If you are someone who works at an online publication — like, say, Vox — you’re fairly accustomed to TV shows taking swipes at your workplace and getting things desperately wrong. Every so often, a show like BoJack Horseman will come up with something like GirlCroosh, the pitch-perfect satire of women’s interest sites that Diane works at for much of seasons four and five of that show. But most of the time, fake websites on TV come off as especially fake.
“Vaulter,” the second episode of Succession season two, gets around this by creating a fake site — Vaulter, naturally — that is like every other website somehow, in ways that are hard to pin down. Yes, Vaulter has been part of the show from the very first episode, but the episode devoted to it isn’t just a terrific parody of online journalism. It’s also a terrific parody of the very specific, doom-haunted culture of online journalism, constantly glancing at real-time pageview stats in a cold sweat and fretting over the Facebook algorithm.
The tragedy is that “Vaulter” doesn’t chart a new day for the company but, instead, the death of the site, thanks to some doctored data and the capriciousness of Logan Roy. And if you’re someone who works at an online publication — like, say, Vox — you’re probably getting some night sweats just thinking about the scene where Kendall casually fires an entire editorial staff.
But this is also the theme of season two writ large: The Roys are so caught up in their own psychodramas that they are incapable of noticing how their actions hurt anybody else. Kendall so badly wants to win his father’s love that he guts the thing he so proudly brought to his father back in the pilot, and hundreds of lives are shattered as the collateral damage.
Good thing the show’s so funny!
This week, Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff and The Goods senior editor Meredith Haggerty join forces to talk the five winners and five losers of “Vaulter.”
Emily: As a person who works in digital media, I should have expected to be sideswiped by Succession at one point or another. After all, the Roy family is involved in entertainment and media, and like all families who make their money from selling people news, information, and enjoyment, they’ve been sniffing around new media for ages.
Indeed, the show’s pilot prominently features Kendall purchasing a possibly-Gawker-but-possibly-Vox-Media-but-probably-BuzzFeed company called Vaulter. Vaulter’s head, Lawrence, is played by Rob Yang, who kept hanging out in the opening credits, as if to suggest that, yeah, Vaulter might not have been terribly important to the action of season one, but its day was coming.
And then, oh boy, did its day come. Kendall insists that Vaulter is the future of Waystar Royco, but Roman objects. And after thinking about it for a couple of seconds, Logan says Vaulter should be destroyed. Get rid of it. It’s all predicated on fake traffic and hype, and he thinks he smells a rat.
The tragedy here is that he does smell a rat. Vaulter really is playing games to inflate its web traffic during a couple of down months, and after Lawrence admits as much to Kendall, Kendall plays good cop. He’s going to help these guys turn it around, but no more funny business. Nope.
Of course, that’s not the worst news for Vaulter by a long shot. No, the worst news is that Kendall is playing Lawrence. He’s about to fire everybody. (Except the folks who work in “Food” and “Weed,” so maybe Vaulter is Vice? Thrillist? No. Vaulter is all of us.) And, Meredith, as somebody who works in digital media, as somebody who has worked at multiple companies that have undergone “restructurings,” and as somebody who briefly believed that Kendall wanted to save Vaulter — I could hardly stand to watch. You?
Meredith: I was honestly embarrassed to admit that I totally fell for Kendall’s nice businessman act here, so I’m so relieved you did too, Emily! I really believed the middle Roy son was discouraging unionization in an effort to save his work baby, so it’s extremely good that I was not a part of Vox Media’s bargaining committee.
This episode was delightfully brutal on the media business front, from Roman’s desperate suggestion to Gerri that Vaulter pivot to video (“they did that,” she tells him) to seeing Chartbeat on the wall in Kendall’s mercenary office to the mention of Facebook changing its algorithm (thanks again, Zuck) to the deeply uncomfortable all-staff meeting where Ken speaks corporate cool guy to a room full of Vaulter employees who hate him. We’ve been in those rooms, we’ve stared at Chartbeat, we’ve seen pivots to video, we’ve suffered that algo change! I die!
I’ll say I thought Vice was the closest corollary — I mean, beehives on the roof? — but maybe that’s just wishful thinking because I’ve never worked there.
Meredith: Obviously Kendall can never truly win, he is the ur-loser in a world of loss, but here are some ways he lost less this episode: Number one, he tricked two journalists into thinking he was going to save a website. Rude! He managed to do the devastating thing Logan demanded of him — killing his signature business initiative, his vision for the future of the company — and be pretty tricky about it. Logan gave him a “you did good, son,” and he got a new catchphrase, upgrading last episode’s “Dad’s plan was better” to “because my dad told me told me to.” Iconic, really.
Number two, he made me root for him to do narcotics in the bathroom, a personal first. I was wondering, wow, how will dead-eyed Ken pull it together enough to murder Vaulter? And the answer was right there: cocaine! It’s the best possible option for rallying the dark energy needed to obliterate your own dignity. Smart to have the right tools for the job.
Number three, he got away with stealing those batteries at the end. Our guy’s still got it ... ?
Emily: On the one hand, literally all of Kendall’s soul has been lifted from his body and smeared into a thin paste on a piece of toast Logan consumed with his morning newspaper. On the other hand, he actually managed to do a horrible, terrible thing properly because he no longer has that soul. He’s everybody’s number one boy!
Calling Kendall a “winner” because he debased himself feels a little perverse, but let me just say how terrific Jeremy Strong has been in the first two episodes of this season. Like, he’s always been great in this role, but he’s found new levels of great in season two, where he’s effectively playing an animated pile of skin. With every new action he takes, Strong somehow finds new ways to play a man who is completely and utterly devoid of whatever made him the person he was.
