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As I write this, there are two episodes left. Soon, there will be none. Although Jesse Armstrong’s decision to end Succession with its fourth season is doubtless wise — it’s a relief to know the show won’t dwindle past its sell-by date like so many other cultural behemoths — the thought of no more new installments to feverishly anticipate, and then devour, remains a deeply depressing one.
It’s in the very nature of episodic television, where you watch a group of characters face a distinct set of challenges week after week, year after year, that you come to care about the people you’re watching. After all, if you didn’t care, then why would you keep watching? That’s what I tell myself, anyway, whenever I’ve found myself worryingly invested in the lives of the Roys, the deeply dysfunctional family at the heart of the TV megahit.
The Roys, by just about any measure, are awful people. The owners of a gargantuan right-wing media empire, perennially battling over who will inherit the kingdom from their ailing octogenarian patriarch, their concerns are borne of avarice and pride and immense self-interest. Almost every relationship depicted on the show is a transactional one, and any brief flicker of kindness is quick to be extinguished. We’re left in little doubt that none of the four adult Roy kids would have amassed any power under their own steam; that they’re afflicted with varying degrees of ineptitude has proven no barrier to their standing.
Nevertheless, I’ve become fascinated by, and even — somewhat guiltily — fond of these dreadful, ruinous nepo babies. However much they wound each other and the poor souls unlucky enough to cross their paths, the richness with which they’re drawn by the virtuosic writers and played by the spectacular cast exposes the warped vulnerability beneath their obscene privilege. Succession is deeply, lavishly funny, and peppered with some of the silliest and most creative uses of profanity that television has ever hosted, but the whole series is built on a foundation of tremendous sadness. These people may have all the money in the world, but as the last four seasons have shown us in vivid, lacerating detail, their cold, loveless lives inspire little envy.
Guessing how this whole internecine struggle will ultimately resolve feels like a futile task, although it hasn’t stopped me from doing so. When a happy ending for any of the show’s core characters would likely be disastrous for the world in general, it’s hard to even know who or what to root for.
So in an attempt to escape pointless prognostication, I’ve been thinking about a different aspect of its massive success over the last five years — the many astute, amusing, and illuminating articles that it has inspired. After all, great writing begets great writing, so it stands to reason that the commentary around Succession would be some of the best around. Here are just five of the wonderful pieces written during the course of its phenomenal run, covering the show’s style, substance, and real-world inspiration.
Twenty Per Cent Less Hope: The Very English Satire of Succession (Hannah Mackay, Sight and Sound, January 2020)
Succession is an American-set series with a largely British writers’ room, and Hannah Mackay’s essay posits that the push and pull between those broadly opposing national sensibilities is one of the chief factors in its success. Mackay describes how Succession has never followed the U.S. network tradition “of depict[ing] power in its most potent, aphrodisiacal form,” instead hewing more to the U.K.’s innate cynicism by depicting the frighteningly influential Roys as “inept, fragile, [and] lost.” She examines that theme through an aesthetic lens; with both the Roys’ sartorial choices and the spaces they inhabit exhibiting a distinct lack of character, this is not a show that makes being fabulously wealthy look all that fabulous.
Three exhausting years after Mackay’s piece was published, it’s fair to say that audiences on both sides of the Atlantic are feeling far warier of the powerful than they were in January 2020. Still, positioning Succession as the product of utter disillusionment with the one percent is, if anything, more on point now than it was back then.
By contrast, nobody in Succession dresses well, a sign of the show’s refusal to sign up to traditional US TV aesthetics when it comes to depicting wealth and power – and a tribute to the show’s much-lauded costume designer Michelle Matland (it’s famously much harder to dress shows in which people have bad taste, or no taste, than it is to dress shows in which people make flamboyant and creative choices, which are more fun). Everybody in Succession has the means to dress well — but nobody has the confidence to make a flamboyant choice, sartorially or otherwise. Stepping out is too dangerous.
As the UK and US drift ever further into uncharted political territory, it has begun to feel that there are no longer any consequences to anything. The US president has been accused of sexual harassment by more than 20 women, and yet he is still the president. Both he and his British counterpart continue, so far, unhindered by the growing whiff of scandal and corruption. We can end up feeling like Reggie Perrin ourselves, running pointlessly into the sea to make a point nobody wants to hear. But at least we have Succession to watch while we’re doing it.
The Four F’s of Trauma Response and the Four Roy Kids of Succession (Emily St. James, Vox, November 2021)
However much their gargantuan privilege and venomous behavior patently suggests that they don’t deserve our pity, to be a fan of Succession is to find yourself, again and again, feeling sympathy for some immensely rich devils.
Emily St. James had already written an essay for Vox about how the show depicts the effects of growing up with an abusive parent, and here she lays out how the four Roy kids’ dynamics with their father demonstrate a typology known as the four Fs of trauma response: fight, flight, fawn, and freeze. She also discusses how the show’s love of wide shots enables Succession to more fully display how the family drama affects and discomfits innocent bystanders.
Kendall, meanwhile, takes and takes and takes his father’s abuse, but eventually, he gets frustrated and fights back, as he’s been doing all season. He’s the most ineffectual of his siblings in this episode, but there are still a few moments where his “fight” impulse engages: when he enters the family’s suite and tries to bully them into holding everything together, for example, or when he gets onstage to read the names of the victims of the cruise line scandal that’s plaguing the company. Kendall likes to make himself the biggest, easiest target — a fairly classic “fight” response that can also be attuned to protecting younger siblings.
