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HBO’s ‘Succession’ Holds up a Dark Mirror to our Political Times

Landing only months before the US midterm elections, it’s impossible not to understand the show foremost in the context of the Trumps and Kushners of the world

There’s a big reveal in episode 8 of HBO’s summer prestige drama, Succession – a family drama played out in the shadow of a global media company, Waystar Royco. The company’s heir apparent, Kendall (played by Jeremy Strong), takes an unexpected meeting at an exclusive Brooklyn warehouse party with a longstanding rival of his family’s business, learning that, in financial terms, he’s now in bed with the enemy: one who rode in on the back of vulture-capitalist financing, a ‘parasite on a parasite’ looking to strip Royco down for parts. And this is one of the less pathological moments in Succession, an interlude of Mitt Romneyesque calibration amid a caustic interpersonal landscape. The historian T.J. Clark once said of modernist painting that to serve as effective critique, it would have to mime its subject matter to the point of ventriloquism. By that standard, the show presents a dire view of life in 2018.

In fairness, Succession was conceived before the full scope of the current political landscape in the US had become apparent. Its production team includes Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, suggesting that the project was intended as a kind of dark comedy, a humorous extension of earlier work by novelist Brett Easton Ellis in the 1980s, or McKay himself in his 2015 film The Big Short – a thoughtful if incredulous look at the origins of the 2008 financial crisis. Succession relies on a series of familiar tropes: broadcast media vs. digital media, New York vs. Silicon Valley, boomers vs. millennials, sentimentality vs. cynicism and so on. Its central conceit is Shakespeare’s King Lear for a Rupert Murdoch-dominated world, a passel of spoiled scions scrambling for the lion’s share of an aging tycoon’s empire. Early on, Logan Roy (played with gravitas by Brian Cox) is poised to step aside from Royco, a conglomerate that blends aspects of Disney and Newscorp, only to be felled by a stroke. In the ensuing melee, Logan re-emerges, wounded, mad but newly committed to holding on to power. His four children – Kendall (the tortured striver), Roman (the charismatic black sheep), Siobhan (the canny, fair-haired daughter), and Connor (the eldest, a loopy dilettante) – step into the breach. Psychodrama ensues, old wounds are re-opened, the long knives come out. 

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Real estate developer Charles Kushner attending the U.S. District Courthouse August 18, 2004 in Newark, New Jersey. Kusher would plead guilty to 18 counts of illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion, and witness tampering. Courtesy: Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Early reviews of Succession suggest a juicy satire, water cooler fare that’s as ruthlessly arch as its subjects. But landing as it has months before the US midterm elections, it’s impossible not to understand the show foremost in the context of other corporate families – the Trumps and Kushners of the world – and to feel an uncanny recognition of damaged protagonists navigating a binary world of winners and losers, strength and weakness, moral compromises in pursuit of paternal acceptance always held at arm’s length. From the vantage of 2018, Succession is less timeless tragedy and more timely synecdoche. In this sense, the show is not so much a voyeuristic romp, but an unsettling index fossil for future historians. In effect, Succession is difficult to watch, and one can’t be blamed for seeking lighter fare or schmaltzy bromides in their entertainment diet. The question, then, is whether the series emerges as poignant critique or, in Jean Baudrillard’s terms, simply a ‘mirror of production,’ a symptom of the thing it purports to investigate.

One thing is certain: even for audiences habituated to a world of post-moral antiheroes like AMC’s Breaking Bad’s Walter White, it is unclear whom to root for in Succession; so complete is the ethical perfidy, so fully do they reflect the harsh contours of US greed – for acceptance, authenticity, status, narcotic excess. So glaring is Kendall’s ambition that he becomes a chameleonic cipher, only happy when lit up on methamphetamine in the New Mexico sagebrush. His brother Roman oscillates between insecurity and sleazy exuberance, plainly wounded but ultimately too callow to redeem himself. Connor is ensconced at his hobby farm in the desert, channelling the now archetypically cliché Coachella-Santa Fe-Yellowstone Club set. Siobhan is conflicted but still dabbles in the dark arts of politics, portrayed here, à la Netflix’s House of Cards, as a vacuous and calculating parallel world in its own right. She wants to escape the gravity of her family for something like normality but can't shake the feeling that to be decent is a sucker’s game, and she casually torments her straight-laced mid-western fiancée Tom as a way of steeling herself. Tom, in turn, is a proxy for the audience – one foot in each world, even his speech patterns distort as his moral compass wildly gyrates somewhere between naivety and perdition. Even Rob Yang’s tech guru, openly queer and bullish on new media, lapses into the macho posturing and boardroom elbow-throwing that remains, it seems, the coin of the realm.

