When it comes to William Randolph Hearst, Citizen Kane is teasing but accurate in one great respect: he was sentimental about his childhood and soft on his five tottering sons, a few of whom would one day cause their father to scratch his head and call his lawyers. In Orson Welles’s film, Hearst is figured as a multifaceted enigma in a high castle, a furious old man grieving for his sled, but the facts are differently combustible. In his last years, Hearst was no longer living at San Simeon. Having ordered an army of workers to rewire the place, rebuild the airport, and extend buildings for aesthetic effect, he spent more time at 1007 North Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills—the erstwhile home of Marion Davies, his lover of more than thirty years—and began the process of considering his afterlife. He’d invented government by newspaper, and above everything else, wrote A.J. Liebling, he was the man who introduced big money into the journalism business. When we think of the mighty operations of media moguls today, we must begin with Hearst.
Childhood was a cult in that family. His mother, keen to see more of her grandchildren, had a thirteen-room “Boys House” built for them on her estate in Pleasanton—a series of playrooms, writes Ben Procter in William Randolph Hearst: Final Edition (2007), “filled with toys and outfitted with governesses, tutors, and nurses…. She had purchased horses for her boys and, even though mere babies, hired instructors to teach them riding skills.” Once they were grown, their father’s main concern was to see them employed. “While Hearst had demanded that they work for a living,” writes David Nasaw in The Chief (2000), “and threatened to cut them off if they did not, he had never followed through on any of his threats.”
Several of his sons were dissolute, work-shy, futile, and entitled. They lived in fear of him but did nothing to impress him. To keep them in check and ensure they couldn’t break up his empire, Hearst made sure they were outflanked on the thirteen-member board, but the boys showed their teeth when the question of succession began, the younger ones turning up with company executives to take charge as their father lay dying. They canceled the old détente with Davies, removed his dead body from the house, banned her from the funeral, wrangled away the power he had given her in the company, and began to install their own reality, which for so long had escaped them in Hearst’s America.
Jesse Armstrong, the creator of the HBO series Succession, dispenses with its media family’s toys and horses and goes straight to the “carnival of mind-fuck.” Logan Roy (Brian Cox) is very much a mogul of the twenty-first century, and he and his three sons, Connor (Alan Ruck), Kendall (Jeremy Strong), and Roman (Kieran Culkin), along with their sister, Shiv—short for Siobhan (Sarah Snook)—make up the swankiest, the sweariest, the most delusional, and the most amoral family of turncoats, double-crossers, cheats, and reprobates ever to grace the small screen. Logan, born in the jute and journalism town of Dundee, Scotland, and the founder and CEO of Waystar Royco, the fifth-largest media conglomerate in the world, is the demagogue’s demagogue. “Fuck off” is his signature; “Fuck off” is his punctuation, his religion, and his brand. (I once had a Dundonian teacher like Logan Roy: he used to swear at himself in the mirror.)
From the very first episode Logan’s children are jostling for power and eager to bitch-slap one another into submission, though what they’re submitting to, always and forever, is their father’s explosive ego. This CEO is the part of a lifetime for the seasoned Cox, and he brings to the role a prodigious wealth of weatherproof disdain. “You are not serious people,” he says of the four spoiled wannabees, who appear to be not so much his children, not so much his loved ones, as the spawn of a few old, bad business moves performed under blankets. “Your family’s so fucked,” says Kendall’s estranged wife, Rava, and that’s in episode 2 of thirty-nine.
The first time we properly meet Kendall, he’s in the back of a limo being driven to the offices of an investment bank. He’s singing the Beastie Boys’ “An Open Letter to NYC” and punching the seat in front of him. It’s obvious from that moment forward that Kendall is one of the true douchebags of all time. He sweats everything, in bro-speak. He’s not merely in his father’s shadow; he’s the darkness that chases all shadows away, a man incapable of being sincere without being “sincere,” a near-robotic compact of fatalistic ambition. Strong, who plays the part with rare focus, gives us a Kendall so completely embroiled in the deep state of himself that he comes across like a one-man Syria, a rogue entity from the minute he gets up in the morning, and then he takes cocaine, just to help the process along.*
Meanwhile his brother Roman is a hilarious, delinquent masochist who can cut through bullshit while replacing bullshit with something more alarming. Libidinous, hopeless, and maladjusted, Roman would be fun to have cocktails with, but you wouldn’t hire him to rewire a plug, which is why it is one of Succession’s great cosmic jokes that we take him seriously as a potential chief executive. (The joke within the joke, of course, is that he’d probably get the job. I mean, look at them.) Shiv is self-amused and can play these boys from either side; “whatever whatever” would be her code, if she had a code, but she doesn’t because she’s too cunning and politically manipulative to pin herself to one thing. She only gets worse. Completing the quartet is Connor, the overshowered, lanky, mealymouthed agnostic of the family (“I’m a UN White Helmet”), who expresses his scorn for his father’s obsession with power by running for president. The soundtrack, in case you’re interested, is by Aeschylus and Freud.
