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Sara Fredman | Longreads | November 2019 | 10 minutes (2,750 words)

What makes an antihero show work? In this Longreads series, It’s Not Easy Being Mean, Sara Fredman explores the fine-tuning that goes into writing a bad guy we can root for, and asks whether the same rules apply to women.
The question at the core of the antihero show has always been what it would take to turn the bad guy — the mobster, the drug kingpin, the Russian spy, the mad and murderous queen — into the hero of the story. And the answer is that our willingness to root for a bad person who does bad things, sometimes to good people, is dependent on a carefully constructed context. Successful antiheroes have all been portrayed in a certain way: as special — particularly skilled at something or somehow different than those around them — and as three-dimensional human beings with unmet desires. They are usually surrounded by even more unsavory antagonists and are invariably trying to survive within an oppressive system they can’t fully understand. Our empathy for them comes in large part from seeing their pain and the forces that oppress them even when they don’t, perhaps especially when they don’t. But our ability to relate to them also hinges on the possibility of redemption, if not its actualization. We see ourselves, however dimly, in antiheroes. Their potential for change is our own. We can stand to watch them do terrible things because we harbor hope that they, and we, can change.   

This is why the popularity of HBO’s Succession suggests that we have reached late-stage antihero show, the moment when the genre leans most fully into its absurdities without bothering to give viewers much of a reason to care for its protagonists. The first season of Succession was antiheroic nihilism, the antihero show as second-semester high school senior, wondering how little effort it can put in and still graduate with its class. Purportedly based in part on internecine conflict in uber-wealthy media families like the Murdochs and the Redstones, the show follows the Roy family as their media company’s founder and CEO, patriarch Logan Roy, decides who will succeed him. When we meet Logan, he is disoriented and peeing on the floor; by the beginning of the second episode he is in a coma in the ICU as his children ask the staff whether that’s “the best part of the hospital.”

That question of whether the ICU is the best place for a person who has just suffered a hemorrhagic stroke is our first indication that the Roy children are not superstars. It is clear that Logan is in decline but if we are meant to root for any of his children to take his place, it is not immediately apparent which one, or why. “Are we supposed to be rooting for these spoiled bozos?” I asked as I watched the first season, and it became abundantly clear that the only thing that makes the Roy children special is their wealth, which they have done nothing to earn. None of them are particularly good at … anything. The first episode finds Kendall, Logan’s heir apparent, flailing. Logan watches from afar as Kendall tries and fails to close a deal. Soon, his inheritance is no longer apparent. Siobhan (“Shiv”) is a political strategist but it isn’t clear whether her success is due to her skills or her proximity to corporate power; we mostly see political candidates trying to convince her to influence her family’s media outlets in their favor. Roman is the youngest Roy and is, in the words of cousin Greg, “widely known as a horrible person.” When he is put in charge of a Japanese rocket launch, the rocket explodes before it even leaves the ground. Separately, he is a lothario who is unable to consummate a sexual encounter. Connor, Logan’s oldest son with his first wife, is mostly there to provide easy laughs. He doesn’t appear to have ever held a job and spends his time bidding on “Napoleonica” like the Little Corporal’s shriveled penis. He wants the family’s foundation to pivot away from “sick kids and contemporary dance” and toward tax reform. 

Unlike, say, Walter White, who tugged at our heartstrings with his earnest desire to provide for his family even after his death, there are no questions of providing for family here. Kendall is the only Roy scion who has reproduced and his kids do not appear once during the show’s second season. There is no precarity beyond the precarity of who is Logan Roy’s “number one boy” at any given time. The system that oppresses the Roy children is just the manipulative horse race stoked by their father, so if we find ourselves rooting for any one of them to triumph, it means that we are rooting for them to win the prize of becoming that number one boy, which is to say that we are rooting for them to become an even richer person in charge of a corrupt and abusive corporation. To the extent that the first season had any pathos, it was in watching the Roy children try their best and still not succeed but none of them retained our sympathies or respect long enough to solidify their position as the show’s antihero. Instead, they took turns playing the antihero and the more unsavory foils who are supposed to make the antihero look better.

During its first season the show just didn’t seem interested in answering the question of how bad a bad guy can be and still appeal to viewers, which was kind of refreshing. We’ve seen that show before. Instead, Succession asked how inept and inconsequential an unappealing character could be and still keep us watching. And the more I thought about it, the more delighted I became at the idea that the show might be finding a new way to tell a story about bad people. Would we be free, for once, of talking about likability? Was it challenging us to root for mediocrity? Were we falling to the occasion?

