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The dark, enthralling power of Succession

Five reasons for the HBO drama’s massive footprint on the TV landscape.

The various members of the Roy family march down the hall, Kendall and Logan glaring at each other.
A promotional poster for the third season of Succession, which premieres October 17, 2021.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

One way to know that Succession has become one of the signature television shows of the moment is just how thoroughly American TV fandom at large has digested it as a series of quick touchstones. You may not have seen Succession, but maybe you’ve heard about Kendall Roy’s supremely cringey rap, or the line “You can’t make a Tomelette without breaking some Greggs.”

Maybe you’ve seen tweets about how much the theme song is a banger. Or heard brilliant comedian Demi Adejuyigbe’s “Kiss from Daddy,” which adds ridiculous lyrics to said theme song. Perhaps the words “boar on the floor” mean something to you?

If you’re not a fan of HBO’s darkly comedic primetime soap, you may not be aware of all of the above, but at least one of any number of Succession memes, jokes, and flash points has probably pierced your social media bubble, even if you were completely baffled by it. The show has slowly but surely wormed its way into the hearts of People Who Talk About TV Online, and that has allowed it to become the prestige drama of the moment, winning near-universal critical praise and nine Emmys across its first two seasons.

A lot of that success is due to how easy it is to boil down the show to its most immediately hilarious jokes, awkward moments, and jaw-dropping plot twists. But I would argue that just as much of it stems from how ably Succession incorporates themes our culture is obsessed with right now. In its portrayal of a broken family that is making the world a little bit worse every single day, the series speaks to an era where billionaires openly muse about moving to a new planet if we irreparably screw this one up.

Succession is many, many things, but the series has five specific modes that have made it such a darling of people who care about TV. Those modes illustrate just how completely the series has encapsulated our modern world.

Mode 1: A lacerating portrayal of wealth’s corruptive power

Logan and Shiv sit in a gorgeous office in the Waystar-Royco home base, framed against a New York skyline featuring the setting sun.
Succession’s Logan Roy (Brian Cox) games out his next moves with his daughter Shiv (Sarah Snook).

If you asked even the most casual viewer of Succession to identify its core theme, “wealth corrupts those who hold it” (or something to that effect) would almost surely be part of their answer. Wealth is everywhere in Succession, but it’s rarely displayed ostentatiously. The characters are so used to having obscene amounts of money, they seem unaware that not everyone enjoys the same levels of comfort.

The Roy family at the center of Succession is a kind of portmanteau of the Murdoch family (owners of the News Corp empire, encompassing Fox News, the Fox Broadcasting Company, and numerous publications) and the Redstone family (majority shareholder of the ViacomCBS empire, which includes numerous TV networks as well as Paramount Pictures). Paterfamilias Logan Roy (Brian Cox) is past his prime, and in the series’ very first episode, he almost dies. But he’s very good at yelling, and everybody around him is so terrified of his whims that he tends to get his way, even when he’s recovering from a debilitating stroke.

Succession’s first episode almost immediately established just how divorced the Roys are from reality. In one of its most memorable sequences, Roman (Kieran Culkin), the sleazy and opportunistic youngest brother of the family, offers a working-class kid $1 million if he can hit a home run. He can’t, and Roman chuckles at the whole ordeal while a few of the lampreys who have attached themselves to the Roy family’s belly go to pay off the kid’s parents so that they don’t tell anybody anything.

Broadly speaking, Succession lives within the “primetime soap about a rich family” subgenre, but rather than reveling in the opulence and decadence of extreme wealth in the fashion of Dynasty or Dallas, Succession makes everything feel a little gross. The show is careful to never present wealth as a prison that holds the characters back — they could always just buy six jets and move to Antarctica — but it never loses sight of the fact that we, the viewers, live in a socioeconomic prison built in large part by people who have more money than they could ever reasonably spend.

Every so often, a character on Succession suggests the Roys are destroying the planet, and the show never offers a response other than, “Yes, almost certainly.” There’s no reason for anybody to have so much money, and the Roys’ wealth serves primarily to make them squabble endlessly with each other over it. Succession makes you empathize with billionaires without ever making you like them. It’s a neat trick.

