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Succession’s roots were in theater. That’s why it was great.

The HBO drama was at its best when its episodes acted like plays.

Tom Wambsgans and Shiv Roy on the couch, looking at one another.
Tom and Shiv. Could be a play.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

I know this isn’t the point of TV, but I find there’s no higher compliment I can give a show than to declare at the end of an episode that it “felt like theater.” The shows that keep me engaged feel like a series of one-hour plays. Mad Men did it, and The Sopranos before that; each installment feels ready to mount on some off-Broadway stage, a self-contained world that was part of a bigger whole but stands on its own feet.

That’s also what kept me coming back to Succession.

In fact, Succession comes by its theater DNA honestly. A number of its writers, including Lucy Prebble, Susan Soon He Stanton, Alice Birch, Miriam Battye, Will Arbery, Anna Jordan, Mary Laws, and Jamie Carragher, are working playwrights, with impressive produced work under their belts, and executive producer Frank Rich was the New York Times’s chief theater critic from 1980 to 1993. (All of which makes Willa’s terrible play — which someone actually put up in New York — and its crashing failure a little funnier.)

But that’s not unusual: There’s a long, long history of playwrights working in Hollywood, from Clifford Odets and Eugene O’Neill to Tony Kushner and Martin McDonagh, and many playwrights make a substantial portion of their living writing on TV shows today.

All of the Roys at a holiday table, plus some Waystar upper management.
Succession often acted like a series of tiny plays.

So it seems like creator Jesse Armstrong made a significant choice: Episode after episode, this show leaned into formal and stylistic choices that often felt to me like they owed more to playwriting than anything else. For instance, Succession was, gloriously, a show without flashbacks. A much more maudlin and unbearable version would spend enormous amounts of time showing us snippets of the various characters’ childhoods, the traumas that formed them. We’d finally figure out what exactly made Roman be like that, or see Tom getting rejected by some girl in high school, or whatever. The pace would drag, and the tone would change, and now it would be a show about how we should feel bad for them. That sounds really boring.

Succession also delighted in dropping us in medias res, smack-dab into a heated argument or a character’s morning coffee, asking us to figure out where we are and what we’re doing there, even if it’s just a few minutes after the end of the previous episode. There’s a story, a passage of time, through the whole series, but many of the episodes are largely in their own self-contained worlds — an Italian villa, an excruciating birthday party, a Norwegian estate, a church where a funeral is taking place. Episodes unfolded while you raced to keep up, to understand why one person was arriving when they did or how the relationship between these two characters is shifting.

And just as each episode had a purposeful beginning, its end seemed crafted to sit with you long after curtains — er, I mean credits. It’s a technique that’s cinematic, but theatrical, too — each ended with an image or line that stays with the viewer, recasting what came before and making you want to revisit it. (This was one of my favorite things about Mad Men — every episode in the first season, for instance, landed on an image that seemed ripped straight from Edward Hopper.)

Succession relied on its audience to sort it all out, with the help of many small clues but very few lengthy explanations. And for the most part, the episodes work the same way: You could take that “boar on the floor” episode (season two, episode three, “Hunting”) and put it on a stage, and the audience would be able to sort out who these characters are, why they’re there, and what they want with relative ease.

This was richly evident in the key scene of the finale episode, in which Kendall, Roman, and Shiv get their deepest knives in one another and twist them hard. It’s like watching a billion baseballs get shot out of a pitching machine at once: Kendall chaotically trying to defend himself against Shiv’s accusations of killing that waiter back in season one; Roman pulling Kendall’s impotence (a matter we hadn’t been alerted to until right then) out of nowhere and walloping him with it; Kendall yelling, inaccurately and pathetically, about being “the eldest boy”; Shiv’s ultimate decision to vote against her brother. It’s head-spinning, and there’s so much going on beneath the surface — so many motivations that can’t be explained purely textually — that I suspect people will periodically argue about the meaning of Shiv’s choice (and that scene with her barely taking Tom’s hand in the car) for years.

The Roy siblings at a table in Sucession’s final season.
You can imagine a perfect little proscenium arch.

That’s why Succession was great at unpacking its characters: It got us to actually listen to what people were saying and then think about it. To watch the show, you had to think about not just the text, but the subtext. Characters’ motivations weren’t obvious — I mean, there’s a reason that the show concluded and yet people are still arguing over whether Shiv loves her husband. Succession coaxed you to think about the many meanings of words: what they denote, but also what they connote, and how much of the things humans say should never be taken at face value. And thus, every episode of Succession felt like a giant game of chess, or maybe musical chairs. Every scene was about a balance of power: who thought they had it, who knew they didn’t, and how their verbal sparring and sweet-talking rebalanced it all.

All of this is not the world of (most) new American TV in 2023 — and why, I don’t really know. In theory, an episodic medium should beget a series of self-contained scripts, each with its own beginning, middle, and end. Yet most shows feel more broadly written, marked by great swaths of explanatory dialogue. They signpost characters’ changes of heart, telegraph single-minded motivations, and make you expect some kind of plot-based twist that you didn’t see coming (death, pregnancy, revelation, the realization you’d been in the Bad Place all along).

Succession had some surprises, but no “twists.” Its main characters don’t evolve and probably never could; their hearts don’t change. They don’t have single-minded motivations. The reasons they do things are somewhat opaque even to them. And there’s almost no explanatory dialogue in Succession, thank goodness; you can go back and rewatch right now, and you’re going to see an entirely new side of the show.

There are of course many ways to write a TV show, and none of them are “wrong.” But in 2023, it feels like there’s something a little revolutionary about this string-of-plays, watch-or-you’ll-miss-it model — the temerity of a show to make you actually watch it, in the age of two screens (one TV across the room, one phone in your hand) and “ambient TV.” Succession was never heavily reliant on its images to move the plot along — although, unlike much TV, its directors frequently used cinematographic techniques to add layers and depth to what you were watching. But even if you weren’t particularly visually literate, you had to pay attention to Succession, because what you heard people saying was never quite what they meant.

What I’m leading up to, I suppose, is a plea. If you liked Succession, and are missing it now that it’s over, you have plenty of options. You might scratch some of the same itch with, say, Veep, or Industry, or Six Feet Under, or The Great. If you haven’t watched Mad Men, then there’s literally been no better moment. (Bonus: It’s very funny.)

But this might be the moment to dive into theater, now that your appetite’s been whetted. Of course, there’s the issue of switching media to live performance — but even if cost or location is prohibitive, you can seek out the (excellent) National Theatre Live broadcasts that often crop up in movie theaters, or see what’s available on the very affordable Broadway HD streaming platform, or do what I did when I was a kid and check out DVDs from the local public library.

And in the end, it’s worth noting what we all really liked about this show. We liked that these characters were mean, that they were disgusting, that they were unhappy. We liked that our antiheroes were bucking the common antihero characteristic of competence — all pretty lousy at their jobs when it came right down to it. We found it all delicious, in part because the show made us think about them, and it trusted us to form our own conclusions. I miss that in a lot of the TV I try to watch, and I’m glad that we got it in such a polished, wicked form — a show that reminds us why we watch things in the first place.

Succession is streaming on Max.

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