'Game of Thrones' Season 7: What to Watch for in the Premiere

Game of Thrones Season 7 Still First Look 11 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of HBO

Think back to your earliest memories of Lord Eddard Stark (Sean Bean). Even then, decapitation comes to mind, doesn't it? 

It's not his very first scene on HBO's Game of Thrones, but it's among them: Ned beheading a man who abandoned his post at Castle Black. It's an early and easy shorthand for the way justice works in Westeros, the heavy burdens and hard decisions that must be weighed and made in order to survive such a cruel world. It tells you everything you need to know about Lord Stark, too, up until then billed as the show's main character, what with his solemn adherence to honor and loyalty, not to mention some Lord of the Rings levels of fame to boot.

Of course, it's also stealthily setting up the fact that Ned is not the main character of Game of Thrones, and is instead meting out the same punishment that will literally fall upon his own head before the first season's end. 

Really, there's a full-circle quality seen throughout George R.R. Martin's source material and the HBO adaptation as well, with characters' early mistakes often leading to their eventual downfalls (RIP Robb Stark), or a first impression some day getting completely subverted (who knew Jaime Lannister had such a big heart?). It's especially notable in season premieres and finales; the opening hours of a given season often pave the way for how the year will end for any given character. Look no further than last year's season-six premiere and finale for further examples:

• Jon Snow (Kit Harington) is the first person we see in season six, a fresh corpse bleeding out on the ground. In the sixth-season finale, one of our final images of Jon is him as a newborn baby, a backwards way of framing the circle of life.

When Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) is first seen in season six, she's eagerly anticipating her daughter's return to Westeros. That joy quickly turns to ash in her mouth when she learns of Myrcella's (Nell Tiger Free) death. Fast-forward to the finale, in which Cersei stands over her third and youngest child's corpse — well past the point of grief and firmly in the realm of cold detachment, ready to burn anyone and everyone in her path, the taste of ashes be damned.

Cersei's nemesis Septa Unella (Hannah Waddingham) begins the season lording over a prisoner, doing the good old "shame, shame, shame" routine. The final time we see her in season six, the words become weapons in Cersei's arsenal, as the zombified Mountain lords over and tortures Septa.

• In his first scene of the season, Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) stands over the broken body of his girlfriend Myranda (Charlotte Hope). It's a rare moment of emotional vulnerability that quickly reverts to what you expect from this monster, as he commands the "perfectly good meat" of her body to be fed to his dogs. Just a few episodes later, in his final appearance of the series, Ramsay himself becomes dog food.

• Both Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) and Daario Naharis (Michiel Huisman) begin the season in desperate search of their Khaleesi. "I want to see what the world looks like when she's done conquering it," Daario says, and Jorah agrees. While both warriors are instrumental in their queen's safe return, neither one of them will be present when she finally makes moves toward global conquest.

Indeed, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) starts season six as a Dothraki prisoner, speaking the barbaric language as she lists off all of her titles and achievements. She earns only mockery in return. But in her final image of the season, Dany is sailing for Westeros alongside the most impressive army we've ever seen assembled in Game of Thrones history; no need to list off her titles, and certainly nobody laughing now.

One more on the Targaryen front: Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Varys (Conleth Hill) take a stroll through Meereen, pondering their next moves, when they discover that their vast fleet has been set ablaze. "She won't sail to Westeros anytime soon," they remark. How wrong they are, given that the final image of season six is Dany doing exactly that: sailing for Westeros with a massive force in tow.

In other words, when it comes to Game of Thrones, first impressions go a long way. It's not an exact science, but closely considering a character's first scene or two can prove quite useful in predicting their season arc, honing in on individual thematics and otherwise determining theories about what's coming next. Starting with Ned and severed heads, and arcing well beyond, the series has a knack for closing loops by ending stories close to where they began. So keep your eyes wide as you enter the first episode of season seven — you might just get an early look at your favorite characters' fates, without even knowing it. 

Game of Thrones returns Sunday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO. Keep checking THR.com/GameOfThrones all season long for news, interviews, theories and more.