Though the premise for Breaking Bad — a high school chemistry teacher transforms himself into a meth kingpin — might sound far-fetched, the explanation for Walter White’s rapid ascension to the top of the drug game is not. He has the best product, the best distribution and the best reputation. In the landscape of television dramas, the same is true of Breaking Bad show-runner Vince Gilligan.
Since its debut in 2008, Breaking Bad has arguably been the best drama on television — not unlike Heisenberg’s blue meth. Of course, there are plenty of other reasons why the show has become so incredibly popular over the last year (we’ll get to those in a bit), but that popularity begins and ends with the fact that Breaking Bad is simply better than its peers. That superiority is thanks, in large part, to Gilligan, who was a writer for the X-Files prior to creating Bad. His vision for the show (taking Mr. Chips and turning him into Scarface) has been unwavering since the beginning, but what’s far more impressive is the way in which he has realized that vision without veering off into the convoluted plot twists and unnecessary melodrama that afflicted so many of Bad‘s contemporaries.
Instead, Gilligan (pictured) remained committed to deft writing that earned the show critical praise from the very moment it debuted, creating characters so vivid — from Walter White (Bryan Cranston) on down — that viewers could hardly help but be hooked after the pilot. The show’s directing and acting have been no less impressive. Television has increasingly become a writer’s medium, and while the quality of writing for Breaking Bad has been undeniable, the strength of the directing has been, by all accounts, unprecedented. It may not seem quite as impactful now (largely because so many subsequent shows have taken cues from Bad), but back in 2008, the show’s cinematographic attention to detail was shocking. From the brilliantly colorful time-lapse landscape shots to the show’s signature POV camera angles, Breaking Bad directors became pioneers in the medium. The ability to couple compelling storytelling with equally stunning visuals have given the series an edge over other similarly acclaimed dramas.
And then there’s the acting. From the show’s very first season, the quality of the performances never went unpraised or unrecognized. Emmy voters may have had a hard time wrapping their heads around placing a show ostensibly about crystal meth distribution at the pinnacle of their industry, but they had no such qualms about rewarding the actors.
Cranston won the Emmy for Best Actor in a Drama Series three consecutive years, beginning with the show’s first season. Aaron Paul followed not long after, winning a pair of Emmys for Best Supporting Actor in 2010 and 2012 for his portrayal of Walt’s partner and protege, Jesse Pinkman. (Paul’s character was famously almost killed off by Gilligan in the first season, but has ultimately made it all the way to the series finale.) The other supporting cast members have received comparable — if not equally rewarded — praise, from Anna Gunn to Dean Norris to Bob Odenkirk. And though it might seem clichéd or perfunctory to say at this point, the actors succeeded in making the most of Gilligan’s vision.
But despite all those attributes, Breaking Bad remained a niche show. It didn’t have the glamor of Mad Men, the network appeal of House or the inherent mysticism of Lost. It aired in the summer, which even just three or four years ago was considered a programming graveyard. Each scene and line of dialogue wasn’t poured over the way it is today. The availability of prior seasons on DVD and Blu-Ray helped some late-comers catch up with what they had missed, but it was still small-scale stuff — like Heisenberg working with Tuco or trying to distribute independently by using Badger, Combo and Skinny Pete as dealers. Sure, they could get the product out there, but it would never reach critical mass with a rudimentary operation like that. Then Gus Fring arrived on the scene, with his deep pockets, far-reaching connections and fried-chicken franchises. Thanks to Fring and Madrigal Electromotive, blue meth exploded, eventually going global. For the show itself, that catalyst was streaming video, primarily Netflix.
The opportunity for nascent fans to binge-watch the show and get caught up in a matter of weeks — if not days — made Breaking Bad far more attractive (and accessible) to potential viewers. Instead of buying expensive DVD box sets, they could, at no cost, simply queue up an episode whenever they pleased.
For context, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos said that 50,000 people watched the entire fourth season of Bad in the 24 hours prior to the fifth season premiere last August. It’s a safe bet that those numbers are just the tip of a far larger iceberg — and if anecdotal evidence is to be believed, there was even more binging prior to the first episode of the fifth season’s second half, which began in August.
If nothing else, this summer’s ratings have proved just how invaluable Breaking Bad‘s new distribution system has been. Before the second half of season five, no single episode of the show earned more than three million viewers on AMC. Last week’s penultimate episode pulled in 6.58 million viewers (no episode this season has dipped below 4.41 million viewers). In the world of television, that sort of bump is practically unheard of. Almost always, series fade away as they draw to a close. In contrast, Breaking Bad is finishing in truly remarkable fashion.
The enhanced distribution would mean little were it not for the sterling reputation of Breaking Bad. Because of the show’s high quality, word-of-mouth was a crucial element in getting the ball rolling. For the first time since The Wire went off the air, nearly every television aficionado had a show that they could agree upon. Cries of, “Oh, you have to watch The Wire” were replaced with similar endorsements for Breaking Bad. The major difference being that the groundswell of support took place before Breaking Bad ended, whereas its HBO predecessor was dead and buried before it received the recognition it deserved
And perhaps, just as crucial, has been the rise of the Internet, and Reddit in particular, as forums to discuss and analyze the show in previously unthinkable depth. There’s something about the sense of community and belonging that accompanies fervent discussion, and there’s no doubt that the conversations about Breaking Bad could be classified as just that. Countless articles and threads have been created to analyze the many theories, Easter eggs and visual motifs that make up the show, each one fueling an addiction that digs its nails deeper every week.
One more thing that Breaking Bad has going for it? Going into this season, we knew that this would be the last batch that Gilligan would ever cook. Imagine the astronomical popularity that Heisenberg’s unmatched blue meth would enjoy if everyone knew they’d never see it again. Walt often talks about how his product is pure, how it provides a better high than any other on the market — and that as a result, users will choose it over all others. That’s something that Vince Gilligan certainly knows a thing or two about.