Part of the genius of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire universe is that it pushes that mundane—and truly mysterious—conception of magic just one or two degrees further into the realm of fantasy. Westeros, at the beginning of the saga, was an unenchanted land. Stories of dragons and witches were, as in our own world, just stories. As monsters encroached over the course of the series, so too did spell-casting, shape-shifting, and fortune-telling. But such magic still was janky, dangerous, and rare.
Melisandre, the red-haired priestess of the Lord of Light, embodied this theme. She birthed smoke monsters and raised the dead, but she also sacrificed children to no apparent gain and saw visions of dubious utility. Backing Stannis Baratheon as the savior of the realm, she realized too late, was a misreading. Restoring Jon Snow to life, she said before she attempted it, was almost surely impossible. Hers was magic that often had to apologize for itself.
So it was that in the latest episode, “The Long Night,” Melisandre arrived from exile seeming more embarrassed than omnipotent. “There’s no need to execute me, Ser Davos,” she announced. “I’ll be dead before the dawn.” Though the episode amounted to an hour-and-a-half rotation between near-defeat and improbable victories for humankind, the Lord of Light continued to play a sketchy, unreliable role. Melisandre made dramatic contributions, but she did not clearly turn the fight.
As the first form to emerge from the dark woods north of Winterfell, Melisandre entered with style, riding up to the army and then reciting a prayer that set the Dothraki swords ablaze. After so much ominous buildup about the odds they faced, Daenerys’s forces finally seemed to have the weaponry to defeat the dead. But then the Dothraki charged into the dark night and quickly, quietly, had their flames—and lives—extinguished by the wights, who were still invisible to viewers. So much for deus ex Melisandre.
Later, when Grey Worm’s plans to ignite the moat of flame outside the fortress walls met a hiccup in the form of an evil blizzard, Melisandre again stepped in with her mystic kerosene. But as with someone trying to strike tinder on a windy day, ignition proved difficult. Melisandre repeated her incantation with greater and greater dismay and desperation, and it looked like her god had forsaken her. Then, almost too late, poof. The firewall slowed down the dead, but it did not stop them.
Melisandre’s final intervention was subtler. Inside the Winterfell keep, Arya encountered the Red Woman for the first time since Season 3, when the young girl confronted the centuries-old woman about kidnapping Gendry. Back then, Melisandre made a prophecy: Arya would eventually shut eyes of brown, blue, and green forever. If that prediction seems to be coming true, it also has the air of a daytime-TV medium giving a cold reading. Melisandre met a vengeful little girl traveling with a band of warriors and guessed that she’d go on to kill many people; not that far-fetched, really.