Reevaluating Melisandre: How Much Do We Really Know About Game of Thrones’ Mysterious Red Woman?

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Lady in reeeeed. Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO

For the night is dark, and full of Game of Thrones spoilers. 

Melisandre seemed awfully sure of herself — until she wasn't. Although she's claimed to have seen visions in the flames (Bolton banners burning, Stannis's victory), we're starting to wonder if the red priestess might need an update on her prescription. Even Carice van Houten admits, "Sometimes, it's a little blurry." As people hold out hope that Melisandre might yet resurrect Jon Snow, it seems time to reevaluate how much we really know about the mysterious red woman.

When we first met Mel in season two, she was burning effigies of the Seven, and preaching a prophecy that might have been hard to hear, what with the late Maester Cressen's interruptions (so rude!) — so here it is: "After the long summer, the darkness will fall heavy on the world. Stars will bleed. The cold breath of winter will freeze the seas, and the dead shall rise in the North. In the ancient books, it is written that a warrior will draw a burning sword from the fire, and that sword shall be Lightbringer."

This warrior is known as alternatively the Prince Who Was Promised, and Azor Ahai. He is supposed to be a savior figure, a messiah, who will save everyone from the White Walkers, according to the faith of R'hllor. This, above all, is what Mel uses to justify her actions — she believes that she's fighting for the greater good, to prevent the zombie apocalypse in the War of the Dawn. And she believed that the savior figure was Stannis. Clearly, she was wrong.

"She might have seen something in the flames," van Houten said. "But I'm not sure how clear of a vision that was, because she's been wrong, sort of wrong before. I don't think she's a fraud, but I don't think she sees exactly what she needs to see."

In the books, Melisandre prays for a glimpse of Azor Ahai in her flames, but "R'hllor shows me only Snow." Readers have interpreted that to mean Jon Snow, and it's one of those moments where we learn that Mel might not always understand her own visions, and might even be deluding herself. It's easy for her to say, "I could have saved those men," as she did following the Battle of Blackwater, when you have to take it on faith that she could, even if she doesn't say how. So what is it that Melisandre can do? What are her limitations? 

Shadowbinding. Otherwise known as birthing shadow babies. Her shadow-baby assassin, which killed Renly, is what convinced us Melisandre has power, but this is a skill set outside of the faith of R'hllor. Mel probably learned this art in Asshai, in eastern Essos. Dany's dragon eggs came from the Shadow Lands beyond Asshai, and it is a place where many fear to go: No children live there, and animals brought there soon die.

Blood magic. With the three leeches, Stannis named three kings — two are now dead, but one's fate remains undetermined. (In the books, Balon Greyjoy dies as well. In the show, it hasn't happened yet, or if it has, it hasn't been mentioned). The question is, can Melisandre take credit for killing Joffrey and Robb? Would these various assassination plots have played out anyway, despite her ritual? Or did she set things in motion? If a few drops of king's blood could accomplish this, why didn't she just leech Stannis regularly and use his blood to take out key targets, instead of heading out to the battlefield? A few drops for Roose Bolton, a few drops for Ramsay, and done! No siege or army required, no loan to be repaid. If Stannis had been willing to risk a little iron deficiency, he'd be on the Iron Throne by now, right? But no. Melisandre always claimed she needed even more king's blood, preferably burnt to a crisp — "a great gift requires a great sacrifice." But what, you may ask, did the sacrifice gain? Did killing Shireen bring the thaw? Or was that coincidence?

Seduction. Mel may have learned this during her training as a Red Temple prostitute — notice the slave's tear tattoo under the eye of the Volantis red priestess. Melisandre has used the same language about being a slave before, about being "scourged and branded," although we don't see Mel's brand from Lot 7. Perhaps the glamour hides it. But certainly, part of Melisandre's "magic" is her ability to seduce, and men in her presence tend to overlook her logical inconsistencies once she disrobes. Fight for light and life? Sure! 

Alchemy and glamours. Melisandre herself admits that some of her magic is just for show — "deceptions to make men think they've witnessed our Lord's power, a trick that led them to the truth." Powders and potions that can create flaming columns, black smoke, or change the color of fire: "A smoke for truth, a smoke for lust, a smoke for fear, and the thick black smoke that could kill a man outright." And some of her illusions might be magic as well. (Hiding her age, for instance). "Call it what you will. Glamour, seeming, illusion. R'hllor is Lord of Light, and it is given to his servants to weave with it, as others weave with thread." She may be using a glamour — an illusion spell that makes an object appear as something other than what it is, usually something more beautiful. And if so, it seems to be in part controlled by the special gem around her neck (notice how the ruby pulses at times).

Resurrection? Until she met Thoros of Myr, she didn't even think that power was possible — which means she's never done it before, and may not even know the old words. Still, fans hope Melisandre will come running down the stairs and bring their beloved Lord Commander back to life at the start of next season. But this presupposes that Mel's fire and blood magic actually works. And if it did, then Shireen’s sacrifice was used to bring the thaw. There may be nothing left for Snow. And there's the matter of her believing that they shouldn't do this particular trick. She might make an exception, however, if she thought it would bring back Azor Ahai. She might have pegged Jon Snow as a runner-up, since she was trying to seduce him as well. "I think she's slightly distracted by Jon Snow, and I'm not sure if she even knows why," van Houten said. (Fans who believe in R+L=J think they know why).  

Divination. Melisandre thinks she's the best practitioner of this. She was so sure of her own visions, she went rogue to help build up Stannis as Azor Ahai — and even orchestrated the ritual for him to pull out Lightbringer (Azor Ahai’s sword). But Mel has better luck with divination when she's not blinded by fire. She sees something in Arya's eyes ("eyes that you'll shut forever"), intuits that Beric Dondarrion has been brought back from the dead multiple times, and throws Jon Snow by echoing Ygritte's line, "You know nothing, Jon Snow." But when she relies on fire visions, she's off the mark. She is unable to predict Tyrion's tactics at the Battle of Blackwater, Ramsay's sneak attack on Stannis's camp, or the mass desertions following the sacrifice of Shireen. "The Lord of Light only allows me glimpses!" she protested when confronted. So we might as easily say to her, "You know nothing, Melisandre."

Even among the red priesthood, there's no clear consensus on who is the reborn savior. When Tyrion overhears a red priestess preaching in Volantis, she names yet another candidate: Daenerys Targaryen. "From the fire she was reborn to remake the world!" Melisandre didn't get that memo, and doesn't seem to be aware of the dragon queen — which is strange, considering all the time she's spent at Dragonstone (Dany's birthplace) and their mutual affinities for fire and blood. And unlike Varys's sorcerer-in-a-box, Mel doesn't seem to hear any voice call out from the flames.

Assuming both Stannis and Snow are truly and definitively dead, who could be the Prince Who Was Promised? Could the Prince be a Princess, i.e., Daenerys, as the Volantis priestess preaches? (The Valyrian word for prince is gender neutral, after all). Or could it be a dark-horse candidate, such as Ser Jorah? Or could it be like a lot of prophecies, something the characters fervently believe in but we as readers and viewers aren't meant to fall for? Something that may never come to pass? We may never know — until Melisandre has her next (blurry) vision. Until then, let's hope shadow babies can kill White Walkers.