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31 May 2023

How Succession made fools of us all

The brutal drama told us who the ultra-rich were again and again. We chose not to listen.

By Olivia Pym

In the first episode of Succession, a billionaire’s son offers a caretaker’s son $1m if he can hit a home run during a hastily assembled game of baseball. Just short of fourth base, at the exact moment where you believe he is going to do it, the child fails and Roman Roy laughs in his face, telling him to take the shredded cheque “back to your life”.

Here was a foretaste of the anti-magical thinking that is the major currency of Succession, a show as clinically ruthless and ugly as the rarefied circles it depicts. Its final episode, which aired in the UK on 29 May, concluded with a similarly stomach-churning return to reality, as Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Roman (Kieran Culkin) and Shiv Roy (Sarah Snook), the three siblings who have spent four seasons vying both for their father Logan’s affection and for control of his company, Waystar Royco – ostensibly the same thing – lose both. The outcome should offer narrative redemption for giving these cruel, selfish adult babies their due – but by now it is clear that much of the audience have ignored the maxim to believe people when they show you who they are the first time. Or the second, or the third…

[See also: As Succession ends – how long should a great TV show run?]

When Succession premiered in June 2018, the general advice was to relinquish your hatred of the characters and come to terms with the absence of an obvious moral compass to guide you. The first two episodes in particular felt like an endurance test for the sort of people you might cross the street to avoid, just so you don’t have to overhear them talking on their phone. It quickly became a word-of-mouth hit, ringing with grimacing insults (“the calamari cock ring”, “meth-head Santa”, “human tapeworm”), impenetrable business-speak, and a Shakespearian flair for foreshadowing. We watched as these vengeful and insecure people made pleasurable activities such as food, sex or holidays feel inconceivably bleak, and grew fond of them as they showed us the very worst of themselves.

Television encouraging us to empathise with morally compromised people is nothing new (hello Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper), but TV villains have perhaps never felt so spun from our own timeline as they do on Succession. In the final, fourth season, the show’s echoes of the present became louder. Kendall donned an Elon Musk-esque space jacket and made an off-the-cuff business pitch inflated with bluster. Logan delivered a newsroom battle cry standing on a mountain of boxes as Rupert Murdoch once did. And, in a move taken from the Donald Trump playbook, a controversial right-wing presidential candidate called for thousands of votes to be ignored. In the real world these figures are our tormentors, and yet here we seem curiously eager to forgive the monstrous members of the Roy dynasty.

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After the final episode aired, the gloomy penultimate scene, featuring Shiv and her newly powerful, semi-estranged husband, Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen), in the car together was widely shared online as though it represented a relatable reminder of the glass ceiling women face in the workplace. Tom, who has “won” by agreeing to be the pliable “pain sponge” of Waystar’s new owner, tech-bro billionaire Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård), gives his hand to his wife, as if inviting her to kiss the ring. Shiv is destined to become, like her mother before her, the unhappy wife of a CEO instead of having power on her own terms – at least, this is how the scene was read by many fans online.

But that moment, much like the show, was really a Rorschach test that allowed us to feel sorry for whoever has done the best job of manipulating us. Shiv is perhaps the closest the audience can find to a victim simply because she’s a woman – but this is a character who has used her femininity to manipulate other women and silence sexual assault survivors, and who Jesse Armstrong, Succession’s creator, has said is partly inspired by Ghislaine Maxwell. An audience that has witnessed Shiv not being taken seriously are unable to see her as a killer in the same way they do her brothers, despite all her disloyalty and backstabbing. That her scheming has blown up in her face is an outcome of the rules of engagement; seeing her choice as anything but pragmatic and self-serving would be to ignore who Shiv has shown herself to be time and time again.

Amid the pity for Shiv were other signs that our critical faculties have been rubbed smooth by superheroes and fantasy warriors; that we are unable to metabolise a television show without someone to get behind. “Fanams” videos shared online lamented Kendall’s tragic downfall or celebrated Tom’s victory as a new-money arriviste. One tweet spliced a clip from season one of Tom promising to look after his assistant Greg, the Roy siblings’ cousin, with a scene from the finale of Tom placing a sticker on Greg’s forehead to mark him as his property: this was offered up as heartwarming proof that Tom kept his word.

