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28 May 2023

How Succession created TV’s first irredeemable leading man

In Logan Roy, Jesse Armstrong and Brian Cox took the archetypal anti-hero and replaced it with a moral black hole – a darker, unfathomable force sucking all into his orbit.

By Fergal Kinney

This article contains spoilers for the fourth season of Succession.

It has entered into received wisdom that the ursine and seductive performance of James Gandolfini in The Sopranos popularised the anti-hero on television, jumpstarting the golden age of prestige TV and shaping it in the show’s image. Audiences rooted for the antihero – Tony Soprano, Walter White of Breaking Bad, Don Draper of Mad Men, Omar Little of The Wire – in spite of their flawed behaviour. One of the many innovations of HBO’s Succession is the role of Logan Roy, played by Brian Cox in a performance that came to a shock conclusion in the most recent episode. In Logan Roy, Cox and Jesse Armstrong, the show’s creator, made something different – television’s first truly irredeemable leading man.

Where the anti-hero made a dramatic virtue of teasing redemption from the least likely of sources, across five years and four seasons Logan’s character arc was a straight line plotted at the lowest rung of human behaviour. Viewers watched as Logan leaked fake news about his son relapsing into drug use, prompting an actual relapse. A fan favourite moment involves the ritualised abuse of family and colleagues in a game dubbed “Boar on the Floor”. (“No one had ever seen humans act like that before,” reflected David Rasche, a member of the cast, on shooting the scene. “There was something sort of disgusting about it.”) You want it darker? Consider Logan’s historical association with a group of men known as “the Wolf Pack” for their atavistic sexual proclivities. Or his nihilistic use of the acronym “NRPI” (“no real person involved”) to shrug off civilian death and exploitation.

Rendering small-fry the eight on-screen murders committed by Tony Soprano, Logan Roy’s own brother at one point convincingly suggests that the media mogul is more personally responsible than any other individual alive for the climate crisis. Television characters are rarely this dark, and if they are, they are never so central. While other anti-heroes often attain a certain amount of redemption in death, on Logan’s deathbed his own children call him a “monster”, say that there’s “no excuses” for him, and that they “can’t forgive” him. Roman, no stranger to self-deception, attempts to call him a “good man” but has to hand over the phone, repulsed by his own lie. Instead of a human being, Logan is a malevolent market force – “there’s dad!” as Roman says looking at the sudden dip in Waystar stock.

Though in interviews Cox frequently argues that Logan ultimately loves his children, Armstrong has suggested that this is a distinction only useful for the actor, not the viewer. “What does love mean,” asked Armstrong in the New Yorker this year, “when you never express it, and do things which are antithetical to what most people would consider to be love?” In Logan Roy, we were asked to consider some of the darkest questions about man’s inhumanity to man. Succession created a landmark role in doing so.

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How implausible – cartoonish, even – might the media mogul have been in the hands of even many gifted character actors? Cox’s Logan had less in common with the naturalistic performances of TV’s new golden age, and instead brought a poise and classicism more closely associated with the stuffy world of British television in the 1970s and 80s – BBC and ITV adaptations of classic literature or Shakespeare. Cox was born working-class into the immediate post-war era, elevated by institutions such as the Dundee Repertory Theatre where, alongside contemporaries such as Steven Berkoff and Lynn Redgrave, he developed a taste for drama at its most serious. It was his widespread recognition as a Shakespearean actor, performing for the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company, that made Cox the first choice for the Succession role. We should mourn that this dramatic lineage now seems more distant from television screens than ever. And though Logan Roy was a composite of different contemporary and recent historical figures, Cox seemed to draw almost nothing from them – none of Robert Maxwell’s bombast, none of Sumner Redstone’s cringey starry-eyed shlock, none of Rupert Murdoch’s barely suppressed smirk.

Shows that Armstrong has worked on, such as The Thick of It and Veep, have spoken in the same register as Succession – fast-paced, documentary-style cinematography, quickfire linguistic density and a satirical focus on powerful elites. What elevated Succession, though, was the moral black hole at its centre that Logan Roy represented. While other characters may have been more richly developed than the patriarch, they all were – and will likely remain – in his dark, unfathomable orbit.

It’s too early to guess how Cox’s performance may shape television history, and whether the irredeemable leading man is a gamble that commissioners will take in the way that they gambled on anti-heroes post-Sopranos. Already, though, the episode “Connor’s Wedding” (what a delicious piece of misdirection that titled turned out to be) has shot to the top of the IMDB website’s ranking of TV episodes. Why? For its horrifying real-time evocation of an off-screen death, for its unbroken 27-minute take, but also for closing the book on a truly innovative television character. R to the IP.

This article was originally published on 12 April 2023.

[See also: The secrets of the Succession opening titles]

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