Shirley Li and Darren Franich
August 11, 2017 AT 04:14 PM EDT

With the seventh season of Game of Thrones in full swing, EW’s Darren Franich and Shirley Li venture into the weeds of Westeros every week to untangle the latest burning questions, ruminate over theories, and trace the show’s remaining connections to the unfinished books. Consider it EW’s small council, made of two people far too obsessed with everything Thrones. This week’s burning question: Will next episode be Cersei’s last?

DARREN: I’ve been thinking a lot this season about the Level Bosses, Shirley. Game of Thrones has always been building steadily toward a final showdown. The precise nature of that final showdown is a bit uncertain — “Ice and Fire” could mean “Ice Zombies vs. Dragons,” or it could mean “Wintry North vs. Targaryen-dominated South,” or it could just be Jon Snow in a room wrestling with his own internal contradictions. We’ll find out that answer next season. But this leads to a basic question: What is this penultimate season really about? Is it an elaborate table-setting build-up to that final showdown? Or is it a miniature showdown unto itself, with a central antagonistic figure?

“Central antagonistic figure” is obviously a vague phrase to throw around on the four-dimensional chessboard of Thrones strategy. But some seasons are more binary than others. Season 2 saw the rise (and swift fall) of Stannis Baratheon. Season 4 built steadily to a climactic interaction with Mance Rayder, King-Beyond-The-Wall. (Stannis was a helpful afterthought in that particular battle: Two unsuccessful monarchs helping Jon Snow on his merry way toward king status!) And though psychopathic Ramsay had been making merry in Winterfell since his Theon-taunting days back in season 3, he became a full-fledged supervillain in season 6, ascending up the Winterfell ranks by Macbeth-ing his way through his immediate family. In videogame parlance, they were Level Bosses. Jon Snow even absorbed Mance’s army, the way Mega Man absorbs defeated Bosses’ powers. (Mance = Ice Man.) (Ramsay = Cut Man?) (Sorry.)

And now I’m wondering: Is Cersei Lannister the Level Boss of season 7? She started the premiere in a precarious position, enemies encircling her. Before “The Spoils of War,” she had only successes: Dorne and the renegade Greyjoys vanquished, Highgarden brought low, a big chunk of the Targaryen ground forces stranded in emptied Casterly Rock. Then came the dragon. Bye-bye, loot train! So long, Lannister army! Swim, Jaime, swim! It makes me wonder if season 7 is another rise-and-fall narrative. Did we see Peak Cersei at the beginning of this week’s episode — finally settling the Westerosi debt with the Iron Bank, just in time for another monarch to swoop in with a financial clean slate? Do you think Cersei will survive this season? Hell, given the rapid pace of climaxes, do you think Cersei will survive this weekend?

Macall B. Polay/HBO

SHIRLEY: First of all, I love this idea of level bosses, because it begs the question: Who’s our true hero? Who should be our first pick on our rotating team of protagonists? We’ve chosen Daenerys to start against Cersei, but will she be as effective for the next boss? Should we un-bench Tyrion at some point? Is the Hound a playable character? When it comes to the ice zombies, who will be the Goofy and Donald to Jon’s Sora? THE WHITE WALKERS ARE TOTALLY THE HEARTLESS, AM I RIGHT? (Ahem, what I’m saying is you can have the Mega Man” analogies, Darren, if I can toss in some Kingdom Hearts.)

Anyway, I’m wondering if perhaps this penultimate season isn’t really about showdowns at all, despite what we’ve been watching. Maybe all my complaints about the Lack of War this season — save for the loot train! — have only been proof that the story hasn’t been about war, but about the end of, er, Westerosi politics as we know them. The Iron Throne has been corrupted for so long, it no longer matters, and maybe this season is showing us how the endgame has never been about who sits on top of the worst chair in the world.

But to stop sounding like Bran for a moment, I am 100 percent sure Cersei’s going to bite it in some epic fashion by the end of this season, and 70 percent sure it’ll happen this weekend. We have less than a season left of episodes — nine to be exact — and the sooner we eliminate Cersei, the sooner we can get to diving into the Great War. Because if you think about it, what moves does Cersei have left to play? The Mountain and the probably-never-happening-but-could-still-happen Cleganebowl? Qyburn and bigger versions of his ballista? Thanks to that deus ex Bronn at the end of last Sunday’s episode, we still have Jaime around to fulfill that valonqar prophecy we’ve heard so much about. Cersei’s been backed into a corner on that four-dimensional chessboard, and queenslaying may be the only move left. (Unless you can think of something that saves her?) The action has to move north now, with the wolf pack regrouping in Winterfell, which leads me to wonder: Should we care about Littlefinger anymore? Darren, what do you think he meant to get out of giving Bran Chekhov’s catspaw dagger?

