Last night wasn’t the first time Breaking Bad has used a ten-cent word for an episode title (see: last week’s mouthful, “To’hajiilee”) but, for those who didn’t pay attention during English Poetry 101, it may have been the most confusing.
The episode was called “Ozymandias” — but what’s an Ozymandias?
“Ozymandias” is best known as the title of a famous sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley, first published in January of 1818; you can hear Bryan Cranston recite it in full above (in a promo for Breaking Bad, natch) or read at the link included in TIME’s recap of the episode.
(READ: TIME’s recap of ‘Ozymandias’)
The poem tells the story of a traveller who has seen an ancient monument in the desert. The giant legs are all that remains standing of what was once a statue of a king — “Ozymandias, King of Kings” — and there is no sign of the civilization he once ruled, although the inscription on the pedestal indicates that the stone king once surveyed great enough works to drive terror into the hearts of his enemies. The mighty one has literally fallen, and so has everything he accomplished.
Shelley, however, did not invent Ozymandias, who was a real, historical person.
The inspiration for Shelley’s poem was a description given by Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian from the first century BCE. Diodorus spent time in Egypt and Rome, and wrote a history that ranged from mythical Greek history to the time of Julius Caesar. Diodorus’ work includes a recounting of exactly the scene described by the poem, involving a statue of the 13th-century-B.CE. Pharaoh called Ozymandias (who may be better known to Egyptology buffs as Rameses the Great, supposedly the Pharaoh of the Exodus story) on which the inscription indicated that Ozymandias was “King of Kings” and that his greatness was manifest in his works.
Nor was Shelley the only 19th-century Englishman to write a poem about Ozymandias. In fact, Shelley’s own sonnet was the result of a sonnet-writing contest (fun times!) with his friend Horace Smith. Both poems were published in The Examiner in early 1818, but Smith’s — “On A Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below” — has not endured in the way Shelley’s has.
But what does this all mean for Walter White?
The sonnet reminds those who have grown mighty that, no matter what they create or how confident they grow, time will tear them down. Though Ozymandias’ power is gone, the “passions” and “cold command” sculpted in his facial expression endure. With only a few episodes of Breaking Bad left, time is short, which means this is probably a bad sign for Walter (or at least for Heisenberg); it’s hard to imagine that some other character might be the Ozymandias stand-in, especially given the use of Cranston’s recitation to promote the final season of the show. As some interpretations of the sonnet point out, the great man’s face still looks as if he thinks his power remains, not knowing that everything he created is gone. On the other hand, the sculptor’s legacy truly lasts: everything the king made is gone but the artist, though long dead, endures through his work.
So get to work, Breaking Bad conspiracy theorists: is there a sculptor here? If yes, who?