“Succession”’s Repetition Compulsion

“Succession”’s Repetition Compulsion

Succession’s Repetition Compulsion

In Succession’s moral universe, no one can ever get what they want or what they deserve.


HBO’s Succession is a show about four siblings trying to decide whether or not to kill their dad. Justly celebrated for its savvy casting, evocative score, clever writing, luxurious (if claustrophobic) set design, and crafty (if rarely beautiful) cinematography, Succession—which returned for a third season this fall—has nonetheless been fueled primarily by this perpetual oedipal edging: Will they? Won’t they? Can they?

The show did not begin in this place, exactly, but instead with the question suggested by its title: To which of his variously unworthy heirs will Logan Roy, the doddering, Rupert Murdoch–like media mogul played by Brian Cox, entrust his business empire? By the end of the pilot, however, this King Lear plotline has been scrapped. Despite his diminishing health, Logan refuses to relinquish power. Quickly, the real conflict becomes clear: There will be no successor who is not a usurper, no Peter who is not a Judas. And so, again and again, the siblings—sometimes alone, sometimes in concert—toy with and feebly execute scheme after scheme to betray and destroy their father, only to find themselves thwarted by the fears, flaws, and wounds that are Logan’s only unconditional bequest to them. It’s not surprising that viewers were enraptured during the first two seasons by this repetitive theater of failure and frustrated longing. The wounded family romance it sumptuously depicts is the primordial muck from which all our desires derive.

The worst (and best) you can say about Season 3, at least so far, is that it is more of the same. At the end of Season 2, Kendall—the most transparently damaged Roy child, played with a gut-twisting mix of abjection and compensatory bluster by Jeremy Strong—is selected by his father to be a “blood sacrifice.” Beaten and blackmailed into submission after originating the first season’s patricidal plots, Kendall is supposed to take the fall for a years-long plague of sexual violence and impunity aboard the cruise line owned by the family business, Waystar Royco. Instead, Kendall surprises everyone by laying the blame squarely at Logan’s feet. “The truth is that my father is a malignant presence. A bully and a liar,” Kendall tells the press. “And he was fully, personally aware of these events for many years and made efforts to hide and cover [them] up…. How much those of us who executed his wishes bear responsibility is for another day. But I think this is the day his reign ends.” In the final moments of the Season 2 finale, Logan, watching Kendall’s performance on TV, gives an enigmatic smile: He can’t help but admire Kendall’s cunning coup de grâce. Perhaps, after all, he is his father’s son?

Season 3 picks up in the wake of this gracefully staged act of betrayal, with Logan, his staff, and the other siblings scrambling to respond to Kendall’s revelation. A game of musical private jets commences, as Logan and his lackeys travel between Balkan states, seeking a home base without an extradition treaty with the United States to plan their next move. Meanwhile, Kendall attempts to expand his team beyond the gangly idiot Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) to others who are “down with the revolution” (his phrase). He hires Lisa Arthur (Sanaa Lathan), a powerhouse attorney associated with high-profile feminist cases, and Berry Schneider, a girl-boss PR consultant played by South Korean rock star/actor Jihae Kim; Dasha Nekrasova, the actor and podcaster, plays Berry’s assistant, Comfry. Knowing its viewers have become as instinctively averse to moral posturing as to immorality itself, Succession plays Kendall’s cringy crusade for easy, immediate laughs. When a character tells him, “Fuck you, plastic Jesus,” we say, “Amen.”

The stakes seem high, but before long the action falls back into the well-worn grooves of its recursive plotting: The players neurotically regenerate the conditions of their own suffering, their too-clever machinations foiled in fated arcs of self-sabotage. Yet the writing is just as sharp, the performances just as delightful. I have not tired of watching Matthew Macfadyen’s Tom Wambsgans desperately purge his pent-up aggression on Cousin Greg; Macfadyen’s ability to play these menacing, sadistic scenes with a palpable air of sweetness, almost love, is revelatory each time. Midseason cameos from Adrien Brody, Alexander Skarsgård, and Justin Kirk—the latter as a stylish, gay-coded, post-liberal, aristo-populist congressman who jokes about putting his enemies in “summer camps” and emphatically encourages his antagonists to “read Plato, read Plato” (think Michael Anton, but sexy)—buoy the proceedings. But there’s nothing new here. In Succession, writes critic Lili Loofbourow, “Pieces move around in pleasing patterns but resolve inconsequentially and reset.” The source of Succession’s comedy is the same as the source of its pathos: The Roys, like most people, cannot change or escape themselves.

Succession is well aware of its own repetition compulsions. “Do you have a fetish for nearly killing Dad?” Roman (Kieran Culkin) asks Kendall in Season 3. “Like ‘just the tip,’ but for killing Dad?” A late-night comedian played by Ziwe dubs Kendall “Oedipussy.” Meanwhile, dividing their oedipal duties, Roman tries to have sex with—or, at least, be sexually humiliated by—various stand-ins for their mother. (Fans will be happy to know that Roman’s charmingly frank dalliance with Gerri Kellman, the iron-lady Waystar Royco exec played by J. Smith-Cameron, continues.) The subtext is crudely literalized at Kendall’s deranged 40th birthday party, when Roman walks in and out of a foamy pink hallway meant to represent their mother’s vagina—part of an “immersive theater” installation. “So I’m inserting myself into my mom’s vagina now?” Roman quips. “I am repeatedly entering my own mother.”

