When the Red Priestess Melisandre of Asshai first began serving Lord Stannis Baratheon on Dragonstone, she surely believed that he was Azor Ahai, a savior destined to become Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and save the world. As the next-oldest brother of the recently deceased King Robert Baratheon, Stannis had the best claim to the Iron Throne. Melisandre gained his trust, converted his wife Selyse Florent to the faith of the Lord of Light, and became one of his closest advisors. It was with the understanding that Stannis was a savior that Melisandre used her magical skills to help him kill his younger brother and rival for the Iron Throne, Renly Baratheon. It was with Melisandre’s guidance that Stannis continued his campaign to take the Throne, culminating in the failed siege of King’s Landing.
All actions have unforeseen consequences, and war has plenty. Because of the circumstances of Renly’s death, the powerful Tyrell family allied with Stannis’ enemies the Lannisters, providing them with military forces, food, and a new bride for King Joffrey. Following their attempt to take the city, many of Stannis’s supporters abandoned his cause and swore fealty to the crown. All seemed lost, but Melisandre still had other tricks up her wide red sleeves; she found Gendry, a poor bastard son of King Robert, and brought him to Dragonstone, intending to use his blood in a ritual that would kill Stannis’ enemies. She carried out the ritual, albeit in an abbreviated form, and when Stannis received news of Robb Stark’s death, Melisandre appeared vindicated. However, her plans to burn Gendry alive were soon foiled by Ser Davos, another of Stannis’ advisors, who facilitated Gendry’s escape from the castle.
In one of their last conversations, Ser Davos confided in Gendry that Melisandre “knows her way around a man’s head.”
When Ser Davos confesses his insubordination to Stannis and Melisandre, she tells him he has doomed thousands of lives to save one innocent boy, and at that moment, she still sincerely believes that putting Stannis Baratheon on the Iron Throne is the way to save the world. Stannis is about to have Ser Davos executed when Davos hands over a communication from Maester Aemon: the White Walkers are coming, and the Night’s Watch needs help.
Melisandre reads the scroll, puts it in her magical fire, peers into the flames, and announces that the War of Five Kings means nothing, the true war lies to the north, death marches on the Wall, and only Stannis can stop it. She says Ser Davos has a part to play in the war to come.
Her fire visions have always been open to interpretation, and she has long insisted to Stannis that the images in the flames do not lie, but she may sometimes misread them. At that moment when she looks at the flames, everything changes for Melisandre. She is telling the truth when she says the War of Five Kings means nothing and that the true war is at the Wall. However, there is one serious lie in her new announcement: she now sees she made a mistake in serving Stannis Baratheon’s cause. She now sees he is not the destined savior of the world, but having brought him this far, she can’t simply tell him she can no longer help him. She needs him to help her true savior. Eventually, she needs him to die without having taken power.
But first, she needs him to bring her to the Wall, along with his wife and daughter, Ser Davos, and an army.
At that point in the show, we the audience had no clue as to Melisandre’s intentions, but as we saw more of her in later episodes, the show gave us more information about what the Red Woman was trying to accomplish.
While King Stannis and Ser Davos go to Braavos to borrow money from the Iron Bank, Melisandre stays home on Dragonstone with Queen Selyse and Princess Shireen. During Season 4, Episode 7, Selyse walks in on Melisandre taking a bath. Their conversation eventually turns to the princess, whom Selyse wants to leave at home while their party goes to the Wall. Over the queen’s objections, Melisandre insists that Shireen must be present at the Wall:
“You don’t need powders and potions, my queen. You don’t need lies. You are strong enough to look into the Lord’s light and see his truth for yourself. However harsh it is. However hard for us to understand. You don’t need my help, but I will need yours soon. When we set sail, your daughter must be with us. The Lord needs her.”
