Melisandre of Asshai has one last fiery tribute on Game of Thrones


Throughout season 8, Culturess will analyze Game of Thrones through the lens of a particular character. For this week, we look at Melisandre.

Religion in Game of Thrones takes on numerous forms, from the Old Gods worshipped in the North to the New Gods worshipped in the South and the Many-Faced God worshipped by servants of the House of Black and White. More than just another facet of George R.R. Martin’s meticulous world-building, religion lies at the core of the show, as characters constantly wrestle with their place in a mysterious, chaotic universe.

This conflict is manifested most clearly in the character of Melisandre, a priestess from Asshai pledged to R’hllor, the Lord of Light. She’s first seen on the beach at Dragonstone, overseeing the burning of idols as part of Stannis’ religious conversion. With her bright red hair, unnerving stare, and ability to read fire, she has an otherworldly mystique that’s both awe-inspiring and terrifying, earning her the derogatory label of witch (or worse) from skeptics like Davos. Is it the will of a god? Or the conviction of a delusion?

Gradually, however, the mystique fades. When her sacrifice of Shireen backfires, successfully stopping the blizzard but prompting Stannis’ army to desert, Melisandre experiences a crisis of faith, doubting her ability to interpret the Lord of Light’s signs and channel His power. Even after she manages to resurrect Jon, her doubt lingers, as does our image of her as a broken-down old woman.

Game of Thrones – “The Long Night”. Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO

What “The Long Night” means for Melisandre

In retrospect, Melisandre’s surprise arrival at Winterfell right before the battle against the White Walkers was inevitable. After all, who better to defeat the embodiment of darkness and death than the self-proclaimed “champion of light and life”? Her presence lent a spiritual dimension to what had been framed as a purely existential struggle.

Yet, she wasn’t a savior. Her magic, while visually spectacular, did little to impede the Night King’s army: the Dothraki whose swords she ignited were vanquished in the blink of an eye, and the trench she set on fire was bypassed on a bridge of corpses. And her reminder to Arya of the many eyes the Stark girl was supposed to close forever felt less like the fulfillment of a prophesy than a subtle act of manipulation. More than anyone else, Melisandre understands the power of belief.

The important thing is that she didn’t pretend to be a savior this time. Whereas the Melisandre of season 2 seemed to buy into the visions of glory she conjured for others, the Melisandre that came to Winterfell understood that no glory awaited her. As she told Davos, she knew she would be dead by the end of the night. So, this was her final sacrifice to the Lord of Light: herself.

Carice van Houten as Melisandre. Photo: Courtesy of HBO

(Maybe I’m reading too much into Carice van Houten’s performance, but I wonder if Melisandre really foresaw her death, or if she simply intended to die no matter the outcome of the battle. The necklace could have been plan B in case she wasn’t killed by the White Walkers. Was her death fate or free will? Did she come to Winterfell out of obligation to R’hllor, or out of her own desire to help the living and find redemption?)

Several beloved characters perished in “The Long Night,” from Lyanna Mormont to Theon Greyjoy, but Melisandre’s demise was the most poignant, perhaps because it didn’t occur during the actual fighting. Just as her arrival set the tone for the start of the battle, preparing both the characters and viewers for an epic confrontation with the supernatural, her departure set the tone for its end, returning the world to the mundane.

The night may be dark and full of terror, but the day brings its own terrors, and they’re in plain sight.

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Game of Thrones airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.