The HBO fantasy epic unleashes a short but intense seventh season, as all of Westeros’s power players battle for the Iron Throne and brace against the White Walkers

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The end is nigh for the pop culture juggernaut that is Game of Thrones, but in the world of Westeros things are just ramping up. “It’s all coming together, isn’t it?” teases Gwendoline Christie, who plays honour-bound butt-kicker Brienne of Tarth. “There’s not a lot of time left to tell this story. I think season seven is where things really start to heat up and you start to see unlikely combinations, unlikely attitudes and unlikely acts.”

Where the nobles of the Seven Kingdoms once stood as a reluctantly united force of the Mad King, Aerys II Targaryen, the battle for the Iron Throne has made enemies of them all (a few shaky alliances notwithstanding). At the moment, that doesn’t bode well for anyone except their common enemy, the Night King; the undead ruler and his White Walkers are wreaking havoc in the North, with—presumably—only Jon Snow, newly ascended to the throne of Winterfell, and his smattering of troops standing between them and the south. Everyone else had better get on the same page—like, now—if they don’t want to surrender their respective homelands to the blue-eyed beasts that will turn them all into ice sculptures for his castle.

Jon Snow
Credit: HBO

Jon Snow (Kit Harington, C), flanked by Sir Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham, L) and sister Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner, R), needs a plan (and lots of soldiers) to fend off the White Walkers.

Though this penultimate season promises to be a short and intense one, with only seven episodes instead of the usual 10, many of those episodes will run longer than your average GoT hour, and the season will also include the longest episode in the series’ history at 81 minutes. Gemma Whelan, who plays rightful Queen of the Iron Islands Yara Greyjoy, says this season is hardly a slow build-up. “It really felt like all guns blazing and certainly not like it’s winding down,” she says, calling the new season epic, extravagant and wild. “It’s as good as ever. It felt as if everyone on Game of Thrones is at the top of their game.”

At the end of last season, Yara and her brother Theon joined forces with Daenerys Targaryen and were headed with their fleet and Dany’s three dragons from Slaver’s Bay to Westeros, marking the Queen of Dragons’ long-awaited return to her homeland. Whelan believes the alliance between these two women is one that works because they are not in competition with each other when it comes to their ultimate goal. “I think they like each other,” says Whelan. “I think they recognize strength and pride and values in one another that they reflect themselves. They both know what they want, and they’re not rivals in that.” Whelan has no reason to believe Yara is interested in the Iron Throne, instead focusing on taking her place as ruler of the Iron Islands. “She just wants revenge on Euron. She wants to have the right to what she worked so hard for,” says Whelan. “To her it’s all about equality and fairness and family.”

The Greyjoy siblings’ conniving uncle is a formidable opponent for anyone reaching for a throne—Iron, Salt or otherwise—not only because he has an enormous fleet that will aid or overtake anyone he aligns himself with, but because Euron also supposedly (according to the books) possesses a Dragonhorn, which has the ability to control any dragon that hears it. But will a character introduced so late in the Game truly be a candidate for the Iron Throne? While doubtful, nothing is impossible.

Cersei and Jamie
Credit: HBO

After seizing the Iron Throne in an explosive coup last season, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) finally has the power she’s always craved; but her brother/lover Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) may not be so forgiving of her brutal methods.

When it comes to ruling the Seven Kingdoms, there’s a good chance the last person standing will be a woman. Whether it’s a Stark sister, current Iron Throne holder Cersei Lannister or the Mother of Dragons, each one is as likely as the next to wind up at the top of the heap. While Game of Thrones has always been an equal-opportunity show, happy to turn gender roles on their heads, the idea of playing a “strong female character” amuses Whelan and her female co-stars. “In every interview, I’m asked, ‘What’s it like to be a strong female character?’ It shouldn’t be a question in my opinion. No one asks the guys, ‘What’s it like to play a vulnerable man?’” says Whelan. But asked what it’s like to play a role usually reserved for men, Whelan agrees it is pretty remarkable. “It’s really empowering, but it’s also part of who I already am, part of who any woman already is,” she says. “We’re all strong and independent and empowered and capable. And we’re not always after all the men or trying to learn from or please men, in real life.”

After six seasons, the area where the show continues to truly excel is in its ability to shock viewers, even though the show up until now has been largely based on George R.R. Martin’s book series. The seventh season will be even more of a surprise as it will include a great amount of unpublished material, with the writers relying on Martin to reveal what he intends to include in his long-delayed upcoming book. Even the actors, who only receive their own portions of the script, look forward to seeing what the show creators have come up with. “Like ‘Battle of the Bastards’ last year—it was a battle shot in a completely different way. We were suffocating with [Jon Snow]! And there was so much of a visceral interaction with the audience in that battle. I think they always try to shoot things in new and exciting ways and this season is no different,” says Whelan. “It’s really exciting for me as well!”