Waystar Royco is several billion dollars in debt (from a loan Logan took out in 1985), and when he falls ill and the share price drops, the bank threatens to call in the debt and sink the company. Kendall goes out to raise capital, while also raising support for himself as a replacement CEO. In one possible configuration, Roman will become chief operating officer, with Shiv loitering in the background. Repeatedly it looks as if the children will either force their father out, use their position as leverage to buy a rival and grow even bigger, set up a new company in their own names, or allow the empire to be swallowed up. It is Logan’s habit to outmaneuver them, blind them with false promises, blackmail them, threaten them, or beat them back with a heathen thunderstorm of hot Scots invective, while courtiers and cousins vie for shelter or position.
These latter characters are best represented in Succession by Shiv’s husband, Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen), a man so inauthentic he could sell you snake oil as an astringent, and cousin Greg, played to perfection by the most oblique straight man on television, Nicholas Braun. Together these guys are the Mutt and Jeff of the entire setup, playing their greed for serious laughs. They go to a fancy restaurant and have the tasting menu. Greg says if he has another songbird he’s going to hurl. For Tom, the family blow-in, the hanger-on, the possibility of change at the top of the company is his big chance. A vote of no confidence in Logan Roy might somehow, in the mad scheme of things, be parlayed into a vote of confidence in him. He’s excited. “It’s happening,” he says. “The troops are taking Saddam’s palace.” They go to the roped-off VIP area of a nightclub and drink glasses of vodka that has gold floating in it. “Is this gold leaf?” Greg asks. “Drink the gold,” Tom replies, “then later, you and I will take a twenty-four-karat piss.”
The camera is handheld, following them around. It double-takes, zooms in, backs off, and pretty much walks away, seeming to alternate between being like a person who is uninvited and one who can’t bear what they are witnessing. Above all, the camera is the only truth-teller in town. The comedy grows with your nervousness and is bred in the all-too-human bones of the story. “Here’s the thing about being rich,” Tom says to Greg a bit earlier.
It’s fucking great. It’s like being a superhero, only better. You can do what you want, the authorities can’t touch you, and you get to wear a costume but it’s designed by Armani and doesn’t make you look a prick.
But believe me, everybody gets to look like a prick in Succession. The thrill of the series is that even the people who oppose the Roys are pricks. Horrible people just go on getting richer and more outrageous and less defensible and more insane. Someone said to me the other day that Succession is a series about terrible people who shouldn’t exist fighting to run a terrible company that shouldn’t exist, which is not only true but may begin to explain why the show is so successful. Audiences the world over, and throughout history, love a disastrous family more than they love ambrosia or pizza, and the Roy family is especially riveting because it’s not just personality that’s at stake. This is a media company, dealing every day with what happened and what didn’t happen, so it’s what exists that’s at stake. When they are fighting for control of the company, it’s not just about who will have the keys to the castle but about what reality will mean for billions of people. Scary. In the meantime, they want to rip out one another’s eyeballs and skewer them on cocktail sticks.
They try family therapy. (Kendall tries crystal meth.) They try politics. (Shiv tries sleeping with an old flame, a strategist who wants to stop “overly mighty media owners setting the agenda for our democracy.”) They try hostile takeovers. They try false promises. (“You’re the one,” Logan says to Shiv.) They try covering up crimes. They try calling out. (“This was supposed to be choreographed! That’s about as choreographed as a dog getting fucked on roller skates.”) Patricide and fratricide are mentioned. They try reality checks. (“It’s like Jaws. If everyone in Jaws worked for Jaws.”) Boiling oil is falling from the battlements, mainly in the form of words: people get vaporized by verbs. They try interventions. They try humiliation. Morality is turned on its head, as it often is in the world of media power-brokerage, where people in tailored suits alter the world with disgusting stratagems veiled as opportunities. They try nostalgia. They try being subhuman. (“I’ve gone Anti-Fragile,” Kendall says. “I can accommodate anything.”) They try cozying up to fascists. They try foreign royalty. (“Eighth in line?” notices Tom. “Greg, marry her and you’re a plane crash from becoming Europe’s weirdest king.”) They try pregnancy. They try chaos. (Roman: “Discord makes my dick hard.”) They try feminism. (“He couldn’t fit a whole woman in his head,” Shiv says of her father.) They try bringing in outsiders to help the family to another shore, and the only thing that seems to last in all of this is the enigmatic, world-altering power of Logan Roy. He’s a man of perfect opposites, a man who is both lighthouse and treacherous rocks, which they all must endlessly circumnavigate.
