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.
Last year, Hank’s toilet discovery of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass left Breaking Bad viewers hanging on the edge of their seats. In July, before the return of the final episodes of the series, a promotional trailer featuring the voice of Walter White reciting Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1818 Ozymandias was released. On September 15th, Ozymandias will be the title of the show’s 14th episode of Season 5, and its sixtieth episode altogether. As we approach the finale (Felina) of Breaking Bad, prepare for the collapse of Heisenberg’s “Blue Sky” crystal meth empire.
A verse from the sonnet was also referenced in a 2012, season 5 episode of Mad Men (set in 1967) by Michael Ginsberg. In celebration of a successful pitch for Sno Ball, he says, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” Stan Rizzo is quick to point out the irony, telling Ginsberg, “You should read the rest of that poem, you boob.”
Note that while Ginsberg’s pitch involves various types of people in a humorous predicament, Don’s pitiful pitch incorporates the Devil and a supposedly subtle catchphrase alluding to death, a reoccurring theme of which he is engrossed in (e.g. post-traumatic war memories, contextual murders, drug-induced hallucinations of drowning, his personal responsibility for his brother’s suicide and his mother’s death during child-birth, reading Dante’s Inferno, etc…) There is so much to say about Donald Draper’s obsession with death and it’s metaphorical significance that I am not going to delve into.
The story lines of Breaking Bad and Mad Men are replete with foreshadowing methods and ethically corrupt character motives for such plot devices. Featuring a central character wrought with grief and fear of death, yet equally determined to alter their lives in a dangerous struggle to avoid their inevitable demise, both series’ offer common moral uncertainty of how far a person can push themselves to get what they desire before “the bad” overshadows “the good”. As we, the viewer, watch Don Draper (aka Dick Whitman) and Walter White (aka Heisenberg) commit selfish, heinous acts while simultaneously acquiring wealth, recognition, and security, we see both men fight internal battles with their mirrored/dual personalities formed by the polarizing effects of their bitter, more humble past and their greedy, grandiose alter egos.
We have yet to find out whether either leading man has any chance at redemption from themselves. Soon, both Mad Men and Breaking Bad will come to an end. Until then, all that we are able to do is wait in suspense for judgment day; Not only of our favourite prominent prime-time powerhouses and supporting roles, but of ourselves as their reflection.