I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Recovering from the absolute emotional overload that was tonight’s stupendous episode of Breaking Bad, “Ozymandias,” I found myself reading the 1818 sonnet from which the episode takes its name over and over again. Pouring over every perfectly chosen word, losing myself in the haunting, expertly crafted rhythmic beauty of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry, I saw things in the sonnet I had never quite sensed before, even though I have looked upon it countless times, including other instances where literary references in pop culture – Watchmen, most notably – compelled me to revisit it.
Breaking Bad forced me to see these things, for its “Ozymandias” is in many ways similar to Shelley’s Ozymandias. Both are, for instance, keenly focused on aesthetic impact, using imagery, rhythm, composition, and pace – in the respectively different styles of poetry and television – to assist in imparting the full weight of their ideas. Both make grand, sweeping statements, yet each does so within a rigid, given format (the parameters of the sonnet, and the 5-act, 48-minute structure of commercial cable television). Thematically, each speak to the nature of empire, and the inevitable erosion of great and powerful figures, while recognizing that speech – particularly speech that grandstands, or self-fulfills – lives on and leaves a mark. Indeed, the centerpiece emotional wallop of both the sonnet and the episode involves the key figure shouting down to his perceived subjects, fiercely and with unwavering force, but with a hint (or much more, in Walter White’s case) of insecurity and fear.
The key thematic difference between Shelley’s Ozymandias and Breaking Bad’s “Ozymandias,” though, is perspective. Where the sonnet is written from a heavily removed point-of-view – that of a traveller, who hears a story, told by a man who did not experience this empire’s fall, but merely saw evidence of it – tonight’s Breaking Bad episode takes place at the heart of the storm, and focuses rather squarely on the emotional journey of the emperor in decline. Reading the sonnet, we can infer certain things about Ozymandias, king of kings – that his power was core to his character, that he held on to it tightly, that he forced others (like the sculptor) to see what he wanted them to see – but we do not know him the way we know Walter White. And while Walter White’s story ultimately delivers a similar message as Ozymandias’, with all his perceived accomplishments giving way to forces beyond his control, the moments that will historically define Walt to those who knew him – selling his surrogate son into Nazi-meth-slavery, brandishing a knife at his spouse, shouting at his son, kidnapping his daughter, and finally, verbally abusing his wife as brutally as possible – carry a different, if similar, weight to the words carved on the King’s decaying statue.
Ozymandias challenged the mighty to look upon his works and despair that none could match his accomplishments. Walter White, conversely, is challenged to look upon his own works, to see the course of his wicked life in totality, and in that moment, he is the one made to despair.
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