In ‘Succession,’ Who Is the Joke Really On?

In ‘Succession,’ Who Is the Joke Really On?

Eat the Rich

The tension between satire and tragedy in HBO’s Succession


There’s a scene in Succession’s second season in which Logan Roy, the patriarch and CEO of a family-owned media conglomerate, sits with his sons, his great-nephew, and a longtime colleague to watch a former employee reveal sordid company secrets on television. The men slouch on bisque sofas, drink beer, and cooperatively heckle the screen as the whistle-blower, James Weisel, details decades of sexual abuse on the company’s cruise lines. The journalist asks Weisel a question: What does “incident NRPI” mean, which appears frequently in a set of confidential corporate documents?

“No real person involved,” Weisel responds. “That means it’s a sex worker or a migrant worker at a foreign port, not involving a guest or a permanent member of staff.” The room goes quiet, tensing, then Logan explodes—“I can’t watch any more of this fucking bullshit”—and throws the remote at his eldest son, who changes the channel to a baseball game.

The distinction between these workers, who are not “real,” and the adult men hearing about them on TV while they eat snacks in a Manhattan penthouse, who, as members of the company’s inner circle, are real, exemplifies the tension at Succession’s core. In episode after episode, the rich aren’t merely oblivious about the lives of the poor; they want the poor not to exist to a degree that often crosses over into violence. Although its plot tracks power struggles within a rich family, the show is beloved for its sardonic tone: the way it skewers its wealthy characters and the attention it pays to the barriers not only between the 1 percent and the rest of us but also between distinct phyla of the economic elite.

Succession is the invention of British TV writer Jesse Armstrong, the creator of the aughts sitcom Peep Show and a frequent collaborator of Armando Iannucci. (Armstrong wrote for Iannucci’s parliamentary comedy The Thick of It and cowrote the Iraq War satire In the Loop.) The show draws from a miscellany of references: the succession battles of the Murdoch family, the cartoonish nastiness of media mogul Sumner Redstone, and James B. Stewart’s business reporting opus DisneyWar, among others. One of the show’s executive producers is Adam McKay (The Big Short, Vice), who once made slapstick comedies and has since become a box office chronicler of late capitalism. It also employs a host of consultants—including former Lou Dobbs Tonight executive producer Jim McGinnis; Merissa Marr, a senior writer at The Wall Street Journal; and Derek Blasberg, a socialite and Instagram-famous fashion writer—to ensure its depictions of wealth, power, and broadcast news are meticulously detailed.

The pleasure of watching Succession comes in part from the precision and authority of its portrait of the rich and in part from the schadenfreude in being shown, again and again in increasingly creative ways, how terrible and lonely they are. I find this fun; many people find it fun. But something has been bothering me about Succession since the end of its first season. It feels heavy-handed to bring up the 1930s labor ballad “Which Side Are You On?” at this point, but Succession did it first: The song closes out an episode in which Logan fights off a board revolt led by his son Kendall. “Oh, workers, can you stand it? Oh, tell me, how you can,” sings Pete Seeger as Kendall wanders lower Manhattan, forlorn, out of a job. I’d like to ask the same question. Which side is Succession on?

Succession has been described as a satire of the wealthy, and the description fits its tone. Insults are biting (after Logan’s son Roman insists that he has hobbies, his sister, Shiv, shoots back, “Killing hobos isn’t a hobby”), and characters’ biographies include details that seem calibrated to be as humiliating as possible. (At one point, Kendall brags with the naivete of a Trump son making a joke online that he was “fuckin’ king” of Harvard’s comedy magazine, the Lampoon, because he “kicked their distribution into shape”; Logan’s eldest son, Connor, a collector of “Napoleonica,” buys what turns out to be a fake mummified Napoleon penis for $500,000.) The ways its characters attempt to alchemize wealth into cultural capital are so deliciously absurd that I could spend the rest of this essay listing them—Shiv’s “corn-fed” partner Tom Wambsgans gleefully recounting a sexual encounter at an exclusive Brooklyn warehouse party in which he swallowed his own ejaculate, for example, or Kendall buying an idiotic pair of multicolored Lanvin sneakers on his way to a meeting at a fine art start-up, then removing them halfway through his pitch to seem down-to-earth.

But the show does not have the plot of a satire. Both seasons pick through the wreckage of Roy family betrayals, examining the inheritance of trauma and the damage caused by an emotionally domineering parent. This is where most of Succession’s time and emotional energy is spent; these story lines propel the show. This quality of the show lends itself to King Lear comparisons, and it is also frequently in conflict with the satirical register, which chips away at our inclination to see the Roys as sympathetic or self-aware. The calculus is tricky: For the plot to work, viewers need to care about the fate of the Roy family, believe in the truth of their relationships, and see the tragedy in their repeated failures to transcend their worst instincts. Too much hideous behavior and we can’t empathize with their pain; too little and the satire is a garnish on top of a story primarily concerned with the complexity of the feelings of asshole businesspeople.

