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26 May 2023

The secrets of the Succession opening titles

Each season, subtle changes are made to the credits sequence. What do they mean?

By Jonn Elledge

When you watch the opening titles to Succession on a loop – as I did for this piece, cycling through the four different versions on repeat for an hour – a number of different things start to happen inside your brain. First, and most predictably, you marvel at the scale and the variety of the symbols of wealth on display. The tennis lessons. The skiing. The little girl in the white dress, who may or may not be Shiv, moodily leading a pony. The prepubescent boy (you want to say Roman, but the age doesn’t feel right), lighting a cigar and looking pleased with himself.

The bit that really stands out is the elephant ride. A lot of rich kids go riding or skiing, sure; but how many get a go on an elephant? Yet there’s no record of anything touching here, no fond or funny moments. This is a childhood that’s golden and expensive and deeply, deeply cold. The vast but carefully decorated mansion, with its perfectly manicured gardens, is inevitably reminiscent of Versailles.

In this supercut, the home movies of the hyper-privileged are interspersed with contemporary footage of the Manhattan skyline. We jump from family dinner to contracts, from the garden to skyscrapers. Even older, sepia-toned film and late-20th century video footage are layered atop one another, to suggest a dynasty more venerable than the Roys. (The show’s leads were surely kids in the Nineties?) The patriarch is shot from behind or below or at a distance, a faceless authority rather than a dad.

After the eighth viewing, the paranoia these images evoke begins to climb inside your brain. On the eleventh time round, Nicholas Britell’s theme tune, which you have always rather enjoyed, begins to remind you of the one from Requiem for a Dream, which gave you nightmares for months. The Manhattan skyline, shot from below, begins to feel like a barrier, blocking out the light, which can only be escaped onboard a private plane. You console yourself with the encyclopaedic knowledge you have gained of ATN’s fictional headlines. “Genderfluid illegals may be entering country ‘twice’.” “Man With Bird Flu Can’t Stop Thinking Of Ducks.”

[See also: Succession season four review: a script sharper than broken glass]

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These headlines are not the only thing that shift from season to season. The initial focus on the child we might loosely identify as Kendall changes in subsequent seasons, so that the focus is sometimes on the child we might loosely identify as Shiv, and sometimes on no one at all, as all four kids forlornly watch their father go. Do even these small details carry significance for the show as a whole? What does it mean that this season there’s new footage of a swimming pool, or a movie lot? Or two helicopters? Black helicopters are a conspiracy theory mainstay, you think. What is it trying to say?

As the four children in the credits are far too close in age to actually be the Roys, it may be a mistake to read any of this too literally. The opening credits to Succession were inspired by those to David Fincher’s anti-capitalist thriller The Game: executives at Picturemill, the studio which created them, have said they were trying to invoke the same feelings, the sense of distance, the claustrophobia. This isn’t really meant to be footage of the Roy kids’ childhood. It’s a memory of a memory of an upbringing in which they didn’t want for anything, just so long as money could buy it.

In every season, the credits conclude with a shot of the father’s back at a dinner table, then cut to that of Logan Roy in a meeting, some of his kids replaced by executives he employs. At the very end, we return to the children, their faces turned to watch him go. It ultimately doesn’t matter how much is literal and how much metaphorical – how much of this is clues, how much simple playfulness. The opening credits – on the first viewing, and on the 17th – tell you that you are entering a world with no line between business and family, in which none of these kids can ever quite stop looking for their dad.

And with that, you decide it’s time for a lie down.

This article was originally published on 10 April 2023.

[See also: Succession is back, with a script sharper than broken glass]

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