Succession tends to hit you over the head with its conceits in a manner that is at first irksome, then bewildering, then funny, even profound. After a while Roman’s perversions, for example, can seem almost admirable. That his desire for power is periodically deprioritized in pursuit of his humiliation fantasies is the meager sort of virtue the show can admit. In a world where almost everyone has sublimated their childhood traumas into a will to dominate, Roman vigorously wanks a one-eyed snake in a city of the blind. Likewise, Connor (Alan Ruck)’s evident satisfaction in the smallest scraps of fatherly affection—as with his delight in the admiration of the Con-heads, the libertarian freaks who back his presidential bid—is laughably pathetic. But gradually, over time, it comes to seem like wisdom. Logan’s eldest son from a first marriage—“the first fucking pancake,” as his sister brutally dubs him—Connor is delusional like the rest, but he enjoys his delusions with more grace. He accommodates himself to disappointment and suffers less for his fantasies.

By episode two, Kendall has managed to engineer a meeting at his ex-wife’s apartment with all three of his siblings, and once again, the scene is set for a round of patricidal intrigue. In Totem and Taboo, Freud rooted the genesis of human civilization in a singular crime undertaken by a band of brothers against their primal father. Before this betrayal, the apex patriarch exercised absolute control over a primal horde, enjoying exclusive sexual access to his daughters and casting out his sons when they reached maturity. At some point, the outcast siblings, motivated by desire, jealousy, and rage, conspire to exact revenge. Returning to the horde, they kill the father, devour his corpse, and establish the oedipal prohibitions against incest and patricide, such that the father’s misdeeds can never be repeated. “United, they had the courage to do and succeeded in doing what would have been impossible for them individually,” Freud writes. “Society was now based on complicity in the common crime.”

This, in effect, is Kendall’s offer: join together, destroy Dad, absorb his power, and divide the spoils, earning absolution for his (and their) crimes in the process; together, they’ll turn the primal horde of Waystar Royco into something a bit more rule-bound and egalitarian.

The siblings are tempted. “It’s very hard to imagine him surviving if we allied and backed Kendall,” Connor muses, while the aptly named Siobhan “Shiv” Roy (Sarah Snook) observes, “If we knifed him now, it’s true he’d bleed out.” But, as one expects, it all falls apart. After briefly entertaining a conspiracy to break the spell of their father’s authority, the Roy children return to their comfort place—profound, isolating unhappiness—where they salt one another’s wounds and defend the man who inflicted them. “It’s not right to kill one’s father,” Connor concludes. “History teaches us that.”

A further twist of the oedipal screw, for the Roys, is that Logan admires nothing more than selfishness; he smiles with malicious pride as Kendall despoils his legacy on live TV. “The only way he will respect you is if you try to destroy him,” Roman tells Kendall in Season 1, “because in your position, that is exactly what he would try to do.” As the critic Aaron Bady writes of Logan, betrayal is “the only form of love he can respect.” To meet the demands of his superego—the imprint of his father’s authority on his sense of right and wrong—Kendall both must and cannot kill his father. Indeed, as Freud tells us, guilt comes before the law. Kendall has always felt like a criminal. In his mind, he has already killed his father over and over again; he engages in sadism to justify the verdict, in self-destruction to punish the misdeeds he has already assigned to himself.

None of this, of course, is what Logan wants in an heir: He wants hard-nosed mercilessness unencumbered by guilt or doubt. When Logan tells Kendall, “You’re not a killer,” at the end of Season 2, it is the most devastating judgment he can deliver. Yet Kendall actually is a killer of sorts, his negligence having led to the drowning death of a caterer in Season 1. But he is not the kind of killer Logan has in mind: The manner in which he has caused someone’s death is also an expression of weakness—a consequence of his captivity, his lack of agency, his drug addiction, his self-loathing and shame. For Logan, killing should be an expression of freedom.

Many critics remain preoccupied with the question of whether Succession succeeds as political satire. (Erin Schwartz addressed its ambivalent class politics in an excellent essay for this magazine.) It’s true, of course, that Succession is not a flattering depiction of the superrich. Waystar Royco’s internal code for an incident of violence or death involving a migrant or sex worker—NRPI, “no real person involved”—is a chillingly apt approximation of the attitude of the powerful toward those who suffer the costs of their comfort.

But, for the most part, those seeking a satisfying political resolution from the series will be disappointed. In Succession’s moral universe, no one can ever get what they want or what they deserve. Another sort of show might realistically depict the wealthy as boring and content, but verisimilitude is not the only responsibility of fiction. The Roys are interesting and miserable—and the more they suffer, as Bady has noted, the more we sympathize with them. We need not confuse Succession’s psychological interest in the Roys’ pain for an absolution of their sins. It is a particularly contemporary myopia that we tend to ascribe moral innocence to the traumatized, given that trauma is our only guaranteed inheritance and almost always the reason we do harm. After all, as the Roys know as well as anyone, pity and contempt are not incompatible emotions.

At some point midseason, looking down the barrel of prison time for his involvement in the cruises cover-up, Tom says, “I have, of late, decided not to tarry too much with hope.” A prudent strategy for those entering the world of the Roys, which becomes tolerable—even enjoyable—once you stop expecting anything to change.

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