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The night is dark and full of terrors, illuminated only by the inferno of sacrifice. The denizens of Dragonstone gather around to witness history in the making: Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) taking his first major strides on his journey toward becoming the rightful King of Westeros, pulling a legendary sword from the flames, all at the behest of the new wise woman in his life.
In actuality, it’s the first step toward Stannis‘ damnation. Perhaps even more importantly, though, it’s viewers’ first sighting of Melisandre (Carice van Houten), the red priestess best known for her endless confidence and devotion to the mythical Lord of Light. From her first scene in the season two premiere, “The North Remembers,” Melisandre stands out as one of the most alluring and seductive presences ever featured on Game of Thrones … and as of her most recent appearance at the end of the season six premiere, “The Red Woman,” she’s also one of the story’s most important figures.
The road toward Melisandre’s oldest secret begins as far back as her first scene in the series, that fateful night on the fire-lit beach of Dragonstone. There, House Baratheon’s reliable servant Maester Cressen (Oliver Ford Davies) begs Stannis and all those present to renounce Melisandre’s heretical methods. In an instant, the Red Woman sizes the elderly maester up and slices him down.
“You smell of fear,” she whispers. “Fear, and piss and old bones.”
As kids often say: “It takes one to know one.”
Melisandre’s first scene in the series, calling out Cressen as an old fool, takes on all new meaning when paired with the season six premiere’s reveal that she herself is impossibly old. Her exact age is unknown, though showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss put it at “several centuries.” In a 2013 interview, Davies said Melisandre is “400 years old,” the same length of time since the Doom of Valyria — the legendary collapse of the advanced civilization that birthed House Targaryen. If true, it’s likely Melisandre has firsthand reasons to believe so strongly in R’hllor and the coming threat of winter.
The season premiere’s reveal also outs Melisandre’s ruby necklace as a major source of her power; when she removes it, her true form is revealed. The power of Melisandre’s amulet is plainly demonstrated in her aforementioned debut appearance: Cressen attempts to kill Melisandre with poisoned wine, but instead, she sips the drink, and her glowing red ruby presumably destroys the toxins.
In the days since the episode, fans have cited a season four installment of Thrones, “Mockingbird,” as flying in the face of Melisandre’s powerful necklace. In the episode, Melisandre bathes in front of Stannis‘ wife Selyse (Tara Fitzgerald), a thoroughly devout believer in the Lord of Light. Melisandre’s necklace is nowhere to be found, and yet, she remains young. Some see this as a continuity error. Others take it as proof that Melisandre’s power is derived outside of the amulet. Another theory still posits that Selyse can actually see Melisandre’s true form, even if the viewer cannot; reviewing the scene through that lends yields interesting results, as Selyse can barely look Melisandre in the eye without visible discomfort, and the sorceress herself speaks at length about the nature of illusions.
“Most powders and potions are lies, deceptions to make men think they witnessed our lord’s power; once they step into the light, they’ll see the lie for what it was: a trick that led them to the truth,” she says at one point. Moments later, she tells Selyse: “You don’t need powders and potions. You don’t need lies. You are strong enough to look into the lord’s light and see his truth for yourself.”
Whether or not Melisandre’s necklace controls her age, there’s now no argument that the Red Woman boasts unimaginable power — not that it should have been in doubt before, what with her birthing a shadow assassin back in season two’s fourth episode, “Garden of Bones.” Indeed, Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) was witness to this event, hence his line in the season six premiere: “You haven’t seen her do what I’ve seen her do.”
But perhaps even Melisandre isn’t fully aware of her own powers. In season three’s “The Climb,” she meets a fellow red priest, Thoros of Myr (Paul Kaye), who says he used to be a fraud, reciting prayers and performing fiery tricks for locals at carnivals — until the day he brought his dead friend Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) back to life.
“I knelt beside his cold body and said the words, because I believed in them,” he tells Melisandre, visibly stunned by the reveal. “He was my friend, and he was dead, and they were the only words I knew. And for the first time in my life, the lord replied. Beric’s eyes opened, and I knew the truth: our god is the one true god.”
By his own admission, Thoros was jaded and lost, a man of faith without much faith at all… only finding hope once all hope was lost. If it sounds like a familiar song, that’s because it is: Melisandre is presently undergoing her own crisis of faith. Her true age was only revealed to viewers because of her own overwhelming sense of loss.
Melisandre’s current state beneath the heavy blanket of despair, her unfathomably extensive life experience, and her proven magical abilities all swirl together to make her one of the most complicated characters on Game of Thrones — and, potentially, its most important player at the moment, as the key to bringing Jon Snow (Kit Harington) out of the cold grip of death and into the light of life. Like Thoros, all she needs to do is say the magic words.
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