Skip to main content

What happened the other night on Game of Thrones will live in infamy.

Okay, maybe among its followers, anyway. The followers are now legion, the series pulling in 6.6 million viewers in the United States for its return episode and that fell just fractionally last Sunday. The combined viewership for encore airing, online, on DVR and on-demand, can take Game of Thrones to 14 million viewers a week. These are mindboggling figures for a premium cable series. Also last Sunday, on AMC, Mad Men had 2.3 million viewers in the U.S.

On Twitter, if you must know, there were around 250,000 tweets about GoT and around 60,000 about Mad Men. Both were dwarfed by the 2.1 million tweets about the MTV Movie Awards.

On Game of Thrones there was the unsurprising departure of one of the main characters, a loathsome individual whose presence was turning tedious. In fact the only surprise is that it took so long. If you didn't see it coming, you were a wee bit slow. Meanwhile on Mad Men the unhappiness of Don Draper simmered on, and settled somewhere between seething anger and depression. A suspicious and angry man is what he is now, his hubris as undiminished as the interest he stirs in women. Back at Sterling Draper Cooper Pryce, Peggy Olson struggled mightily to command the respect that Draper once had and also struggled to assert herself.

In crude terms – ratings, chatter – you could summarize the situation as Game of Thrones 1, Mad Men 0. But this isn't a sports competition, no matter how much the TV trade press tries to make it so. What we have is an interesting competition in terms of gravitas and tone.

Of the two shows, both cable classics, Mad Men is by far the more substantial. Little wonder it has less populist impact. If the first episode is any indication, the tone is shifting from that of pleasurable melancholy to a nightmarish kind of anxiety.

Game of Thrones, for all its elaborate plotting and swords, sorcery and magic, is a heap of fake, highfalutin nonsense about good lads, bad lads, buxom wenches and overwrought speeches concerning betrayal, family honour and such. Unlike, say, The Walking Dead, when characters on Game of Thrones are dispatched, they bloody well deserve it.

Right now, looking at the competing Game of Thrones and Mad Men on Sunday nights, it appears that one sizzles while the other turns sour. But one is TV as spectacle while the other is TV as substance.

What we can take from this is all good – there is room for both. And in the long term, it is Mad Men that will stand as an example of television's storytelling heft and sophistication in dealing with personal and workplace anxiety. We can read into Game of Thrones and find lessons about political power, but these are hackneyed. The series is divorced from reality, a reverie rooted in the outlandish purple prose of the books on which it is based.

Mad Men is now deeply, disturbingly about destructive and self-destructive human behaviour that, for all the fact that it is a period piece, we can recognize. No character on Game of Thrones is truly tormented by doubt, status anxiety and writhing in existential drift, as Don Draper is.

Airing tonight

Full Circle (SuperChannel, 8 p.m.) is a real oddity and is demanding material. The creation of playwright Neil LaBute for the Comcast cable/satellite provider, it bears little resemblance to conventional TV. Like one of LaBute's stage works, it drifts in and out of intense conversations and moments in the lives of a group of people, simultaneously. Those people are at a restaurant, Ellipsis, and we eavesdrop on them. One conversation is the end of a relationship, another is a comedian explaining to someone that his career is finished because of a joke he made. You'll find familiar TV actors David Boreanaz (Bones) and Kate Walsh (Private Practice) in very unfamiliar roles.

Follow me on Twitter: