With “Breaking Bad,” his wildly successful cable TV series about Walter White, a dying high school teacher who begins selling crystal meth to build a family nest egg, producer Vince Gilligan has been giving some poetry classics a heightened profile in the popular culture.
The 19th-century bard’s masterwork figured into a major plot development when Walter’s brother-in-law Hank, played by Dean Norris, realized that Walt’s copy of “Leaves of Grass” was evidence of Walt’s crimes.
Now, with Sunday’s upcoming “Breaking Bad,” episode, titled “Ozymandias,” Gilligan has given the nod to another great poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Sunday’s episode takes its name from one of the most famous poems by Shelley, the celebrated English poet who lived between 1792-1822.
In “Ozymandias,” a desert adventurer recalls coming across a deteriorated and long-neglected statue of a once-great ruler named Ozymandias. The statue bears a chilling message relayed in the poem’s last stanza:
“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."
You can read the full poem and some biographical information about Shelley here.
Shelley’s poem is widely revered as a compelling reflection on the fleeting nature of power and glory. The poem got renewed attention after the 2003 invasion of Iraq that ousted Saddam Hussein from power, which prompted the tearing down of Saddam’s huge statue in Firdos Square. Video footage of the incident inspired lots of comparisons between Saddam and Shelley’s fictional Ozymandias.
In naming Sunday’s episode of “Breaking Bad” after Shelley’s doomed ruler, Gilligan has hinted that Walt, too, is going to continue to see his empire collapse before his eyes.
Although Gilligan has been tight-lipped about crucial plot developments for the final episodes of the show, fans of the series can watch this clip featuring Bryan Cranston, who plays Walt, performing a dramatic reading of Shelley’s poem.
What would Shelley think of his hipster status as a creative element in “Breaking Bad”?
We can only speculate, although Shelley, described by “The Norton Anthology of English Literature” as “a radical conformist in every aspect of his life and thought,” might have gotten a kick out of keeping company with Walter White.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”