As a hard-core Breaking Bad fan, you’re caught up on your Whitman. But what about your O’Keeffe, your Bowen, your Kafka, your Shelley? Here, a list of the show’s literary references and what they mean.
1. Georgia O’Keeffe, One Hundred Flowers
A lot of her paintings look like vaginas.
Jane Margolis, 2.09: “4 Days Out”
How does Jane persuade her meth-cooking, pot-smoking, Wii-playing beau to set foot in the Georgia O’Keeffe museum? She brings up sex. The idea is not exactly new, and not exactly hers: the Freud-crazed critics of 1920s New York already saw O’Keeffe’s floral paintings as renditions of female genitalia. This annoyed the artist: “you write about my flower,” she once said, “as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower—and I don’t.” Perhaps it was for fear of such crude interpretations that she later published over a hundred of her favorite blossoms in a book with no text.
2. Mark Bowden, Killing Pablo
Good guys never get ink like the bad guys do.
Walter Jr., 3.08: “I See You”
After Hank’s gory show-down with the Mexican cartel, Walt joins Junior in the ICU waiting-room. He comes bearing gifts from home: snacks, blankets, toiletries—anything to quell the guilt of having put Hank’s life at risk. Among these sundry items is Mark Bowden‘s Killing Pablo, which his son has presumably requested. The two discuss its subject matter: the US and Colombian governments’ hunt for drug lord Pablo Escobar during the early 90s.
There’s something deliciously wicked about this particular reference in the context of a father-son scene: as Bowden explains, Pablo Escobar was caught while he spoke on the phone with his son, Pablo, Jr.; and he was caught because the call was traced by a tech-expert in Colonel Hugo Martinez’s Search Bloc–none other than Martinez’s own son, Hugo, Jr. Viewers familiar with this story will have drawn parallels between Hank and Martinez, Walt and Escobar… but they will now be prompted to do the same with Junior. Which of the two Colombian sons is he: Pablo, or Hugo? Who will he side with in the end, when all is revealed: Hank, or Walt?
Yeah. Totally Kafkaesque.
Jesse Pinkman, 3.09: “Kafkaesque,”
During a rehab meeting, Jesse underplays his job at Gus Fring’s lab: he claims it is a “boring, corporate laundromat” position where the boss is a “d—ck” and the owner a mysterious “super d—ck.” When the group leader claims that’s kind of “kafkaesque,” Jesse agrees. The scene’s ironic quality comes from the fact that they both speak the truth, but are only half aware of it: the leader knows what “kafkaesque” means, but he doesn’t know what it ultimately applies to—he pictures a low-wage laundromat, not a high-death meth lab; Jesse knows what it really applies to, but he doesn’t know what it means. We, the bookish viewers, have an edge over them both: we understand what Jesse’s gig entails and are (hopefully) familiar with the term “kafkaesque” (what sorts of readers of Kafka would we be if we weren’t?) “Nightmarishly bizarre,” we conclude, is a fair job description indeed!
And all the while I kept thinking about that great old Whitman poem.
Gale Boetticher, 3.06: “Sunset”
Walking into Fring’s lab for his first cook, Walt expects to be assisted by a street-savvy criminal. Instead, he finds Gale: a nerdy vegan with a knack for X-ray crystallography and a love of Whitman. When he asks him why he’s cooking crystal meth, Gale’s replies in verse:
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,/When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,/When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,/When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,/How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,/Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,/In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,/Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
This, of course, is Whitman-talk for “I got bored with academia and decided to do science first-hand.” As Gale tells Walt in more prosaic English, “I love the lab.” He then gives him a copy of Leaves of Grass. The seemingly harmless token of appreciation will be crucial later on.
Walt Whitman: Your W.W.
Walter White, 4.04: “Bullet Points”
While looking into Gale’s murder, Hank shows Walt a cryptic note found in his lab-book: “To W.W. My Star, My Perfect Silence.” The note echoes the final verse of “When I heard the learn’d astronomer,” but it is not a dedication to the poem’s author. It is, instead, one lab-geek’s homage to another—Gale’s way of thanking Walt for a ticket out of “the lecture-room.” Hank doesn’t know this, but jokes that the initials “W.W.” match his brother-in-law’s. Our antihero is quick on his feet: after a smooth shrug and a deadpan “You got me,” he flips through Gale’s lab-book and finds Whitman’s poem. “Walt Whitman: your W.W.,” he declares. Hank bites.
5.08: “Gliding Over All”
The past mid-season’s finale bears the title of another Whitman gem:
Gliding o’er all, through all,/Through Nature, Time, and Space,/As a ship on the waters advancing,/The voyage of the soul–not life alone,/Death, many deaths I’ll sing.
In retrospect, this brief allusion packs a lot of punch: no one who’s been able to stomach the prison murder montage can miss the power of its last verse. It also hints at the episode’s final scene: Hank excuses himself from a poolside barbecue at Walt’s to use the restroom—more precisely, the master restroom, where Walt has been keeping the copy of Leaves of Grass that Gale gave him back in episode 3.06. As Hank distractedly browses through the book, he discovers a dedication: “to my other favorite W.W,” it reads, “It’s a pleasure working with you.” Signed: “G.B.” The connection between Gale and his brother-in-law is suddenly obvious to him. A dead Gale has exposed Walt through Whitman—talk about poetic justice!
5. Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias”
Nothing […] remains.
Walter White, S06 Teaser
In the teaser of the show’s final season, Walt voices Shelley’s magnum opus over images of desert landscapes:
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies,/[…]/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.
This classic allusion to the fall of an empire, we thought, could only mean Walt was going down. Then homonymous episode 5.14 took us all by surprise: the fallen king was Hank!
Not that it goes all that great for Walt, of course.
Or does it?
Check out the show’s finale if you haven’t already!
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.