Percy Shelley's 'Ozymandias' Breaks Bad Again In The 21st Century

For all those 'Breaking Bad' fans who've held fast in weathering the perfect storm of the first five episodes of Season 5's final eight, the 6th installment is being promoted as the best of the baddest. But who would make such a claim? Vince Gilligan, the show's creator - that's who!

While I have my own theory as to how the series might end (Spoiler Alert: "Did The Real 'Heisenberg' Also 'Break Bad'?"), Creator Gilligan is going in for Bryan Cranston's close-up in the sixth episode, titled, "Ozymandias," a nod to Romantic poet Percy Bysse Shelley's sonnet penned in 1818.

This poem has long been lauded for its power of theme and imagery, but it's Shelly's emphasis on virtuosic diction that allows actor Bryan Cranston to deliver it with such an ominous and foreboding tone.

In this promo clip, Cranston as White recites the poem with an eery visceral sense of foreshadowing, while backdrop images of New Mexico's sprawling deserts and suburbs flash before your eyes.

To which Gilligan has been reported to tell critics, "it's going to knock your f--kin' socks off when you see it."

For all those that remember the now-famous "empire business" quote uttered by White to his protege, Jesse Pinkman, you might begin to understand why Gilligan is drawing allusions to Shelley's work.

Shelley's poem is often said to have been inspired by the 1821 arrival in London of a colossal statue of Ramesses IIRamesses IIRamesses II, acquired by the British Museum. However since the poem was written in advance of the statue arriving in Britain, this theory has been debunked. Nonetheless, references to Ramesses II do bear out, since 'Ozymandias' is the Greek name for Ramesses throne. And the sonnet does paraphrase the inscription on the base of the statue as "King of Kings."

So what does this all mean for the chemistry teacher turned carwash owner/drug lord empire builder? In episode 5, titled, "To 'hajiilee" it seems fitting that Walt would be tricked into returning to where he buried his drug money. It's the same place where he 'broke bad' for the very first time  - where Jesse and him embarked on their initial 'crystal blue persuasion' cook.

However with "Ozymandias" as the central theme of episode six, it's clear that Gilligan and his writers are intent on preparing us for the collapse of White's mighty empire, where hubris and egomania get their comeuppance. When you think about it, the theme of pride before the fall runs all the way through western culture from the Greek tragedies, to Shakespeare to modern day, with films like the Godfather and Scarface.

But how this all plays out for Walter White is still a guessing game. Yet the sonnet's prophetic words, "look on my works, ye mighty and despair" might provide us with a glimpse of insight. After all White's character doesn't have to be killed off to end this morality tale badly (as evidenced  by the opening scene of Season 5, episode 1 - he still lives, and no longer with a chemo-shaven head). White's despair could be predicated on the one thing he's always held dear and wanted to preserve from day one of the very first episode of Season One - his family! 

by Percy Bysshe Shelley   

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."

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