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Melisandre and The Very Long Night

Posted by Jason Rhodes on May 4th, 2019

Note: This post contains frank and spoiler-filled discussion of everything in Game of Thrones up to and including Season 8, Episode 3: The Long Night.

Imagine that on the evening of this past week's episode of Game of Thrones, titled The Long Night, you were running a bit late on your way to your Thrones watch party. You race down the street going a safe but calculated 11 MPH over the speed limit but, as luck would have it, you've hit three straight red lights and your patience is running out. As you wait at the third one for what seems like a Westerosi winter, you remember something in the back of your mind: isn't there some trick with traffic lights where you can force them to change by flashing your car's bright headlights at them?

Click click.

Still red. Your first attempt does nothing and you know it's ridiculous, but time is running out and if there's even a chance it works, you've gotta try right?

Click click click. Maybe it's three times?

Still nothing. Of course, why would they let people change the traffic lights that easy? Ugh, so stupid. But what if ... I mean police cars need a way to change the lights maybe, right? And if that's based on flashing police lights, maybe it's an old system they just never updated or changed...

Click, pause, click click, pause, click click click.

The light changes to green. As you pull ahead you're not quite sure what happened but you feel just a little brilliant because no matter how unlikely it seems that you were responsible for the light change, nobody can prove it wasn't your light flashes that caused it! And just as you're mind is turning back to considering what changes the Game of Thrones intro will have this week, you hit another red light. But you're not worried this time, because you've got this:

Click, pause, click click, pause, click click click.

Nothing. You must have done it a bit differently this time, right?

Click HARD, pause longer, click click, pause, click click CLICK.

Still nothing. Maybe this light isn't fitted with the same trigger? Oh wait, the light turned green ... it did work! You speed off towards your party confident once again in your powers.

Maybe you see through this whole story better than I did when I was in my twenties, but I struggled for years with wondering if I had the power to change traffic lights. It wasn't until much later that I realized this struggle was eerily similar to my experience with another random cause and effect, semi-magical practice called prayer.

OK stay with me, I'm getting to the Game of Thrones part of this ridiculous rant. I grew up in a very evangelical Christian house and community, and prayer was a big part of everything. I won't get into it much now, but my relationship to prayer was a lot like my relationship to traffic lights. If you pray long enough and hard enough and ignore enough times when it does nothing, eventually you'll get some proof of it doing something.

In The Long Night, Melisandre has a similar moment of proof. Her prediction that Arya would "close many eyes", including "blue eyes" was correct enough to convince Arya to do what needed to be done. Some people even said this made for a good arc for our favorite red priestess, as she waited until the war was won to walk into the distance, disrobe, and disintegrate, all before dawn as promised. But did we forget about her insistence that Stannis was the rightful king, or about how many people she burned alive, including children, in support of that belief?

In other words: make enough creepy yet confident predictions to enough people around the world and you're bound to be right eventually. Let's not roll out the red priestess carpet.

For me, this episode is where the HBO version of Game of Thrones decides to officially give up so many interesting threads it had been pulling on and teasing at for seven seasons. The Lord of Light is such an interesting force in the story precisely because of what it says about religion, faith, and fanatacism. The Brotherhood without Banners was one of the great introductions of the show, and both Thoros and Beric are some of the best characters of the series. Learning that they are on the same side as the woman who burns people alive was devastating in the best possible way, but what did the story ultimately have to say about that tension? Thoros, Beric, and Mel are all dead now, and the Lord of Light is unlikely to make another appearance in the show's final three episodes. What did the show have to say about faith? It's unclear, and that feels like such a terrible waste.

Not only does the show not deal with this interesting conversation that it started years ago, it also tries to give Melisandre some kind of hero's ending that she probably doesn't deserve. Why didn't she come back to sacrifice herself for their cause as a penance for what she'd done when she misunderstood her cause in the past? If she'd wandered into the trench, tied herself to the stakes, and lit herself on fire as a callback to the times she'd burned others, I'd have understood what the show wanted to say about her relationship with these other characters. But instead her role was to light Dothraki swords on fire and watch them gallop to their immediate death, struggle to light a trench on fire (while a dragon sat nearby watching) and watch as the dead climbed right over the lit trench, then wait for Arya to finish the work so she could safely wander into a field and die on her own terms, at her leisure.

My problems with Melisandre are a decent summary of my problems with The Long Night overall. This story is great at introducing mysteries and ideas but has a pretty bad track record of tying them together in interesting or satisfying ways. The Night King is a classic example: who is he? Where did he come from and why was he made? What does he want? What would happen if he had succeeded in killing Bran? Why did he create "White Walkers" vs "wights" and what was his relationship to those Craster babies in the forest?

He's dead now, and we'll never get any answers to any of those questions. For me, that robbed The Long Night of all of the drama it was supposed to have. You can wave all of that away if you want and say the show is about the human interactions, and I agree, but it was always about human interactions as juxtaposed against the fantasy and mythology of this world. If you just throw away the mythology because it becomes inconvenient, you lose some of the foundation of the human relationships. Why show us the Night King being "made" at all if it's not going to matter? That seems to indicate there was once a desire to do more with the mythology but they eventually gave up on it. And that's disappointing.

Overall, that's my reaction to The Long Night. I thought it might be the worst episode of the series, but I'm not sure if that's true. But it's definitely the most disappointing for me, in part because of what it says about the story and it's officially giving up on some of the bigger mythyological themes that it could've really sunk its teeth into if it had tried. Oh well. On to Game of Thrones 71.

Warning: Comments ahead. Never read them.