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Not a Villain, Not Yet a Hero: The Journey of the Red Priestess Melisandre

From her early days on ‘Game of Thrones’ as a leech-hawking, smoke-birthing aide to Stannis to her end as a valuable player in the Battle of Winterfell, Melisandre has never been easy to figure out

HBO/Ringer illustration

Melisandre is with the Lord of Light now, whatever that means. Soon after Arya shattered the Night King and, thus, his zombie army, the Red Priestess strode through Winterfell’s wreckage, removed her enchanted necklace and subsequently aged herself to death. She may have played a heroic role in the Battle of Winterfell, but she had long been drained of all the self-congratulatory swagger that she used to lead Stannis to his death. Right down to her own abrupt suicide, she was resigned and distant. Like an aging club promoter who’d spent years plugging her god, all she wanted to do was go home, remove that ridiculous outfit, and take a nice, eternal nap.

She has good reason to be tired. Since she first appeared in Season 2, performing a satanic-like ritual on the shores of Dragonstone, she has come to represent both the perils of temptation and the pitfalls of faith. Her catchphrase—“the night is dark and full of terrors”—seemed more a threat to her immediate naysayers on Stannis’s small council than a larger warning about the imminent war against the dead. And being a sultry redhead in an easily-removable low-cut gown, she became an immediate symbol of forbidden feminine power. Like so many other witches in fantasy writing, her ability to perform “blood magic” was directly linked to her sexual encounters with men. And in this sense, she was forced to function within an inherently misogynistic framework. To wary onlookers like Davos—and probably most viewers—that she could convince powerful men to abandon their god, cheat on their wives, and burn their loved ones at the stake was proof that she was pure evil. And the fact that she birthed a puff of smoke that assassinated Stannis’s lovely younger brother never helped her case. But it takes two to make a smoke baby. Her male “victims,” especially Stannis, were often willing participants in her schemes, high off of their own inflated sense of self-importance.

That being said, Melisandre’s moral compass was always touch-and-go. After all, how could someone who claims she’s fighting for the good of humanity justify burning a 15-year-old girl at the stake? And how could anyone with the slightest bit of intuition ever think that Stannis, who had all the charisma of a paper clip, could be the Prince Who Was Promised? In both Game of Thrones and in real life, people often seek out religion to reinforce their own preordained belief systems. And too often, Melisandre came off as a flimsy hype woman for both a largely nonsensical god and a mediocre leader. In truth, she seemed more consumed by her own magic than she did a higher purpose. And it was only after she accidentally led Stannis’s army to a brutal defeat that she felt the need to do some real soul-searching. After taking off that magical choker and dipping her 402-year-old body into a hot bath, she came out vowing to be far less meddlesome. As she said to Varys in Season 7, her days of “whispering in the ears of kings” were over.

In the end, that turned out to be only partly true. In her more humbled state, Melisandre was able to first resurrect Jon, introduce him to Dany, and align herself with Westeros’s true power players. But after that, the High Priestess’s post-Stannis career still involved appealing to the egos of rulers. She pitched the idea of the Prince Who Was Promised to both Dany and Jon, hoping one of them might fulfill the prophecy. In doing so, she instilled a sense of purpose that laid the groundwork for an alliance between the Stark and Targaryen houses that ultimately led to the killing of the Night King.

By Sunday night’s episode, Melisandre seemed to have finally found the right balance between manipulative and motivational. When she encountered Arya at a low point in the battle, she offered a crucial pep talk, harking back to their encounter years ago, when she predicted that the young warrior would “shut” eyes—“brown eyes, blue eyes, green eyes.” Per classic Melisandre, it was a largely weak prediction. Anyone who wields a weapon like Arya will surely kill enough people with those three very common eye colors. But she nevertheless used the story as a way to inspire a very capable young warrior to select an ambitious target. At that moment, Melisandre evolved from manipulative con-witch to fiery motivational speaker. Was Arya destined to kill the Night King? Probably not. But, as Melisandre learned from decades of prophecies: Visions of the future can function as catalysts. Sometimes, finding the right audience is all it takes to make your prediction come true.