'Game of Thrones': What the New Photos Reveal About Season 7

Game of Thrones Season 7 First Look - Publicity - Embed 15 - H 2017
Courtesy of HBO

When Game of Thrones returns for its seventh season in the summer, expect the clash between the various warring factions to escalate from slow-burn to full-blown wildfire explosion. 

New photos from the upcoming season, released Thursday by HBO, only serve to reinforce the idea that winter is no longer coming; it's here, fully arrived, and ready to engulf the heroes and villains of Westeros and the realms beyond in a bitter-cold blaze. With that said, several of the images leave our characters exactly where we left them last.

For instance, there's Cersei (Lena Headey) and Jamie (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) …

The Mad Queen still reigns supreme, having been elevated to the Iron Throne following the events of season six's finale. Back then, it wasn't clear what Jaime thought about his sister and lover's new lot in life. Was he heartbroken for her? Disgusted by the fact that she so ruthlessly eviscerated her enemies? In any event, the new photos show Jaime standing beside the mother of his deceased children, indicating that Jaime's current political stance very much remains "Lannisters First," if only for now.

Likewise, things in the North appear fairly stable, at least as far as falling in line with where we last left the characters. Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) still has to fight off a giant's advances …

… while Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey), the Lady of Bear Island, also still hangs in the North, with a snickering Littlefinger (Petyr Baelish) barely paying attention to whatever is on the young woman's mind.

Following Littlefinger further, here we see him standing alongside Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), the two of them looking out over Winterfell's courtyard. One imagines that this is one of Littlefinger's great goals, or at least the hint at such a goal: Presiding over the late Ned Stark's ancestral home, with Ned's daughter at his side. It's a haunting image for another reason, too, in that it's evocative of the early scenes in the series when Ned watched over the Stark siblings in the courtyard. Sansa has come a long way since then, so much so that it's not impossible she'll be fully on board with whatever scheme Littlefinger dreams up next.

There's another important man in Sansa's life who appears to be headed her way: Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann), alias The Hound, who returned to the action toward the end of season six. When last we saw him, he pledged to join the Brotherhood Without Banners on a mission to the North, to battle back against the looming threats against mankind. Here, we see Sandor has made good on his promise to travel into the heart of winter, unless the season is so harsh that we're already seeing snowfall in the Riverlands.

Speaking of the Riverlands, is Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) still hanging out at The Twins? She killed Walder Frey (David Bradley) in the season six finale, and it doesn't look like she's gotten much further than that — unless the clothes she's wearing in this image are consistent with the furs of House Stark. Whether or not she's already experienced a family reunion by the time of this photo, there's little doubt that she'll see her siblings again next season.

Same applies for Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) and Meera (Ellie Kendrick), the lone survivors of their band of travelers (RIP Hodor), both of whom are returning to Westeros with Bran's mystical abilities sharper than ever before. In this photo, Meera looks surprised at something we can't quite see. Any takers on a Howland Reed sighting in season seven? 

Whenever Arya and Bran make it back home, they're going to be shocked to gaze upon the face of the new man in charge: Jon Snow (Kit Harington), King in the North and Lord of Winterfell … and secret Targaryen as well, although he doesn't know it just yet. Indeed, in this image, Jon looks more like a Stark than ever before, the spitting image of his adoptive father. Here, for reference, a look back at Ned from the very first episode of the series:

A little bit eerie, right? Hopefully Jon has better luck in this new Northern leadership role than his predecessors. Then again, Jon's already died once — another few stabs to the chest shouldn't keep him down for too long.

Stepping away from Winterfell, there's a new royal figure in town: Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), finally in Westeros for the first time in … well, pretty much her entire life, and certainly the first time in the entire series. It took long enough! What's more, she's rolling deep with her entourage, a group that includes Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Varys (Conleth Hill). Here, we see them taking a meeting with … well, that's another great question! Could she finally be face-to-face with Jon Snow? Is she squaring off against Cersei? Heck, maybe she's about to bring Gendry (Joe Dempsie) back into the fold. Here's the good news: almost every possible combination of Dany and another main character she has yet to meet is going to make for compelling television.

Finally, if there's one image that's worth studying more than the others, it's fittingly the one that involves two characters hitting the books: Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) and Gilly (Hannah Murray), together inside the Citadel. Sam's already clad in maester garb, and Gilly can read now (unless she's just admiring the admittedly artful handwriting), suggesting some time has passed since their arrival in Oldtown. A closer look at Gilly's reading material (which apparently owes origin to the in-universe encyclopedia known as The World of Ice and Fire) reveals the words "Azhor Ahai," the name of a legendary hero prophesied to one day return and light Westeros' darkest hour, Matrix of Leadership style.

Fans have long theorized that Jon, Dany, Tyrion or possibly all three characters fulfill the Azhor Ahai requirements — but frankly, the show has displayed very little interest in this particular prophecy, or any prophecy, really. The fact that Azhor Ahai is even referenced in this photo indicates the show's willingness to finally bring one of the most important aspects of Martin's novels to fiery life. 

Keep checking THR.com/GameOfThrones for news, interviews and more as season seven approaches.