Succession’s Ozymandias Reference Works on Multiple Levels

Look on its Works, ye Mighty, and despair! In its penultimate episode, Succession references a classic poem and a TV great.

Shiv Roy (Sarah Snook) in Succession
Photo: Macall Polay | HBO

This article contains spoilers for Succession season 4 episode 9.

Though they may not be conventionally intelligent (and in many cases they’re outright dumb), Logan Roy’s children sure are a well-educated bunch. Never has that been more apparent than in Succession‘s second-to-last episode “Church and State.”

Even as the Roy siblings gather at a church for their father’s funeral, they are each still able to conjure up some impressive deep cut real life factoids. When the politically-inclined Connor (Alan Ruck) meets with almost President-elect Mencken (Justin Kirk), he pitches him on a “Pan-Hapsburg American-led EU alternative,” which we’re pretty sure just means restoring the Hapsburg dynasty. Mencken, who isn’t Logan Roy’s son but might as well be, hits Shiv (Sarah Snook) with an equally obscure “kinder küche kirche” reference upon learning she’s pregnant. Naturally, that’s a phrase from the German Empire used to describe a woman’s role in society.

It’s Shiv, herself, though who wins the prize for this week’s most compelling, and quite frankly baller, reference. Upon seeing her father’s grand mausoleum and learning from Connor that he purchased it from a dot-com era pet supply magnate, Shiv calls Logan a “cat food Ozymandias.” Now if that doesn’t bring studios back to the table to negotiate the end to the WGA writers strike, we don’t know what will.

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Shiv’s Ozymandias invocation works on multiple levels. In one fell swoop she has referenced a powerful Egyptian pharaoh, a classic Percy Bysshe Shelley poem, and maybe even an all-time great episode of television. Allow us to explain all of the connections.

First of all: the pharaoh. Ozymandias is the Greek name for the Egyptian ruler Ramesses II or Ramesses the Great. Ramesses II is remembered for being the most powerful ruler of ancient Egypt’s most powerful period. But perhaps even more than that, Rameses/Ozymandias is now remembered for an incredible poem that bears his name.

You can read Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandians” in its entirety here but the general gist of it is the following. The poem’s narrator recounts meeting a “traveller from an antique land.” That traveller regales him with the details of a ruined statue he came across. The statue is that of Ozymandias. Though the structure once clearly once beautiful and imposing, it now lies wrecked and fractured in endless sand. The inscription on the statue reads “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; / Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” But, of course, the works that Ozymandias has commanded the traveler to look upon is nothing but empty desert.

The lesson here is that things fall apart. Nothing lasts. Time claims all – even the most productive reigns of powerful kingdoms that feel like they’ll never end. If it can happen to Ozymandias then it can certainly happen to Logan Roy. And that’s what Shiv is ultimately commenting on. Sure, Logan’s empire is in a relatively stable state for now but does it even matter if Logan isn’t around to see it? One day, Logan’s opulent sepulcher will overlook the ruins of Waystar Royco and ATN just like Rameses II’s fallen empire.

If you weren’t able to tell already, this poem freaking rules. It goes hard, as the kids might say. In only 14 lines and 113 words, it captures the fragility of human excellence and the awe-inspiring destruction of time itself. It’s no surprise then that Shelley’s poem is a frequent reference point for many high-minded bits of popular culture. The most famous use of the poem, however, comes in the form of a Breaking Bad episode of the same name.

The third-to-last episode of Breaking Bad is titled “Ozymandias” and the moniker is more than fitting. We won’t go into full spoilers but suffice it to say, “Ozymandias” is the episode where it all falls apart for lead character Walter White (Bryan Cranston). While Shelley’s poem is almost impossibly epic and evocative, the Breaking Bad episode named after it improbably rises to the occasion to be every bit as devastating.

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“Church and State” isn’t nearly as explosive as that classic Breaking Bad hour is but it still comes across its Ozymandias reference honestly. Succession hasn’t yet depicted the moment where it all falls down for Waystar Royco and ATN is little more than a TV broadcasting propaganda to no one in a vast desert. But based on the trajectory of the series we don’t even need to see the decay to know its right around the corner. Dark times for the Roys, their empire, and the world at large lie ahead. And through it all, Logan Roy’s body will molder above ground with a “wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command” like Ozymandias before him.

The Succession series finale airs Sunday, May 28 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.