What Rough Beast

Poetry in the age of antihero television

“Poetry should be at least as interesting as television,” the poet Charles Bernstein once argued. For most of the 20th Century, these two media seemed hopelessly divorced from one another—poetry the provenance of the educated elite, and TV the layman’s parlor game. Though poetry has hardly made massive strides toward commercial appeal in the 21st Century, TV’s brow has inarguably raised, carrying with it many strokes of that once-isolated elite. However unlikely a pairing, it remains that television has been made more interesting by poetry.

Much has been written heralding the rise of what might be called Antihero Television. The hallmarks of the genre, particularly in the genre cornerstones of The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, include an amoral or ambiguously moral, usually male protagonist, his honorably anchored but often equally complicated wife, the children whose needs both demand and rebuke his questionable actions, a landscape of iconic Americana, and the empire he seeks to build upon it at all costs. His is a self-made, paradigmatically American, Gatsby-esque life’s arc—if Gatsby had lived to acquire the wife and offspring along with the swimming pool.

In attendance to all of these coexisting elements, poetry seems a natural servant. Whose morality has been more conflicted than Yeats’, or whose intent more ambiguous than his sphinx? Who chronicled New York’s midcentury identity crisis more quirkily and quixotically than O’Hara? Who imagined the hubris of empire with more irony and iconoclasm than Shelley? To thrust itself forward, postmodern TV, perhaps atavistically, has reached backward to the roots of its modern, or modernist, language.

The antihero is neither highbrow nor lowbrow, or is equally both. In the antihero, television and poetry are twinned: The protagonist is the antihero, and so is the poet. Though the passage comes from a poem that shares a title with a Mad Men episode, “Meditations in An Emergency,” Frank O’Hara’s words could apply to Don Draper, Tony Soprano, and Walter White alike: “I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love.”

Mad Men: “Meditations in an Emergency”

The evidence suggests that Matthew Weiner has a massive hard-on for verse. Mad Men far outstrips any other contender in terms of sheer number of poetic references. There’s Paul Kinsey stonedly reciting “The Hollow Men,” prompting the totally appropriate rejoinder, “We got it. You’re educated.” There’s a wink and a nod to “Lady Lazarus” in the episode so titled, which graphs female depression and electroshock therapy without the courtesy of actually referencing the poem, acknowledging how the biographical mythology of Sylvia Plath has engulfed her poems. And there’s Don’s midlife crisis allegorized through Dante’s Inferno, opening the sixth season with the juxtaposition of Don voicing over a tour of hell while sitting on the Hawaiian beach: “Midway through my life’s journey I went astray from the straight road and awoke to find myself alone in a dark wood.” It’s also notable that as Weiner conceptualizes it, poetry is usually a bummer.

Most prominently, though, is Mad Men’s second season’s leitmotif of Frank O’Hara’s 1957 collection Meditations in an Emergency. The season’s first episode, “For Those Who Think Young,” introduces the collection both as an emblem of Don’s swelling distance from the hippie-bohemian Pepsi Generation, and as a subtext of the schism in Don’s own persona. We encounter the book first as a physical object being read by a bespectacled youth on the barstool two down from Don’s:

Don: How is it?
Reader: He wrote some of it here. Some of it on 23rd St., some place they tore down.
Don: Makes you feel better about sitting in a bar at lunch. Makes you feel like you’re getting something done.
Reader: (Scornfully) Yeah. It’s all about getting things done.
Don: Is it good?
Reader: (More scornfully) I don’t think you’d like it.

The rest of the episode only affirms Don’s aging, and consummate defensiveness toward the younger generation. He insists to Roger, “Young people don’t know anything. Especially that they’re young”; he reveals to a doctor that both his parents are dead and his blood pressure is too high; and he goes limp during a Valentine’s Day rendezvous with Betty. Indeed, over the hump of his thirties, Don is stalwartly cool, but losing his grip on hip, signaled nowhere more literally than his steamed, starched grey flannel suit. We veritably cringe when we spy him paging through Meditations in his single-breasted Brooks Brothers, in his Madison Avenue office. Stop trying so hard, Don.

