July 2023

Gatsby on Steroids


Miles David Moore


Last May 28, the world discovered who would inherit the leadership of Waystar Royco, the right-wing multimedia conglomerate in Jesse Armstrong's Succession.  The winners rode off in their chauffeured luxury SUVs, the losers retired to bars or stared out disconsolately at New York Harbor.  Succession's ending generated as much copy as those of two other HBO blockbusters, The Sopranos and Game of Thrones.  Nearly all of those writers had followed the program from its premiere four years ago. 
I write from a different perspective.  I was so disgusted in the first episode by Roman Roy's behavior toward the boy on the baseball diamond (fans know exactly which scene I'm talking about) that I stopped watching.  Only because of the resolute praise of friends and family did I return to Succession in its final season, binge-watching it two or three episodes at a time.  I'm still disgusted by Roman Roy—especially his actions in Season 4, Episode 8—and just about every other character in Succession. I will never stop being disgusted by them.  And they made me love it. 

Succession, which offers a textbook definition of tragicomedy, is the best delineation in the history of American television of the damage wealth and power inflict on its possessors and, through their actions, on the world at large.  It takes the most famous one-paragraph synopsis of the psychology of the very rich—F. Scott Fitzgerald's at the beginning of "The Rich Boy"—and puts it on steroids.  Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin) and his siblings Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Connor (Alan Ruck), and Siobhan, a/k/a Shiv (Sarah Snook) are soft where the rest of us are hard, cynical where we are trustful.  Although they are beset with doubt in dealing with their father and the empire he built, they take for granted the belief that they are better than anyone not born a Roy.  (The surname is obviously a play on roi: the Roys, after one generation as billionaires, see themselves as divine-right monarchs.)  The only person whose superiority they acknowledge is Logan Roy (Brian Cox), their terrifying and predatory father, who took a family printing business and transformed it into Waystar Royco.  The lives of Logan's children are defined by their various hapless efforts to prove themselves their father's equals.

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 useful."

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 testifying.   

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."


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Miles David Moore is a retired Washington, D.C. reporter for Crain Communications, the author of three books of poetry and Scene4's Film Critic. For more of his reviews and articles, check the Archives.

©2023 Miles David Moore
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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