The rabid fandom that Succession inspired swelled as the show progressed. The first season went largely undiscovered until, during the pandemic, many caught up and wanted in on the series that was lighting up New York media circles on Twitter. In the UK obsessing over Succession soon became the TV equivalent of carrying a New Yorker tote on the Tube – a signal of one’s cultural sophistication. By its final season the hysteria around the show meant that scene compositions were compared to Renaissance paintings (or were they baroque?); its depiction of the longstanding habit of the uber-wealthy avoiding flashy brands was heralded as a new trend (“quiet luxury”); and everything from the lamps to the relative appetites of the characters was considered charged with deeper meaning.

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

If everything is important, nothing is. Explaining Succession became a media sport. One article published around the time the penultimate episode aired interviewed Natalie Gold, who plays Kendall’s estranged wife, Rava, about her character’s decision to leave the city, though it was explained very succinctly during the episode. This obsessive coverage was satirised in a recent tweet: “Today on Vulture: We talk to the actor who played the waiter who serves Cousin Greg a martini in S3E9 about media power, late-stage capitalism and the real reason Murdoch fired Tucker Carlson.”

Jesse Armstrong told the New Yorker: “We don’t hide the ball very much on the show. The show is against bullshit.” But audiences are determined to believe there is a hidden meaning behind everything on it. After the final episode, media outlets from the New York Times to Cosmopolitan reported that Tom Wambsgans was named for a baseball player from the 1920s, Bill Wambsganss, who is famous for taking out three opponents at once. It’s not true. The show’s executive producer Frank Rich has confirmed that Tom’s name was chosen for how awkward it is to pronounce and was picked long before the writers had mapped out the ending. Succession was too interesting a series to hide its denouement under our noses all along. It knew that who wins is not fated. Life is cruel, random and not always easily explained, despite what fans might want.

The question of succession on Succession made for a claustrophobic final season, with the fixation on who will win blotting out everything else. Watching the characters circle and circle over the issue, it felt both as though the show simultaneously had little left to say and not enough time to say it. That sense was most palpable in the wake of Logan’s death in episode three, which promised to change everything and yet seemed to change nothing.

Now Succession has answered its central question of transfer of power by proving it was relatively unimportant all along. Nobody really wins; everyone sort of loses. “It’s a horrible job that clearly kills you,” Kendall says in the finale, to persuade his siblings that he should be made the sole CEO. That their jealous squabbling ends up destroying them all should be a cause for celebration. On Twitter, though, the reaction to its stark ending was treated more like a controversial vote on The X Factor.

Succession often seemed more like a British sitcom than an American drama, resisting evolution in favour of stasis; a place where dialogue stood in place of plot development. It is circular by design, revisiting the same themes, picking up the same story threads, and ending back at square one, over and over.

Speaking on the Succession podcast after the final episode, Jeremy Strong said that he believed the characters were in a “doom loop”, cursed to repeat the same experiences because people fundamentally do not change. The viewers are in their own “doom loop”, indulging in fantasies about the characters’ natures, only to be disabused of them time and again. These, after all, are people who use phrases such as, “No Real Person Involved” to describe the workplace death of a dancer, waiter or otherwise disposable employee. In the election episode of season four, “America Decides”, Roman’s fascist urge to call the result of a disputed election to better suit him came, to some viewers, as an unexpected horror – despite Roman never taking anything but his own impulses seriously. Had we not been paying attention? Or is the mark of brilliant writing that we forget who people really are until they give us a nasty surprise?

Succession, like The White Lotus, is described as a depiction of the ultra-wealthy, in which they get their unhappy due – but the un-stomachable truth is that in the real world these people are largely shielded from consequence. Our sympathy for Kendall, Roman and Shiv reveals the deference and fascination with which we watch the rich on screen. This willingness to see the good in people who repeatedly show us they are bad is not unique to Succession, but it is curious that a show that has found success in offering a detailed insight into the dark machinations of the 0.01 per cent – with its villains cribbed from tyrannical real-world moguls – was adored during a time of grotesque wealth inequality.

There is a common belief that the power of Succession lies in its ability to make us empathise with plainly bad people despite our better judgement. In reality, the show’s sleight of hand has been so effective that the audience has decided that these odious characters are not villains at all. Its popularity is emblematic of a moment where we speak of wanting to eat the rich, but instead let them consume us whole.

[See also: Succession’s unsettling ending]

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This article appears in the 31 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise of Greedflation