‘Game of Thrones’ is the defining pop-cultural experience of the millennial generation

Kelly Lawler

If you need to understand millennials, look no further than "Game of Thrones." 

The fantasy series is a ratings juggernaut for HBO, and especially with the coveted, mostly millennial demographic of adults ages 18 to 49.

But the "Thrones" phenomenon is bigger than just ratings. There are the memes, the celebrities it's created among the cast,  the quotes and the watch parties. There are pop-up bars and good and bad merchandise, dozens of podcasts and fan theories, some of which came true. 

As a cultural phenomenon, "Thrones" is as impossible to escape as "Star Wars" or Marvel films. But while other generations can claim those franchises as their own, the Emmy-winning drama about feuding nobles, ice zombies and dragons belongs squarely with the generation of selfies, Facebook and low-rise jeans. We may be, as our elders are so fond of saying, lazy, entitled good-for-nothings who killed the napkin industry, but we also care way too much about who will win the Iron Throne.

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The series has fans of all ages, but a combination of its themes and its status as one of what might be the last culturally uniting moments in television history makes it uniquely millennial. "Thrones" will one day be as inextricably tied to millennials as 1994 film "Reality Bites," about young adults facing the realities of growing up, is to Gen X. 

This image released by HBO shows Sophie Turner in a scene from "Game of Thrones," that aired Sunday, April 21, 2019. With the Game of Thrones' Jon Snow revealing his royal lineage to his potential rival Daenerys Targaryen, the beleaguered army at Winterfell is about to find out if two chief executives better than one. (Helen Sloan/HBO via AP) ORG XMIT: NYBZ104

Unlike "Bites," "Thrones" has no urbane roommates who haggle over money, life and love, but it mirrors the millennial experience in ways book author George R.R. Martin never could have predicted when he published the first book in 1996, when late millennials were still in the womb and cradle.

The Stark children, the drama's unlucky heroes, are, in essence, millennials themselves. Robb (Richard Madden), Sansa (Sophie Turner), Arya (Maisie Williams), Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) and to a much lesser extent, Rickon (Art Parkinson) grew up in a long and prosperous summer.

Their world was always safe, and they were taught by their parents that if they worked hard and followed tradition, they would succeed. Sansa would grow up and marry a prince or a lord. Bran would be a knight of the Kingsguard. Robb would be Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North.

Richard Madden in a scene from the television program "Game of Thrones."

But the Stark kids’ adolescence coincided with rapid changes in the sociopolitical environment that shattered their collective worldview. The king and their father died. War broke out. Winter came. Sansa’s dreams of a fairy-tale marriage turned into nightmares of rape and abuse. Bran lost his ability to walk, and later, his personality. Robb lost his head.

Many millennials were taught that if we studied hard, went to a good college and got a good job, we’d be set for life. We’d find a nice partner, get married, have kids, buy a house and a car and live just as our parents and their parents did. The American dream and all that. 

But that’s not how it turned out. To own a house or a car is laughably out of reach for many. Not all of us will have kids. We're unemployed, underemployed and saddled with crippling student-loan debt. The political and social climate around us has gone from the chill Clinton era of our toddler and elementary school years to post-9/11 paranoia to the tumult of the recession to the 2016 election and its aftermath. Nothing, not paychecks, love or retirement, is certain for us. 

Just like the Starks, we were thrust into a chaotic world we didn't create, and now we try to survive. The difference is that we're worried about interest rates instead of dragons. 

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) is filled with rage at the death of one of her dragons as she rides her last remaining dragon.

As we watch an improbable allegory for our lives conclude Sunday, it could mark the last TV series we watch as a generation, together. Television is experiencing a period of unprecedented change as traditional networks decline and streaming rises. That disruption is accelerated now, as big streaming competitors, including Apple and Disney+, get into the business, but it had already started when millennials began watching TV.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the explosion of cable channels fragmented our viewing habits, while the advent of DVD box sets and DVRs changed how and when we watched our favorite series. Sure, we had "American Idol," Marissa's death on "The O.C." and the Super Bowl episode of "Grey's Anatomy" to bond us,  but "Thrones" is bigger, and the hype surrounding it has lasted longer than them all. The future of television is impossible to predict, but it seems unlikely we'll ever be up at 11 p.m. on a Sunday furiously tweeting about some new streaming show.  

After a heavily-criticized penultimate episode Sunday, "Thrones" does not look like it's heading toward a finale that will be remembered fondly. When Dany made her wildly unearned turn from hero to villain, it felt like "Thrones" was repeating the mistakes of "How I Met Your Mother," an entirely different show, which tarnished its legacy with an infamously bad finale that undid years of story. With a show as big and unwieldy as "Thrones," it's nearly impossible to satisfy every fan, and thus any finale is likely to be seen as a failure by some. Disappointment is all but guaranteed. And while some series, like "Seinfeld" and "Lost," survived a bad finale, "Thrones" might not be so lucky.  

But in a dark and tragically comical way, a "Thrones" finale letdown only makes it feel more millennial. Many of us expect life to only get worse from here, as we work until we die and the environment degrades around us.

For the Starks and millennials alike, winter, as they say, will always be coming.