DARREN: Dany is Sora, Tyrion is Donald, and the dragons are collectively Goofy. Jon can be, like, Kairi. Few things in modern pop culture can’t be explained by Kingdom Hearts.

I’m a little bummed if season 7 is the end of the show-length inquisition into fantasy bureaucracy. One of the central concepts of “A Song of Ice and Fire” was always Martin’s stat-geek suggestion that a world with dragons could also be a world with severe national debt and trade disputes. It feels too simple for the final act of the show to just be a classical duel between Obvious Evil and By-Default Totally Good. And for what it’s worth, I think that the ballista strategy — like a crossbow, but bigger! — was at least a partial success. It brought down a dragon! It was just a flesh wound, but still! I’m not sure that makes her a military power, but it does make a siege of King’s Landing look a lot more dangerous for the Targaryen-aligned forces.

But if we are approaching the Waterloo for Westerosi Politicking, how weirdly poignant that it’s symbolized by Cersei. Here’s someone who strived within a broken system her whole life: controlled by her father, trapped in a loveless marriage, shadow-plotting her way forward until she finally (almost inadvertently) climbed to the throne on the corpses of her enemies and her family. Jesus, am I Team Cersei? Are we still doing Teams? I think she sticks around at least till next week’s penultimate episode, following the usual Thrones strategy of wrapping the season-arc before a forward-looking finale.

Helen Sloan/HBO

As goes Cersei, so goes Littlefinger? I loved the scene between him and Bran even before the dagger appeared. I kind of believe Littlefinger when he says that he wants to help the Stark children because of his love for their lost mother — even though I also believe Littlefinger would turn on all the Starks if it suited him. I go back and forth on my dagger theories. I believe it when Sansa says that Littlefinger does everything for a reason. I also can’t see any clear reason for him to do, well, anything. He’s firmly ensconced as the big man in the Eyrie, which makes him unkillable. (Though I guess the bannermen of the Eyrie could just shrug and say, “Eh, we never really liked him, anyway.”) And he’s not really in danger from anyone; if anyone has a nice pied-a-terre waiting somewhere in Essos for the long winter, it’s probably Petyr Baelish. So why produce the telltale dagger this late in the game?

Because I love the dramatization of human pointlessness, I kind of like the idea that the dagger is supposed to symbolize the fog of war — that “The Failed Assassination of Bran Stark” is simultaneously the most important thing that has ever happened in Westeros and a weirdly random event that few of the recent Kings ever even heard about. But I have to assume that dagger has some kind of purpose? Shirley, how seriously should we take the books’ version of the assassination and the implication of Joffrey’s involvement? And who do you think Arya will kill with that dagger?

SHIRLEY: I like the idea, too, that we’ve never known exactly who ordered the assassination. It is immensely satisfying when Thrones unravels its mysteries — think of Olenna confessing to Joffrey’s death, Lysa Arryn admitting to poisoning Jon, or even Daenerys discovering what’s-her-name in bed with what’s-his-name before locking them both up to die for stealing her dragons — but it’s also subversive of the show to hold onto this one. It’s, to get a little Leftovers about it, letting the mystery be.

But our job is not to let mysteries be! So to answer your first question, Darren, I don’t think we should take into account Joffrey’s presumed involvement in the assassination from the books at all, even though I’ve always liked the idea of the little idiot trying to impress his father through, um, MURDER. (“Dad, look, I killed your best friend’s son! Do I get a new crossbow now? Dad?”) I’m far more into the idea of Littlefinger somehow slipping the dagger away from Tyrion and into the hands of the would-be assassin, just to add another rung to his chaos ladder. But all the seasons later, I also believe that in last Sunday’s scene with Bran, Littlefinger didn’t have some epic motive; I think he simply wanted to prove himself to the little lord and win some favor the same way he did Robin Arryn. But Bran is not Robin Arryn, and a mockingbird is no match for a Three-Eyed Raven, who has no need for a cool weapon.