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Succession, 2018. Courtesy: HBO

The message here is that even if the players change or outward appearances shift, power (and by extension money) is ultimately the only certain measure of value. This is an anti-humanistic world in which nothing, at last, is sacred. Smaller plot points send up the now undeniable symmetry of finance capital and technological utopianism, the way bro culture pervades, and the Patrick Batemans of the world casually shift between secret bacchanal and Michelin restaurants, impact/eco venture and cryptocurrency. A young art start-up, too, seeks an injection of capital in order to expand the reach of young artists, taking early career makers and marking up their work for a wealthier set. The start-up's founders are at the same secret parties, the same pitch meetings, but bask in the glow of their anti-establishment credentials. To his credit, Kendall, in a brief meeting, sees right through them. He pinpoints the contradictions of the contemporary art world too precisely for comfort but yearns nonetheless for some last bastion of authenticity beyond the realm of finance that the young founders might represent.

Though even Kendall, like his siblings, can’t get away from his name, can’t make a clean break. They are held in orbit by the titanic presence of the father, the patriarch who won’t go quietly. In a chilling boardroom scene, a carefully engineered no confidence vote is derailed by Logan himself who scoffs as a motion is called, simply dismissing it with a ‘No. Bullshit.’ He violates his own bylaws, refusing to leave his seat at the end of the table, pugnaciously twisting the vote back in his favour. The children, for the moment, fall back into line.

There is Freudian drama here, but also echoes of our larger, shared family saga. What happens when even the thin mores of the capitalist system are pushed beyond their limits, revealed to be only as strong as our willingness to enforce them? What happens when those reading the winds align themselves with the strongest man in the room rather than a sense of duty to something greater? In advance of the decision, Kendall whips the votes, including his brother Roman and his best friend, a school chum and fellow board member. They both betray him in the moment, but Kendall was warned: he asked in advance if he could trust his old pal.  Stewy replies with an unapologetic ‘No.’ The only offer of loyalty in the room comes in the form of Logan’s brother Ewan (the evergreen James Cromwell), a keeper of the old adage that blood is thicker than water. But fittingly, he too has exiled himself to a rural life, and he represents a vestigial, indeed Canadian, branch of the family. He warns his dopey grandson – Tom’s protégé Greg – to steer clear of the ‘viper pit’ of his own kin. There is no place for him here.

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Succession, 2018. Courtesy: HBO

Ultimately, Succession is tough medicine, even as Brechtian theatre; even for a generation weaned on the cool cinematography and moral inoculation of dramas like FX’s Damages or House of Cards. If one looks back to the turn of the millennium, a quirky optimism still pervaded popular entertainment, even on premium networks. HBO’s The Sopranos humanized gangster life and Sex and the City celebrated the emergence of New York as an adult playground. The characters that populate those shows at least seemed to be having a good time – not so for the Roy family, all of whom struggle for tenuous purchase in the cramped offices and deadened corridors of a Manhattan high-rise, for whom sex, drugs and exclusive parties are either banal or insufficiently potent tonic. And maybe this is the most powerful message of a show that is decidedly (and contrary to a great deal of critical opinion) not ‘fun to watch’ – if this is the life of the 1%, then who wants it? Or worse, if it’s this bad for them, what of us?

During the last years of the Clinton and Bush presidencies, by contrast, audiences could enjoy the nostalgic escapism of dramas like Aaron Sorkin’s NBC drama, The West Wing. The message, in brief, was that for the moral lapses on either side, there were deeper values that united both the US and the West itself; that beneath the veneer of incivility there was a deeper spiritual or social cause that would outlast the turbulence of the present. The West Wing lives on now, especially in contrast to Succession, not as a useful parable but as bittersweet nostalgia. It’s fitting that for a show about a media empire, Succession tarries little in the actual complexities of perhaps the defining industry of our political era. Succession, by design or not, holds up a dark mirror for our inspection. Once upon a time, the excesses of books like Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991) seemed so egregious as to register as satire. But such a gulf between reality and fancy, the real and the unreal is increasingly imperceptible, and Succession plays the same neural notes of cable news and social media as another kind of documentation of our daily life. The viewer is left feeling like Greg, the show’s bumpkin cousin, after inhaling three lines of cocaine – more-or-less involuntarily. As he notes, ‘it’s a nightmare.’

Main Image: Succession, 2018. Courtesy: HBO

Ian Bourland is a critic and an art historian at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, USA. 

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