Melisandre is one of the most enduring fascinating characters on Game of Thrones. Right from the start, the show is ambivalent about what sort of character she is. Is she a villain? Well, she helped kill King Stannis Baratheon’s brother by giving birth to a shadow assassin, and her theme music is foreboding as all get out. Davos Seaworth, an earthy, instantly likable figure in Stannis’ camp, is deeply suspicious of her, and she has an air of eerie confidence that is so often a shorthand for evil in movies and on TV. So…yes?
And yet…there always seemed to be more to her. She claimed to be fighting for the good of humanity, so maybe it wasn’t that she was necessarily evil, but that she firmly believed that the ends justified the means, or to put it in Game of Thrones parlance, getting Stannis on the throne so he could prevent human extinction justified murdering Renly with dark magic. Her methods were disturbing, but there was a purity about her. Thanks in no small part to actor Carice van Houten, Melisandre radiated charisma; love her or hate you, she was always a thrill to see on screen, because she could never be sure what she was going to do.
Van Houten had one of the most difficult jobs on the show. She had to play a woman with confidence so complete it melted away any doubt, even though she likely didn’t fully understand the characters motives — few could.
Things got a little easier around season 6, after Melisandre burned the princess Shireen Baratheon alive, an act she did in service to her Lord of Light that ended up being complete pointless. That was Melisandre’s most heinous act, but it was a turning point for the character and for van Houten’s performance. Suddenly, the Red Woman’s confidence was shattered, and van Houten got to explore vulnerabilities we didn’t even know were there. Resurrecting Jon Snow gave Melisandre back a little of her lost mojo, but there was no going back to the way things were. Van Houten got to sink her teeth into new sides of the character, and we reaped the benefit.
Even now, there’s much about Melisandre we don’t know. We know she is much older than she looks; that ruby necklace around her neck keeps her looking young, but it’s just a trick. She is powerful, but we don’t know how she gained her abilities. Most likely, they required centuries of study. It was to van Houten’s enormous credit that she took a character with contours so fuzzy and brought them together into something we could understand, fear, and eventually even relate to.
Van Houten brings all of this together for Melisandre’s final scene, her walk into the rising sun following the battle of Winterfell. She long work is over, and she can finally rest. She takes off her age-defying necklace and tosses it into snow, gladly turning into dust. She doesn’t smile — what she’s feeling goes deeper than that — but we know something of what this journey has meant to her, because of how she’s been written and how van Houten has played her. The mystery is still there, but the woman is too.
Thank you, Carice van Houten. You did tremendous, difficult work on Thrones. The night is dark and full of terrors. The night is over, and your future is bright.
For example, van Houten is next starring opposite Game of Thrones castmate Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, of all people, in director Brian de Palma’s Domino, out May 31. Way to keep the band together, Carice!