At long last, Game of Thrones is reaching the endgame. Based on the sweeping trailer for the show's seventh and penultimate season, HBO's colossal fantasy series is playing for keeps in a way we've never seen before. In just 90 seconds, we see hordes of Daenerys Targaryen's Dothraki horsemen riding into battle, led by a dragon on the wing; the Mad Queen Cersei Lannister striding across a map of Westeros the size of an entire room, ready to take on enemies coming from every direction; and Jon Snow, the born-again King in the North and possible messiah, proclaiming "The Great War is here." The culmination of over a year of news tidbits, rumors, leaks, and tantalizing promos, it promises big things to come – and we don't just mean the size of the dragons.
But the stakes have been raised in every bit of promotional material HBO has released for the season so far. The teaser trailer shows Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, and Cersei Lannister assuming their seats of power – a final alignment of the show's many moving parts between three players, born survivors whose rivals have fallen by the wayside – with even balmy King's Landing, Cersei's home turf, in the grips of winter. The key art poster features the gleaming blue eye of the Night King, the supernatural enemy to any and all human monarchs, and the ultimate antagonist in "the Great War." (Sorry, Cersei!) Previous teaser imagery, including the much-maligned premiere reveal in which the July 16 date was sloooooowly unveiled through a block of ice melted with blowtorches, allude directly to the Ice and Fire imagery at the very heart of the series. We're getting down to the nitty-gritty now.
Yet there's way more to the new trailer than armies and invasions. Sansa Stark and her malicious mentor Littlefinger are moving around the margins in Winterfell, where the scheming lord is still sowing seeds of discord. Lady Stark's little sister Arya appears to be riding north from the home of House Frey, where she murdered evil Lord Walder at the end of last season (and served him a very special meal). Love connections are sparking between Dany's adviser Missandei and her eunuch general Grey Worm, and between Ellaria Sand and Yara Greyjoy, the leaders of the Dornish and Ironborn contingents in the Mother of Dragons' forces. An infected arm pokes through a door, perhaps indicating the return of greyscale-afflicted Ser Jorah Mormont. The zombiefied Gregor Clegane, Cersei's undead bodguard, makes his return in an even scarier helmet. Wildlings run for their lives through a gate in a wall, while another gate is thrown open for Daenerys and her forces, presumably in the ancient Eastern slave city of Old Volantis. A creepy ship sailing in the darkness to the west hints that mad Euron Greyjoy, the murderous King of the Iron Islands, is on the move. Theon Greyjoy (no longer answering to the name Reek), Tyrion Lannister, and Lady Melisandre all look pretty unhappy. And Dany's hand touches sand on what can only be the shore of Westeros itself. That's a whole lot of action and intrigue. How will it all shake out?
With only seven episodes in the season, the show is set to change on a structural level. The predictable pattern of past ten-episode seasons – a mini-climax around episode four or five, a massive showstopper around episode eight or nine, a finale that's equal parts aftermath and shocking set-up for the next season – won't apply. The wholesale elimination of much of the cast last year, including major plot-driving factions like the Boltons, the Tyrells, and the High Sparrow's Faith Militant, will free the show to focus on its core characters and conflicts – add that to the shorter season and you can expect a faster pace, as the cast and crew have suggested.
The shift to a shorter season likely serves a practical purpose, too. As Jon Snow states in no uncertain terms, "The Great War is here"– a conflagration that will feature the demonic White Walkers, their zombie army, three dragons the size of 747s, and massive battles between enormous armies drawn from cultures across the fictional world. This means an even longer and more intricate worldwide shooting schedule than the famously complex show has already developed, and more demanding special effects to boot. Cutting down on the number of episodes helps on both counts, but it also guarantees that what you'll be getting in the seven hours that remain will be cranked to eleven.
Even the late start to the season has a tale to tell. Normally, the show debuts in late March or early April; Season Seven launches on July 16. Why? Because winter isn't just coming, it's here. To match the ice-age onslaught facing humanity in the story, the showrunners had to delay the start of shooting to ensure enough real-world bad weather even in the series' sunniest locations.
One thing we can't look to for answers is the series' source. With only very minor exceptions, Game of Thrones has completely caught up with, and in some cases surpassed, author George R.R. Martin's still-unfinished A Song of Ice and Fire book series – the last volume of which, A Dance With Dragons, came out way back in 2011, just after the show's first season wrapped up. Granted, a couple of potentially prominent storylines that have yet to show up on the show have been teased by either the books or the handful of preview chapters for the next volume, The Winds of Winter, that Martin has released. Theon and Yara Greyjoy's crazed uncle Euron, who debuted last year, seems destined to play a major role as a villain, for example.
Meanwhile, at the center of learning called the Citadel, Samwell Tarly hooks up with a rogue maester named Marwyn the Mage, who warns him of an anti-magic, dragon-killing conspiracy among their scientifically minded brethren; this is the character whom recently cast actor Jim Broadbent is widely believed to be playing, though the role has not been confirmed. Broadbent is the only major new actor to join the show this season, another indicator of how the ever-expanding story is finally coming to a head. (However, look for pop superstar Ed Sheeran to pop up in a minor role.)
On a related note, a recently released photo of Sam and his girlfriend Gilly show them researching the legend of Azor Ahai, the savior who turned back the White Walkers and their Long Night millennia ago, and whose return (possibly in the guise of someone we know) has been hinted at throughout the series.
Beyond that, however, the show has shown us pretty much everything there is to see as far as Martin's existing writing goes. In other cases, the TV and literary versions of the story have diverged so significantly that a lot of the prose material is likely to remain unused. (Don't know who Harry the Heir, the Darkstar, the Tattered Prince, and the Mummer's Dragon are, TV viewers? Don't worry, you probably won't need to.) Martin gave showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss the basics about where the novels are headed long ago, and they've show no hesitation to strike their own paths anyway. In other words, Cersei and her brother Jaime may have their map, but Game of Thrones is about to blaze completely uncharted territory.
Watch ‘Game of Thrones’ Grey Worm, Raleigh Ritchie talk first time meeting Pete Dinklage.