King of Kings

AHS: Cult, Shelley, and the Patriarchy

Caitlin Cowan

When I finally finished American Horro Story: Cult on Netflix, then promptly went to sleep and dreamed that a man who looked not unlike Donald Trump was chasing me with a knife. I did it to myself, watching it so late at night. But it might also be true that Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk did it to me. I admire the way that this season was able to tap into contemporary American fears about politics, sex, and violence in a way that felt contemporary. 

As usual, I want to talk about poetry and pop culture, and more specifically, poetry and television. It's one of my weird obsessions, and maybe it's yours too. You can imagine my delight when I learned, via my liberal use of closed captions, that Ally & Ivy's son was not named "Ozzy" as in "Ozzy Osbourne" but "Ozy" as in "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

The son of main characters Ally (Sarah Paulson) and Ivy (Alison Pill) is named Ozymandias, which is the name of the most famous poem by English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). Ozymandias is a Greek name for Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II. Not only is "Ozymandias" Shelley's most well-known and most anthologized poem, I would argue that "Ozymandias" is also one of the most frequently referenced poems in contemporary pop culture in general. It's popped up in the aforementioned Frisky DingoThe Watchmen franchise, and elsewhere. The most famous reference to this particular Shelley poem, I would say, is in another relatively poetry-heavy TV show: Breaking Bad. I plan to say more about the poetry of Breaking Bad in some subsequent newsletters.

I've seen a lot of folks trying to offer close readings of the Shelley poem in response to this season of AHS, and most of them are performed by non-practitioners (one EliteDaily writer even morosely confessed, "I feel like I'm writing a paper for an English literature survey course right now"). I think a number of these interpretations are either too stuffy or too fluffy. I'll do my best to stay somewhere near the middle and keep it brief.  Spoilers ahead:

For those who've never laid eyes on it, here's the poem in its entirety:

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.”

The poem juxtaposes a foreboding message of consummate power with a crumbled statue and the demise of the ruler it was erected to honor. Even the mightiest among us fall, you might say; you may call yourself the "King of Kings," but death comes for us all. That kind of thing.

What interests me about Ally & Ivy's choice to name their son after Ozymandias is that we can read this choice in one of two ways. We might assume that Ozy isn't named after the actual ruler, or that even if he was, Ally at least had the poem in mind: in Episode 9 ("Drink the Kool-Aid"), when Kai learns the boy's name and intones, "King of Kings," Ally is visibly moved that he understands its referent. She seems pleased with Kai but also perversely proud of the cleverness of her choice, convinced of the name's actual strength. However, the poem suggests that power is illusory and that all kings fall. Their reigns are ultimately as meaningless as the grains of sand that blow over their gravestones.

So the central question for me is whether or not A) Ryan Murphy gets a chuckle out of making Ally look like a liberal idiot who shows off her book learning by giving her son a name made famous by a Romantic-era poem that she ultimately misunderstands or B) Ally is fully aware of the poem's meaning and is pleased Ozy's name (and by extension, the fate of his namesake ruler) implies that patriarchal power is doomed to fail, even when that little patriarch is raised by two feminist, lesbian mothers. Inherent in the male sex is a kind of dissembling, crumbling weakness, the naming seems to suggest (not to sound too much like Valerie Solanas, cartoonishly though not inaccurately portrayed by Lena Dunham in Episode 7). 

Although Ally is cast as paranoid, delusional, and more naive than her partner, Ivy, Ally is still educated and articulate. I would like to think that she knows exactly what Shelley's poem is about. So if the writers wanted the name Ozymandias to be a kind of "joke's-on-you" meant to subvert the perceived power that Ally believes to be inherent in the name, I think it falls flat. The idea that she would be ignorant of the poem's obvious argument (so obvious that it's not even subtext... just text) isn't quite believable when stacked against the powerful female character that they've written. This leaves room for my second, darker hypothesis: Ally's desire to smash the patriarchy is coded in her son's name, even when that violence might include her son himself.

When we learn that Kai may in fact be Ozy's father, the name's power of critique intensifies as Kai gains and then rapidly loses power over his acolytes. At the end of the series, "Nothing beside remains," thanks in part to Ally. But when we learn in the season finale's final moments that Ally may herself be on a path toward the seizure of power through a violence that is categorically female, it seems that she has learned nothing at all about how futile all apprehensions of absolute power are at their core: the lesson Shelley so desperately tried to impart. In the end, she becomes just another Ozymandias, convinced of her ability to create lasting change and forge, as she says, "a better world."

So maybe she fell asleep in her English class after all.

No matter what, I am, as always, rapt when poetry gets a few minutes in the spotlight in mainstream media (though the NEA reports that poetry readership is at an all-time high, which makes this an incredibly cool time to be alive). What did you think of this plot detail? Of this season of AHS? Where else have you seen "Ozymandias" pop up in pop culture? 

This post originally appeared on the author’s personal website.