Want to do good things? Become a nurse.
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be rich? To have so much money you can almost do whatever you want? The kind of wealth that puts you beyond the reach of the law, the government, and, for a time, even God?
Imagine being so used to getting your way that the slightest impediment to your plans sends you into an infantile rage. You hire, fire, and condemn people to all manner of damnation on a whim because when you look in the mirror, you are the Almighty.
Despite the teachings of every major religion on earth (and indeed your own), you live by one credo, and one alone:
All hail the perpetual accumulation of wealth and power at all times and all costs!
I have not only described Superman’s nemesis Lex Luthor, but also just one type of human being that has always lived and likely always will. Lucky for you and me, enough of them exist that they’re beginning to be deconstructed on prestige television shows with decade-long story arcs.
And boy, is this one a banger.
Meet Logan Roy, the star of Succession, brought to life by the commanding entity that is Brian Cox.
Roy is the billionaire founder of the fictional global media conglomerate Waystar RoyCo. This ruthless, politically conservative tycoon has remorselessly neglected his wives and children through three marriages and decades of political and personal intrigue. While the damage to his family has been incalculable, in Logan’s mind, it’s merely the price of building a worldwide empire.
A normal person might find these actions utterly self-serving or even dangerously sociopathic. But when pressed in general, Logan will claim he works not for himself but for the betterment of all humankind. And when challenged by his kids, he will incredulously declare that it’s all for them, his ungrateful descendants.
Now, if you’re troubled by the idea of such a monstrous person having children, don’t be. Wealthy recipients of parental abuse are no better equipped to deal with it than the rest of us, which may be the ultimate equalizer. Logan’s kids are why the show is called Succession, and they’re all mentally or emotionally defective in the spectrum of ways you might expect.
But they’re not the only ones with weaknesses.
We’re introduced to Logan in the opening shot of the series, as he’s about to preside over his 80th birthday party. But at this moment, he’s an elderly man laboriously hauling himself from bed, joints groaning with age, mind confused by the darkness. What should be a time for celebration is instead spent brooding over business.
It’s uncommon for an octogenarian to still be kicking around the head of a bazillion-dollar corporation, so Logan’s retirement has been long anticipated. But as his children arrive for the occasion, they’re surprised with the news that Father has changed his mind. He will retain his position at the company and delay handing the reigns over to the next person in line.
That very disillusioned person is Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong), Logan’s second-oldest from his second marriage. Kendall lacks his elder’s cutthroat instincts and considers himself a more compassionate version of the Old Man. He has a drug abuse problem, which he uses to fill the void left by the absence of his father’s love. He’s also been making critical decisions based on the assumption that he would soon be head of the company.
Logan’s change of heart throws a wrench into the works and makes Kendall look like a fool. That’s not good for the company’s stock or the fragile egos that make up the increasingly shattered remainder of Logan’s flock.
Let’s meet them.
Kendall aside, Logan’s oldest is actually Connor “Con” Roy (Alan Ruck), who chooses to remain adjacent to the family business and tends to submit to his siblings on Company decisions. He’s a little smarter than a bag of wet hair, yet he thinks of himself as some kind of self-educated genius. It’s easy to see why he was skipped over for Succession.
Roman “Rome” Roy (Kieran Culkin) is Logan’s third oldest child, but still from his second marriage, so he’s got something in common with Kendall. The similarity ends there as Roman remains content to spend money on drugs, booze, and women. The rest of the family is cruel to him, and while he does harbor business ambitions, he’s well aware of his lowly position within the family.
Next up is Siobhan “Shiv” Roy (Sarah Snook). In the Pantheon of Ironic Roy Nicknames, “Shiv” is not just the youngest of the Roy clan but also the most (ruthless) like Logan. But her political leanings are to the left, alienating her from the rest of the family. Working in her favor is that of all the kids, she’s the only girl and by far the most competent.
