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‘El Camino’ Explains the Past, Present, and Future of Television

‘Breaking Bad’ changed the way many watched TV; now, its made-for-Netflix sequel is shaking up the formula all over again

Netflix/Ringer illustration

The arrival of the first official update on the fate of Breaking Bad’s core cast—unless you count the Cinnabon Gene scenes from Better Call Saul—occasions plenty of reflection on the show and its influence. It’s a time to think about how Breaking Bad changed visual storytelling on TV, employing directors like Rian Johnson to help realize its sun-drenched Albuquerque landscape. And how creator Vince Gilligan, also writer and director of Friday’s follow-up film El Camino, has expanded and adapted Breaking Bad’s narrative universe. And, of course, how El Camino protagonist Jesse Pinkman single-handedly revived the term “bitch” in popular culture.

From a craft and storytelling perspective alone, Breaking Bad marks a significant turn in the history of modern television, with legions of imitators still flattering its legacy nearly five years on. But Breaking Bad was also an inflection point in the rapidly changing TV industry, whose high-level machinations have transformed the way consumers watch in a disorientingly short period of time. The logistics of viewing El Camino alone serve as a telling indication of how TV has changed, and of Breaking Bad’s role in accelerating that evolution. Breaking Bad, of course, first aired on AMC, a small network known for airing classic movies that had just begun branching into original series. El Camino, too, will eventually be shown on AMC, though not until a date in “early 2020” that has yet to be determined. First, however, it can be found where many viewers originally discovered Breaking Bad in the first place: streaming on Netflix.

Breaking Bad debuted in 2008, just six months after Mad Men. The latter was a natural extension of AMC’s reputation for vintage appeal, easing audiences in with a story set in the ’60s. Breaking Bad was a bigger risk. A contemporary crime story, the show would cement AMC’s transition from movie hub to prestige cable network. The pivot was a savvy one, and well-timed: Just as cable was becoming a dated novelty for the occasional millennial to rediscover and explore, AMC found a more compelling hook for potential subscribers. It was one of the first companies not traditionally known for self-produced entertainment to see an opportunity in financing its own ventures, with critical hosannas as effective advertisement. Clearly, it was not the last.

At the time, AMC had the advantage of a relatively sparse marketplace. With a small budget—Breaking Bad’s iconic setting came from tax considerations, not a pre-existing love for the New Mexico desert—the channel could make a disproportionately large impact, essentially tying HBO in its contributions to the new Golden Age’s de facto Mount Rushmore. But others soon took notice of AMC’s successful playbook, and began to replicate it at a much larger scale. The field couldn’t stay empty forever, and AMC’s discovery ignited a much larger gold rush.

Ironically, AMC’s soon-to-be competitor was also a key contributor to its success. Before Netflix began to invest billions in its own trove of originals, it licensed various back catalogs, often leading to a symbiotic, scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours arrangement for which Breaking Bad became the poster child. The so-called “Netflix effect” is now a well-known phenomenon; Riverdale jumped in the ratings for Season 2 after finding its teenage audience where they were already conditioned to go, and You went from obscure Lifetime offering to bona fide sensation after a run on the service. Before either of these examples, though, Breaking Bad set the mold.

From Mad Men to media darlings like Girls, the conversation around most prestige television far exceeds a show’s actual viewership. Breaking Bad was different, though not at first. Rather than starting strong and shedding fans as the magic wore off, per the “keep doing what works until it doesn’t” school of American broadcast, Breaking Bad began with a modest following of a couple million before crescendoing with more than 10 million viewers for the finale, a number that would get only more impressive as TV continued to fracture into hundreds of series at dozens of outlets. Some of this rise correlated with Breaking Bad’s increasing intensity, quality, and ambition. It also had outside help.

Back in 2013—before Orange Is the New Black, before Stranger Things, before Queer EyeBreaking Bad became early proof Netflix’s convenience served as its own marketing mechanism. In a Variety op-ed at the time, writer Andrew Wallenstein speculated, “Should Netflix be paying studios for content or the other way around?” Breaking Bad’s success implied such deals could be mutually beneficial: Netflix got material to flesh out its interface, while AMC got a fresh wave of eyeballs. Breaking Bad was also exactly the kind of story that stood to benefit most from this setup. With a plot so intense and suspenseful, viewers could catch up via rapid binge on Netflix, then immediately switch to a week-to-week release on AMC to see what happened next.

Clearly, this dynamic had a built-in shelf life. In the years since Breaking Bad’s conclusion, subscribers could and did experience Walter White’s entire moral decay on Netflix alone. And over the same period of time, the Netflix effect became more and more of a one-sided benefit. Fellow behemoths like Disney are no longer content to let a different company profit from their labors and have built streaming services of their own. Meanwhile, consumers have grown savvy enough to simply wait for shows like The Good Place to materialize on a streaming service, without a corresponding bump in the ratings. You was even swallowed whole to become a Netflix original in its second season—not that many of its enthusiasts will know the difference. If a show is on Netflix, most will know it as a “Netflix show,” a truism for which Breaking Bad served as the canary in the coal mine.

AMC’s fortunes, too, have changed. Better Call Saul and the late, great Halt and Catch Fire have carried on the spirits of their predecessors, whether literal or spiritual. But in a world where it’s bidding against the likes of Netflix, Apple, and Amazon, the one-time scrappy upstart hasn’t been able to keep up, doubling down on blockbusters like The Walking Dead while niche favorites like Lodge 49 strain to find an audience. The network is hardly struggling; it’s just inevitably drowned out by the deafening volume of Star Wars series and Hot Emily Dickinsons, give or take the occasional Killing Eve, a satellite brought in-house for Season 2. AMC is still certainly a player, just not the dominant kind its early success seemed to suggest.

There’s an easily legible symbolism in El Camino’s migration to Netflix. The service has thus far been a capable steward of the movie’s rollout, and by extension, Breaking Bad’s cultural footprint, booking the movie in select theaters and drumming up hype with a steady stream of teasers. But El Camino’s release is as much a victory lap for the Netflix era of television as a throwback to Breaking Bad’s moment of monoculture adjacency, cementing the medium’s shift in power from the cable box to the internet. As goes Jesse Pinkman, so goes the nation.