And you forgot one other big win for Kendall: He threw his daughter a super-cool birthday party at one of the Waystar Royco theme parks. He even got that poor theme park employee to speed up the wagon train ride! Good work, Kendall!
Loser: Vaulter’s efforts to unionize
Meredith: Roman’s description of Vaulter’s unionization efforts as “nasty shit” (including, ugh, gross, pay transparency and bargaining rights, how dare) firmed up every vision I’ve ever had about an anti-union boss. And what a week for it, what with the Barstool Sports kerfuffle!
I am shocked that every single one of Vaulter’s employees didn’t sign their union cards out of spite immediately following Kendall’s brutally awkward all-staff, but somehow they were dissuaded of the very timely desire to form a protective union. Yes, I fell for it too, but I saw Kendall get that sad, humanizing boner on his ex-wife’s leg last season! The newsroom actually handed over a raft of ideas to the Roy family! Where’s the skepticism?
Winner: Connor Roy, the serious one
Emily: Somehow, Connor’s flirtations with a presidential campaign are garnering the interest of the media, which shouldn’t surprise me — he is rich — but are even more hilarious when you consider how pampered and vacuous the oldest Roy child is.
Connor is so ineffectual, he’s barely gotten a storyline on this show, despite Alan Ruck’s obvious skill at playing such a stuffed shirt. Honestly, his run for the presidency feels less like Connor genuinely wanting to enter politics, or thinking he has great ideas, or even wanting to hang on to more of his tax dollars than he already does. It feels like he suddenly became aware he was in a TV show and wanted a storyline of his own, and somehow, I’m here for it.
Anyway, right before his life goes to hell and his company is destroyed, Lawrence says that maybe Vaulter could sit down with Connor, who seems like “the serious one,” and the show cheekily reminds you, again, of just how distorted everybody’s view of the Roy family truly is.
Emily: Yes, Roman’s plan to destroy Vaulter is the one that Logan chooses to set in motion. But the more responsibility Roman has, the less he seems to actually want what he’s gained, which is par for the course on this show. Every time we cut to him this episode, he looks like he’s trying to vomit up something dark and terrible.
And, look, Logan and Kendall bear far more responsibility for everything that happens to Vaulter, but Roman is, as always, the one man out of these three who seems to have absolutely no concern for any of the human lives at stake or the jobs that will be lost. He sees only financial equations he might balance, and woof.
That said, his flirtation with Gerri continues apace, so he’s got that going for him.
Meredith: Again, wins are relative, but Shiv got some decent stuff this week. She got her father’s (not-that-reassuring) reassurance that she’s still poised to take over Waystar Royco, she got away from her whiny affair partner Nate, and she got in some extremely sick burns on her husband Tom, including that he has an “agricultural walk.” (Also good: her dig that Tom wanted everyone to know he has a cold.)
Fine, so she didn’t exit her current job in exactly in the way she wanted — failing to “Dick Morris” and instead burning her bridges in a “you can’t fire me, I quit” fight with the hand sanitizer-eschewing Gil — but getting out of politics should be considered a win for anyone! She got to watch her brothers foolishly underestimate her, and kept what sounded like a very tacky portrait out of her home. Tom even gave her his unnecessary blessing to “fuck a peasant.”
Most importantly, she still has that amazing haircut.
Emily: When “Vaulter” begins, Tom Wambsgans seems like he’s on top of the world, or at least on top of a world. He’s gotten the top job in all of news, and his best buddy Cousin Greg is back. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, when you consider that Tom thinks his path to the top of Waystar Royco goes through this very job, only he doesn’t realize that his wife was promised that job and he wasn’t — it’s clearly a bitter pill for him to swallow. He does the best that he can with it, but tensions ripple across Matthew Macfadyen’s face during this scene like a storm far out at sea. It’s not here, yet, but we can sense it coming.
Just who did Tom think he was marrying when he got together with Shiv? Did he really think he was going to be the powerful one in their relationship? This is Shiv, folks. She got a power haircut almost immediately after her wedding. Tom has no prayer.
Also, his last name is still Wambsgans. Automatic points off for that.
Winner: Cousin Greg, our champion, who returns
Meredith: Greg won this week by having, or at least mentioning, principles. They were pretty good ones, too, including being against racism and “don’t lie, like, if you’re the news.” Sweet Greg! I mean, sure, he maybe didn’t live them — immediately helping Tom collect “skulls” by figuring out where to cut costs at Fox News stand-in and principle violater ATN, a revelation that will likely ax the few relatively blameless people at the network — but he said them. Out loud. To Tom!
He also won, almost, by getting a snazzy free luxury apartment out of Cousin Kendall. Okay, it’s a gross party palace that’s empty of furniture and full of “techno Gatsby” Ken’s hangers-on humping in Greg’s bedroom, but at least our boy can stand up in there. The ceilings are so tall.
Winner: Vaulter’s headlines, perfectly optimized for social media
Meredith: I am professionally envious of all of Vaulter’s horror show headlines. The inspired clickbait popped up on a screen in the soon-to-be-gutted site’s conference room and I completely missed the flow of the Kendall-Larry-Roman face-off by pausing and writing down as many as I could.
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Loser: ATN’s news crawl
Emily: Every so often, one of the people behind Succession is asked about the Roy family’s similarities to the Murdoch family, and they’re always so careful to say that, sure, there are things in common there with the Murdochs, but there are things in common with a lot of rich families, because this is just how rich families are.
But here are three of the headlines on the ATN news crawl throughout the episode. Just try to tell me this isn’t Fox News! Just try it!
- First openly gay married couple in space
- Children should not be vaccinated says doctor
- How Guns Make Us Safe
Even if character actress legend Jeannie Berlin is there to give ATN a tiny burst of credibility (playing the network’s news director), it seems pretty clear what business they’re in, and it rhymes with Box Blues.