The place to look for an answer in each season’s structure, which demands, as Logan puts it, “a blood sacrifice.” In the first season, his name is Andrew Dodds, and in the second season, she is Kira, no last name. Both worked in low-level jobs for the Roys. Andrew was a server at Shiv’s wedding at a castle in England, and Kira is an employee of Waystar Royco’s cruise lines, where she witnessed harassment, sexual assault, and deaths. Both represent unpunished Roy wrongdoing; they’re avenging spirits in the bodies of service workers. Their stories are similar: They appear, threaten the family’s status, and are exorcised. Their characters are briefly outlined—we know Andrew smokes weed and Kira is a mother—but in the Roy worldview and in the story the show tells, they’re not quite real people.

At the end of the first season, Kendall asks Andrew, who has been fired from the gig for attracting Logan’s ire by overfilling his wine glass, if he knows where to find cocaine. Andrew does, but it requires a drive, and he’s high on ketamine, so Kendall—who has been drinking and using cocaine all day—takes the wheel and sets off. He’s speeding and distracted when a deer appears, wraithlike, in the headlights. Andrew instinctively grabs the wheel and sends the car off a bridge, and it thunders into a lake and sinks. Only Kendall emerges. After a half-hearted attempt at rescue, he sneaks back to the party and establishes an alibi by dancing with his children to Whitney Houston. Logan learns of Kendall’s involvement and has his bodyguards cover up the crime, forcing Kendall back into the fold through a mix of blackmail and gratitude.

Kira is dispatched by Shiv in the second season. When Waystar Royco executives are called to testify before the Senate about cruise line malfeasance, Shiv learns from a former employer, a Bernie Sanders knockoff named Gil Eavis, that a second whistle-blower will take the stand that week. She meets Kira in a playground and persuades her to withdraw from the proceedings. Shiv promises to clean up the company. “I will destroy the men who ran that dirty operation,” she says. “We will be the best, cleanest operation in the world because of you, if you help me do this.” Kira asks if she can trust Shiv’s promise. “No, no. Actually, no,” Shiv replies. “Frankly, I want what’s best for me. But the other people…they want what’s best for them.” Kira drops out.

To outsiders, Shiv seems the family’s most liberal, ethical, independent-minded member. She established a career in left-wing politics and sprinkles quotes from Amelia Earheart and Thomas Aquinas across her first corporate memo. Still, it’s hard to imagine that Shiv sees Kira as anything more than a crisis to be managed. Earlier, at a business conference at a rustic luxury lodge, Shiv catches Tom flirting with Nia, a businesswoman whom Shiv knows by reputation and who recently launched an IPO. Shiv has just slept with an airheaded actor in a play Connor is financing in New York. But when Tom ventures that he’s allowed to pursue Nia per the same ill-defined rules that allowed Shiv to pursue the actor (her kink seems to be not communicating about sexual boundaries), she balks. “Come on. Nia’s a real person, with a face,” she says.

For Kendall, the idea of Andrew’s humanity seems painful to consider. On a later visit to England, after a tabloid story connects Logan’s outburst at the wedding with Andrew’s death, Logan visits the Dodds family home for a PR-staged apology and strongarms Kendall into joining him. Both men enter the low brick house, and Logan joins Andrew’s parents. But the camera remains with Kendall while he waits in a quiet kitchen, its walls decorated with a pattern of coffee cups. The conversation happening in the other room is muffled, inaudible. We don’t learn anything about Andrew beyond what can be gleaned from the house and a collage of childhood photos on the wall. Instead, Kendall’s face is held in tight focus as he struggles to hide his guilt.

There’s more to learn about Andrew. A small detail, easy to miss: The night before he died, he was with Greg Hirsch, a gangly, earnest cousin struggling to find his footing in the Roy family. From far away, we see Greg jump out of a blue hatchback when he spots Tom out for a morning jog, intending to confront Tom about Shiv’s affair with a coworker. The blue car belongs to Andrew. It is the car that will go into the river that night. “Great night, man. Thanks for the ride,” Greg says as he leaves. “See ya, man.” The subtext isn’t necessarily romantic; Greg also loves drugs, so maybe they were up partying or watching TV stoned. Still, in a few lines, we see a sketch of another story, one Succession doesn’t tell.

On the show’s own terms, the “blood sacrifice” that matters isn’t Andrew or Kira but Logan, who is sacrificed to save the company. After one too many betrayals, Kendall—possibly acting with Shiv’s help or approval—makes public their father’s knowledge of misdeeds in the cruise division, supported by documents Greg squirreled away while following orders to destroy the company’s internal logs. Perhaps this is a version of the plan Shiv pitched to Kira. Even then, by Shiv’s admission, she wants what’s best for herself (and the same could be said of all the Roy heirs), which makes for a weak alliance and is a poor substitute for justice. Kira’s name is not mentioned in the season finale. This is, after all, still a story that knows who the real people are.

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