Mode 2: An extremely dark comedy

Make no mistake: Succession is a uniquely despairing drama about a family (and a planet) circling the drain. But the reason it’s watchable at all is that it’s also one of TV’s funniest shows.

It comes by its comedic bona fides honestly. Creator and showrunner Jesse Armstrong was known predominantly for comedy before taking this turn toward the dramatic, having co-created the legendary British series Peep Show and written for the British political satire The Thick of It. He even earned an Oscar nomination for co-writing the screenplay of In the Loop, the film adaptation of The Thick of It. His keen sense of satire is to Succession’s great benefit.

Consider, “You can’t make a Tomelette without breaking some Greggs,” a joke from the penultimate episode of season two. It’s part of an email read by a congressman at a Senate subcommittee hearing investigating the Roy family’s shady handling of sexual assault allegations tied to their cruise line.

The joke, then, is part of something uniquely dark and horrible, but it’s also just such a good joke. It skillfully plays off the fact that Roy family son-in-law Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) and gangly nephew/cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) are the show’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, lurking around the story’s edges to have comedic side plots that occasionally intersect with the action.

“Tomelette” and “Greggs” isn’t just a funny combination of puns. It underscores the characters’ roles within both the show and this storyline, as well as the callousness with which the Roy family treats almost every serious wrong committed by Waystar Royco, the media conglomerate the family owns. It might be perfect.

Beyond oddly significant puns, Succession boasts a thorough command of a wide range of comedic styles. It’s as adroit with cringe comedy as it is with wordplay, and it allows its characters to be clever without turning everyone into a quip machine. I laugh many, many times watching each episode of Succession, without ever feeling like the show undercuts its storytelling with absurdity. It’s a neat trick.

Mode 3: An accurate, depressing media satire

Kendall and Greg discuss their next moves in the kitchen of Kendall’s ex-wife’s apartment.
Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and Greg (Nicholas Braun) try to figure out what’s next after their unlikely media firestorm.

Early in season two, someone in my office got their hands on a baseball cap emblazoned with Vaulter, the fake version of Gawker that the Roy family destroys across the course of Succession’s first two seasons. When I posted a photo of myself wearing it on social media, seemingly every journalist I know reached out to ask where I’d gotten it. They can’t have it. It’s mine.

I share this anecdote to elucidate the degree to which Succession resonates with media types: Its portrayal of how the Roys blithely destroy everything they touch to protect their own interests emphasizes just how perilous journalism has become at this point in history. Profit margins are razor thin, and increased media consolidation means that independent voices within the industry are largely marginalized or snuffed out. (See also: original recipe Gawker.)

Of all the modes of Succession, “media satire” is the one that probably speaks to the smallest number of people. But at a certain point, if everybody who works in media is watching a show and treating it like it’s the only show on TV that matters, a self-fulfilling prophecy emerges. Succession is popular beyond media bubbles, but its popularity within media bubbles certainly didn’t hurt it with regard to getting early attention.

I’m not sure that Succession has as much to say about the media as it does many other topics, but maybe the simple act of saying, “This seems like a shitty situation,” is enough in an era when the economic pressures that threaten to suffocate the entire media industry add up to a shitty situation.

I do find its portrayal of the ways media titans use their companies mostly to create realities where they never need to feel challenged or upbraided appropriately chilling. Logan Roy is really good at yelling at people until reality bends to become what he wants it to be. His media empire is an extension of that.

On the whole, media is even more incidental to Succession than, say, advertising was to Mad Men or chemistry was to Breaking Bad by merely offering a vague milieu in which the series can take place. Still, whenever Succession drops you into the offices of Waystar Royco, it almost always nails what it’s like to work there. It’s a neat trick.

Mode 4: An acutely observant exploration of internecine family squabbling

If Succession’s most obvious ancestral genre is the primetime soap about rich people, it also has a healthy dose of the family drama baked into its DNA. (Then again, most primetime soaps, from Dallas to Empire, are sneakily family dramas.) The core of the series rests atop the ever-shifting relationships among the four Roy siblings, especially as they compete to win their father’s approval and affection.

