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1 October 2019

“Oink for your sausages”: why food is a weapon in HBO’s Succession

From excruciating dinners and expensive tasting menus to the humiliation of Boar on the Floor – in the Roy family, food is all about power.

By Annie Lord

“Oink for your sausages, piggies!” commands Logan Roy (Brian Cox) the ruthless chairman of media conglomerate Waystar in HBO’s Succession. This is a bizarre, humiliating game called “Boar on the Floor”, and it doesn’t look much fun – not least because there are no winners. In an attempt to smoke out who has been leaking company secrets, Logan makes those he’s suspicious of kneel and fight for a sausage. Men who fly in to their top floor offices in glass skyscrapers via helicopter scratch and pull at each other, their mouths ajar, squealing for meat. Only hours ago the group were on a hunting range shooting down boars, now they are acting like them.

Less a pleasure and more a weapon, in HBO’s Succession food is often used as a means for control. As it satiates an animal impulse, eating renders one distracted, weakened and vulnerable to attack. In most scenes, food is everywhere, but no one ever looks like they dare swallow it. Dinner parties show executives tentatively scraping lamb cutlets around plates, the croissants in board meetings are only for decoration, and the only people stood by the snack table are losers. Food is for humans, and the executives of Succession see themselves as gods.

Before he turns his guests into boars, Logan spends much of the preceding dinner overfilling glasses with whisky in an attempt to lure out secrets: “Come on everyone, we’re supposed to be having a nice time! Drink!” he shouts. In a behind-the-scenes video about this episode, show creator Jesse Armstrong explained that much of it was inspired by Stalin’s dinner parties. “Sometimes he would drink water and get his commissars and marshals to drink alcohol and then he would use their indiscretions against them later. The sequence has a flavour of those dinner parties and the humiliation meted out.” Logan’s game doesn’t end with a knife through the stomach, but it remains a meal more uncomfortable to watch than Game of Thrones’s red wedding feast.

If those close to the Roy dynasty gorge themselves, they often end up being punished for it. In season one, having double-booked, Logan’s great-nephew Greg (Nicholas Braun) goes for ramen with his grandad before meeting his boss Tom (Matthew MacFayden) for an expensive tasting menu at a French pop-up restaurant. Pushed on by class anxiety and fear of revealing his ignorance of which fork to use, Greg carries on eating even when it feels as though his gut might split in two. Things turn awry when the waiter serves up ortolan, a deep-fried songbird one eats while their face is hidden underneath a white napkin, “some say it’s to mask the shame,” Tom explains, “others to heighten the pleasure”. After gagging at the “gamey, brainy hit”, Greg accidentally leaks crucial family secrets. All that gluttony leaves Greg vulnerable, confused and full of remorse.

At mealtimes with the Roy family, the main course is usually a sales pitch. In the latest episode, siblings Roman (Kieran Culkin) and Shiv (Sarah Snook) meet their mother to persuade her to use her stake in the company to their advantage. “Eat!” she replies, gesturing to the pigeon breasts on the table – but her children barely seem to notice it, and merely press on with their questioning. When Logan wants advice on whether he should sell the company, four large sharing pizzas dripping in buffalo mozzarella, truffle oil and cured meat stretch out across the dining table. Everyone attempts to answer Logan’s question, but the pizza remains pointedly untouched.

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The mother of all Succession dinners comes in the fifth episode of season two, when the Roy family head to the mansion of rival media dynasty the Pierce family – hoping to procure a buyout of the Pierce’s competing left-leaning media juggernaut PGM over the roast beef. Dinner is once again merely a venue for securing a sale, but as they indulge themselves, the Roy’s begin to lose their hold on the art of war.

The mood is tense. Knives scrape across porcelain, silences are excruciatingly prolonged. Every question is pointed and every laugh rings hollow. When the soup course arrives, presidential aspirant Connor (Alan Ruck) calls the politician next to him “a deep state wonk with both lips firmly glued to the Soros teat”. During the main course, Shiv apologises to Pierce family member Mark for mocking his decision to pursue multiple PhDs. He smiles, his serrated knife pointing at her face, “I can take a joke”. When Tom is on the receiving end of pointed criticism, he squirms, flushes pink and leans forward to serve himself more food, nervously tittering about that “king of edible leaves, his majesty the spinach.”

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When filming the Pierce dinner, to increase the severity of the atmosphere, cinematographer Christopher Norr placed the cameras far away to fully capture the vastness of the space, but used long lenses to slowly, claustrophobically close in on details. “It gave a sense that we were looking in on the dinner,” he told the Ringer. “And we progressed in so therefore at the very last act […] the cameras were physically right on their backs. Basically, you’re surrounding the table with cameras, so it felt more intimate, more subjective to whatever character we were over.” As the camera closes in, we see with blistering clarity every faux pas as though we were in the dining room, chewing our nails in the corner.

The only time the Roy family permit themselves to enjoy food is when it’s quick, business-like and dirty. In the pilot, while trying to buy out media firm Vaulter, Kendall (Jeremy Strong) reclines with his legs propped up on a desk, feet surrounded by grease-stained fast-food packaging. In one episode, Logan throws away thousands of pounds worth of lobster, oysters, prime rib and opts for pizza instead; in another he sits on a golden throne eating Big Macs, while quizzing Kendall on corporate strategy. (You can’t help but notice parallels with real-world tyrant Donald Trump, who has been known to eat KFC with a knife and fork and served up McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and Domino’s to the Clemson Tigers football team when they dined at the White House.) These elites can have it all, but only some things give them what they want. To them, taking the time to enjoy food or cooking is fussy and pretentious, like when Connor gives Logan a sourdough bread starter pack and he replies with forced gratitude: “Oh, old bread. Thank you.”

Today’s CEOs might not eat as much saturated fat as Logan Roy, but their attitude to food – not as something to savour but as necessary, inconvenient pit stop that must be expedited – is similar. The days of caviar-fuelled lunches on expenses have been replaced by turmeric shots in the lift up to board meetings. Steve Jobs ate nothing but carrots and apples, Elizabeth Holmes was on a green juice diet, Jack Dorsey and apparently the rest of Silicon Valley are into intermittent fasting. Logan Roy certainly isn’t on acai berries, but he is treating food as a disruption to be minimized, because who could possibly enjoy something unless it won them more money?

Like everything else in their world, food is subject to the laws of the marketplace and therefore most produce something beyond a full belly. The hustle doesn’t stop just because there’s a pan-seared T-bone steak in front of you – relax and enjoy your food and you might lose sight of the game, slip and say something you shouldn’t, become a little too comfortable and a little too human.

Back at the Pierce dinner, after too much red wine and dauphinoise potatoes, the plates are cleared. The head of PGM asks Logan who he has in mind as his successor. Frustrated by his non-committal response, Shiv jumps in: “For fuck’s sake Dad, just tell ’em it’s me.” Logan Roy doesn’t like to be pushed – his jaw juts out and his face curdles with violence. He shouts in his wife Masha’s face when she asks: “Is it true?” At the end of dinner everyone leaves the table until only Logan and Shiv remain – but he is so disgusted, he can’t even look at her.

In the Roy family, every meal could be your last supper; it just depends on how you play it.