HBO's 'Succession': The best character study on television

Confused as to why everyone on your social media has been going insane over what looks like stock photos of an accountants’ convention? They're onto something. Trust me.

On the evening of Dec. 13, as my flight home for winter break touched down in Florida, I switched off airplane mode and found my Twitter feed abuzz: everyone I knew was raving about the season 3 finale of “Succession.” Over the course of the following week, I – along with seemingly half of North America and, if first-week-of-class icebreakers have been any indication, most of Duke’s campus – binged the entire series in a feverish haze. Its maladjusted, fascinating characters have lived in my brain rent-free ever since.

More than three years since its initial premiere, viewers and critics alike have finally discovered “Succession.” The HBO drama’s third season has seen considerable coverage by almost every major news outlet (most famously, a scathing New Yorker profile of the show’s lead actor Jeremy Strong that sparked an Internet feud); it’s in contention for awards in just about every category at the 2022 Emmys and Golden Globes. But what’s behind all the hype?

“Succession” is a “King Lear” for the modern age, a pastiche of the many real-life uber-rich yet dysfunctional families that run our world from the shadows (drawing particular inspiration from the Murdoch clan). Logan Roy, billionaire founder of entertainment megacorp Waystar Royco, is celebrating his eightieth birthday when a sudden stroke makes his retirement imminent. Enter his four conniving children (along with several nosy members of the Roy extended family), all stabbing each other in the back to take over the coveted top job of Waystar CEO. It’s one part psychological drama, one part black comedy and the emotional equivalent (albeit on the opposite end of the economic spectrum) of “Tiger King”: an endless parade of horrible people doing horrible things to each other that’s impossible to look away from.

In the hands of less talented showrunners, this formula of evil paying evil unto itself could have fallen flat: if every character is the same degree of reprehensible, who are you supposed to root for? The answer here is everyone and no-one. “Succession” has no one true hero – at least not one who occupies the role for very long. (Each of the siblings gets a brief taste of power before either losing it or abusing it; even goofy outsider Cousin Greg, the show’s audience surrogate and moral compass for much of its run, has slid further into depravity with each season he’s spent around the Roys.) Instead of the clichéd trope of good overcoming evil, we’re given the (arguably more compelling) narrative of a messy, flawed and deeply human cast navigating an ever-shifting power dynamic and a tangled web of transactional relationships. The same personality quirks that make a character likeable and redeemable in one situation end up giving them capacity for infinite cruelty in the next; the sordid chain of abuses a character suffers serves to explain why they are the way they are, even evoking sympathy, without going so far as to excuse their actions. The audience is left to ask powerful, uncomfortable questions: Can the benefits of privilege and the wounds of trauma coexist – and does one cancel out the other? Is there a one-size-fits-all definition by which someone can be classified as good or evil? Does any human being alive truly fit into either category? Does it even matter?

Perhaps the only thing better than the characters of “Succession" is the interactions between said characters, and the awful yet compelling relationships those interactions produce. We have Logan’s underappreciated daughter Siobhan and her sycophantic, middle-class husband Tom: the slow, cathartic death of a loveless marriage. (He puts up with her abuse for the social-climbing benefits it entails; she refuses to end things because, in Logan’s words, “she’s afraid of being betrayed”.) We have Tom and his employee Greg: simultaneously an abusive dynamic bordering on the psychosexual and a deep, caring bond, arising from their shared status as the only “normal” outsiders in a world that shuns them. And we have the siblings (Siobhan, “daddy’s boy” Kendall, sad clown Roman and delusional Connor). It’s undeniable that they love each other, in their own twisted way. But the same childhood that taught them that warped version of love has taught them that, whenever anyone they love gets too close, the only way to protect themselves is to lash out with violence.

And therein lies the true core of “Succession”: it’s a tragedy. Not your typical Shakespearean tragedy, with poison and double-suicide (although at least one manslaughter is involved), but rather the inherent tragedy of the cycle of abuse. 

A boy in Scotland is abused by his uncle; so that he’ll never be hurt again, he flees to America, starts his own entertainment company and makes billions. When it’s time for him to have kids of his own, he passes on the abuse he’s received to them – it’s the only way he’s ever known to show love. His kids, in turn, pass on that abuse to their spouses and their own children. Their spouses pass it on to their employees, their children pass it on to their teachers and schoolmates, and so on and so forth…

Not once do any of them ever stop and see the common thread behind all their shared experiences. Not once do any of them ever try to break the cycle. The result? All of their attempts to better their own circumstances are doomed to failure – they’ll inevitably be sabotaged by the ones they love, and the ones they love will think it a kindness.

Or maybe not. Maybe everybody wins. Maybe Cousin Greg gets the CEO slot. All I know is that if I have to wait another year for season four, I may cry.


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