HBO
By Megan McCluskey
Updated: June 26, 2017 12:42 PM ET | Originally published: September 8, 2016

Game of Thrones has become a cultural phenomenon over the six years it has been on the air, with a season seven trailer that drew a record-breaking 61 million views in its first 24 hours.

The show’s seventh season will premiere July 16, ending a year-long hiatus that began when the season six finale, “The Winds of Winter,” aired in June 2016. The season seven start date was pushed back from the show’s traditional spring return thanks to a weather-related filming delay.

“Now that winter has arrived on Game of Thrones, executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss felt that the storylines of the next season would be better served by starting production a little later than usual, when the weather is changing,” said HBO programming president Casey Bloys.

The postponement was also attributed to an increased filming time for each episode in what will be a shortened season. “They are taking the length of time it takes to shoot 10 episodes to shoot just seven this year,” said Iain Glen — who plays Ser Jorah Mormont. “I think the scale and size of the set pieces, the world that is being created it’s just getting more and more extraordinary and they feel they need that time to shoot seven hours as opposed to 10.”

This makes sense considering the season seven finale will be the show’s longest episode ever, with a runtime of around 90 minutes, according to Benioff.

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Filming for the upcoming seven episodes took place in Northern Ireland, Spain and Iceland. Directors for the season include veterans of Thrones like Alan Taylor (season 1’s “Baelor”), Jeremy Podeswa (season 5’s “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”) and Mark Mylod (season 6’s “No One”), as well as newcomer Matt Shakman.

HBO has confirmed that Jim Broadbent has joined the show in a “significant” role, marking the first major cast addition of the season. Additionally, Ed Sheeran will appear in a guest spot, continuing Thrones‘ tradition of slipping in cameos by famous musicians. Other actors have also volunteered their services, including Daniel Radcliffe and Rachel Bloom, who have both said they would join just to be killed off.

Several teasers for the show’s highly-anticipated return have already arrived. The first — which debuted in November — features glimpses of Sansa and Arya Stark as well as their half-brother-turned-cousin Jon Snow in various northern locations of Westeros.

The second — released in March — hints at an ominous “Great War” to come.

Another teaser trailer showing Cersei, Jon and Daenerys each making their way toward the throne room in their respective castle — the Red Keep, Winterfell and what is presumably the Targaryen ancestral seat of Dragonstone — dropped in late March, giving fans their first look at Westeros’ three main power players.

The first official trailer, which debuted in late May, teases the long-awaited clash between the show’s many warring factions. Fans were also treated to tantalizing glimpses of fan-favorite characters like Ellaria Sand, Tyrion Lannister and, of course, Dany’s growing dragons.

The most recent trailer builds on the Great War theme of the first, opening with a voiceover of Littlefinger describing his military strategy and offering a look at several action-packed battle sequences.

These hints have only spiked interest in season seven that was already piqued by Maisie Williams — who plays Arya — after she stated on Twitter that “nothing will prepare you for this.”

Not to mention that the long-lost Gendry — who hasn’t been seen since he rowed away from Dragonstone in the season three finale — may be returning, as the actor who plays the lovable blacksmith, Joe Dempsie, was allegedly spotted in the Belfast airport.

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Thrones is based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books — the first of which was published in 1996 — but recently surpassed the series in plot. This move into uncharted territory, along with creators Benioff and Weiss’ confirmation that the show will end after two more shortened seasons, means Thrones will likely conclude before Martin’s series comes to a close. It also means viewers and book readers are now on equal footing in terms of knowledge of what’s to come.

And for fans who have yet to read the novels, now is the perfect time to start, as Random House and iBooks are rolling out an enhanced edition of A Game of Thrones for iPhones, iPads and Macs that includes several digital features designed to make the story easier to follow. Martin has also said that he thinks the long-awaited sixth installment in the series, The Winds of Winter, will come out this year.

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Even without Martin’s source material, Thrones’ sixth season earned it awards for Outstanding Drama Series, Directing and Writing at the 2016 Emmys — putting its all-time total at 38 and making it the winningest scripted series in the award show’s history — as well as Outstanding Performance by a Stunt Ensemble in a Television Series at the 2017 SAG Awards and Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series at the 2017 DGA Awards.

Additionally, there may be a prequel series on the way, as Martin has stated he has “thousands of pages of fake history of everything that led up to Game of Thrones.” HBO has announced recently that it is developing four possible spinoffs exploring “different time periods of George R.R. Martin’s vast and rich universe” for potential follow-ups to Thrones.

TIME has also provided a guide to the seemingly never-ending stream of characters that come in and out of play on Thrones, along with the slew of titles, relationships and familial ties that are introduced with them.

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Fortunately, the show has begun to streamline its storytelling, making it easier to keep tabs on those who — at this point in time — seem like they will have an impact on its final outcome. However, this also means it’s more crucial than ever to have a grasp on the role of each remaining player — no matter whether they’re a Stark, Targaryen, Lannister or something in between.

 

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