Finally, the irony of O’Hara’s placement comes full circle when we hear Don’s voice-over reading the poem “Mayakovsky” as he walks the family’s golden retriever on a misty night in Ossining, en route to mail the collection to a recipient later revealed as Anna Draper, the depth charge of his previous life as Dick Whitman:

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Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.

The country is grey and
brown and white in trees,
snows and skies of laughter
always diminishing, less funny
not just darker, not just grey.

It may be the coldest day of
the year, what does he think of
that? I mean, what do I? And if I do,
perhaps I am myself again.

Don can wait all he wants for the “catastrophe of my personality / to seem beautiful again, / and interesting, and modern”, but that particular newing is loath to arrive again for him. Moreover, in an episode that spends precious little time illuminating the space between Don and Dick, the poem emerges as our reminder that those identities’ uniting chasm—“the catastrophe of my personality”—still gapes just under the surface, lurking just beneath a tip of Don’s soignée fedora, grinning across a distance easily forded by the U.S. mail.

Twelve episodes later, in “Meditations in an Emergency,” we’ve crossed that distance. Don has reunited with Anna, been baptized anew as Dick in the waters of the Pacific, and returned just in time to acknowledge his infidelity to Betty and toe the brink of apocalypse with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Under the specter of nuclear destruction, everyone on the show seems to be suddenly relieved of their superegos and waving their ids around like toy swords. Where we saw her gawking naively at a former roommate turned call girl and flirting like a teenager with a mechanic in the season opener, Betty is now grimly confronting the news of her pregnancy and seducing hot strangers in bars. In a near-total role reversal of Mom and Dad, Don is feeding the kids (albeit room-service) dinner and enduring knock-knock jokes. Roger is selling his life’s work to fund his divorce from Mona so he can marry child-bride Jane.

Most poignantly, in the face of Pete’s love confession, Peggy sings her own sad aria to the always diminishing. After advising Pete vis-à-vis the loss of the Clearasil account to “Just tell the truth. Don’t worry about the outcome. People respect that,” she follows her own counsel and tells him that she gave birth to, and gave up, their child. Her articulation of this could easily be Don’s, or O’Hara’s: “Well, one day you’re there, and then all of a sudden, there’s less of you, and you wonder where that part went, if it’s living somewhere outside of you, and you keep thinking maybe you’ll get it back, and then you realize it’s just gone.”

What does she think of that? I mean, what do I?

Unexpectedly, it’s BFF-next-door Francine who wrests the show’s—the season’s—subtext to the surface. Listening to Betty panic over her pregnancy in the beauty parlor, Francine first suggests scenic locales for illegal abortions (Rochester, Puerto Rico), then advises Betty, “Sometimes the best thing is just to do nothing and wait.” For the first time, we realize fully that the single most useless thing to do in an emergency is meditate, and that’s what all these characters are doing. Confessing secrets, spending more time with the kids, balling on backroom couches, getting your hair done—none of these are the remotest safeguard against a nuclear warhead 90 miles away. We are all tragically, exaggeratedly ineffectual, even the most beautiful and interesting and modern of us, and there’s nothing funny about it.

The Sopranos: “The Second Coming”

Perhaps appropriately, Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” appears doubly in The Sopranos, referenced first in the fifth season’s “Cold Cuts,” then returning in the series’ sixth season denouement, the eponymous “The Second Coming.” Like Mad Men’s more parenthetical poetic allusions (Kinsey and “The Hollow Men”), The Sopranos’ invocation of the poem immediately serves to highlight a disparity in education between various characters, though its significance eventually extends much more broadly. (It also merits mention that Weiner was a supervising producer on both of the Sopranos episodes discussed below.)

Unlike Mad Men’s poetic meditations, which appear non-diagetically via Don’s interior V.O., The Sopranos addresses “The Second Coming” diagetically and explicitly, passing it around its core cast like a shared spread of pro-zhutte. The poem’s first appearance arrives via Dr. Melfi, responding to Tony’s “intolerance for frustration”:

Melfi: Depression is rage turned inward. Tell me about the Soprano temper.
Tony: It’s just a level of bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. Every fucking new idea they come up with is supposed to make things better, it makes things worse.
Melfi: Okay, I agree. The centre cannot hold. The falcon cannot hear the falconer.
Tony: What the fuck are you talking about?
Melfi: We live in an era of technological and spiritual crisis. But you feel you’re above all of it. Certainly above any inconvenience or annoyance. And if things don’t go your way, instead of being merely disappointed or inconvenienced, you blow.

