On the Appropriation of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” in AMC’s Breaking Bad
by Austin Gill
It seems fair to attribute at least part of the success of AMC’s TV show Breaking Bad to the resonance of its main character, Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston), with viewers. As he is introduced, Walter is a sort of “everyman” in that he experiences many social strains that make him relatable—particularly for an audience situated in, or gradually emerging from the Great Recession.11 This is an important period of time to consider as Breaking Bad ran from 2008-2013, while the Great Recession officially lasted from 2007-2009. Infamously, the Great Recession marked a period of high unemployment rates, reductions in spending, pessimistic stock market and housing price expectations, and general monetary constraints.7 An audience enduring the effects of the Great Recession and its implications is inevitably more likely to sympathize with some of the social strains that afflict Walter White. A cancer diagnosis, the need for financial stability, and established autonomy brings Walter—an obedient, unimposing “straight” (as Jesse calls him in “Pilot”) high school teacher—to begin manufacturing and selling methamphetamine. Walter laments his social strains in season two, episode three:
My wife is seven months pregnant with a baby we didn’t intend. My fifteen-year old son has cerebral palsy. I am an extremely overqualified high school teacher. When I can work, I make $43,700 per year. I have watched all of my colleagues and friends surpass me in every way imaginable, and within eighteen months I will be dead. (“Bit By a Dead Bee”)
Many can relate, in some capacity, to the social strains that affect Walter. David R. Koepsell and Robert Arp explain that, in some ways, “we are all Walter White”:
Breaking Bad emerged on the airwaves at a critical time in American history. Deep in a never-end[ing] recession, losing confidence with our technical and innovative prowess worldwide, outpaced by competitors, and nervous about the future and what we leave the next generation, we are all Walter White.9
It is largely Walter’s relatable everyman status that makes his arc of transformation into shrewdly arrogant Heisenberg so intriguing. This transformation “from Mr. Chips to Scarface,” as creator, writer, producer, and director of Breaking Bad Vince Gilligan calls it, seems to suggest it could happen to anyone under certain social strains.6 Bryan Cranston addressed this notion in an interview on New Mexico in Focus, explaining that even the meekest person can be potentially dangerous “if the right buttons are pushed” in a certain set of circumstances.2
As Walter White increasingly transforms from relatable everyman to overzealous tyrant, Breaking Bad uses Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” both implicitly and explicitly. Partly functioning as a marketing technique to draw attention to the show, the appropriation also links Breaking Bad to the classic narrative Shelley’s poem remains rooted in—tyrannical hubris climaxing in devastation. Walter, particularly from the beginning of season five to the show’s end, evokes the tyrannical aspirations of invincibility and arrogance of Ozymandias himself as represented in Shelley’s poem. Ultimately, the foolish vanity and overzealous aspirations of both Walter and Ozymandias result in a destructive path culminating in each figure’s demise.
Background: Shelley and his Poem
Interestingly, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) experienced an assortment of social strains in his life. Though financial insecurity was not a prevalent issue, Shelley was subjected to pressures stemming from the displeasure of his parents, the university, and elsewhere in society. An eccentric, irreverent personality in his early youth earned him alienation and the nickname “Mad Shelley” from his peers. While at Oxford University, Shelley wrote a pamphlet entitled “The Necessity of Atheism,” which led to his expulsion.3 On a more somber note, Shelley’s life was also strained by tumultuous love triangles. His first wife, Harriet Westbrook, committed suicide presumably as a result of the relationship strains.8 He remarried to Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin before writing “Ozymandias,” an Egypt-inspired poem warning against vanity and despotism.
