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Monday, September 16, 2013

The meaning of Ozymandias, Breaking Bad's latest episode title


Arguably the best episode of Breaking Bad yet, the 14th episode of the 5th season, titled "Ozymandias," saw some shocking events. Below is our analysis of the meaning behind the episode's title, which reveals both spoilers for this episode and spoilers for Alan Moore's "Watchmen," so please proceed with caution if you've not seen either. 

As Breaking Bad approaches its final episode, every moment and detail seems to count, including some very cryptic episode titles. Ozymandias takes its namesake from a Percy Shelley poem (see below) describing the ruins of King Ozymandias (Ramses II). The sonnet tells the story of an eroded monument to a once-powerful king, whose powerful proclamation is etched in stone: Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair. The line gives us insight both into the power and hubris of the King based on his original intent of the words, and the irony of the line in its new context: a broken monument surrounded by dust and desert, which yields a different sort of despair, much closer to pity than fear. 


It's not difficult to see the parallel between Walt and King Ozymandias in this context. Walt has built a meth empire; he considers himself powerful and strong, but in this episode we see Walt as weak and failing. He can't control the gang he hired to kill Jesse, and despite his protests they murder Hank and take most of his money. He can't keep his family together, and even his wife turns on him with a knife when he asks her to flee with him. The audience has previously seen Walt as manipulative, fierce, incredibly intelligent, and lucky, but here we see how meaningless that empire is and how quickly Walt ends up alone, most of his hard-earned money gone. 

There is also a potential reference to the Alan Moore's graphic novel "Watchmen," which was adapted into a movie. Inspired by the same poem, Moore's villain in "Watchmen" is a man named Adrien Veidt, who goes by the name Ozymandias. Veidt is considered a hero in the beginning of the novel, but as the story unravels we learn that he has set into motion a series of events that destroys much of the population of New York City. When confronted by the heroes, Veidt explains his plan: he can see that the world is on the brink of assured nuclear destruction, and that if he does not take action to bring the enemies together in a united cause, against the monster he has created, they will destroy each other. Veidt chooses to play the villain because, he believes, sacrificing the lives of thousands will result in saving the lives of millions. 

Hank's final words to Walt suggest a direct reference to the graphic novel: 

"You're the smartest guy I ever met, and you're too stupid to see he made up his mind 10 minutes ago." 

As Veidt unveils his plan to the Watchmen, who are still trying to stop him, he says: 

"Do you seriously think I'd explain my master-stroke if there remained the slightest chance of you affecting its outcome? I did it 35 minutes ago."

In the episode's final moments, this parallel between the graphic novel and Walt become clear again. Walt calls Skyler, knowing the police will monitor the call, and screams at her. He plays the part of an angry villain who suggests Skyler simply and cluelessly submitted to his evil plans, all the while choking back his tears. Walt feels he is acting the part of a villain to protect others, just as Ozymandias felt. He still likely maintains a sense of innocence about his choices - as he protested to Skyler, he tried to save Hank - but thinks he must fall on his sword and sully his own name to protect others. The irony is that he has become exactly what he thinks he is pretending to be. 

What do you think? Do you see any other meanings behind the title? 

Shelley's full poem is below: 

Ozymandias

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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