The poor watchers among us—that is to say, people who watch TV shows in the manner of censors—will only tut-tut at the horrible things the male characters in Succession are liable to say about women, but the experience on offer is much more rewarding if you take it in and then see what happens. Male vanity and coercion are turned inside out, and women are shown finding new ways to breathe in smoke-filled rooms.
Take Willa (Justine Lupe): we first meet her as a sex worker whom Connor Roy has taken up as his girlfriend. Willa is beautiful, a bit shy, somewhat ambitious in a private way, and a good deal smarter than her stupid boyfriend thinks. She doesn’t love him. She doesn’t really pretend to, but there’s an exchange going on in which she is much more honest than he is, especially when it comes to self-interest. Willa takes a lot of flak over the course of the show, but she turns out to be one of the best schemers in the jungle—nearly as good as Tom, but with much less oil. She wants to win, but her behavior is within the compass of her vulnerability and her sense of a larger inequality.
How does she do it? She wants to be a playwright, and Connor helps her get a play produced. It’s evidently terrible. She points out to Connor that “it’s become a hate-watch.” He doesn’t notice that she’s hurt by this, and he sets out to ironically market the hate into “a thing for the hipsters and the dipshits.” Later he notices the audience numbers are up:
It’s good, huh? I mean it looks like we’re not just getting the hate-watchers. We’re also getting a fair number of rubberneckers….They’ve heard it’s a disaster but they want to see it unfold. The rubberneckers are ogling the hate-watchers.
He assumes she will fall into line as the typical political wife—“Duty calls for my leggy Mary Todd.” In a traditional drama, we’d feel sorry for Connor, the black sheep of the family who isn’t sufficiently loved. But here we’re allowed to see something truer: he is cruel to Willa, putting her down from a position of moneyed condescension. She’s still on salary and he’s using her like a call girl, and only wants to marry her because he needs a wife for his political campaign. Willa, meanwhile, is a close study of a person trying to be honest with not very promising material to be honest about, and when he asks her to marry him, she says she’ll think about it. “Take your time,” he says. “Run the numbers.”
The numbers? What sort of person says that? Oh, yes: a billionaire. But Willa is not affronted by such a dreadful man or such a way of thinking. When eventually she says yes, she doesn’t really say yes, she says: “Fuck it, c’mon! How bad can it be?” That, as Hemingway didn’t say, is honesty under pressure. It’s a kind of strength, and in season 4, Willa goes on to demonstrate how a woman might reverse the order of power when dealing with a manipulator who thinks that he’s the sincere one. She sticks to who she is, and for her the relationship was never much more than transactional. In the self-awareness stakes and in the comedy stakes, she’s the winner. By the close of play she’s already talking about a long-distance relationship.
The sidelining of women by bullying men who claim to be more entitled, better qualified, and more respectable is not something that went out with Marion Davies. But Succession makes a decent effort at rebutting that as a norm. Not only in Willa but also in Gerri Kellman (J. Smith-Cameron), Waystar Royco’s general counsel and interim CEO, we see a classic version of a woman who knows how to persist in a world where the men around her—however hopeless, gross, and powerful—are persistently seen to be backing themselves into a corner. Even Logan Roy’s second wife, the redoubtable English aristocrat Lady Caroline Collingwood (Harriet Walter), exists somewhat as a sidewinder missile in the female-baiting world of the Roys. She knows how to strike and she knows when to do it, and is nobody’s victim.
“The original idea,” Armstrong writes in his introduction to the first season of the published scripts, “a faux-documentary laying out Rupert Murdoch’s business secrets, with them delivered straight to camera, evolved as…a sort of TV play, set at the media owner’s eightieth birthday party.” It wasn’t working, and he considered making a series about an invented business family, but for five years worried that “a fictional family would never have the power of a real one.” Then he found, through research into the lives and legends of real-life media families, that using all the stories and, in a sense (though he doesn’t say this), the entire culture around such figures was the key to making something brilliant. For a while it was “Festen-meets-Dallas,” but at heart the idea for Succession was hugely topical. It was Brexit and Trump:
The way the UK press had primed the EU debate for decades. The way the US media’s conservative outriders prepared the way for Trump, hovered at the brink of support and then dived in. The British press of Rothermere and the Barclay Brothers, Maxwell and Murdoch, and the US news environment of Fox and Breitbart. The Sun doesn’t run the UK, nor does Fox entirely set the media agenda in the US, but it was hard not to feel, at the time the show was coming together, the particular impact of one man, of one family, on the lives of so many.
