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14 October 2021

How Succession’s Roman Roy became the most compelling – and grotesque – character on TV

Roman is an adolescent pushing 40, who runs from responsibility and insults everyone around him. So watching him is strangely liberating.

By Jonn Elledge

At the start of the TV series Succession, Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin) appears to be wearing a wedding ring, and seems to have a wife and daughter. A few episodes later, all three have vanished, and are never mentioned again. The screenwriters planned to write Roman one way; then they decided to write him another.

What I like about this obvious continuity error is that it still works. The decision to rewrite Roman’s backstory without ever acknowledging it tells you who he is. This is a man who could lose or abandon his wife and child and never even mention it, continuing merrily on his way with an expletive-laden quip. Does it pain him? Fuck you.

It’s tough to pick a favourite of the Roy kids for the same reason it’s tough to pick one to root for: they’re all compelling and grotesque, and every time you start warming to one, they immediately do something to remind you they’re a monster. Shiv (Sarah Snook) is clever and competent but about as selfless and trustworthy as you’d expect from someone whose nickname means “to knife”, and the longer the show’s gone on, the more my question has switched from “why is she with that loser?” (the loser being Matthew Macfadyen’s Tom) to “why is that loser putting up with this?”. Connor (Alan Ruck) is little more than comic relief, the main source of which is that he clearly doesn’t know he’s comic relief.

Then there’s Kendall, who shows occasional flashes of quaint human concepts such as “morality” and “guilt”, and whose emotional turmoil Jeremy Strong manages to articulate by slightly altering the way he says “OK”. But he – at least until the closing moments of series two – has all the guts his name (“Ken doll”) implies. We may occasionally root for him (he’s the closest the show has to a heart), but Kendall is not fun. Kendall is excruciating.

Roman, though, is fun. His name also feels symbolic, suggesting wandering or erring, and the way his Dad calls him Romulus is a cute reminder that he might destroy his brother in the end. But his appeal isn’t really anything to do with his ambitions or his place in the family. It’s not even because – unlike Shiv with her selfishness, Connor with his absurdity, Kendall with his abject spinelessness – Roman doesn’t confront us with flaws we might secretly worry we possess. It’s more basic than that. There’s simply something compelling about watching someone with no inhibitions whatsoever.

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[see also: Jesse Armstrong on power, politics and the return of Succession]

So: forced, at a thanksgiving dinner, to come up with something he feels grateful for, he says: “I am thankful I am not a Siamese twin.” When his prospective brother-in-law says he is looking forward to joining such a warm, loving family, Roman asks: “Are you not going to be marrying Shiv any more?”. The speech Roman gives at their wedding (“I don’t feel like I’m losing a sister. I don’t feel like I’m gaining a brother either. I don’t feel anything”) manages to repackage brutal honesty in a form his audience takes as a joke.

Best of all, he accurately describes his family’s business empire as “hate speech and rollercoasters”. His role is to say what everyone, outside the show as well as within, is thinking. Other members of the clan may show different faces to different people at different times, but Roman Roy is always the same, and he is always a dick. He’s Succession‘s Greek chorus, a device for turning subtext into text.

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This doesn’t mean he sees everything clearly: he still views himself as a serious executive and not – to use his sister’s words – a toddler with a hard-on. When he jokes of himself, “This is what it looks like when you resolve all your issues”, he’s conveniently glossing over the small matter of some self-hatred-fuelled sexual dysfunction. Nonetheless, he has a better grasp of how power flows through the family and its empire than anyone else in the show. “The only way he’ll respect you is if you try to destroy him,” he tells Kendall near the start of the second series. The look on their dad’s face when Kendall finally betrays him suggests he might be right.

We’ve all, at some point, wanted to call a colleague a prick to their face, or to yell at a friend that their entire career/relationship/parental attachment is a disaster zone and for fuck’s sake get out while you still can. We generally haven’t done those things, though, because you don’t. So there’s something liberating about watching someone who actually does.

There’s something liberating, too, about watching a man who is entirely a creature of his id, eating and drinking and shit-talking his way through every scene. Everyone else in Succession plots and schemes and worries about their status. Roman, newly promoted, wanks on to a window, to lord it over the unknowing peasants on the streets below. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that he looks and talks like a teenager: Roman Roy is who everyone else would be if they hadn’t learned to be better.

It’s tempting to read Roman – an adolescent pushing 40, who aches for power and status while running from responsibility at every turn – as a comment on Where Rich White Guys Are Now. But perhaps that’s taking things too far. What he is, though, is the purest expression of the Succession story itself. He doesn’t want to win because he has ambitions for the company or because he craves the respect of his peers. All he wants is to beat his siblings, and impress his daddy.

“Metro poser bullshit,” he says when inviting Shiv to dinner. “Napkins and chitchat. Ooh, race relations. Kale.” In an age when we’re all trying to be better, there’s something gloriously freeing and fun about watching a man who simply and openly does not give a damn.

Succession” returns on Monday 18 October on Sky Atlantic and Now

[see also: The return of Succession]