My timeline has been filled with tweeters expressing regret that they’ve waited so long to start Succession. I love to see it.
While critics praised the series right out of the gate, many wondered aloud what the point of the series could be. Why watch something where the characters were all so unlikable? Sure, committing to spend multiple weeks following a family of despicable main characters could be exhausting, and HBO’s early marketing suggested that even they misunderstood their own series. But let’s be blunt: anyone worried about following unlikable characters for a season of television had missed the point.
Succession is a family drama and, yes, a corporate thriller about unlikable people manipulating one another for dominance. As Adam McKay’s executive producer credit might suggest, it’s a look at our current capitalistic overlords and the way they influence both the media and the government. And it’s also quite funny – so much so that op-eds arguing that the series competes in the Comedy category at the Emmys don’t feel totally unfounded.
But, at its core, Succession is one thing: a Shakespearean tragedy about characters fated to meet their doom, and it’s perversely pleasurable to experience as a viewer. It sometimes feels cathartic to see that the lifestyles of the rich and famous are anything but glamorous. But the dark twist here is that even as this powerful family slowly walks towards their inevitable end, we’re repeatedly tricked into thinking that they could be anything but awful.
To catch the uninitiated up to speed: Succession follows the Roy family, who manage an incredibly influential media company that is rapidly approaching a necessary transition period. Patriarch Logan (Brian Cox), in true King Lear fashion, is unwell and needs to name a successor, and while he’s groomed his children to distrust and compete with one another since birth, he doesn’t seem to think any of them are tough enough for the throne. There’s the blindly loyal Kendall (Jeremy Strong), a recovered drug addict who desperately wants to see himself as a good guy even though there’s almost no way he could ever be one. There’s Roman (Kieran Culkin), who’s so scarred from childhood abuse that he’s practically become a sociopath. And there’s Shiv (Sarah Snook), who sits just outside the company and fancies herself the feminist liberal of the family, but she’s clearly game to alter her principles if it means personal success.
And, like many of the Bard’s best works, there are plenty of fools on the sidelines – only these fools have an inexplicable amount of power, given the nature of their surroundings. Shiv’s husband Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) is a working class man who gleefully abandoned his own family for a wealthy one, completely unaware that he’s either a puppet or punching bag for just about every one of his in-laws. Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) is an idiot who somehow manages to fail upward no matter how little he seems to understand about what he does for a living. And, most terrifying of all, there is Logan’s oldest son Connor (Alan Ruck), who doesn’t care for the family business but seems to think he’d make a pretty good President.
To think we’re supposed to root for any of these characters, or even sympathize with them on any substantial level, is a fundamental misunderstanding of the series. We don’t go to Macbeth or Hamlet to root for the titular characters – we watch them knowing full well that the protagonists are in a tragedy, and we wait to see how they’ll meet their ultimate ending. There’s a reason Succession so closely resembles King Lear in its basic premise: this is a tragedy, too.
Logan is too old and unwell to properly run his company, but he’s also too prideful to pass it along to his children. And because he raised his children to naturally distrust and manipulate one another, they will never be able to properly come together and overpower their dad. And on their own, they’re blinded by misplaced loyalty and empty affection – they’ll never see their father for the monster he is, which will inherently limit their ability to stage a coup. The family is destined to collapse, their company sure to fail, and since they happen to have the ear of politicians and sway over the mainstream media, who knows how their downfall will impact the nation. These are all grand melodramatic ideas that have powered plays for centuries, funneled into a decidedly 21st century lens and executed impeccably.
That’s not to suggest that we aren’t occasionally given the suggestion to root for these characters – though I see these moments as tricks pulled on the viewer by a very savvy room of writers. It’s in our human nature to root for Kendall, a recovering drug addict desperately trying to be a decent father, good son, and caring person all around. We want to see Shiv succeed, especially since she’s one of the only woman in the company and is still held at a distance due to her gender. And, as we see little glimpses into Roman’s childhood, we’re left to wonder what sort of horrors he experienced. But the real twist of the knife comes when we temporarily start to care about these characters, only to see them commit truly horrible acts against each other and the people below them on the economic ladder. They are mini tragedies that warn the audience about caring for these people, and mourn the fact that these characters have lost their humanity many years ago (if they ever had it at all).
The same can be said about the picturesque locations that frequently serve as a backdrop to the drama. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Season 2 followed the Roys across the globe, often to beautiful resorts or stunning landscapes. This is not real estate porn like the houses on Big Little Lies. The way Succession takes us to these gorgeous hidden corners of the globe saved for the wealthy elite, only to watch them tear each other apart, reveals the true horror that comes with so much money. Whether it’s a game of Boar on the Floor in a beautiful mansion, or a family discussion about who should get fired held on an extravagant yacht, there’s nothing to enjoy or admire here. Last season, a memorable episode found Tom “teaching” Greg how to have fun with his newfound wealth. Season 2 suggests that any moment of joy are fleeting at best.
But perhaps the most tragic scene in the entire series is a minor interaction between three characters. Roman, having just undergone a personal trauma, asks his siblings if they can have a serious conversation about the hardships they’re facing as a family. His siblings react in a mocking tone and make fun of him for his sentimentality, assuming that his plea for empathy is a joke. It’s a heartbreaking exchange that reminds the viewer that, no matter what happens, this family is broken – no matter who wins the crown in the end, they’ll never know what genuine affection feels like. And, with their power in society coming into question, they might not be able to hide behind their money for much longer.
The rest of the article contains spoilers about the entire series.
The final scene of the season took the series in an entirely unexpected direction – but not one unfamiliar with the theatrical tone the show has carried since episode one. Kendall shocks his family by turning on his father on national television, revealing the patriarch’s willingness to coverup crimes to the media. And while Logan’s slight smile feels like both a sliver of genuine respect for his angry son and a sporty “game on,” viewers should make no mistake: there’s no coming back from this. Series creator Jesse Armstrong has pulled the trigger on what feels like a final season/fifth act decision as the show approaches its third year, sending the series into uncharted but very exciting territory.
The Roy Family, and their company (is there a difference?) will never be the same. Even after a public scandal, it’s doubtful that Logan will just step down with his tail between his legs. He’s going to fight Logan to the bitter end, and holds the ultimate trump card in the fact that he knows about Kendall’s involvement in the accidental death of a young waiter that occurred at the end of its first season. It also doesn’t help that Logan can’t trust his siblings, has few allies in the business world and, like all the great main characters in tragedies, has more failures to his credit than successful displays of power. If drama has taught us anything, it’s that the next season is going to be bloody. But the only thing we know for sure is that we’ll be hypnotized by this family’s downfall.