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Could Game of Thrones’ Melisandre evolve from villain to hero?

Roose and Ramsay talk shop.
Roose and Ramsay talk shop.
HBO

Every week, three of Vox's writers will discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, deputy culture editor Jen Trolio is joined by executive editor Matthew Yglesias and politics writer Andrew Prokop. Come back throughout the week for entries.

Matthew Yglesias: Andrew, I liked your point that "Kill the Boy" refocuses a little on the question of who is actually using power responsibly versus the essentially personal squabbling of the great houses we've mostly seen until now.

Another example of this, I think, comes in the additional revelations about the circumstances of Ramsay Bolton's birth, which added a nice bit of a character development. But they also delivered some exposition about the nature of Bolton rule in the territory the Dreadfort controls, and served as a clear indication that the Boltons' rise to power is a genuine disaster for the people of the North. Conversely, even though it's been natural to root for kindly Margaery against slimy Cersei, we don't actually know anything about Tyrell governance or have any reason to believe their agenda for Westeros (if they have one) is any better than what the Lannisters have cooked up.

This is what makes Stannis such a fascinating character as the story unfolds.

He's the most rigid and uncompromising leader in Westeros, which eventually put him on a trajectory toward embracing kingship that's laden with responsibilities rather than privileges. In that sense, he has the makings of a much greater king than either of his brothers could ever have been, to say nothing of the monstrous Joffrey or the hapless Tommen.

But Stannis's leadership is also inextricably linked to Melisandre and the cult of R'Hllor. Personally, I'm a believer in the Lord of Light (I even own a "The Night Is Dark and Full of Terrors" T-shirt), but Game of Thrones' staging and atmospherics have led us to regard her as menacing.

And certainly it seems to me that there's going to be an enormous practical problem of attempting to rule Westeros while adhering to an obscure eastern religion. Tolerance and freedom of conscience could be one way out of this trap, albeit an awfully advanced one for Westeros's generally medieval state. But Melisandre doesn't seem like the tolerant type — she and Stannis burned all the icons of the Faith of the Seven for good luck before setting off from Dragonstone. If Stannis bests the Boltons and regains momentum in his quest for the throne, what happens on the religious front? Armed clashes with the newly restored Faith Militant? It's hard to imagine gaining the support of the masses while burning septs.

Then again, George R. R. Martin never depicted any religious tensions between Robb's Northern bannermen (who worship the Old Gods) and those from the Riverlands (who presumably follow the New), so maybe he wants us to believe that faith and legitimacy are not as intertwined in Westeros as they were in historical Europe.

Still, Melisandre has occupied a lot of screen time given how much else has been left on the cutting room floor. And having her march off to war alongside Stannis means something must be happening. Is Stannis's transformation into heroic protagonist going to set her up for a clear display of villainy? Is she going to surprisingly emerge as a more sympathetic character?

I must admit I've always felt she gets a bad rap. Is birthing a demon assassin to kill one man really worse than leading an army to slaughter thousands? Isn't it clear that if Renly and his might-makes-right theory of kingship had won that battle, disaster would ensued for everyone involved? If Stannis hadn't let his petty honor issues prevent her from accompanying him to the march on King's Landing, maybe we could have avoided a whole lot of subsequent unpleasantness with a few more demon babies. The show keeps setting her up as a villain, but I hope it redeems her.

What do you think, Jen? Any chance she'll emerge as a heroic figure?

Read the recap. Come back soon for more discussion.

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