Armstrong's Succession. The
Harbor. Succession's ending
blockbusters, The Sopranos and Game of Thrones. Nearly
to Succession in
in Succession. I
on roi: the
Armstrong and his brilliant team of actors, writers, and directors have
fashioned a world that twists the luxury porn of Dynasty and Downton
Abbey into knots of barbed wire. The show's thirty-nine episodes envelop
the audience in Park Avenue penthouses, British country estates, private
jets, superyachts cruising the Aegean, banquets and buffets accessorized by
Royal Doulton and Baccarat, and constant rounds of Dom Perignon and
eighteen-year Macallan. And never does the audience feel envy. The
milieu of Succession is so laden with malice, rancor, and conspiracy that
only our ability to stay outside looking in allows us to enjoy it, the way we
enjoy Macbeth or The Little Foxes. Most of the major characters could be
nicknamed Shiv; they are experts at the cutting remark slipped between
the shoulder blades or sometimes straight in the heart. Roman is the
absolute master of this, using insults to assuage his persistent feelings of
grievance. Speaking of his father and his brother Kendall, he says, "He
wished Mom gave birth to a can opener, because at least then it would be
Writing an overall review of Succession is difficult, partly because the show
is so thick with incident, nuance, and character revelation, and partly
because every scene of every episode has been analyzed in detail by
hundreds of critics. It is against my religion as a monthly reviewer to write
of any movie or television program as if any reader has actually seen it.
The best I can do is to discuss the arc of the series in light of the main
characters and the ultimate purpose of Armstrong and his co-creators.
Many writers have already weighed in on the latter. In a recent New York
Times article, Elizabeth Spiers pinpointed the dirty little secret of Succession, which is also the dirty little secret of The Great Gatsby. "Americans think we love plucky people who pull themselves up by the
bootstraps," Spiers wrote. "What we really love are money and power,
period. On some level we think having them is an indication that you
deserve them." Americans may long for invitations to Gatsby's parties, but
they only really respect Tom Buchanan, and Tom Buchanan counts on that.
Tom Buchanan is as good a starting point as any to discuss Logan Roy, who
can be best described as a cross between Buchanan and King Lear. Like
Buchanan, he is a vociferous right-winger and unrepentant womanizer;
like Lear, he expects servile fealty from everyone, especially his children.
His favorite phrase, which he bellows several times in every episode, is,
"Fuck off!" Watching Logan in action, one character remarks, is "like
watching Jaws, if everyone in the movie worked for Jaws." Eternally
capricious and suspicious, Logan delights in management techniques such
as "Boar on the Floor," in which he forces executives he suspects of being
disloyal or incompetent to crawl on the floor and oink while they eat
sausages he hurls at them.
It is hardly surprising that the children of such a father would be warped
and stunted, and Logan Roy's children do not strain credulity. Arguably
the most warped is Kendall, who reminds us that Hamlet plus Polonius
equal Prufrock. Kendall has expected to be the heir to Waystar Royco
since he was seven, and describes himself as "a cog built to fit only one
machine." Chafing under his father's constant insults, Kendall spends
every waking moment trying alternately to please and replace him. Yet
when he attempts to emulate Logan, he embarrasses himself; when he tries
to strong-arm a recalcitrant banker, the banker upbraids him for his
insults. He is equally awkward in his attempts to take over the company,
or in trying to prove himself hip and cool (his rap tribute to his father at a
birthday party is one of the most cringe-inducing moments in the series).
The only solace Kendall can find is in booze and drugs, his pursuit of which
leads him to a tragedy at the end of Season One that overshadows the rest
of his life and additionally gives Logan leverage over him.
Kendall's younger brother Roman is Mercutio crossed with Lenny Bruce.
There is no situation to which Roman does not respond with an off-color
joke; when Shiv tells him she's pregnant, he answers, "Is it mine?"
Everything Roman does is an attempt at dominance, whether emailing
pictures of his genitalia to corporate attorney Gerri Kellman (J. Smith
-Cameron) or supporting a fascistic presidential candidate whom he thinks
will do favors for Waystar Royco. Roman grasps at any shred of evidence
that he is his father's favorite, and his sense of grievance extends from
earliest childhood. When Kendall reminds him that he threw tantrums
over being served chicken instead of steak, Roman replies, "I threw
tantrums because I never got fucking steak!"