 

Where we left off...

 

Tyrion LannisterTyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage)
Despite the fact that his attempt to peacefully phase out slavery in Mereen ended in a bloody massacre, the youngest child of Tywin Lannister was named Hand of the Queen by the Mother of Dragons at the end of season six. Together with Daenerys, Yara and their armada, he is now headed back to Westeros, where he will inevitably be pitted against his siblings in the fight for the Iron Throne.

Cersei LannisterCersei Lannister (Lena Headey)
Exacting an explosive revenge on the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce) and his acolytes — in the process killing Margaery (Natalie Dormer), Loras (Finn Jones) and basically half of King’s Landing – gave the sinister Lannister twin great pleasure. But then, it also caused her son Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman) so much devastation that he took his own life. Ever the resilient mother, Cersei got over her grief by crowning herself Queen of the Seven Kingdoms.

Jaime LannisterJaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau)
Cersei’s twin brother returned from Riverrun to discover that all of the children he secretly conceived with his sister-lover are now dead. He arrived just in time to watch Cersei’s coronation, clearly displeased about the loss of innocent lives in King’s Landing, which he himself had gone to great lengths to prevent by once disobeying his orders and killing the Mad King all those years ago.

Daenerys TargaryenDaenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke)
After a fiery encounter with the Dothraki, and a not-so-amicable resolution with the slave masters of Mereen, the last living Targaryen (or so she thinks!) is intent on taking her seat on the Iron Throne and has gathered the Greyjoy, Dornish, Mereenese and Tyrell fleets to pursue her goal. Unlike her father and brother, Dany does not yet display signs of the Targaryen madness nor their inherent cruelty, but time will tell to what lengths the Mother of Dragons will go to achieve her perceived birthright as queen of the land.

Theon GreyjoyYara and Theon Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan and Alfie Allen)
The Queen of the Iron Islands and her brother (finally free from the emotional shackles of the repulsive Ramsay Bolton) joined forces with Daenerys under the condition that she support Yara’s claim to the Salt Throne and that together they will get revenge on their long-absent uncle Euron (Pilou Asbaek), who suddenly reappeared to kill their father Balon (Patrick Malahide) and swipe the Iron Islands for himself.

Jon SnowJon Snow (Kit Harington)
After struggling to adapt to reincarnation, Jon Snow emerged from season six a new man... literally. A vision experienced by Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) revealed that his brother Jon is not the bastard son of Ned Stark (Sean Bean), but the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Ned’s sister Lyanna. Not that the rest of the North paid much mind to his pedigree, since they have already hailed Jon as the new King in the North after he (with a lot of help from Sansa and Littlefinger) dispatched the despised Bolton army and reclaimed Winterfell.

Sansa StarkSansa Stark (Sophie Turner)
After reuniting with what she still believes is her half-brother (but really is her cousin), Sansa is now in the process of gathering an army of her own. The question is if it will be used to secure the Iron Throne for a Stark or to fight the White Walkers who have made an unwelcome return in the North. Her glance in the direction of master manipulator Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) at the end of season six seems to indicate that the elder Stark sister would consider betraying her half-brother in order to be the decision-maker of the family.

arya StarkArya Stark (Maisie Williams)
Now that Arya’s pursuit to become the girl with no name is truly over, she can embrace her destiny and resume her journey of vengeance. She avenged her mother and brother by killing Lothar Frey and Black Walder Rivers, who were responsible for the deaths of Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) and her brother’s pregnant wife Talisa Maegyr (Oona Chaplin), baking their remains into a pie that she served to Lord Walder Frey (David Bradley) before slitting his throat.

Bran StarkBran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright)
Bran continued his training with the Three-eyed Raven and discovered surprising things about the past, like Jon Snow’s real parents, how Hodor received his name, the birth of the first White Walker. He was warned by his teacher that he must be careful not to interact with the living creatures in his visions, but the advice went unheeded and the Night King managed to grab him, allowing him to track the youngest Stark in the present.

brienne of tarthBrienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie)
After saving Sansa from Bolton’s soldiers and reuniting her with Jon Snow at Castle Black, Brienne and her squire Podrick Payne (Daniel Portman) travelled to Riverrun to recruit Sansa’s great-uncle Brynden Tully to join the Stark cause. When they discovered that the Lannisters and Freys have taken over the castle, Brienne and Jamie Lannister met discreetly, acknowledging that her loyalty to the Stark family may soon pit her against him.