As our television experiences become richer and more complicated, showrunners are finding ways in which to add new layers. There’s nothing better, in my opinion, than a great series that challenges its audience, and asks of it more than simply accepting what’s on the screen. For millions of liberal arts majors who feel like they’ve wasted their degrees, television finally makes them useful by calling back to those books we spent so much time consuming in college. A deep understanding of Kurt Vonnegut or Catch 22 or H.P. Lovecraft may not have resulted in a great job, but by damn, we understand television better.
In that vein, here are the best extended literary references in television, and here’s to hoping that showrunners continue to work them into their television series and turn us not only into better television viewers, but readers as well.
5. Lost — There are plenty of literary inspirations in Lost, but perhaps the biggest is Richard Adams’ Watership Down, a book about bunnies searching for a place to live. The book itself made several appearance on Lost, beginning in Boone’s luggage before ending up with Sawyer. Thematically, there are many similarities, including The Others, and the Smoke Monster, and the difficulties of women having children, all of which have parallels in Watership Down. Not coincidentally, a couple of episode titles in Lost were also inspired by Watership Down.
4. Mad Men — Matthew Weiner has always peppered his series with pop-culture allusions and references, but it felt like he went deeper in the sixth season. Season six began with Don Draper reading Dante’s Inferno — recommended to him by his mistress — and the 13 episode season felt very much like watching Don Draper travel through the circles of hell — lust, gluttony, greed, anger, heresy, fraud — before pulling back in the season finale, hinting that he may shed his Don Draper persona, own is Dick Whitman identity, and put aside at least lust and gluttony for the sake of his daughter. In either respect, it’s clear that Don Draper’s journey in the sixth season paralleled that of Dante through Hell.
3. Sons of Anarchy — Kurt Sutter has not buried the fact that the entire series of Sons of Anarchy was inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Certainly, the first-season characters are all inspired by Hamlet’s characters, and several of the deaths have tracked those in Shakespeare’s play, and we can all expect that the upcoming final season will end similarly, with deaths to all the major characters.
2. True Detective — Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow inspires much of the symbolism in True Detective, as well as some thematic similarities. The “black stars” and Carcosa were inspired by Chambers’ book, and we may yet see in the final episode some plot similarities. While The King in Yellow doesn’t provide any clues to where the series is heading (at least, so far as we have seen), it certainly provides much of the context.
1. Breaking Bad — The entire final season of Breaking Bad — and the title to the third-to-last episode — was inspired by Percy Shelly’s poem “Ozymandias,” a sonnet about the impermanence of powerful men’s empires, and how — no matter how much power they wield — those empires decay and ravage with time, just as Walter White’s empire eventually crumbled. In the end, all that’s left is the art, and while Walter White is no longer with us, we’ll always have five perfect seasons of Breaking Bad.