Why did Breaking Bad use Ozymandias?

Walter White

Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem Ozymandias is the basis for a trailer for the latest - and final - season of cult US TV drama Breaking Bad. Why, asks Ben Milne.

The minute-long trailer simply consists of a voice-over by Bryan Cranston (who plays the show's anti-hero, Walter White), reading Shelley's famous sonnet, set against shots of the stark, atmospheric landscape of the New Mexico desert, where Breaking Bad is set.

For those unaware of Ozymandias it tells the story of a "traveller from an antique land" who tells of a ruined statue of a dead ruler.

"Two vast and trunkless legs of stone/ Stand in the desert". The sculptor has caught the subject's "frown/ And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command".

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Media captionBreaking Bad's "Ozymandias" trailer

On the pedestal is written: "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works ye Mighty and despair."

Image caption This statue of Ramesses II, now in the British Museum, may have inspired Shelley's poem

But there's nothing left to look at, only the desert, the traveller reports. "The lone and level sands stretch far away."

The message, if one can call it that, is clear - the powerful fall, no matter how mighty they think they are. For fans of the show, a poem that symbolises hubris and egomania seems apposite.

Ozymandias was apparently inspired by the discovery in Luxor of a statue of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II (known in Greek as Ozymandias). The fall of tyrants is a theme which was always close to Shelley's heart. Born in 1792, he was part of the radical, anti-establishment generation of writers who became known as the Romantics - his contemporaries and friends included Byron, Wordsworth and Keats.

Much of Shelley's work was overtly political, and Ozymandias had its roots in the struggle for democracy and nationalism raging across Europe at that time. But its semi-mythical title character could be as relevant to the Arab Spring as it was to the politics of 1817. What's more, the theme of pride before a fall, runs all the way through western culture from the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex to the film Scarface.

But what it all means for Walter White, remains to be seen.

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