Or maybe — thrillingly — it was experimenting with a new antiheroic narrative structure. The show’s most intriguing characters weren’t members of the Roy family and they were all women: Logan’s third wife, Marcia, Waystar Royco general counsel Gerri, and Rhea Jarrell, the CEO of rival media company Pierce. When the show begins, Marcia is on her way to getting a significant voting stake on the company board and later has the temerity to call Shiv “a spoiled slut.” She doesn’t suffer fools and she kind of seems like she has a plan. Gerri, a fan favorite, is an actual smart person with actual professional credentials and skills. She is also portrayed as the most loyal Waystar employee, ably guiding the Roys through the choppy waters of self-inflicted corporate crisis. Rhea is Machiavellian, good at her job and savvy about the media world. She is everything the Roy spawn are not and outguns them for the CEO position of their own family business. All three of these women grabbed our attention. Their interiority — that narrative gift given to some characters and not others — simmered at the surface and we waited for it to overflow. We wanted to know more; it seemed possible they might reveal themselves to be more masterful plotters than the principal characters. It seemed possible, as the tension rose during the show’s second season, that Succession might reveal itself to be a new kind of genre-busting antihero show.

Unfortunately, like Roman’s “Eunuch bestie” Tabitha hoping to gain some sexual satisfaction, only disappointment followed. The show ended its second season by taking refuge in a more traditional antihero story. Looking back, it’s easy to see how this season, particularly the latter half, was calibrated differently than the first, emphasizing the disordered family dynamics created by the Roy parents and inviting us to sympathize with their children. Back in physical health, Logan became the unbridled antagonist, a manipulative and emotionally withholding parent and an unrepentant enabler of horrifying workplace abuse. The focus on his children’s pain was accompanied by a dialing down of their ineptitude. All of a sudden, there were reasons to cheer for these poor little captains of industry as they each enjoyed moments of either competence or pathos denied to them earlier on. Roman keeps his cool during a hostage situation in Turkey and later exhibits uncharacteristic savvy when he advises his father not to pin his hopes on the Azerbaijani money that would allow them to go private. Shiv and Kendall are the heroes of the congressional inquiry into Waystar Royco, Shiv by convincing a key witness not to come forward and Kendall with his successful testimony pointing out the hypocrisy of the crusading Senator Gil Eavis. The Roy kids also get a chance to showcase some (very relative) moral high ground when, in the season finale, Logan tries to decide which Waystar higher-up should take the blame for the company’s ethical lapses and pits his top execs against each other while they are trapped on his yacht. Roman cleverly defends Gerri and Shiv seemingly sacrifices her own ambitions to save Tom. Kendall is the chosen sheep but surprises everyone by sacrificing his father instead, becoming the killer Logan said he would never be. This twist is meant to land as Kendall’s redemption arc. He is off the wagon, has more or less shrugged off his kids, and recently vehicularly manslaughtered an innocent waiter but there is something like relief when he rises like a phoenix from the ashes of a Mediterranean yacht.

And what of all of those women on the periphery? Rhea, who had enough of a killer instinct herself to become Logan’s successor, is suddenly, inexplicably, out of her depth. The Roy kids outmaneuver her even though we have never seen them outmaneuver anyone, and she recedes when a major scandal hits, as if she couldn’t possibly have imagined that a major media company could have some buried bodies. Gerri, as Roman points out early in the series, knows all about the bodies, which becomes a double entendre this season when Roman finally achieves some sexual release to the sound of Gerri reprimanding him over the phone and from the other side of a bathroom door. We get excited about this alliance but were we to simply remove our rosé-colored glasses, we would see it for what it actually is: pretty straightforward sexual harassment. For Gerri, this is all business; she is doing what she needs to do in order to do and keep her actual job. When Roman defends her in the final episode, it’s in part because she has spent the season indulging and managing his professional and sexual anxieties. We may tsk at tales of Harvey Weinstein trying to enjoy himself out on the town but Succession succeeds in compelling us to cheer on a relationship grounded in harassment and an imbalance of power. This is a function of the antihero narrative, which has the power to dictate whom we root for, often in contravention of our own deeply held values and convictions, by selectively granting and withholding pathos and interiority. Meanwhile, Marcia — who had just an episode or two before seemed to be preparing for war against Rhea — simply disappears like the Not Real People who fell off of Waystar Royco’s cruise ships.

