This post discusses the events of “The Red Woman,” the episode of “Game of Thrones” that aired April 24. You can read my recap of that episode here.
“As far as the creepy all old naked ladies of television and feature films, I don’t know where I’d rank Melisandre,” a reader wrote in to me on Monday, after “Game of Thrones” ended ended the first episode of its sixth season with the revelation that the titular “Red Woman” (Carice van Houten) was, in fact, far more ancient than her youthful appearance implied. The idea that we were meant to be unnerved by the sight of Melisandre regarding her pendulous breasts and protuberant stomach in a mirror was a common one: I saw a lot of tweets that were variations on the idea that nothing could possibly be scarier to “Game of Thrones” viewers than a naked old lady.
But the longer I’ve sat with the idea, the less apt it seems. We’ve seen Melisandre shaken before, most notably last season when she rode into Castle Black after Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) went down to crushing defeat before the forces of Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon).
Stannis had made his daughter Shireen (Kerry Ingram) a burnt offering to the Lord of Light, but by the time he marched off to meet the Boltons, his wife Selyse (Tara Fitzgerald) had hung herself and many of his men had deserted. If Stannis knew his sacrifice had been futile, at least he got to make a final, noble stand, his death at the hands of Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) meaning that he no longer had to live with the shame and pain of murdering his own child. But if Stannis found an escape in death, Melisandre has to live with the consequences of guiding him into an abomination and a hideous defeat, and with the failure of her own vision.
We saw a small measure of that weight in Melisandre’s countenance when she arrived at the Wall. And in shedding the weight of her omnipresent necklace, the burden of her glamour, I suddenly saw the full price Melisandre must have paid in her search for Azor Ahai, a journey that may have spanned generations rather than mere years. As dreadful as Stannis’s fate was, how much worse is it to think of a chain of broken men stretching back across the ages, casualties of Melisandre’s quest and tests of her faith? The revelation is as melancholy as it is shocking, as morally revealing as it is physically vulnerable.
If Melisandre’s transformation came as a shock, it was part of an ongoing interest that both “Game of Thrones” and George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” have shown in crones, in who women become when their husbands and their children are gone. And well before Melisandre showed us who she truly was, “The Red Woman” put an especially sharp focus on women reckoning with their own transitions from maidens, wives and mothers to another stage of their lives.
The tragic story of Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) follows this arc as she’s robbed of her husband and children, not by the gentle passage of time, but by the cruelties of a war she didn’t choose.
When her husband Ned (Sean Bean) is beheaded in King’s Landing, a victim of his own inherent decency, Catelyn at least has her son Robb (Richard Madden) and her role as mother to the King in the North. But at the Red Wedding, as Walder Frey (David Bradley) switches sides and slaughters the Starks and their bannermen, Catelyn faces not simply the death of the only child she still has but the loss of the concepts that structured her life and gave it meaning.
“They could do as they wished with her; imprison her, rape her, kill her, it made no matter. She had lived too long, and Ned was waiting,” Martin wrote in “A Storm of Swords,” as Catelyn faces her own death. In HBO’s adaptation, her face goes empty in the moments before one of Frey’s men slits her throat; long before her daughter Arya (Maisie Williams) began the training meant to turn her into a Faceless Man, Catelyn had become No One.
King’s Landing offered a more vital version of crone-hood in Olenna Tyrell, played with peppery exuberance by Diana Rigg. Fate and politics have been less cruel to Olenna than to Catelyn Stark; if Olenna thinks her son is a fool and her husband was an oaf, at least the former is living and the latter died in a silly hunting accident rather than by murder. And perhaps that kindness gave Olenna the room and peace of mind to envision a role for herself that wasn’t constrained by a father, a husband or a son.
She’s a character who revels in the freedom that came after other roles passed from her: “Oh, no, please! Seduce away, it’s been so long. Though I rather think it’s all for naught. What happens when the nonexistent bumps against the decrepit?” she tells the eunuch Lord Varys (Conleth Hill). She’s sharp enough to cultivate people like Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) who others have cast aside and ignored. And if Olenna Tyrell doesn’t always win the game of thrones, well, who does? She’s freer and happier than many of the other people who have been deemed more significant players.
If these crones have already played a significant role on “Game of Thrones,” “The Red Woman” added more women to their numbers.
Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) has suffered tremendously (and inflicted enormous pain on others), but the death of her daughter Myrcella (Nell Tiger Free), poisoned on the road home from Dorne, seems like an inflection point for her. When Cersei loses herself in dreadful fantasies of decomposition, pondering of both her mother and her daughter, “Has she started to bloat? Has her skin turned black? Have her lips peeled back from her teeth?” she’s also imagining her own decay.
Myrcella’s death is the death of Cersei’s own promise, the person she pledged to herself that she would be when the pressures on her were less acute. “She was nothing like me. No meanness, no jealousy, just good,” Cersei sobs to her brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who is also the father of her children. “I thought if I could make something so good, so pure, maybe I’m not so monstrous.” And while Jaime promises to Cersei that he’ll destroy all of her enemies, setting the pair of them against the world, he doesn’t promise her another child. That part of her life has passed from it, and with it, the possibility that Cersei can leave the sort of legacy that she wanted.
And more than that, she’s almost run down the predictions Maggy the Frog (Jodhi May) made for Cersei’s future so many years ago. Two of Cersei’s three children have been cloaked in their gold shrouds. Another young queen has displaced Cersei from the position she coveted so dearly as a child. All that’s left for Cersei is the death of yet another child — and in the novels, though not in the television show, her own death by means of the “Valonqar,” a High Valyrian word for “little brother.” The years stretch out blankly in front of her like a curse.
Across the narrow sea, in the custody of Khal Moro (Joseph Naufahu), Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) learns that her widowhood protects her from being raped. But it also means that Moro intends to relegate her to Vaes Dothrak, the great Dothraki city, so she can take up her membership in the dosh khaleen, the community of wives of dead khals who act as the closest thing the Dothraki have to a governing body and moral authority.
Neither “Game of Thrones” nor Martin’s novels have shown us much of Vaes Dothrak, a city “large enough to house every man of every khalasar, should all the khals return to the Mother at once,” but inhabited only by the dosh khaleen and those who serve them in much detail. In Martin’s novels, it’s a place that holds both fascination and repulsion for Dany. It’s the seat of the matriarchal authority that ultimately constrains this patriarchal culture. And while Dany marvels at the power the dosh khaleen wield, she’s both anxious about the prospect of having no choice about where she spends the rest of her life and attracted to the idea of a home far away from Westeros, a land that’s supposed to be her birthright but has given her nothing but pain.
Now, Dany — who like Cersei, can no longer have children — is heading to the fate she avoided when she walked into Khal Drogo’s (Jason Momoa) funeral pyre and emerged as the Mother of Dragons.
But while Catelyn, and Cersei and Dany may look at the crones they’ve become or are becoming with fear and disgust, in the Faith of the Seven, the Crone represents wisdom. And as the men in “Game of Thrones” destroy themselves and each other, leaving a generation of women without husbands, sons and marriage partners, crones may be the only people left to repair the shattered world.