This is where Melisandre first reveals that she intends to burn Shireen as a sacrifice to the Lord of Light, but she won’t say so in as many words. She probably assumes Selyse will not be too broken up about sacrificing her daughter, as she is a true believer in the Lord of Light and not a loving mother to her disfigured, skeptical daughter. However, this conversation does not give us any insight into what Melisandre hopes to accomplish by burning her king’s only child.
Later on, King Stannis and his supporters are guests of the Night’s Watch, and at Castle Black, we see a discussion between King Stannis and Queen Selyse about their family. With Princess Shireen sitting off in the distance, watching the activity in the yard, Selyse remarks that she should have given Stannis a son. Instead she gave him nothing but weakness and deformity. Melisandre shows up and tells them that “those scars mean nothing to the Lord of Light.” She says Shireen’s father is the Lord’s chosen king, and her father’s blood runs through her veins. She emphasizes to Stannis that he must not make the mistake again of leaving her behind when he marches to battle.
Stannis: “I won’t. I need you.”
Melisandre: “You only need faith, my king.”
Stannis: “And you, my lady, what do you need?”
Melisandre: “To serve my Lord.”
Cut to Jon sparring in the yard.
Her most curious, telling behavior takes place in her next scene from that same episode. She approaches Jon in the Lord Commander’s chamber just after he’s signed some correspondence. She closes the door after Sam leaves.
First, she wants Jon to come with Stannis’ forces when they ride south, because none of them know the castle like Jon does. Doesn’t he want to chase the rats out of his former home? While Jon protests that the Watch remains uninvolved in the Seven Kingdoms’ wars, Melisandre insists that there’s only one war: life against death.
To drive the point home, she opens her robe and slides Jon’s hand up to her bare breast. She tells him there’s power in him, and he should embrace it. The seduction isn’t going quite as smoothly as she wants, so she explains further:
“The Lord of Light made us male and female. Two parts of a greater whole. In our joining, there’s power. Power to make life, power to make light, and power to cast shadows.”
This is interesting language to use when tempting a healthy young man into illicit sex. We’ve seen Melisandre’s “power to cast shadows” before, when she gave birth to the monster that killed Renly in Season 2.
Jon protests that Stannis wouldn’t like them doing what Melisandre is asking him, and she responds that they shouldn’t tell him. Jon insists that he loved another, and he still loves her. Melisandre is unimpressed, but she puts her clothes back on and heads for the door, with one, last pronouncement:
“You know nothing, Jon Snow.”
We might ask here: what is Melisandre’s purpose in trying to seduce Jon? She seems much too controlling and deliberate a person to go to bed with an overburdened teenager just for the fun of seeing him break his vow of celibacy. She knows Stannis wouldn’t like her having sex with Jon, so her idea is to do it anyway but not let him know.
If her choice of words is any indication, she wants to make a shadow baby with Jon. She has already made sure to be part of the force that marches south to Winterfell, and now she’s asking Jon to come with them and trying to make a shadowy assassin with him rather than with her chosen King Stannis. And we’ve already seen her twice talk about Princess Shireen as though she’s a human sacrifice.
This is not the behavior of a woman who is in the process of changing her loyalties. This is the behavior of a woman who has already changed her loyalties, and is in the process of cleaning up the mess she made. Melisandre knows more about Jon Snow than she lets on. She knows more about Stannis Baratheon than she lets on.
To clean up the mess, she needs to get Stannis Baratheon’s claim to the Iron Throne out of the way, which means she needs to ensure that he dies without issue. This is a fairly simple matter, as he only has one living child, and she is close at hand. She’s been planning to burn Shireen since before they left Dragonstone. At this point, her plan appears to be something like this: she has Jon Snow join them in the march on Winterfell. Just ahead of the march, she makes sure to burn Shireen, serving the dual purpose of petitioning the Lord of Light to clear the obstacles from their path, and getting rid of Stannis’s sole remaining heir. Stannis and his army take Winterfell from the Boltons, and once they’re comfortably situated in the castle, she uses Jon’s shadow baby to kill Stannis, clearing the way for Jon to become Lord of Winterfell and take his place as Azor Ahai. When Stannis offered to legitimize Jon as a Stark and make him Lord of Winterfell, he was playing into Melisandre’s hands.
