Margaret Atwood was in the online Guardian the other day, praising Game of Thrones to the heavens. Everyone's a critic.
Atwood described it as "That mesmerizingly popular television series that surely draws its inspiration from so many fictional sources it's hard to keep track." Right-o. And that's the problem. Drawing inspiration from all over, but becoming, in the end, unoriginal. Except for the notorious Red Wedding scene.
Game of Thrones (Sunday, HBO Canada, 9 p.m.) has returned for its fifth season, and the backlash starts here. As the whole world must know by now, I'm more of an Outlander than a Game of Thrones man. Besides, without Joffrey, I'm not sure I see the point.
For all of Atwood's praise, I still see the series as essentially anchored in the teenage male mind. An excellent job has been done on paring down writer George R.R. Martin's overly effulgent prose. I'll give the producers that. But still: Swords, sorcery, magic, chaps having fiercely earnest conversations about honour and betrayal? It's very traditional escapism from a humdrum existence.
And for all the talk about the series having a strong female fan base, it is very, very much the product of the male gaze – powerful women inevitably end up half-naked, and there's a small army of buxom wenches. I don't begrudge anyone their enjoyment of it, and admire the craft, but you can't make me a fan.
Season five opens with a melancholy feel. There's a lot of gloom, and at the same time the storytelling feels streamlined. There's a lot going on, but not as much as before. The starting point, the engine that drives it, is grief. That tells us that change and revenge are looming, although not necessarily the barbarity of the previous seasons.
I'm no expert on the intricate plotting, and yet I sense that Cersei (played by Lena Headey) is a tougher, rougher character, and her battles with Margaery (Natalie Dormer, who is a delight to watch) are more sophisticated in tone and style than we expected. The strange sisters Arya and Sansa Stark (Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner) have expanded roles, and there is more subtlety, in general, to the storylines given to several female characters.
As for the always-incandescent Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), she is a bit challenged by new duties and the delicacy of maintaining control. And, of course, it is not entirely about the women. Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) escaped death and legged it with the eunuch Varys (Conleth Hill), which creates a particularly spiky dynamic.
What saves Game of Thrones, for me, is usually the acting. Its many English and Irish actors are well trained in the art of no-guts, no-glory portrayals of outrageously shady, conniving and bloody-minded people. Hill, a vastly experienced Irish stage actor, is an absolute delight to encounter as Varys, and fellow Irishman Aiden Gillen, as the insanely duplicitous Petyr (Littlefinger) Baelish, is marvelously in tune with the ridiculousness of some of the material.
There's that. But for me, Joffrey, that monstrous, egotistical teenage boy, epitomized Game of Thrones. He embodied the spirit and method of it. He didn't care for older people at all, in the attitude of teenage boys everywhere, through all time. A lot of blood was spilled. That was memorable, but got boring. On one of the few episodes I studied closely, some character said, "The night is dark and full of terrors." Indeedy. That's the gist of all of it, this series. In Sunday's new episode, a certain character says to someone who had been believed to be dangerous: "You're not terrifying, you're boring!" I'm with that character, all the way. Yes, everyone's a critic, Ms. Atwood.
Also airing this weekend
Silicon Valley (Sunday, HBO, 10 p.m.) is back. The droll comedy has more of a cult following than passionate advocacy, but it is smart about nerds, those advocates say. There's more to relish in the return of Veep (Sunday, HBO, 10:30 p.m.) and with it Julia Louis-Dreyfus as former senator Selina Meyer, once vice-president and now President of the United States. The first episode is hysterically funny, and all too plausible.