Recalling the nostalgia for better days that initiated Tony and Melfi’s relationship in the pilot episode, Tony’s narcissistic mourning clashes with Melfi’s hyper-educated analogizing. He yearns for a perhaps-mythical past in which his authority looms unchallenged, she cites the paradigmatic poem of the casualties of unchallenged authority, and the parallel flies entirely over his head, angering him further. Ironically, in this configuration Tony himself is the sphinx “out of Spiritus Mundi,” the “rough beast” whose arrival heralds the death of a past age: Tony himself is the signifier of the passing of the era—his gangster father’s heyday—that he mourns.

The centerpiece of “Cold Cuts,” though, is actually the outward-turned rage of Janice, Tony’s sister. In the Soprano family tree, rage is at the root. After Janice unlooses a can of Soprano whoop-ass on an (admittedly noxious) fellow soccer mom, eliciting entirely unhelpful local news coverage and a threat of divorce by her husband, she reluctantly agrees to enter anger-management treatment. With both Soprano siblings in therapy, Melfi’s point about their “era of technological and spiritual crisis” is manifested, personified. The cultural crisis has bubbled to the surface of both personalities, and surely some revelation is at hand. Shakily, Janice grasps it, articulating to Tony what he fascistically refuses to acknowledge: “A lot of anger is self-importance.” Vengefully, he goads her about her abandoned son, poking her most tender spot, until she snaps and chases him around a family dinner table brandishing silverware. The eternal Soprano bond, rage-cum-depression, is again cemented.

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

While “Cold Cuts” keeps its grip on “The Second Coming” loose, the sixth season’s eponymous episode embraces it fully, bringing the Soprano temper to its climax in the suicide attempt of Anthony Jr. If Janice provides an oblique, sororal glance at the parental origins of Tony’s rage, A.J. illuminates its direct manifestation. Here is, literally, the Second Coming of all Tony has wrought. The episode opens on an image of a pile of wreckage, and closes on one of father and son viewed through a pane of glass in the psych ward—twice literalizing the family’s collective state of psychological destruction.

A.J.’s depression at this point is both pitifully profound and loathsomely self-pitying. Both bemoaning and reflecting the moral anarchy of his era, he lectures his parents about toxic beef additives, he surfs Iraq war porn, and insists to Meadow that he’s too “ill” to move out. After A.J. refuses Carmela’s offers of steak pizzaiola—with insistence that all beef is contaminated by rat shit—she weakly attempts in his defense, “At least he’s getting an education.” The scene then cuts directly to A.J.’s professor reciting Yeats: The price of this education is their rejection by him. As with Tony and Melfi, the poem underscores an educational disparity, albeit this time, more poignantly, between father and son. When Carmela leaves for an afternoon of dining out and shopping (after making A.J. the most infantilistic lunch ever provided to a 20-year-old: “Lincoln Log sandwiches,” which seem to consist of buttered hot dogs), A.J. straps a plastic bag over his face and a concrete anvil to his ankles and slides off the diving board into the pool.

Again, the Soprano pool recurs as one of the richest barometers of the family’s state and status. Ever returning as the site of Tony’s warm, sentimental rendezvous with adorable, allegorical ducklings in the pilot episode, in “Cold Cuts,” it yawns empty after Carmela drains it to save money in the wake of her separation from Tony, and in “The Second Coming” it nearly becomes the site of A.J.’s death. Thus, quite literally, the ceremony of innocence is (nearly) drowned. But A.J. frankly isn’t brave or bright enough to make a successful suicide attempt—the rope on the anvil is too long to hold him underwater, and his hands are free to rip off the plastic bag—and Tony comes home just in time to drag him out of the water, first berating him (“What the fuck did you do?!”) and then, again, infantilizing him (“It’s okay, baby”). Narrowly avoiding his stony sleep, first A.J. is vexed to nightmare, then rocked in his cradle.

