Wherever Walter White is going in the final run of Breaking Bad — and it's nowhere good — he has for once and for all escaped the art house. Sunday's premiere of the AMC drama drew a humongous audience: 5.9 million viewers, 3.6 million of whom are in the sought-after 18-to-49 demographic. That is more than double the number of viewers who tuned in to the premiere of the first half of Season 5 last summer.
Breaking Bad has grown in the ratings since it premiered in January 2008. How could it not? That first season averaged only 1.2 million viewers. But Season 2 didn't draw that many more: It had an audience of 1.3 million. It wasn't until Season 5.1, as people call it — the show's final season of 16 episodes has been broken into two halves — that Breaking Bad climbed over 2 million for its average audience, with 2.6 million viewers. (For completists, Season 3's average was 1.5 million; Season 4's was 1.9 million.)
None of which prepared anyone for this blockbuster return. Compared with AMC's Walking Dead, the finale of which drew 12.4 million viewers in the spring, Breaking Bad is still dwarfed. But The Walking Dead is a freak and an anomaly — on cable, certainly, but even when compared with the broadcast networks (especially in the 18-to-49 category).
So what the hell happened with Breaking Bad that caused this doubling? For one thing, it proves that people are still catching up on this show — whether on Netflix or through reruns — in order to participate in watching the last sprint for what will go down as one of the best shows ever to be on television. And I use the word "participate" deliberately: In the ratings press release, AMC included the fact that the premiere was also a "Twitter event, with nearly 760,000 tweets."
That supports Nielsen's recent report that Twitter and television have a two-way relationship. But it flies in the face of what is generally the Sharknado rule: that a social media phenomenon does not translate into a truly popular one.
Whatever the reasons, Breaking Bad is finally getting its popular due. And it makes me curious whether Mad Men will be able to break out in its upcoming final season next year. Season 6 drew an average of 2.5 million.
Shows going up against Breaking Bad on Sunday nights for the next seven weeks should heed Walter White's words: Tread lightly.