In 1816, Italian explorer Giovanni Battista Belzoni excavated a seven-ton fragmented statue of the head and torso of Ramesses II, known as the “Younger Memnon” in Thebes, Egypt. The British Museum announced its official acquisition of the statue in 1818, which accounts for a key part of Shelley’s inspiration for “Ozymandias.”3 The name Ozymandias is a Greek translation of “cUser-macat-rec,” which is the Egyptian praenomen for the pharaoh perhaps better known as Ramesses II.13
While the news of the giant excavated statue captured and endured public interest at the time, Shelley and his friend (also a poet) Horace Smith engaged in a friendly competition. Likely focusing on the epitaph ascribed to Ramesses II by Diodorus Siculus, which was so well known it “had become virtually a commonplace in the romantic period” (circa 1800-1850), each writer was to produce a sonnet on the subject of Ozymandias.12 Smith wrote a rather forgettable sonnet titled, “On a Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below.” Shelley wrote the classic “Ozymandias,” which was published only a few weeks later in January of 1818 in Leigh Hunt’s The Examiner:
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.
The obscured narration of the poem is enigmatic and drawing, as the initial first-person speech almost immediately shifts to third person dialogue (from perhaps an equally enigmatic “traveller from an antique land”). William Spanos notes the shift provides for a “framework of a contemporary conversation” that readily engages the reader.14 The shifting narrative source yields a feeling of social conversation, and as a result seems to transcend time and leave the reader feeling “included.”
Undoubtedly, Shelley primarily uses irony as a device to convey his poem’s message. The narrator describes a once mighty tyrant arrogantly declaring his power. In his inscription, the king demands others observe his works and lose hope of ever attaining the same status. The king presumably ordered the sculptor to create a giant statue representing his enduring power.5 The great irony, however, is that the tyrant has nothing to show for his power. Instead of impressive, daunting “works,” there are only ruins—fragmented remains of what once was, in a vast and empty desert. Furthermore, the message comes from a distant traveler—not the ancient king. This narrator thus renders the king even less commanding. As Krishna Daiya observes, this distanced narration unquestionably undermines the king’s power.3
On another level of irony, the statue’s “frown,” “wrinkled lip,” and “sneer of cold command” illustrates a once-powerful figure, but perhaps speaks more to the sculptor’s skill in representing the tyrannical vanity of the subject.4 Of course, while the “sneer of cold command” remains, the ruler clearly no longer commands anyone.5 The deep ironies in Shelley’s poem fortify its message that vanity and overzealousness are self-destructing qualities.
Appropriating “Ozymandias”: Walter White and Beyond
Particularly from season five until Breaking Bad’s end, the increasing tyrannical aspirations of invincibility and arrogance of Walter echo Shelley’s poem. Yet, it is not just Walter White who seeks undying legacy, as Breaking Bad itself does as well. AMC released a teaser trailer two months before the final eight episodes of the show were scheduled to start. The trailer features a voiceover from lead actor Bryan Cranston (Walter White), reciting Shelley’s poem in full. Various video clips of settings from the show accompany the reading, none of which include a single person. Over the final shot Cranston reads, “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.” The camera slowly pulls backward in the middle of a desolate New Mexico desert, reminiscent of the “boundless and bare” and “lone and level” sands in Shelley’s poem. Walter White’s signature hat comes into view in the foreground, positioned in the middle of an otherwise vast and empty desert, recalling the lone wreck of statue in Shelley’s poem.
The trailer provides a narrative framework for how viewers should watch the concluding episodes of the show, as the allusion to “Ozymandias” indicates a climactic moment for Walter White. Thus, Breaking Bad uses Shelley’s poem as a kind of marketing technique that simultaneously invites the audience to ask, predict and watch how Walter White will ultimately fare and be remembered, and how the show will be remembered as well.
Moreover, the third to last episode in the final season of Breaking Bad is in fact titled “Ozymandias,” and marks the beginning of the end for Walter’s seeming invincibility. In a vicious turn of events, his brother-in-law is murdered right in front of him by a group of neo-Nazis. In horror, he falls to the ground with a writhing grimace. The expression results in an uncanny resemblance to Shelley’s line describing a “half-sunk shattered visage.” Following this tragedy, the neo-Nazis dig just four shovel-fulls of dirt before finding all of Walter’s buried money. As TV critic Donna Bowman of A.V. Club acknowledges, the swift find accentuates just how quickly and easily one can go from having everything to having nothing.1 In just a matter of seconds, Walter goes from being so powerful to powerless, echoing the king’s demise from tyrannical ruler to decaying ruins in Shelley’s poem.
