Breaking Bad ended with an incredible ratings surge — over 10 million people watched its finale, a 300 percent jump from last year’s midseason finale, likely the result of new fans (or slow old ones) rushing to catch up so they could watch the final episodes live. Early next year, AMC will begin its long good-bye to another signature show, Mad Men; like the network did with Bad, it will split the final season of Mad into two halves over two years. And just like Bad, Mad is available 24/7 on Netflix for anyone who wants to get up to speed (at least through season five, for now). But while Matt Weiner’s drama is just as acclaimed, and has historically been just as heavily proselytized about by devoted fans, the odds of it experiencing a Breaking Bad–size surge are slimmer than those of Don Draper turning down an old-fashioned. This is not a qualitative judgment on Mad Men; it is just the difference between the urgency of a life-or-death show … and a life or ennui show.
The biggest obstacle to Mad Men suddenly exploding is that, unlike Bad, Weiner’s show is not building toward a big climactic conclusion. (Spoilers follow for those who still haven’t watched Bad.) While Bad grew steadily throughout its five-year run, the bulk of its ratings gains came following the end of the first half of season five, when Hank realized that Walter White was Heisenberg. That “holy crap” moment, if you’ll pardon the pun, signaled that the show was going to end very badly for someone, and it was going to happen within eight hours. Devoted fans had been haranguing resistant viewers to watch since the beginning, but this added an extra deadline. And fans who’d been watching the show all along, but maybe via DVD/Netflix/repeats, had an incentive to catch up so they could watch the final season in real time: Who wants to have the ending of such a serialized tale ruined when you’re only halfway through?
By contrast, the stakes in Mad Men’s world are relatively small. This doesn’t mean viewers aren’t as invested in the characters: Members of Team Peggy can be just as passionate as those on, say, Team Jesse. Fans of the show are eager to see if Don finally turns his life around and rejoins SCDP. The push into the seventies will surely be fascinating, and some of us are curious to find out whether or not someone really does jump from a skyscraper before the series ends (or if we simply overanalyzed a really cool opening credits sequence). But unless Weiner is planning some major twists for next spring, Mad Men currently doesn’t have as many nail-biting life-or-death questions left to be answered. For current Mad Men non-believers and those who have it on their “yeah, I gotta see that someday” list, there’s probably not going to be the same escalating need to see it now that there was with Bad.
There’s also the matter of the buzz trajectories for the two shows. Mad Men and Breaking Bad both got good reviews right from the start, and both won a measure of Emmy love from their very first seasons. But Mad Men got far more early attention and acclaim. Yes, Bryan Cranston won the acting Emmy during the first three seasons of Bad — but Mad Men snagged the much bigger Best Drama award those same three years (2008–2010), as well as the drama writing Emmy. (Mad also took home Best Drama in 2011.) What’s more, perhaps because the show is set in the media capital of the world, the stars of Mad Men were all over magazine covers and talk shows during the show’s early years in a way that Bad (which early in its run played to bigger audiences in Kansas City and Memphis than New York and L.A.) simply wasn’t. One show is a sexy, somewhat soapy period piece that inspired Banana Republic to introduce a line of clothes based on its characters and its vibe. The other is a gritty, often depressing crime story set in the desert. It’s no shock that Mad Men got so much more coverage upfront and, for most of their respective runs, more viewers than Bad. (Until season five, most Bad episodes drew well under 2 million viewers; Mad debuted with 2.1 million viewers in 2008, and after dipping a bit, was consistently drawing over 2 million viewers by 2010.)
Eventually, of course, the media started paying more attention to Bad. The explosive season four finale, in which Gus Fring went kaboom, was a big turning point: It was easily one of the most talked-about TV moments of the year. And at that point, even though Bad was three years old, the show didn’t feel overexposed — just the opposite. The surge in buzz that followed that finale, combined with the show landing on Netflix at almost the exact same time (September 2011), combined to give Breaking Bad its biggest audience yet when it returned in 2012. But it’s hard to see Mad Men getting more attention than it drew in its first few years as it now heads into the homestretch; its big growth spurt came early on. Same-day ratings were also down a tick this past season (though the season finale was the show’s most watched ever). And at last month’s Emmy awards, despite multiple nominations, voters snubbed the show in all major categories. It’s the second consecutive year the show has been shut out at the prime-time awards.
None of this is to suggest that the last two seasons of Mad Men will be met by a yawn: There will be hype! And lots of it. The start of any Mad Men season is always something of a media event, and the ending will certainly inspire plenty of stories about the show’s best episodes, most amazing moments, and What It All Meant. (Certainly we’ll be pulling our weight.) There will surely be some rubberneckers who decide to see what all the fuss has been about before the show ends in 2015. But the fact is, the longer a show is on the air, the harder it is to stay in the spotlight. And by the time Mad Men is scheduled to sign off in 2015, the show will have aired at least 91 episodes over eight years. It might very well grow a little bit in the ratings, and its finale could easily end up its most-watched episode. Plus, viewers these days can easily catch up on shows after the fact; HBO’s The Wire and NBC’s Friday Night Lights are still finding converts, years after they went off the air. Mad Men seems destined to be a show for the ages, but Breaking Bad’s final ratings explosion was caused by a very unique chemistry. It’s hard to see Mad Men duplicating the formula.