Connor, the elder half-brother of Kendall and Roman, has even more
Polonius in him than Kendall. A non-participant in the family business,
more or less by choice, Connor presents himself as an anti-tax campaigner,
a libertarian presidential candidate, and—finally—a possible ambassador,
despite having had no previous occupation except living off his father's
money. In a way he blows the gaff on his siblings, as a man who thinks his
wealth confers distinction.
Shiv is the most complex of the siblings. She can be described as Regan,
Goneril, and Cordelia rolled into one. The ultimate victim of the misogyny
inherent in her father's life and career, she is torn between fighting and
defending him. At the beginning of Succession, she is an aide to Sen. Gil
Eavis (Eric Bogosian), who opposes everything the Roy family stands for,
and engaged to Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen), an executive in
Waystar Royco's cruise ship division. Shiv is nominally the family liberal,
yet she can be a shark on Logan's behalf, such as when she pressures a
witness in a sexual harassment case against the company to stop her from
The dissonance of Shiv's life is seen clearly in her relationship with Tom,
who is Succession's closest equivalent to Gatsby. Tom may not idealize
Shiv the way Gatsby idealized Daisy, but he certainly idealizes what Shiv
has. He's the guy who's willing to do anything to get ahead, whether it's
suffering through a round of "Boar on the Floor" or offering to go to jail for
Logan in the sexual harassment case. Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgard
), the Swedish tycoon who makes a bid for Waystar, calls Tom "a pain
sponge," and that's exactly what Tom is, taking the beatings for his
overlords. Tom's complaisant attitude is a major factor in his rising
through the ranks to lead ATN, Waystar's cable news network.
Nevertheless, he's queasy about the prospect of prison, and Shiv is annoyed
with his bellyaching about it.
Shiv and Tom see each other through skewed lenses, bringing out the
worst in each other. She can never quite overcome regarding him as an
outsider and a climber, and he—a Midwestern middle-class boy at
heart—can't quite digest some of her attitudes, such as her request for an
open marriage. Shiv even invites her paramour Nate (Ashley Zukerman)
to her wedding reception; Tom's encounter there with Nate leaves no
doubt that Tom has more Logan in him than Logan's actual sons.
Eventually Tom and Shiv's marriage becomes the defining relationship in Succession, symbolizing the blight that ruins all relationships on the show. That Tom and Shiv truly care about each other is evident, yet they cannot
overcome who they are, or their resentments arising from that. Toward
the end their fights are appalling in their viciousness, and are capped by a
breathtaking act of betrayal on Tom's part. In a world where everything is
transactional, love is expendable. This extends—indeed, it begins—with
Logan and his children. Logan has persuaded himself he loves his
children, but when he tells them, "You are not serious people," he merely
makes explicit what he has implied all their lives. Logan's malice severs his
children from any chance at happiness, even with each other. There are
moments—one at Shiv's wedding, another in the show's last episode—when
Kendall, Roman and Shiv really seem like a loving family. But at the end
they are well and truly estranged. Succession's title indicates the reason.
There are far too many fascinating characters in Succession to discuss in a
single review, but special mention must be made of Greg Hirsch (Nicholas
Braun), Logan's grandnephew. When we first see Greg, he is being beaten
up by a group of children while playing a mascot at a Waystar theme park.
Greg is the goofy guy the audience is primed over decades of sitcoms to
sympathize with, so it dawns on us more slowly than it should that Greg is
just as Machiavellian and morally rotten as anyone else on the show. He's
just clumsier at it. Tom delights in using Greg as a combination protégé,
co-conspirator, and punching bag. For once he can be the user, rather than
the used. As for Greg, when Tom asks him, "Do you want to make a deal
with the Devil?" he answers, "What would I do with a soul anyway?"
We imagine that was the rhetorical question Logan Roy asked himself
when he began his ascent. He demanded and obtained the souls of
everyone who joined him. If we have more sympathy for his children than
the others, it was because he gave them no choice. The result is a world
that is far worse off for having the Roys, who cannot see beyond their sense
of entitlement to perceive the wreckage they create. Thus it has been with
multiple dynasties throughout human history. The final word is left to
Roman, who says at the end, "It's all bullshit. We're bullshit."