Bryan Cranston Reads Shelley’s Sonnet “Ozymandias” in Ominous Teaser for Breaking Bad’s Last Season

Since his improb­a­ble but riv­et­ing rise from put-upon, can­cer-strick­en chem­istry teacher Wal­ter White to socio­path­ic meth king­pin Heisen­berg, Bryan Cranston’s char­ac­ter in Break­ing Bad has come to embody all of the char­ac­ter­is­tics of an ancient despot: cun­ning, para­noia, the nurs­ing of old wounds and pre­ten­sions to unde­served great­ness. It seems per­fect­ly in char­ac­ter, then, that the show’s pro­duc­ers would tease the final sea­son with the omi­nous and dusty clip above, with Cranston read­ing Per­cy Bysshe Shelley’s son­net “Ozy­man­dias,” a poem about the hubris of anoth­er desert tyrant—well-known for his mega­lo­ma­ni­a­cal fol­ly—Ramess­es II (also known by a translit­er­a­tion of his throne name, Ozy­man­dias).

The speak­er of Shel­ley’s poem meets a trav­eller from an “antique land,” who describes an immense stat­ue, bro­ken to pieces and lying strewn in the desert where “Noth­ing beside remains.” On the stat­ue’s pedestal, a sculp­tor has inscribed the words, “My name is Ozy­man­dias, king of kings. / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.” As Slate describes the teaser’s match-up:

The poem echoes all the show’s big themes: the mythol­o­gy of evil, the nuances of moral­i­ty, the arc of coro­na­tion and decay. The images, on the oth­er hand are fleeting—mostly New Mex­i­co desert and sub­ur­bia, though we end with a lin­ger­ing shot of Heisenberg’s dusty, worn hat rest­ing, like the poem’s once-colos­sal stat­ue.

Fans of the show famil­iar with the poem’s most pro­nounced theme, the fleet­ing nature of empires, no mat­ter how great, will know to antic­i­pate the fall of Heisen­berg in some spec­tac­u­lar fash­ion, though all we have so far are the vague hints of Walter’s esca­lat­ing vio­lence and para­noia from the last few episodes. Cranston seethes the poem’s most famous line—that one about despair (and the source of the poem’s cen­tral irony)—with par­tic­u­lar men­ace.


The poem’s imagery, so com­mon to the ear­ly nine­teenth cen­tu­ry Egyp­tol­ogy of Shelley’s time and after, was alleged­ly inspired by a pas­sage in Roman-era his­to­ri­an Diodor­us Sicu­lus describ­ing just such a stat­ue. Also fuel­ing Shelley’s imag­i­na­tion were the Napoleon­ic archae­o­log­i­cal finds in Egypt, includ­ing news of the 1816 dis­cov­ery of a mas­sive Ramess­es II stat­ue by Ital­ian explor­er Gio­vani Bel­zoni (who sold it to the British Muse­um in 1821). Shel­ley wrote “Ozy­man­dias” in com­pe­ti­tion with a friend, financier and nov­el­ist Hen­ry Smith. Smith’s sub­mis­sion, “In Egypt’s Sandy Silence,” came first.

Crit­ic and writer Leigh Hunt pub­lished both poems in 1818 edi­tions of his month­ly mag­a­zine The Exam­in­er. While Smith’s poem bare­ly ris­es to the occa­sion, more clum­sy par­o­dy than seri­ous lit­er­ary endeav­or, Shelley’s—like the sculptor’s inscrip­tion in his poem—has out­last­ed the empire of his day and lives on in the micro­cos­mic TV rep­re­sen­ta­tions of our own impe­r­i­al works. Above, see an 1817 draft copy of Shelley’s iambic pen­tame­ter son­net, worked over with cor­rec­tions and revi­sions. Below see the fair copy he sent to Hunt for pub­li­ca­tion. Both copies reside at the Bodleian Library.


Relat­ed Con­tent:

Inside Break­ing Bad: Watch Conan O’Brien’s Extend­ed Inter­view with the Show’s Cast and Cre­ator

Dis­cov­ered: Lord Byron’s Copy of Franken­stein Signed by Mary Shel­ley

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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