Conferring with psychologists after he’s is institutionalized, A.J. parrots “The Second Coming,” and Tony angrily retorts, “What kind of poem is that to teach college students?” Not insignificantly, this conversation occurs as Tony finds a bloody tooth, collateral damage from his pummeling of an associate who insulted Meadow, lodged in his pants cuff. With Tony still constantly acting outwardly upon his Soprano temper, and A.J. paralyzed in a feedback loop of rage turned inward, they become the parallel signifiers of the same blood-dimmed tide. A.J. is the best who lacks all conviction, and Tony the worst, full of passionate intensity. The falcon cannot hear the falconer. Indeed.

As in the entire hagiography of The Sopranos, blood binds all. Tony is the Second Coming of his father, A.J the Second Coming of Tony, and on and on into the series’ famously inconclusive conclusion. In a sense, with The Sopranos as its parent show, Il Padrone of the entire genre, all antihero television is The Sopranos’ second coming, and every antihero his own sphinx.

Breaking Bad: Ozymandias

Oh, Walter White, somewhere in sands of the desert, slouching toward Albuquerque to be born. If The Sopranos sired Breaking Bad, so, inversely, did “Ozymandias” prefigure “The Second Coming.” Where Yeats foreshadows the birth of a new beast, though, Shelley eulogizes his passing. Shelley’s empire is crumbled, past tense, a relic in the barren desert, a cautionary tale.

In a parallel examination of Walter White as a sort of descendant of both Tony Soprano and Don Draper, it bears examination how White is fundamentally different from either Soprano or Draper. First, White is highly educated, not merely streetwise or self-made. Before the dawn of Heisenberg, White passes freely in the ranks of the middle class as himself, eliciting neither the curious whispers that dog Soprano during well-meant golf games, or the fear of being unmasked that haunts Draper amid routine background checks. There is nothing illicit or fraudulent, however unfulfilled, about a high school chemistry teacher.

Ozymandias

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.

 

Thus, a life in the shadows is hardly White’s birthright in the manner of Soprano, the gangster’s heir, or Draper, bastard spawn of the whorehouse. White’s class ascendancy starts at the middle and works its way up, motivated by cancer but entirely of his volition. Examined this way, it’s only Soprano who obeys a code of any sort of honor among thieves. Having invented new identities in worlds unknown, Draper and, much more extremely, White, remain morally renegade, making it up as they go along, no family insignia to guide them.

“Ozymandias,” in all its hubris and braggadocio, provides a unique cipher for Walter’s final downward spiral. As with “Meditations,” it’s used non-diagetically, outside the action of the plot and characters—though it’s held at an even greater distance, appearing first in a brilliant teaser for the final half-season, then recurring as the antepenultimate episode’s title. The teaser, featuring Bryan Cranston reading “Ozymandias” in full as the camera pans over time-lapse photography of the New Mexico desert, superimposes Ozymandias’ parable over the iconography of the series: the abandoned trailer, the empty house at 308 Negra Arroyo. Accelerating, the montage speeds through the barbed wire, the fumigation tent, the streets of Albuquerque until the poem reaches its climax: “‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings / Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’”

With the denouement of “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck”, we see the final image of the prophetic montage: Heisenberg’s metonymic fedora lone and dusty on the desert floor. The pairing of the poem with the show’s landscape, emptied of people, leaves no doubt as to the fate of Heisenberg. As viewers, we are left only to watch the tragedy unfold, powerless to forestall it.

“Ozymandias” is, of course, a sonnet, and itself unique in its pacing: Traditionally, the sonnet pivots on a volta, or turn, between the opening octave and closing sextet, as in the Petrarchan sonnet, or between the three quatrains and concluding couplet, as in the Shakespearean sonnet. “Ozymandias,” however, disobeys both these templates, building its crescendo toward “despair” at the end of the eleventh line, reaching its volta before the final three lines. This stilted eleven-to-three balance lends itself to a sense that Ozymandias, like Heisenberg, has either held on a beat too long, or flamed out prematurely. Either way, the end is messy.