Armstrong was onto something. The idea of a family that will bend any rule to justify its predominance is a toxic time bomb. Logan Roy is going to die, and the point is not when and how, but Jesus Christ. The series has a perfect arc, novelistic and full of an inner momentum, the characters falling separately and together into a well of loneliness they dug for themselves. Frank Rich, in his introduction to season 2 of the scripts, is able to put his finger on the “bedrock American mythos” underlying Succession. Despite being created and for the most part made by Brits, it is
a variation on the archetypal American saga in which a fierce, often immigrant striver builds an empire with nothing but his wits, only to be followed by feckless heirs, genealogical or otherwise, who either squander his legacy or destroy it.
Those young people, it always seems in the show, have nothing of what Logan Roy brought to America from his childhood: a knowledge of community, poverty, and hard work, the grit in the pearl of his worldliness. They merely have what Rich identifies: “a self-delusional confidence in their own non-existent talents” and a “bottomless sense of entitlement,” which will drive their fate. As you watch, thoroughly gripped, it feels like a very American sort of schism in this family, a fierce animation of what Henry James once referred to as his “imagination of disaster.” But also, Lionel Trilling said (in The Liberal Imagination), James “had what the imagination of disaster often destroys and in our time is daily destroying, the imagination of love.”
Here’s a stink bomb. One can sometimes write engagingly about an adjacent culture—more so than the locals—by being differently inside it. That is to say, passing through. Charles Dickens (Kent English) and Oscar Wilde (Dublin Irish) were traveling comedians in the States, and so, in a manner, was Christopher Hitchens (Hampshire English, later Beltway British, or Balliol American), who made a brilliant career out of what he called “British self-confidence about American vulnerability.” There is a long history of American annexation of Anglo-Saxon attitudes, and the traffic goes bumper-to-bumper the other way, too, but somehow the TV version feels like a genuinely creative exchange. What the Brits gain in production values and scope, the Yanks gain in comic self-doubt and outrage. Armstrong (Shropshire English) and Armando Iannucci (Glasgow Italian and creator of the HBO comedy series Veep)—veterans of dark British comedy shows like The Thick of It, Peep Show, and Fresh Meat, and the movie In the Loop—are well placed to step into the bear pit of American political and media culture because they understand how utterly vulgar that world might be, with or without the charm.
In the first episode of Veep, we hear about a speech being not redacted but pencil-fucked (“Front and back. Very little romance”), and later we see the US vice-president (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) having an attack of diarrhea at a meet and greet. If you want to read the DNA of a character like Roman Roy, look not to the Murdoch boys—they’re not interesting enough—but to a run of productions in which base human behavior begins with oneself and spreads from there to the institutions that enhance or defeat us. (Again, it goes the other way, too.) Critics might say the Brits brought some full-blown verbal abuse, name-calling, and puerility to the table, but anyone who has spent ten minutes at the junior end of a corporate boardroom will immediately see Armstrong’s work as a species of mild social realism.
In any event, suddenly we are a long way from the shimmering liberal romance of The West Wing. As a screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin is sublime, but he writes speeches; he doesn’t do bathroom humor, and he doesn’t catch how enclosed groups of young people actually talk shit to one another. Succession is full of fresh American talent, but there’s a dash of vinegar that comes from a foreign bottle. The taste is sharp, but the tone is complex and basically impious. The new kink here is how sympathetic it is, how painstaking when it comes to making each character, no matter how shocking, also be human and funny and sexy and stressed, as people are. This allows the audience to be deeper inside the laughs but also to feel ambivalent about these folks they’re supposed to deplore. We engage fully because we detect the human pulse in the characters’ derangement.
As with the best TV series, a larger spirit enters the proceedings as the seasons progress and the worms begin to turn. In Succession, you start to realize that they have all, in a manner, been talking to themselves, and now action must take place. It’s like Hamlet fed on the Nasdaq and Oreos, with a disquieting pinch of digital unreality. At the center of it all, the trials of the young Roys never seem imposed on them from the outside, either by the writers, the actors, or even their circumstances. Each sibling’s disaster bursts from their character and conscience like fungus from a healthy tree. Kendall is just not very good at what he does with his life; he has no gift for planning, no strategy, and is a wonderful portrait of a reality-impaired child who can’t get over it. (“I think the headline needs to be fuck the weather—we’re changing the cultural climate.”) As dragon slayers go, they’re all pissants, spooked by every release of smoke from their father’s nostrils, while each of them slides into their own miasma of personal uselessness.