Unfortunately, while Melisandre is notorious for knowing her way around a man’s head, she still has not absorbed the lesson that war is messy and actions have consequences. She doesn’t seem to realize that many people respond to certain events in ways that she would not. Her visions are accurate, but they are incomplete and imprecise. She accompanies Stannis through the snow toward Winterfell, but she doesn’t expect the sellswords to desert his army. She is genuinely surprised and dismayed when Ramsay Bolton and his twenty good men set fire to their food stores and siege engines. The winter is harsh, and the Baratheon troops aren’t doing so well in the storm. That is when she and Stannis talk alone in his tent, and she tells him, “sometimes sacrifices must be made to ensure victory.” With him still under the delusion of being destined to save the world, she convinces him to kill his only child, painfully. He protests at first, but then he leads his daughter to her death and watches as she screams her last.
At this point, Melisandre may be sincerely using Shireen’s sacrifice as blood magic to support their attack on the Boltons. She’s telling the truth when she says she’s seen a great battle in the snow, she’s seen herself walk along the battlements of Winterfell, and she’s seen the flayed man banners lowered to the ground. She may even believe, still, that Stannis will win the great battle in the snow, but she already knows there’s no way he can win the war. This is why she looks so pleased when Shireen dies.
Shireen’s death buys them a bit of mild weather to facilitate their southward march, but there are those nasty consequences again: more soldiers desert before morning, and Selyse’s body is found hanging from a tree. That is when Melisandre abandons the battle and flees back up to Castle Black. Later that day, Stannis marches the remainder of his army to a crushing defeat by the Boltons. He ends up dying on the blade of a young woman who had the bad taste to have fallen in love with his foolish little brother and the bad luck to have been the last one in the tent with him before his death, but Brienne of Tarth is of no consequence to Melisandre. Had she not shown up in that forest, Stannis would have died of his injuries within the day, and his army was already obliterated.
Melisandre’s plans have not worked out. She was supposed to convince Jon to march with them to Winterfell, and he refused. Stannis was supposed to defeat the Boltons and clear the way for Jon to take power, and he failed due to factors which Melisandre did not foresee. She may also feel guilty about Selyse’s suicide. This is why she looks so miserable when Davos approaches her in the Season 5 finale. It’s not because Stannis was defeated, but because he was defeated before she was ready. He did not fight a great battle in the snow. He performed a suicide mission, and she’s no closer to getting her true king, Jon Snow, to where he can fulfill his destiny as Azor Ahai.
As poorly as her mission has fared up to now, it can always get worse. Shortly after Melisandre returns to Castle Black, Jon Snow is stabbed to death “for the Watch.”
While she’s made plenty of mistakes since she joined the story, Melisandre knew exactly what she was doing when she burned Princess Shireen. Doing so was never about helping Stannis take the Iron Throne; she hadn’t been loyal to Stannis since she put Maester Aemon’s scroll in the fire. His death was written as soon as she saw Jon Snow’s face in the flames.
In Season 6, we will see the great battle in the snow, the Bolton banners will be lowered to the ground, and Melisandre will walk the battlements of Winterfell. We will see the part Ser Davos has to play in the wars to come. To make that possible, Jon Snow will need to come back to life, and we have already seen Melisandre meet with a Red Priest who knows how to bring a man back from death. It’s not a stretch to assume Melisandre will use the power of the Lord of Light in the same way as Thoros of Myr did for Beric Dondarrion.
This is the person who will return Jon Snow to the land of the living: one who knowingly manipulated a man into annihilating his own family as she led him to certain defeat. In everything she’s done since we first met her, Melisandre has genuinely believed that she is fulfilling a prophecy and saving the world. She may even be right about that. Sacrifices must be made to win a war. Her sacrifices to date have included the entirety of House Baratheon.