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Review: Death toll soars on second-to-last episode of 'Game of Thrones'

Turns out there are many answers to fans' question of which characters will die.

Emilia Clarke as the character Daenerys Targaryen on

Emilia Clarke as the character Daenerys Targaryen on "Game of Thrones" this season. Photo Credit: HBO / Helen Sloan

The following review contains spoilers. Read at your own discretion.

After all these seasons of guessing, speculating, wondering, after all the fan sites, all the Reddit threads, all the magazine covers and posts and stories, all of them devoted to one insistent, enduring question — Who will die on "Game of Thrones?" — Sunday's second-to-last episode appeared to offer one emphatic answer, best expressed as "who won't?"

In an orgy of blood and fire — while the walls came tumbling down — HBO's "Game of Thrones" ended more lives, big and small, than all the preceding episodes combined. It was one of those episodes designed to exhaust fans as much as sate curiosities — their own "Game of Thrones" drinking contests now ended in one, bloody whoosh.

Let's count the bodies. No, forget the bodies. Let's count the names: In a battle long expected, the Hound vanquished the Mountain, and together both vanquished each other. Varys — the king whisperer — vanished under the hot breath of the one surviving dragon. Euron Greyjoy, his fleet rendered into matchsticks, was gutted by Jaime Lannister, while his last words — "I am the man who killed Jaime Lannister!" — were as wrong as they were comical.

Elsewhere in that vanquished now vanished city, which we once knew as King's Landing, other bodies are strewn — very nearly Arya's. And of course beneath the rubble now lie twins — a brother and sister, you know them as Jaime and Cersei.

Satisfied yet, fans?

Episodes like this one — and honestly, there haven't been many in the history of television — are designed to settle matters as much as satisfy the blood lust of fans (and there's nothing quite like the blood lust of "GoT" fans). Everything imploded in the dust and flames, mostly all the ridiculous theories we've been batting around for years now.

In point of fact, 'twas all foretold, by none other than poor Missandei whose final word, just before she was beheaded, was "dracarys."

As in "dragon fire."

Dragon fire indeed.

This episode obviously sets up a finale in which Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen are to meet and to resolve their differences, so profoundly on display Sunday. She had an atomic bomb, and she used it — in the process, killing thousands and effectively torching whatever shred of moral authority she has left. Much like her father, she is now and forever the Mad Queen.

This game is now between Jon, Dany and one dragon. Targaryen versus Targaryen. Who will win? (Will either?)

Meanwhile, let's all bid farewell to Cersei — one of the great villains of TV history — and reflect a moment on what she really meant to this enterprise. (Her death was widely expected on this Mother's Day, in part because her father, Tywin, was killed by Tyrion on an episode that aired on Father's Day a few years ago.)

George R.R. Martin appears to have loosely based her on Margaret of Anjou, a central figure in the 15th century War of the Roses which "Game of Thrones" itself is loosely based upon. Shakespeare brought Margaret to life — fully, wildly to life — in the three "Henry VI" plays, as Queen Margaret, a ferocious warrior queen beset by the weak, feckless men (including husband Suffolk — think Robert Baratheon) who surrounded her. Margaret takes matters into her own hands — Cersei took matters into her own hands — and approaches the dynastic struggles as a game ruled by the most elemental of rules: One either lives, or one dies.

Margaret, like Cersei, was focused on one goal to the exclusion of all others: Her son, Edward, and his rightful quest for the throne. Margaret, like Cersei, is blinded by her love for her son, blinded by the one goal she has set for herself. Margaret, like Cersei, is a tragic figure doomed to witness the death of her own children. Margaret watched her poor dear Edward murdered before her eyes; Cersei saw Joffrey die thusly, and lost Myrcella and Tommen to brutal deaths as well.

So on this Mother's Day, it's certainly valid to see Cersei for what she was — even Martin once declared that she "has an almost sociopathic view of the world and civilization" — but it's also reasonable to see her in that other role, as a mother disappointed, a mother scorned, a mother despised, and a mother who outlived her own children.

She's a tragic figure more than anything else — tormented by the weak, feckless men who surrounded her, by the father who treated her as he treated everyone. She never was to know her own mother, never to have a mother's love — a reason, of course, for her disparagement of Tyrion.

As a child, you will recall, Cersei and a friend, Melara, sought out the witch, Maggy the Frog, who told them the now-famous prophecy: That she would marry a king; that she would be overthrown by a younger woman; and that her brother would kill her (presumably either Tyrion or Jaime). After that day, Cersei would then spend the rest of her life fighting her fate, full well knowing that the fight would be in vain.

Yes, of course, Cersei was ruthless, brutal, scheming, unpleasant — a murderer with a taste for blood. But like all great characters, she was also the most compelling figure of the entire series, and the one who best represented Martin's long-stated goal — with a nod to Faulkner — that the only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.

So happy Mother's Day, Cersei, wherever you may be — a heart in conflict with itself, a devoted mother, and fallen tyrant. You may have deserved your fate, but you also made this series better — and indisputably richer — by your presence.

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