Similarly, in the episode titled “Ozymandias,” the beginning of the end is painfully apparent for Heisenberg, sans fedora or empire, neutered back to Walter White. This regression is literalized in the episode’s opening flashback of Walter and Jesse cooking in the trailer, Walter in his ridiculous tighty-whities, Jesse still calling him “Mr. White.” Beginning with an image of a boiling Bunsen burner, White affirms, overarchingly, “The reaction has begun.” Walter then calls Skyler, rehearsing his lie under his breath, to tell her he’ll be home late; in return, she henpecks him into picking up a pizza as she packs up a sad porcelain clown—Walter’s proxy, of course—to be sold. Here, we see the first foreshadowing of Ozymandias’ “shattered visage” image that will recur throughout the episode. Here is the sad clown still intact, ripe for the shattering.

Back in the desert where this doomed empire both begins and ends, we are abruptly jolted back to the standoff established in the previous episode: Hank’s partner Gomez already dead in the dust; Hank himself wounded—half sunk—and prone before Uncle Jack’s merry band of neo-Nazis. Walter begs for Hank’s life, but Hank won’t. In a distinctly Ozymandian flourish, he chooses as his last words, “My name is ASAC Schrader, and you can go fuck yourself.” Bang. Hank’s visage: shattered. Directly mirroring this, as he witnesses Hank’s death, Walter’s mouth falls open in a silent scream, he crumples to his knees, and tips over in a state of shock, where he will remain in a human replica of the sad clown, or Ozymandias.

The rest of the episode is littered with echoes of this image: Jesse half-sunk and near-shattered in his underground containment, enslaved by the Nazis; Skyler collapsing in the wake of Walter taking off with Holly; Marie buckling in agony at the news of Hank’s death. What Heisenberg, or Walter, never accounted for was the human toll of his empire, the colossal wreck to exactly those who it was meant to profit. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.

In the contemporary canon, there are many passing references to poetry that signal a TV show as Smart, as Literary. The West Wing tosses off an allusion to Frost’s “good fences make good neighbors” and many a nod to Shakespeare’s kings. House of Cards invokes another fallen king, Lincoln, via the “Solitary, the thrush” snippet of Whitman’s presidential elegy “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d.” Nurse Jackie’s opening voice-over sardonically excerpts Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table.” Only a few choice shows, though, have dared to make poetry a centerpiece, to position it as a fulcrum upon which their characters’ fates teeter.

Don Draper, Tony Soprano, and Walter White no doubt share much as antihero protagonists. Each lives a double life of sorts, each samples pathos and hubris and gravitas in a veritable Greek buffet, and each is his own manifestation, or interrogation, of masculinity.

Considering the commonality of these tropes, it’s remarkable that the best shows of this genre—these three—don’t feel more formulaic. Perhaps this is achieved by their relentless complexity: the attention to the quotidian and familial (the ducklings in the pool); the precision of the world evoked (a wedding set on the date of Kennedy’s assassination); or the infinite poignancy of human connection (the cumulative tragedy of a grieving air-traffic controller).

Most pertinently to this inquiry, though, there is an X-factor within each of these antiheroes, and within his constructed world, that cannot be quantified. Like poetry itself, their touch is subtle but their impact deep. We can’t analogize or analyze what’s universal about a father’s love, or a restless ambition, or, indeed, the American dream. These are not counted, but felt; not data, but poetry. In considering them, we are reminded that these men have been constructed by writers, themselves so troubled by self-mythologization, so competitive with God (look on my works…). The author himself is the antihero, and the antihero the author.

As such, the mystical purpose of poetry in each of these shows is to telegraph something complex, or ambiguous, or unnameable about the man at its center. One is reminded again of O’Hara’s particularly postmodern sickness, both the author and the antihero of his own chaos. Just before the passage of “Mayakovsky” quoted in Mad Men, he encapsulates this sad tautology, the tragedy of Draper’s, Soprano’s, and White’s visions fulfilled:

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I love you. I love you,
but I’m turning to my verses
and my heart is closing
like a fist.

Words! be
sick as I am sick, swoon,
roll back your eyes, a pool,

and I’ll stare down
at my wounded beauty
which at best is only a talent
for poetry.

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