It’s notable that over four seasons of Succession, none of Logan’s children ever seems like a serious rival with a solid plan. They make noises, they buy the right sneakers, they make wisecracks like they have secret knowledge, yet their desire for freedom is always mistaken by them for freedom itself, and their falling apart is the only certainty about them. We know from the close of season 1 that Kendall played a part in killing a young man, and it haunts him all the way to the final frame of the show. His values, even as a baddie, are never rigorous enough to make him bold and effective, the two elements without which ruthlessness is just a form of showing off. One of the things King Lear reveals is that the daughters Goneril and Regan lack majesty: they must turn on each other or on themselves because that is the height of their capacity.
Injured and angry children can be brutal warmongers. In Succession, we see them huddle and throw tantrums and rush at strangers. Throughout, we also see them rage at their father’s current wife, Marcia (Hiam Abbass), who often seems like the only adult for miles. She defends her disloyal husband but doesn’t forget what he did: in the long run, she ensures that none of these people will drag her down. With Logan’s girlfriend, Kerry Castellabate (Zoë Winters), matters are a little more stewed in vitriol. Roman’s idea of fun is to treat Kerry as a restaurant worker who doles out blow jobs:
ROMAN: Oooh. Waitress service. (to Kerry) Can I get a Cuba Libre and a club sandwich?
KERRY: (with a “fuck off” smile and nod to Logan) Talk to my manager.
But we don’t feel that Kerry is contemptible just because she’s sleeping with a contemptible man, while other contemptible men berate her. That’s one of the show’s achievements: the moralizing gets kicked in the butt when it shoves to the front. We worry for Kerry, because whatever status she had with the great patriarch disappears when he dies, and we see her sink, unaided by any male or female character, at the draining away of power. She’s smart and she has answers, but maybe she had feelings, too.
“We were all aware,” says Lucy Prebble (Surrey English), one of Succession’s writers, that it
was a show in which things got withheld. Sometimes emotion, often truth, always love. But by starting from the vivid, the tragic, we could pull it back while still retaining the dramatic flavor.
And that flavor—unsettled, reactive, probing, hysterical—is one of the most kinetic things about the show: the idea that nobody except the boss is ever in one place long enough to be relied on. We are in a world of presentation where the presenters are holding things back. We are intimate with people for whom intimacy is a cold game, leading to paranoia and breakdown.
Yet the siblings are funny and abysmal on the slide down. Shiv is reasonably happy at the idea of her husband going to prison. Roman is sending dick pics to Shiv’s godmother and accidentally sends one to his dad. Kendall wants to sing Billy Joel’s “Honesty” at his own birthday party, then be hoisted onto a cross for a mock crucifixion. Together for a bit, they then offer several billion dollars too much for a rival media company, just to spite their dad. Shiv’s marriage founders.
Then the biggest challenge of all occurs, the thing they’ve all been dreading—their father’s demise—and, well, let’s just say there aren’t enough fans in America for all the shit that’s about to hit them. Succession goes downward to darkness on extended wings, and the children will not know what to do, who to be, what to say, how to breathe, in a terrible world where their father is no longer there to set them against one another. Nothing proves a person’s emotional servility like the death of a parent, and this was always in the cards—the clue is in the title—and the show becomes a masterpiece as the Roys, this conglomerate band, see all their psychic bats released at once from the family cave.
It’s hard not to invoke the little beasts of the night. The show itself does it several times. Way back in the first season, Logan’s brother Ewan (a salty old refusenik who speaks for the moral minority) calls the family a “nest of rats.” By the close of season 4, there’s more sting: it’s a “scorpion party.”
Here are the children, afraid of the dark and the funny truths that make them cry. They watch a video of their father listening to someone sing an old Scots song, “Green Grow the Rashes, O,” with its message of love and fellow feeling set against avarice, and they play for a night at being kingmakers, while we marvel at their ruin. “We’re bullshit,” Roman says, in a devastating moment at the end, his wounds open. “It’s all fucking nothing.” This is not ruin in the normal sense, but one where the poverty of spirit never ends.
Strong has occasionally been mocked for his acting, particularly after a profile in The New Yorker in which he talked about “trying each time to go to some inner ledge” and about “inner tensile strength.” (He likes the word “inner.”) But for fans of intensive acting his words are gold, and so is his performance. See Michael Schulman, “On ‘Succession,’ Jeremy Strong Doesn’t Get the Joke,” The New Yorker, December 13, 2021. ↩