What Melisandre’s Magic Reveals About Game of Thrones

The show has always had a unique take on the supernatural, with the Red Woman as its unpredictable avatar.

Melisandre and Arya in 'The Long Night'
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. (HBO)

This article contains spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 8, Episode 3.

In pop culture, magic’s not so special. Look to Avengers: Endgame for the latest example of a typical take on the supernatural, in which heroes hurl lightning as easily as they comb their hair. It looks like magic, but is it really? In Marvel, the supernatural is a matter of science—Tony Stark and Dr. Strange had to study for their powers—as it often is in America’s favorite onscreen franchises. While there’s no talk of quantum realms or Pym particles in Harry Potter or Star Wars, wizardry and the Force convey a similar feeling of spell-casting as tech. Powers might be harder to come by than a smartphone is, but once obtained, they’re about as dependable to use.

As it’s often been conceived in our own world, though, magic is unpredictable—and more associated with religion than science. Verifying the miracles of saints requires hazy historical piecework by the Catholic Church. Summoning circles are thought to open unpredictable gateways to other worlds, as captured in the refrain of the recent meme about such magic: Hope this works. Belief in the beyond can encourage terrible deeds: human sacrifices to ensure a harvest, persecution of outsiders for a metaphysical notion of purity. When a plea to the supernatural appears to work out, it feels spooky. When it doesn’t, that’s just life.

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.

As fans try to guess who the green-eyed victim might be—the late Littlefinger or the living Cersei? —it’s important to remember that Melisandre’s divination has had little story effect. It’s just info to interpret. But there did appear to be one concrete outcome of the prophecy: inspiring Arya to kill the Night King, he of blue eyes. More directly, Melisandre gave the Stark warrior a pep talk by invoking the same aphorism Arya’s sword-fighting teacher, Syrio Forel, used: “What do we say to the god of death? Not today.” She also said that Beric Dondarrion, who had just been killed while rescuing Arya, had previously been kept alive by the fire god for a great reason. Arya then ran off with purpose, and was next seen delivering the surprise shiv to the Night King.

So: Some temporary roadblocks to the villains, and one motivational speech, are what the Lord of Light’s clear contributions amounted to in the final battle between the living and the dead. These acts were apparently enough for Melisandre to believe she had fulfilled her destiny after hundreds of years of living. As the sun rose, she removed her mystical necklace—which had been maintaining the illusion of her as a young woman—and disintegrated into dust.

Perhaps the episode ended on the image of this demise to convey the deeper shift that happens with Melisandre out of the picture. She and Dondarrion all along evangelized for an austere belief system, one with just a god of life and a god of death. This religion stood in contrast to the mainstream Westeros faith of “The Seven,” which has the recognizably humanlike deities of the Father, the Mother, the Maiden, the Crone, the Warrior, the Smith, and the Stranger. Its practitioners, including the Sparrows who took over King’s Landing in Season 6, do not appear to use magic. It’s the religion of civilization: fractured, yet interdependent.

Now, with the Night King dispatched, the world may begin to return to a less enchanted state, which is, oddly, a more complex one. Magic isn’t completely gone; dragons and direwolves live, Arya can change faces, and Maester Qyburn’s reanimated Mountain guards Cersei. But it seems likely that overt supernatural influence won’t be able to save the show’s heroes anymore, not that it could be relied upon to do so in the first place. If those heroes’ prayers are answered, it should, more than even before, feel like a miracle.