Aaron Paul
Aaron Paul

Breaking Bad will not only be remembered as a TV drama that went out on top — creatively, and in terms of popularity — but possibly as a game-changer for underdog TV shows. The second half of the fifth season premiered last month to a stunningly large audience for the long-struggling cult-favorite series, delivering a record 5.9 million viewers. A couple weeks ago, ratings notably rose to 6.4 million viewers. Then last week’s penultimate hour crept up to 6.6 million.

For the grand series finale Sunday night, Breaking Bad hit 10.3 million viewers, with a 5.2 rating among adults 18-49.

Let me explain how crazy that is. Do you know what the fourth season finale of Breaking Bad delivered a mere two years ago? That was the gripping “Face Off” episode that capped Walter vs. Gus’ deadly season-long chess game. Go on, guess…

The fourth season finale delivered only 1.9 million viewers. And at the time, that rating was actually considered good news. Because that was up 23 percent from season three. So two years and only 16 episodes later (since the fifth season was split into two runs of eight episodes each), Breaking Bad viewership has skyrocketed an astounding 442 percent.

The finale also represents yet another triumph of cable over broadcast — that 5.2 rating easily beat every entertainment show last night. According to AdAge, AMC charged up to $400,000 per 30-second commercial during the finale — the same level as hits like ABC’s Modern Family and Fox’s American Idol. While every returning broadcast entertainment show last night was down in the 18-49 adult demo ratings, between 16 and 33 percent.

Some will naturally wonder if AMC goofed in bringing the series to a close this year instead of extending the show to a sixth or seventh year or even an eighth year, like most hit dramas. Creator Vince Gilligan, in EW’s must-read exclusive Q&A about the finale, countered: “I can’t even believe that the ratings have increased with each episode — I just think it’s wonderful. People have asked me, ‘Does it make you want to go on and do a bunch more episodes now?’ Just the opposite. It makes me think, through quite a bit of good luck being involved, we really did pick the right moment to exit the stage.”

Most Breaking Bad fans would surely agree with that (and so would most fans of Showtime’s Dexter, whose eighth and final season felt padded and pointless and concluded to a chorus of jeers the previous week).

It’s likewise fitting that Gilligan credited Netflix at the Emmys a couple weeks ago after Breaking Bad won best drama series. There’s probably never been a series that’s better demonstrated the awesome and exponential power of catch-up viewing. Breaking Bad was like a virus (or perhaps a drug) that slowly spread for years, then suddenly exploded into a nationwide outbreak. Very late in its run, Breaking Bad went from being that dark show your one TV-savvy friend loves to being the big hit your whole office is talking about.

In the first episode, Walter White tells us that chemistry is about change. It’s a metaphor for his own eventual transformation “from Mr. Chips to Scarface,” as Gilligan has often said. Yet the show’s own transformation in the entertainment space was no less radical. This is an exaggeration, but at least from a pop-culture perspective, it’s like the show went from being The Wire to Lost. I suspect one big hurdle for many viewers was the show’s initial description. On paper (“chemistry teacher dying of cancer cooks meth”) Breaking Bad sounded like an epic downer. Many needed to have a friend, or several friends, persuade them to give the show a chance: No, really, it’s amazing, youmust watch it.

In the extreme skyrocketing chart of the show’s ratings lifespan, there is a message for networks navigating programming challenges moving forward. From now on, if TV executives have a show that’s undeniably excellent and has an extremely passionate core group of fans, yet has frustratingly low ratings, perhaps their best course of action would be to … tread lightly.