Which brings me to the question of Arya. The prevailing theory out there is Arya will use it to kill the Night King, and Bran gives the dagger to her because he knows this. To me, this doesn’t totally track: Sure, we saw an illustration of the dagger in the book Sam reads at the start of the season to figure out that there’s tons of dragonglass under Dragonstone, and we know that as lovely as Needle may be, it’s not Valyrian steel, and Arya will need Valyrian steel if she’s to partner up with Jon and fight those ice zombies. But does Arya really seem like the one who’ll take down Blue Eyes White Walker? Am I making the same mistake Sansa made by underestimating our water-dancing faceless assassin?

This does make me wonder what else Arya will be meant to do. For a while, I had assumed she would finish off her list or team up with her direwolf or cross paths with Melisandre again, but this season, she’s already encountered Nymeria and failed to keep her around, missed the Red Woman before she ran off to Essos, and she turned her back on crossing Cersei off her kill list. Darren, do you think we’ll have to wait until Jon returns to Winterfell to see Arya back in action? Has the show’s decision to rid Arya of her wolf dreams diminished her larger role in the narrative? And speaking of Jon, what did you think of Theon’s sheepish return to shore? I have very little hope he’ll convince Dany to save his sister, but maybe you feel differently.

Helen Sloan/HBO

DARREN: It was easy to complain about the two seasons Arya spent on her l-o-o-o-o-o-n-g Batman Begins training montage with the Faceless Men. But I have to give Benioff & Weiss full credit for their patience. Martin himself grappled with how best to dramatize her transformation into a full-fledged spiritual-ninja assassin — a plotline perfectly architected for the time jump that wasn’t! I’ve enjoyed the payoff this season, though. Maisie Williams is playing Arya with a more murderous variation of Bran’s Vulcanized stare. She’s home, but you kinda know she’ll never be home again.

But you bring up a good point. The experience of watching Arya this season if fascinating, but trying to figure out precisely what Arya is doing is more mysterious. I always figured her destiny lay back in King’s Landing, but her presence up north — and that lingering shot of the dagger in Sam’s Helpful Book Of Plot — does imply that her unique set of skills could come in handy with the war to save all humanity. I always figured Arya’s wolf dreams were more of an interesting affectation than an important detail — evidence that she, like Bran, is locked into the deep spiritual undertones of the North in a way that most of her siblings aren’t. Which makes me think Arya and Bran could be linked together: Maybe she strikes the final blow with the dagger, while Bran tackles the Night King on the spiritual plane?

Poor Theon. He’s the last Greyjoy standing. (Euron doesn’t stand, he swings.) I liked how Jon admitted that Theon had only barely redeemed himself by helping Sansa, but it brought up a bigger question: Can Theon do anything to redeem himself now? It’s hard to see how he fits into Dany’s army, so I wonder if he begs Jon for a return trip up north. There’s a bit of sorrowful subtext here: Theon badly wanted to belong in his ancestral home, but the best and worst days of his life were spent in Winterfell, so it seems appropriate he returns for one final chance to prove himself not-entirely-useless.

On that note, Shirley: When do you think Jon will return to the North? Next week? People travel so quickly, and we know from the trailers that there’s some sort of snowfight on the horizon. Do we think that Jon and Dany will seal their alliance before the end of this season?

SHIRLEY: Love the word “snowfight.” Makes me think the Great War™ will be fought with snowballs, resulting in zero casualties and everybody making nice at the end of it with steaming mugs of hot cocoa. A girl is not a TV writer, clearly.

Let’s see… By this Sunday’s “Eastwatch,” Jon will be itching to return to the North, but I suspect he won’t make it to the titular castle until the week after. In that time, we need Vulcanized Bran to see the Army of the Dead again, for that news to reach Dragonstone, and maybe for Jaime to off Cersei. (As an aside: The Ringer had a fun post the other day about how little Cersei has moved. Now that she knows Dany’s coming after her, will she ever leave her gilded prison and make a run for it? We’ll see soon enough.)

But what of Daenerys and Jon? They’ll have to seal their alliance before the end of this season; I can’t see the show dragging out the “bend the knee” argument for much longer. Maybe Jon, at the news of what’s approaching Eastwatch, will decide to obey Daenerys’ one wish and move on. Maybe Dany, hearing about Eastwatch, will believe Jon and his stories of the North. Or maybe Tyrion will have his first drink this season and know how to deal with those two crazy kids. Now that should have been our burning question this week: When will Tyrion finally get a drink?

Game of Thrones airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

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