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Succession reminds me of the Horatio Alger Jr. stories, or at least the takeaway from the Horatio Alger stories I absorbed at some point in my education. Chronicling the rags-to-riches rise of honest boys who do honest things and attract the attention of benevolent wealthy people, Alger’s books gave those of humble means reason to believe they might rise in the economic ranks if they only worked hard and with integrity. And they played an important role in the mythmaking of American capitalism, obscuring its abuses by advertising its accessibility. They did this in part by depicting a world of individuals rather than systems. Succession has no designs on portraying accessible wealth but it too occludes systems by focusing on some individuals and not others. It turns the Roy children into antiheroes with pathos and skill while merely glancing at those — like the doomed waiter and the witness Shiv convinces not to testify — caught up in the system the Roys control. These “normos,” as Roman might call them, are exceptional not just because most of the show’s characters exert either political or financial power but because they are denied the kind of interiority given to the Roy kids. In fact, the Roys’ interiority often comes at their expense. We may feel sad looking at all of the pictures of Kendall’s doomed passenger on the wall of his parents’ home but we’re mostly thinking about the emotional abuse Logan is perpetrating on his son by making him be there. To focus, as the show does, on the oppressive system Logan Roy constructs for his children is to obscure the far more oppressive system he constructs for everyone else.

Am I a party pooper? A sad sack at the wasp trap? Why can’t I just enjoy the show as the comedy that it so clearly is? I would, in fact, be delighted to watch it as a straight comedy if the moody orchestral music and the show’s creator weren’t asking me to take all of it so seriously. And we know what a comedy about terrible people doing terrible things looks like. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, like Succession, has no use for introspection or moral growth. Its characters are delusional, self-important, and amoral; they’re certainly not the smartest group in Philadelphia. They are the worst and they will never change. We watch because they’re funny but they’re funny mostly because they hold up an unflattering mirror to our own unsavory thoughts and behaviors, often functioning as absurdist send-ups of our own inability to accept cultural change. “Time’s Up for the Gang,” an episode in season 13, showed the gang attending a sexual harassment seminar after their bar is included on a “shitty bar list” of establishments hostile to women. This provides an opportunity to put Danny DeVito in a Harvey Weinstein-evoking robe and generally let the gang do their offensive best. But it also voices some of the reservations It’s Always Sunny viewers might actually have about the shifting landscape of gender relations. “Their powers are growing,” Dennis warns when Dee feigns having her ass grabbed, causing the men around her to quickly scatter. When we laugh at the gang’s inability to understand what constitutes sexual harassment, or, in Dennis’ case, his use of sexual politics for his own ridiculous purposes, we also internalize the show’s censure of it. If the bozos are doing it, we had better not. In a true satire, despicable behavior functions as a social commentary that questions entrenched systems rather than reinforcing them. 

It would be charitable to say that Succession is caught between genres, that it can’t decide whether it wants us to laugh and distance ourselves from the Roy children or cry and root for them. But the truth is that the show’s humor is strategic; it functions as plausible deniability and deflection. If we say the show glorifies the abuses of the super-rich, we’re bad viewers for missing its comedy. When we enjoy the comedy, as I think anyone who watches past the pilot must, we open ourselves up to the machinations of the antihero plot. We might tell ourselves, as Naomi Pierce tells Kendall, that watching the Roys melt down “is the most deeply satisfying activity on the planet earth,” that the pleasure of the show comes from luxuriating in their foibles. But we would be deluding ourselves because, like Naomi, we have become invested in Kendall’s redemption. The comedy allows us to think that what we’re feeling is schadenfreude when it’s really empathy and affinity. The antihero plot turns Kendall into the bozo to root for as he works to overcome the oppressive forces that try so hard to keep him down. Portraying a nefarious billionaire who benefited from privilege and deregulation as a plucky bootstrapper is not fiction and it has real stakes. Succession reveals the role that escapism plays in the antihero genre. Making a bad guy not quite so bad lets us enjoy something we’re used to fearing. What a relief it is to root for Tony Soprano instead of being afraid of him. What a relief it is to laugh at and then feel bad for a billionaire instead of being afraid of the world he is creating. Succession is Tom Wambsgans using a person as a coffee table; it’s all in good fun unless you’re the one who’s lost the bet. 

Previous installments in this series:
The Blaming of the Shrew
The Good Bad Wives of Ozark and House of Cards
And What of My Wrath?
How Do You Move Past a Dad?

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Sara Fredman is a writer and editor living in St. Louis. Her work has been featured in Longreads, The Rumpus, Tablet, and Lilith.

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Illustrator: Zoë van Dijk