After the gas tank of his car is shot in a barrage of gunfire, Walt is left in the desert with only a miniscule fraction of the money he had accumulated. As he must walk through the desert on foot seeking refuge, The Limeliters’ “Take My True Love by the Hand” plays. The song repeats the lyrics, “say goodbye to everyone, goodbye to everyone.” After losing his brother-in-law, money, and car, the song fittingly comments on Walter’s losses and foreshadows the final estrangement of his family as well.
Once he returns home and engages in a knife fight with his wife, his son contacts the police, leaving Walt alienated by his own family. As a result, Walter is forced to leave, and takes his infant daughter with him. When he stops at a public bathroom to change her diaper, she utters her first words, “mama.” This visibly pains Walter, as it seems he is unwanted by absolutely everyone (except as a fugitive). At the end of the episode, he retreats to utter isolation in the wilderness, removing himself entirely from society. As a result, he loses his identity—or at least prominence—which functions as an ironic juxtaposition for a man so chiefly concerned with his reputation and mightiness. Walter effectively erases his existence from the world. This irony is akin to the irony in Shelley’s poem, which leaves a once arrogantly powerful force with nothing to show for his works but remnants of rubble.
In the episodes leading up to “Ozymandias,” Walter White increasingly adopts the arrogant, merciless, power-hungry sentiments in Shelley’s poem. I will detail some of these key scenes in chronological fashion:
Even as early as the first episode of season five, Walter’s intense vanity is so clear that one could feasibly cite the presence of a God complex. After damaging all incriminating police evidence with a swift, clever scheme, Walter dismisses the reasonable concerns of his partner: “Untraceable salvage, all of it,” Walter claims. His partner responds, “I’m supposed to take that on faith? Why? How do we know?” With a slow, arrogant smirk, Walter retorts, “Because I said so” (“Live Free or Die”). Similar to the Ozymandias in Shelley’s poem, Walter utterly refuses to acknowledge the possibility of error or failure, and expresses himself as simply invulnerable.
Early on in the show Walter attempts to justify selling meth to his partner, Jesse, noting that he is not in the meth business, but the money business. Later however, in episode six of season five Jesse wants to quit and get out of the business with the money they’ve made. Jesse recalls what Walt once said and asks him, “because when it comes down to it, are we in the meth business, or the money business?” Walt eventually responds, “neither. I’m in the empire business” (“Buyout”). The scene brings to mind the utter desire for almighty, commanding power in Shelley’s poem. For both Shelley’s Ozymandias and Walter, it seems “enough” does not exist. Their mutual goal of utter invincibility and reverence is a constantly moving measuring stick that ironically is the root of each figure’s termination.
In the following episode (seven), Walter prompts a competing drug lord, “You know who I am. Say my name.” The drug lord, after a moment of realization, responds, “You’re Heisenberg,” which is Walter White’s alias. Walter responds smugly, “You’re goddamn right” (“Say My Name”). This scene particularly evokes Ozymandias’ “sneer of cold command” and the arrogant hubris implied in the line, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings.” Walter, who originally became involved in the meth business seeking money, now seeks ultimate reverence.
Maybe the most absurd of these “echo scenes,” in which Walter’s sentiments echo that of Shelley’s overzealous tyrannical king, is when Walter’s DEA agent brother-in-law finds out what Walter has become (but doesn’t have enough evidence to make an arrest). In shock, his brother-in-law says to Walter, “I don’t even know who you are.” Walter responds in his familiar slow, arrogant tone, “If that’s true, if you don’t know who I am, then maybe your best course, would be to tread lightly” (“Blood Money”). Even in the face of the DEA, Walter’s outrageous hubris shines through, echoing the vainglorious sentiments of invincibility in Shelley’s poem.
Perhaps Walter Stephens put it best when he wrote, “Shelley’s poem has made Ozymandias an emblem of self-deluding hubris, the ambition to be remembered favorably by posterity, and the refusal to acknowledge time’s destruction of human achievement.”15 Still, his achievements were once very real, as evidenced by the fragmented remains. It seems then that the message of the poem underscores the fallibility of everything except for time. Only time is invincible as it ruins everything with its impersonal and destructive nature.3 The poem demonstrates that no tyrannical structure lasts forever, and serves as a warning for overzealous, power-hungry despots like Walter White.
