“El Camino” arrived on Netflix on Friday, picking up where “Breaking Bad” left off: with a bruised and abused Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) escaping a meth compound run by neo-Nazis, exhilarated and uncertain as he speeds off in a Chevrolet El Camino. The neo-Nazis are dead. Walter White is dead. Jesse has survived.
“Breaking Bad” almost died, long before it carried us to this moment. Backstage at the 2013 Emmys (where the show won for best drama), creator Vince Gilligan said that a show like “’Breaking Bad’ might have been nixed before its time had it not been for streaming video services that allow new fans to catch up while a show is still on the air. The show survived, he suggested, because of Netflix.
“I think Netflix kept us on the air,” Gilligan said at the time. “It’s a new era in television, and we’ve been very fortunate to reap the benefits.”
“Breaking Bad,” which ended after five seasons and reportedly wrapped up on Gilligan’s terms, is so renowned now that it’s hard to fathom a time when it was at risk of cancellation. (On its ranking of the best 100 TV shows of all time, Rolling Stone ranked “Breaking Bad” at No. 3.) But the show, which aired on AMC, did not always have such firm control of its fate. The show reportedly never cracked 2 million viewers in its first three seasons. But Sunday on AMC was not the only time and place where people would end up watching “Breaking Bad.”
In 2011, Netflix added the first three seasons of the show to its streaming service. Suddenly, a new group of binge-viewers had access to the show and an opportunity to catch up on the seasons they’d missed. The show’s existing fans had a way to nurture their obsession. When the show came back for its fourth season, 2.6 million people reportedly tuned in to AMC.
Rinse, repeat. The premiere of Season 5 (which aired in two halves over two years) drew 2.93 million viewers; the premiere of the second half of that season spiked to 5.92 million. By the time Jesse Pinkman sped away to freedom, more than 10 million people were watching.
For viewers who first fell in love with “Breaking Bad” not on Sunday nights but on lost Saturday afternoons, the fact that “El Camino” has come to Netflix feels less like a premiere than a homecoming.
Netflix has been a boon for other series over the years. After CW’s “Riverdale” spent a summer on Netflix, it started its sophomore season with record ratings. When Netflix added the first two seasons of “Schitt’s Creek,” which airs on Pop TV in the United States, the show’s ratings and mentions on Netflix’s social media feeds took off. “You” started off as a little-watched psychological thriller on Lifetime. Once Netflix got it, it became a hit. Now, it’s a Netflix Original title.
Netflix’s cultural grip never overshadowed “Breaking Bad” since the show became iconic in its own right. But as an addicting show that could be dealt to those craving a binge, “Breaking Bad” and Netflix have been a match made in heaven.