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‘Game of Thrones’ Loose Ends: Are There Answers to Be Found in Melisandre’s Flames?

The Red Woman brought ice and fire together and then disappeared. When the priestess returns in Season 8, her role will help illuminate what the series is actually about.

HBO/Ringer illustration

In 38 days, Game of Thrones will finally return. And 35 days after that, Thrones will end. In less time than it seemingly takes Littlefinger to zip around to every corner of Westeros, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss will deliver a conclusion to the story George R.R. Martin first introduced 23 years ago—and in that precious time they’ll have to answer half a hundred pressing questions: Who will live? Who will die? Who will tell Jon he’s doing it with his aunt?

Separate from those series-shaping questions are countless smaller but still crucial details that the show may or may not explore in the final season. These are Thrones’ loose ends: the characters, places, events, prophecies and more that the story has made audiences wonder about over the past seven seasons but has yet to satisfyingly wrap up. In the run-up to the final season’s April 14 premiere, we’ll be digging through these loose ends, looking at why they matter and how they could affect the endgame as we count down the days to Thrones’ long-awaited conclusion.

The Loose End

Melisandre. The Red Woman. Priestess of R’hllor. Whisperer in the ears of kings. Native of Asshai. In short … what’s going on there?

For an author as fond of exposition and world-building as George R.R. Martin, neither A Song of Ice and Fire nor Game of Thrones offer much detail as to what Melisandre’s deal is. We know she hails from Asshai, the mysterious city in the farthest reaches of Essos, and was born a slave. We know she was converted to the monotheistic, Manichean faith of the Lord of Light in captivity and has continued to serve him ever since. We know she’s much, much older than she appears, and that according to her visions, she’s going to die in Westeros, presumably onscreen. That’s pretty much it—and given how sketchy her interpretive abilities are, we don’t even know that last part for sure.

That leaves an awful lot for Thrones to potentially clarify in just six episodes. Who is the Prince That Was Promised, the prophesied messiah Melisandre thought for years was the highly unmessianic Stannis Baratheon? Is it definitely Jon Snow, or is she wrong once again? What’s she up to in Volantis? How, why, and with what will she come back? Will she help save the world from a dark, freezing, blue-eyed apocalypse, or will she fumble once again?

As these questions suggest, Melisandre is incredibly important to the series’ endgame, making most of her loose ends rather urgent to tie up. As a bonus, though, the show could resolve some backstory-related ones, too. After she was converted, how did Melisandre ascend to her peak level of power as the chief adviser to a once-serious contender for the Iron Throne? Where did she go and what did she do between Asshai and Dragonstone? How much has she learned to doubt herself after facilitating the senseless murder of a child? Once again: What’s going on there?

Why This Loose End Matters

Like Jaime Lannister, Melisandre has become a shorthand for the moral ambiguity that separates this saga from other fantasy epics. But where Jaime is living proof that even amoral cads can have surprising wells of principle, Melisandre is uncomfortable evidence that wild-eyed zealots can have a point—and that you just might need one on your team to survive, or in Jon’s case, revive.

Melisandre is introduced to us as the political deputy who brought flame-assisted capital punishment to Stannis’s soggy island kingdom. As viewers, we’re not exactly coached to like her. We are, however, forced to acknowledge she may have a point, or at the very least an understandable reason to dedicate herself to the Lord of Light and commit some rather unsavory acts in his name. Wouldn’t you do the same if a divine entity gave you the power to birth murderous shadow assassins and raise the dead?

Like Sansa’s beloved songs of heroes and chivalry, religion in Westeros is mostly another myth inside a myth. Magic is real here, but it’s not always the magic Thrones characters believe in. We’ve had no evidence, for example, that the Seven are anything but a comforting fiction-slash-geopolitical-allegory; over on the Iron Islands, the Drowned God’s resurrection ceremonies appear to be the medieval equivalent of basic CPR; in the North, the “old gods” seem like more of a stand-in for age-old entities like the Children of the Forest than deities in their own right.

R’hllor, on the other hand, is hard to deny. Something is making Melisandre look like the red-headed girl of Stannis and poor Gendry’s dreams; something coparented that horrifying shadow baby; something brought Beric Dondarrion back from the brink a half dozen times over; something ensured Balon Greyjoy, Robb Stark, and Joffrey Baratheon would die after Stannis threw those leeches into a fire (though that might have more to do with the whole “continental war” thing). And while power may be its own justification in the Game of Thrones universe, the Lord of Light has more going for him than the occasional flex. Even when the entire continent was mired in a five-way struggle for the monarchy—oh, the halcyon days of Season 2—Melisandre had her eye on the ball: a coming battle between light and dark, now known as “all of humanity vs. the White Walkers.” You may not like her methods, but Melisandre’s sort of, well, right. Or at least on the right side of history.

That said, Melisandre doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to executing her marching orders; she’s so confident in her interpretation of her visions that she couldn’t see Stannis wasn’t the Prince That Was Promised until after she prompted him to sacrifice his own daughter. In other words, her certainty in her faith may be justified, but it’s a double-edged sword. Going into Game of Thrones final season, then, will Mel have finally learned her lesson in time to contribute to the cause, or will she continue to whiff? The undead army is here, the time for user error is over, and all the good intentions in the world don’t mean much when placed in the hands of someone who can’t tell a world-historical savior from a bad case of Middle Child Syndrome.

How Season 8 Could Address It

This is more a matter of “how” than “if.” Everything Melisandre has spent six seasons of the show foreboding—the night is dark and … you know the rest—is coming to pass. Ice and fire have been brought together, another series-defining concept her character gets the privilege of explaining to the viewer; light and dark’s final showdown has begun. Some kind of referendum on her choices and whether they’ve all been worth it is imminent. There’s also no way, given the aforementioned loose ends and Carice van Houten’s prominent billing in the season’s marketing materials, that her ominous talk with Varys was her final exit from the show.

So what do we want from Melisandre’s grand finale? Because her arc is so tied up in the existential battles the larger story has been winding up to, some clarity seems like an attainable goal. Is R’hllor really the one true god or just a catch-all concept? If the Lord of Light does definitely, absolutely exist, is he a force for good or just a neutral party battling the Night King because that’s what opposites do? Moral absolutism seems very out of character for Game of Thrones, so what would a last-minute pivot to definite good versus definite evil mean for the rest of the show in retrospect? These are big questions with far-reaching implications for what Game of Thrones ends up being Actually About, and they rest on the shoulders of one Red Priestess with a spotty accuracy rate.

The first matter at hand is getting Mel back from Volantis and onto Westerosi soil—specifically Winterfell, where half the cast is already concentrated. (Not that an arched-eyebrow-off with Cersei at King’s Landing wouldn’t be fun, but time is of the essence.) Exactly what role Melisandre has to play in the Great War, whether delivering some sort of magical MacGuffin or attempting to redeem herself through self-sacrifice, remains to be seen; we only know that she’ll definitely play one. Maybe the writers will inject some last-minute pathos into a largely tragic, unsympathetic character with one last exposition dump; maybe she’ll finally stop speechifying and just help Dany and Jon get done what they need to, if they don’t immediately eject her from the castle given how she and Jon left things. Either way, the massive ice block that’s currently the North could use a few flames, as long as they’re directed at the undead instead of the living.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.