Sunday’s Emmys ceremony was so utterly odd — from its mystifying collection of winners to the production’s bizarre, death-obsessed shadow plays — that it’s hard to put the deserving winners into context at the moment. But when the smoke from #weirdemmys clears, I hope we can remember that Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad finally and wonderfully won for Outstanding Drama.
That win is as timely as the Emmys get — because no show in the history of television has ever come to an end the way Breaking Bad has. It’s like a speeding truck that viewers are simultaneously on and being run over by. Its series finale is next Sunday on AMC and it will be devastating and heart-stopping; or it will fall apart and be disappointing. But I’d bet on the former.
On Sunday, though, Breaking Bad won the Emmy for the first half of Season 5, which aired last year. Those eight episodes were typically great, with the actors hitting highs. Dean Norris experienced the revelatory shock of Walt’s betrayal while on the toilet in “Gliding Over All,” the finale; Anna Gunn submitted “Fifty-One” as her Emmy episode this year, and won for the first time on Sunday as well. The show’s scope also felt increasingly huge, especially in “Dead Freight,” the train robbery episode.
In the lead-up to the Emmys, prognosticators noted that Breaking Bad had an edge because it was airing the second half of Season 5, its last run of episodes, during the voting period this summer. That wouldn’t have been an edge, of course, if those episodes were angering viewers and voters — like Showtime’s Dexter, which had its series finale Sunday night, did.
But yes: Airing this current group of Breaking Bad episodes, each of which has topped the last in viewers’ minds, and has rendered critics and fans breathless and even nauseated — yes, that did prove to be an advantage in winning over Emmy voters. The episodes, and every actor’s performance from Bryan Cranston on down, have been dissected and fought over — and loved. In the splintered world of entertainment, it’s been a weekly source of fan-and-critic unity on social media. And that’s just not something that happens much anymore.
There are real numbers to back up these feelings: AMC has taken to sending out the number of tweets the show inspired with its ratings releases each week, and those ratings are formidable, suddenly. No show has ever exponentially grown its audience in its fifth and/or final season. Breaking Bad’s first season in the winter of 2008 drew an average of 1.2 million viewers. The show barely caught on. But it grew incrementally as the years went by, eventually doubling that number by the first half of Season 5 in 2012.
That prepared no one for what’s happened during Season 5.2. When it premiered in August 2013, it smashed ratings records with 5.9 million viewers. Last week, the sixth of eight episodes, drew 6.4 million viewers in Live+SameDay ratings. After three days, that number climbed to 8.5 million. In the paradigm shift that is happening to television in 2013, Breaking Bad is an example of two seemingly opposite trends: the binge-watchers who decide to catch up later in a show’s run and, during these last episodes, a TV event that is so crucial that you simply have to watch it live (leading to these ballooned ratings).
While Gilligan and co. were at the Emmys, the penultimate Breaking Bad aired on AMC, and it again hit the high bar set for this season. This last batch will be eligible for next year, but by then who knows? Without the show fresh in voters’ heads, Breaking Bad could fade. But only the Emmys might forget about the show. Breaking Bad is one of the best series of all time. And for the sake of the TV Academy’s relevance, they’re lucky to have recognized that, even if it happens only once.