A Fairy-Tale Ending for the Game of Thrones Premiere, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The other Chris, in a clip from our Facebook livestream today, discusses the season premiere and responds to reader questions:

Lenika and Spencer joined Chris in our written recap of last night’s episode. Here Lenika reacts to the spooky final scene, where the “Red Woman” priestess Melisandre disrobes and transforms into an extremely old woman:

I know the gut reaction many viewers had toward Melisandre’s big secret was some variation of disgust—either because of ageism (smooth, youthful naked bodies only, please, HBO!) or because of the sheer dissonance.

Megan just posted her own take on that aspect of the final scene: “Game of Thrones is tapping into another kind of trope, and a much more pernicious one: the woman who has not only pretended to be something other than she is, but who has pretended to be more desirable than she is.” Readers debate Megan’s view here (but email us if you want to respond at length for Notes). Back to Lenika:

Maybe it was the sad, tired expression on [Melisandre’s] face or how suddenly vulnerable she looked, but the unexpected pathos I felt for her outweighed any revulsion. Here was a woman on some kind of spiritual journey lasting (probably) hundreds of years, and her faith was slipping away now that the Lord of Light’s last two ostensible vessels are dead. There are some interesting theories floating around online about Melisandre’s true form and how she maintains her illusion, but equally as fascinating to me is how the episode’s final scene continued to build the case that her powers are real, if imperfect or at least inconsistent.

More theories are coming from Atlantic readers:

Melisandre’s reveal, IMO, was to show just how powerful her magic is. If she can maintain the illusion that an old crone is actually a youthful, beautiful goddess, how hard could it be for her to raise Jon Snow from the dead? She’s conjured some pretty nasty beasts in the past, so it’s not outside of the realm of this world that she could use Jon to continue her purpose.

If she does so, the question then becomes, what will Jon Snow be expected to give her in return? And secondarily, will Davos follow this woman and Jon Snow when he finds out what she did to Shireen [the little girl who was burned at the stake]?

This reader can’t wait for the resurrection of Jon Snow:

Who else had experienced a pretty similar crisis of faith before? That’s right, Thoros of Myr—just before he resurrected Beric Dondarrion.

And here’s the unembeddable scene of Thoros of Myr meeting Melisandre. Another reader’s theory on the final scene:

Right now Melisandre is deeply disaffected with R’hllor [her god “The Lord of Light”] after the incident with Shireen. I think she actually thought it would work. But R’hollor was using her to get to the Wall. When she went south with Stannis [Shireen’s father], he withdrew his power and it pushed her over the edge into doubt.

Another theory:

Perhaps R’hllor is being opposed by the power(s) of the Old Gods\White Walkers\the land itself—directly or through ambient suppression? There are lots of allusions to the North being distinct from other regions when it comes to gods\magic\supernatural occurrences.

Another reader replies, “My sense is that there’s really only one god at work, and he has many faces,” pointing to this video:

One more reader’s reaction to the final scene:

I don’t get why people are so shocked that Melisandre is actually some old witch. Obviously, she was some kind of supernatural being (the birthing of the shadow assassin was kind of a sign), so GASP, she isn’t some attractive 40-something woman? Come on now.

My only complaint about the episode is how Jorah so easily found Dany’s dropped jewelry in the endless expanse of grass. Or does he have some hound-like ability to sniff out her scent?

Lenika responded to that reader with a great point:

I think they did a good job of making it fairly plausible: There was the massive hoof-mark pattern in a large circle around a single, undisturbed patch of grass (remember that stampede the horde did around Dany?). At the very least that narrowed down the amount of area he had to search, plus the ring was big! It’s still a bit of a leap, but a smaller leap than I thought it was going to be.

This reader roundup is mostly to get a conversation going, so if you have any grand theories about the final episode and want to nerd out, drop us an email and we’ll post. Update from Simeon Teitelbaum, who has a really smart take on the series:

I think it is a mistake to connect the ending of this episode to contemporary gender politics. It is of course true that women have, in lieu of any other power, used their sexual allure to get what they want, or even just to survive. Melisandre, however, has used all kinds of deception to deceive all kinds of people.

Besides her sexual magnetism, she has used potions and powders to conjure up visions to control Stannis and Selyse. She created a baseless narrative of Stannis as the Chosen One, which played perfectly into his innate sense of his own importance. She used the terror of an inquisition and the deranged surety of fanaticism to quell any questioning of her supposed convictions.

She is, at least in the show, an utterly amoral charlatan, one who likely over time has come to believe her own BS. She certainly has magical powers, to be sure. But I’m not so sure about resurrecting Jon Snow. What no one seems to be noticing is that none of the magic we’ve seen her conjure up is connected to R’hllor.  Shadow binding (the “demon baby” stuff) is a kind of magic that originates in Asshai, and while some practitioners are followers of R’hllor, it is not itself connected to the Fire God. The truth is, there is no evidence in the show that she has any favor with R’hllor.

Thoros of Myr has only been able to resurrect Lord Beric, which suggests it is the latter who is somehow special, or that the two of them together have some special role to play. It hasn’t been explicitly clear how this has happened, which is consistent with the terrible writing Benioff and Weiss have produced regarding the cult of R’hllor. Instead of explaining to the audience what the religion consists of and how it works, they instead chose to use it as a clumsy device to comment on medieval Catholic fanaticism, something that had already been done with far more success in the witch scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The writing on the show has, sadly, obscured this element of the story instead of clarifying it.

Melisandre herself has been very poorly written too, for the most part. A handful of Catchphrases and little else. We still don't know exactly who she is, or the fullness of what she is capable of. Like most, I do believe Jon Snow is coming back, but if it is due to her powers, I hope they make it clear how this is so.

I liked the ending. It is true that it was right out of classic fairy tale, which is fairly unique for this show. Contrary to the relentless media narrative, Game of Thrones is not in its DNA a fantasy story, and therefore cannot credibly serve as a device to comment on/deconstruct  fantasy literature, a form which (most notably in Tolkien) is rooted in the formal and thematic elements of mythology and fairy tale.

The story crafted by George RR Martin (and now Benioff and Weiss) is, instead, a masterfully layered historical epic set in a mirror image of earth in a number of different eras, with the Dungeons and Dragons bestiary thrown in for fun. It is no coincidence that so many of Ice and Fire’s vocal fans aren’t necessarily fantasy fans. Besides having a drastically different tone, Thrones has been mostly riven from the bloodlines of mythology and fairy tale, so when this element pops up, it is a treat for old-school fantasy fans like myself. Bring on the magical boy in the tree!

Fantasy has been near and dear to my heart, particularly in my childhood. I initially disliked Game of Thrones, in part because a friend of mine who loved the books had hyped them so much, and I found the tone didn’t fit my expectations. It took me awhile to get the measure of it, but now that I have, I like others am hooked. I have an equal love for historical medievalism, so it is a good fit too.

And the cast is so great, Maisie Williams in particular. Arya has been my favorite character since episode one. An interesting question in the future (if season 6 is not too late) would be who Atlantic readers favorite GoT character is, and in particular, if that has changed over time.

Want to answer that question and make your case for the best GoT character? Drop us an email.