shadow. Early on in the show, his slimy behavior was a way of trying to live up to the kind of lord he thought he was supposed (or entitled) to be and overcompensating as such — and it was the root of his eventual misfortunes.
Over the course of the show’s last seven seasons, Theon’s development has been equal parts wrenching and infuriating to watch. As with Pete, it’s hard to stomach when Theon’s new backbone crumbles under the weight of what’s expected of him, as when he refused his sister Yara’s rescue attempt in season 4, or warned Ramsay Bolton of Sansa’s plan to escape in season 5. But his life reminds viewers that drastic change takes time, particularly in Theon’s case, given the trauma he’s been put through.
Pete and Theon are also main characters who are allowed to demonstrate cowardice, and sometimes outright despicable behavior, without being made antagonists. Both Mad Men and Game of Thrones traffic in complicated characters whose morals tip whether or not they’ll manage to survive (in business or in war), yet there are still relatively clear delineations as to who to root for, and who to hate. The tyrannical Joffrey Baratheon, for instance, or the rapist doctor Greg Harris, are as bad as bad come.
These two down-on-their-luck scoundrels, on the other hand, are still portrayed as being redeemable (and sympathetic, even if a large part of their troubles are of their own doing). Pete got his happy ending, managing to reconcile with his wife and move his family to Kansas. In the grand scheme of Mad Men, he was a character who could break out of a toxic culture, rather than becoming trapped like some of his peers. The only question is whether Theon will pull off the Westerosi equivalent.
[Ed. note: Spoilers for the season 8 premiere of Game of Thrones follow.]
His redemption began after aiding in Sansa’s escape from Ramsay Bolton’s clutches, and now his rescue of Yara during Thrones’ season 8 premiere. Theon has even sorted out his headspace when it comes to family loyalty, as he’s chosen to go fight alongside Jon and Daenerys rather than flee back to the Iron Islands. It’s a move that puts him squarely back into hero territory, even if it may mean that Theon is bound to make the ultimate sacrifice in choosing to go back north.
Theon’s arc has suffered somewhat for how much larger Game of Thrones’ cast is than that of Mad Men — there’s so much else going on that even I, devotee of secondary characters, had to remind myself what the former ward of Ned Stark had been up to after escaping from Bolton-Winterfell — but he benefits from being cut from Pete Campbell’s cloth. He’s a character much more complex than his initial arrogance and creepy behavior would suggest, and he’s set to complete one of the more human, frustrating, and fulfilling arcs on the show.