After all, Succession’s wide shots often capture the random other people who end up trapped in a room with the Roys, forced to watch them play out their elaborate psychodramas. And most of the time, those other people are nowhere near as rich as the Roys, because who possibly could be? Their reactions to what the Roys say and do serve to deepen our understanding of the family’s many dysfunctions.
On “Succession,” Jeremy Strong Doesn’t Get the Joke (Michael Schulman, The New Yorker, December 2021)
When Michael Schulman’s New Yorker profile of Jeremy Strong was published just as the third season of Succession was drawing to a close, it seemed like the only thing anyone on the internet was talking about. That was not good news for Strong.
Although not an out-and-out hit piece, it’s still difficult to read Schulman’s vivid, engrossing profile without wincing. It paints Strong as someone who at best approaches the role of Kendall Roy with a full-throatedness that borders on the unhealthy, and at worst applies a self-serious dedication to his craft that makes him almost impossible to work with. The profile is littered with painfully specific details about Strong’s intense acting philosophy — Strong calls his technique “identity diffusion” — along with quotes from cast and crew members who remain unconvinced of the technique’s necessity.
Strong, who is now forty-two, has the hangdog face of someone who wasn’t destined for stardom. But his mild appearance belies a relentless, sometimes preening intensity. He speaks with a slow, deliberate cadence, especially when talking about acting, which he does with a monk-like solemnity. “To me, the stakes are life and death,” he told me, about playing Kendall. “I take him as seriously as I take my own life.” He does not find the character funny, which is probably why he’s so funny in the role.
Last year, he played the Yippie activist Jerry Rubin in Aaron Sorkin’s film “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” While shooting the 1968 protest scenes, Strong asked a stunt coördinator to rough him up; he also requested to be sprayed with real tear gas. “I don’t like saying no to Jeremy,” Sorkin told me. “But there were two hundred people in that scene and another seventy on the crew, so I declined to spray them with poison gas.”
Misery Loves Matrimony: The Beautiful, Bleak Science Behind ‘Succession’ Weddings (Alyssa Bereznak, The Ringer, April 2023)
Succession consistently questions whether any of its core characters are even capable of love — and yet there’s no set piece the show prefers to a wedding. Three of the four seasons have plotted their most vital events around these seemingly damned unions, the fairytale promise of happily ever after making a caustic backdrop to palace intrigue and corporate skullduggery. And with the Roys having almost limitless funds at their disposal, their weddings are always eye-wateringly extravagant.
In her piece for The Ringer, Alyssa Bereznak digs into the role these opulent affairs play on Succession, talking to the production designers who “adopted a role as a Roy family wedding planner” and exploring how the weddings are often our best shot at gleaning details from the Roy kids’ little-mentioned but tumultuous upbringings.
Just as far-flung family members fill in the blanks of the Roy progeny’s upbringing, so does the sprawling property chosen for Shiv’s wedding. “The house, Eastnor house, was, in the story line, a special one of the family’s country estates,” said Newman, who decorated the set for the episodes “Pre-nuptial” and “Nobody Is Ever Missing.” As Connor recounts to Willa when they arrive, one of the homes became a “thorn in Caroline’s side” because she was screwed out of inheriting it. Elsewhere, Caroline gestures at portraits of all of her “disreputable slave-owning ancestors.” “In Eastnor Castle there’s wonderful bits of art,” Newman said. “Even wallpapers and the furnishing, carpets and rugs and things like this, nothing is new. Everything has a personality, has a history and a provenance. … That’s the key, is that it’s layered.”
Inside Rupert Murdoch’s Succession Drama (Gabriel Sherman, Vanity Fair, April 2023)
While creator Jesse Armstrong has cited various inspirations for the Roy family, the one that comes up the most often by far is the Murdochs. From an elderly patriarch who refuses to acknowledge his mortality, to the two sons and a daughter battling over the crown, to the noxiousness of their right-wing media empire and its influence over a disturbingly demagogic presidential candidate, it’s hard not to see their shadow looming over Succession.
If you’re eager to dive deeper into the nitty-gritty of the show’s complex business dealings, Louis Ashworth’s rigorously researched “Everything You Don’t Actually Need to Know About The Economics of Succession” is the piece for you.
Though Sherman’s piece contains only glancing mentions of the show (amusingly, one of the conditions of Rupert Murdoch’s recent settlement agreement from fourth wife Jerry Hall was that she wasn’t allowed to pitch story ideas to the writers), the details of how running a multibillion dollar company is so regularly entwined with the petty squabbles of a troubled family demonstrate that, despite its more ridiculous twists and turns, Succession has been far truer to life than one might think.
He long wanted one of his three children from his second wife, Anna—Elisabeth, 54, Lachlan, 51, and James, 50—to take over the company one day. Murdoch believed a Darwinian struggle would produce the most capable heir. “He pitted his kids against each other their entire lives. It’s sad,” a person close to the family said. Elisabeth was by many accounts the sharpest, but she is a woman, and Murdoch subscribed to old-fashioned primogeniture. She quit the family business in 2000 and launched her own phenomenally successful television production company. Lachlan shared Murdoch’s right-wing politics and atavistic love for newsprint and their homeland, Australia. “Lachlan was the golden child,” the person close to the family said. But Murdoch worried that his easygoing son, who seemed happiest rock climbing, did not want the top job badly enough.
Chloe Walker is a writer based in the U.K. She is a regular contributor to Paste Magazine and the BFI.
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