On the other hand, she may literally lack the basic human empathy her father merely suppresses. And the person who bears the brunt of this is her fiancée, whom she openly cuckolds.
That’s right, we’ve reached the Uncomfortable Verbs section of the review.
Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) is both Shiv’s fiancée and the cuckold in question. His relationship with Logan’s daughter sees him promoted to head of the company’s global news network. Still, neither his boss nor his future in-laws take him seriously. Also, Siobhan isn’t just brazenly cheating on him; she’s actively gaslighting him into believing it’s not happening.
Their relationship is an amusing subversion of traditional gender roles, and neither quite gets why everyone laughs at them.
There’s so much more, but I’m sure you’re beginning to understand. Depending on your background, you might interpret the show I’ve described as a depressing slog like Mad Men or The Handmaid’s Tale.
You’d be onto something, but you’d be wrong.
Succession is intentionally billed as a “black comedy,” and it took me more than an entire episode to figure it out. The premise is reminiscent of 80’s socio-political potboilers like Dallas and Dynasty. But while those shows also concerned the outrageous life and times of wealthy financial barons and their families, neither was, strictly speaking, a comedy.
The giveaway isn’t even in the witty, Sorkinesque dialog. It’s in the documentary-style “shaky cam” and the relentless fast push-ins. Both are techniques commonly used in shows like The Office or Arrested Development, where the constant camera movement underscores the absurdity of what you’re seeing. And comedic beats are emphasized by a hurried zoom-in on a character’s face or reaction.
Then there’s the show’s compelling theme song, which sounds like the final work of an eccentric 19th-century composer as late-stage syphilis compels him to throw brandy on the walls, set the house on fire, and leap from the roof.
Each episode is packed with sleazy, queasy, nihilistic chaos that carries through the entire season. Logan’s ongoing health issues make it difficult to determine whether he’s actually making poor business decisions or playing an inspired game of four-dimensional chess.
Kendall and his father spend the season wrestling for control of the company, with the younger man’s lack of fortitude proving a constant liability. Throughout ten episodes, each of the children moves either to usurp or ingratiate themselves to their callous patriarch, with mostly grim results.
Ultimately, Logan can’t seem to fully stomach any of his children. And it seems to be because none of them are as terrible as he is.
From Logan’s perspective, Kendall’s constant need for approval makes him weak. Roman is already the sniveling runt of the litter. Connor is the number zero in human form. And while Siobhan is his pride and joy, she’s engaged to a spineless buffoon, and her antithetical political leanings feel more like a personal slight than something genuine.
Lucky for Shiv, the one place Logan Roy’s malignant wrath knows restraint is with his daughter.
She still risks being destroyed, of course. But gently so.
The unusual tone of Succession piques your curiosity before it tickles something primal in the back of your mind. It posits a world where everyone has decided that human decency is irrelevant and that money and power, in and of themselves, are virtues. Then it holds a mirror up to you and asks whether you think you’d like to live there.
We’re not supposed to like any of these people. As soon as you feel yourself rooting for (or pitying) one of them, they’ll commit an act of barbarism or selfishness that makes you want to see them shot into the sun. The show itself hates its characters, as though there’s an unseen force working in the background pushing the Roys to the edge of a cliff, where they’ll all go over with their hands around each other’s necks.
All hail the perpetual accumulation of wealth and power at all times and all costs!
That sort of thinking, of course, ensures you become the worst possible version of yourself, and it’s certainly the case with everyone on this show. Even when they win, they lose. Season 1 ends on a gut punch that makes you want to simultaneously laugh, cry, and applaud.
It’s the perfect disaster. Come to think of it, I take back what I said earlier.
This isn’t a black comedy. It’s a freaking tragedy.
Succession is an HBO Max original, currently in production on Season 4. I will cover the remaining seasons as I watch them. It’s available to rent or buy on many of the zillions of other streaming services that may or may not still exist by the time you read this.
When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Jack?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."