The series is at its sharpest when it focuses on the three youngest Roy siblings — depressive would-be heir apparent Kendall (Emmy winner Jeremy Strong), slinky cad Roman, and desperate girlboss Shiv (Sarah Snook). The three have an older half-brother, Connor (Alan Ruck), who has a different mother from them, but Connor is more of a comic-relief character, at least so far.

Succession is just so smart about the ways siblings both support and undercut each other, sometimes in the same moment. Tentative alliances form among all four of the Roy children, sometimes in opposition to Logan and sometimes in support of him, and the series digs into how these four particular people are the only ones who can know what it’s like to be raised by Logan Roy.

But the series’ portrayal of complicated family dynamics extends beyond the siblings. Logan’s current wife Marcia (Hiam Abbass) emerges as a key player in her own right across Succession’s first two seasons, while Tom and Greg are more peripheral family members who perpetually seem to be stuck at the kids’ table.

Succession also broadens its portrayal of family in a metaphorical direction, by underlining the poisonous nature of corporations that insist all their employees are part of a giant family. Waystar Royco might be a family, but it’s just as fucked up as the Roy family. (Keep an eye on J. Smith-Cameron as Gerri, who starts out as a minor player in season one but becomes more and more important as the show continues.)

Beyond even Waystar Royco’s own staff, the series pulls in a handful of other rich and powerful families for comparison and contrast against the Roy family. Notably, season two introduces the Pierces, a loose riff on the Sulzbergers (owners of the New York Times) and the sort of old-money liberals Logan Roy was so clearly reacting against when he was young and hungry. (The midseason two episode “Tern Haven” is a terrific clash between the two families.)

If I had to choose just one of its modes to explain why Succession has taken off the way it has, I’d choose this one. The show’s finely tuned understanding of complicated family dynamics means that you can surely find one or two details in its portrayal of the Roy family that resonate with your own life — and might leave you thankful your family isn’t as messed up as the Roys. It’s a neat trick.

But on the “acutely observed family dynamics” front, the series ultimately goes one level deeper than even that.

Mode 5: A psychologically trenchant excavation of the legacy of abuse

Roman takes a phone call while looking out over the darkened city.
Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin) takes a clandestine phone call.

Succession often portrays Logan Roy as a Shakespearean figure, a little like Lear bellowing at the skies to obey him and not being heard. But because it places his titanic rage within settings that viewers are at least somewhat familiar with — boardrooms and dining rooms — it becomes easier, as the show goes on, to realize Logan is a terrible, abusive parent. At one point in season two, he physically strikes Roman for a minor slight, and all the other siblings either flinch instinctively or stare, dead-eyed, as it happens.

Logan Roy has always gotten his way. He’s built his life around the idea that because he thinks something is true, it must indeed be true, and he has built a media empire around similar principles of telling people what they want to hear and not what they actually need to know. He shouts and he blusters and he snaps at people, and if he doesn’t get what he wants, anybody close to him feels the effects of his ire.

In Logan’s case, those who are closest to him have always been his children. Succession’s first season hinted at the depths of sadness to which Logan has driven his kids, and then the second season made that sadness both the subtext and text of nearly every scene. The Roy siblings want so badly to be loved by a man who is only capable of trying to bludgeon them (occasionally literally) into a form that is more pleasing to him, which is to say a form that is more subservient to him.

Yes, Succession is funny; yes, it’s about wealth; and, yes, it’s really smart about the media. But for my money, the show is smartest about what it means to have an abusive parent. The longer Succession runs, the more Logan’s monstrousness is revealed as critical to the formation of his children. They long desperately to be loved, but what they get is mostly a sense that they have no control over anything in their lives. They spread that lack of control outward to everyone around them. They are a ruling class that does not understand what it means to rule, much less how much their ignorance damages everyone they come into contact with, because all they have known is damage.

To be alive in the 2020s is to become more and more aware of how deep the rot goes, to realize how unlikely any of us is to turn the car around before it goes over the cliff. We exist in a world full of men who believe that if they shout something loud enough, it is true — and who take extreme offense to the idea that maybe they are wrong, no matter how gently we break it to them. Succession captures that feeling, and ... I don’t know if it’s a neat trick, but it feels like right now more than any other show on television.

Succession season three debuts Sunday at 9 pm Eastern on HBO, and will run through December. The show is also available to stream on HBO Max.