A cursory Google search of “Ozymandias” reveals a range of appropriations across several mediums. Three comic book characters, a young-adult novel character, a sea ship and star ship in video games, four songs, an album, and of course a television episode all bear the name of Shelley’s classic poem. Its resonance and legacy is simply undeniable.
Ultimately, the discussion of archetypal overzealous antiheros has been extended and renewed by Breaking Bad’s use of Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” The show’s invocation of the classic poem functions, in part, to underscore and warn of the ramifications of vanity. The narrative framework of Shelley’s poem has stood the test of time, and what better way to market oneself as a classic than with a classic? By appropriating the classic “Ozymandias,” Breaking Bad also seeks to sustain cultural life and power. For a show that only ended in 2013, it may still be hasty to comment on such things, but with a perfect 10/10 IMDb (Internet movie database) rating (with over 60,000 votes) for its episode “Ozymandias” and 9.5 overall show rating (over 650,000 votes), it is safe to say Breaking Bad’s legacy is, at least, off to a strong start. 16, 17
1Bowman, D. (2013) “Breaking Bad: “Ozymandias.” A.V. Club, T.V. Club. n. pag. (12/17/2014).
2Cranston, B. Interview with Matt Grubs. (2013) “Episode 707.” 58 min. New Mexico in Focus. KNME-TV. PBS.
3Daiya, K. (2014) “The Timelessness of Art as Epitomized in Shelley’s Ozymandias.” Advances in Language and Literary Studies. Volume 5. Issue 1. Pg. 154-56.
4Edwards, B. (2002) “Ozymandias.” Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition. Salem Press. Pg 1.
5Edwards, B. (1995) “Ozymandias.” Recommended Reading: 500 Classics Reviewed. Salem Press. Pg. 1-2.
6Gross, T. (2011) “’Breaking Bad’: Vince Gilligan On Meth And Morals.” 16 min. NPR.
7Hurd, D. and Rohwedder, S. (2010) “Effects of the Financial Crisis and Great Recession on American Households.” The National Bureau of Economic Research. n. pag.
8Johnson, B. (1982) “My Monster/My Self.” Diacritics. Volume 12. Issue 2. Pg. 2-10.
9Koepsell, D. and Arp, R. (2012) “A Fine Meth We’ve Gotten Into.” Breaking Bad and Philosophy: Badder Living Through Chemistry. Open Court Publishing Company. Pg. vii-ix.
10Mikics, D. (2014) “Percy Bysshe Shelley: “Ozymandias”: A Poem to Outlast Empires.” Poetry Foundation. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/. (Accessed (12/9/2014).
11Osborne, P. (2013) “Becoming the One Who Knocks: Innovations as a Response to Social Strains in AMC’s Breaking Bad.” Popular Culture Review. Volume 24. Issue 2. Pg. 99-112.
12Parr, J. (1957) “Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias.’” Keats-Shelley Journal. Volume 6. Pg. 34
13Rodenbeck, J. (2004) “Travelers from an Antique Land: Shelley’s Inspiration for ‘Ozymandias.'” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics. Volume 24. Pg. 121-48.
14Spanos, W. (1968) “Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ and the Problem of the Persona.” The CEA Critic: An Official Journal of the College English Association. Volume 30. Issue 4. Pg. 14-15.
15Stephens, W. (2009) “Ozymandias: Or, Writing, Lost Libraries, and Wonder.” Modern Language Notes. Volume 124. Issue 5. Pg. 155-168.
16N.A. (2013) “Breaking Bad: Season 5, Episode 14.” IMDb. IMDb.com, Inc. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2301451/?ref_=tt_eps_rhs_0. (Accessed 03/20/2015).
17N.A. (2013) “Breaking Bad.” IMDb. IMDb.com, Inc. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0903747/?ref_=tt_ov_inf. (Accessed 03/20/2015)