The problem with Succession's half-baked class politics
Does Succession hate the super-rich? Does it really?
This should be an easy question to answer, given the cruel and petty loathsomeness of the show's protagonists, a reckless gang of vindictive, comic sociopaths. But if you make it past the pilot — in which, among other things, middle-son Roman tears up a million-dollar check just to mock a working class child — you will suddenly realize that you've started to sympathize with these extremely bad people. Over the course of that first season, you will find yourself following Kendall's quest to be his father's son with interest — even rooting for his takeover(s) to succeed — and you'll laugh at Roman's jokes; you will feel for passed-over daughter Siobhan, clearly the smartest of the lot, and you may sympathize with Greg and Tom, the show's most hapless and out-of-their-depth characters. You will probably even catch yourself grudgingly respecting the family patriarch, Logan Roy, for his steely, unsentimental empire-building resolve as he shakes himself out of illness to seize back his kingdom. You will do this because, like it or not, they are the show's protagonists; if you keep watching, there is no alternative.
It is amazing who you can be made to sympathize with, if you are made to watch them suffer. So we see the Roy children suffer, each in their own precisely-crafted hell. Kendall, most obviously, is driven by his desperate insufficiency, a need to please and be loved by his weakness-hating father that ensures that he will never succeed. Roman's infantile humor prevents him from being taken seriously by anyone (from which he retreats into infantile humor), while eldest brother Connor's secret belief in his intellectual superiority can only survive in secret, where it can never be recognized. In the second season, it seems, we will focus on Siobhan, whose gender dooms her to be one of the many not-quite-Roys that orbit the family patriarch, and who has finally given into the hopeless hope that she could be accepted (my prediction is that she will, of course, be frustrated and betrayed by her father). Above them all reigns Logan himself, an abusive father who hates his children for the wealth and ease he's given them, and who — consciously or unconsciously — drives them to betrayal, the only form of love he can respect.
As a result, because each of them is a brilliant portrait of doomed, self-defeating behavior — neurotically recreating the conditions of their own unhappiness — they become too pitiful to hate. Like a reverse King Lear, in fact, we watch the father reject each of his children, in turn, driving them out into the storm (or at least the comedy version of it).
If you've seen creator Jesse Armstrong's Peep Show — a cringingly perfect sitcom about the depths of pathetic masculinity — it's not surprising that this is how he would portray a Rupert Murdoch-esque patriarchy in decline. Armstrong's métier is grotesque men getting in their own way, and sharp-eyed fans of his work with Sam Bain, David Mitchell, and Robert Webb will recognize a variety of riffs on old sketches and scenes, as well as the signature in his construction of dialogue and scene. But since Logan Roy is clearly an amalgam of corporate patriarchs like Murdoch, Robert Maxwell, and Sumner Redstone — with perhaps a bit of the Disney empire folded in — the stakes are a bit higher than the misadventures of Peep Show's Tony Blair-era wastrels. As executive producer Adam McKay has suggested, Succession is asking big questions about society at large: "What happens when this kind of power is handed down through bloodlines [and] how does that affect the world around it?"
This would seem to be an awfully pertinent question in 2019. Yet Succession's sympathy with its characters makes it unequal to an answer, along with its baffling absence of actual power politics. It reminds me, in fact, of the failure of Vice, Adam McKay's strange biopic about Dick Cheney which made the former vice president into a parable for power and ambition by evacuating him of any ideological substance. In place of the free-market zealot and neo-conservative whose project to destroy and reconstruct Iraq flowed out of decades of clearly-articulated principles, McKay portrayed him as an opaque and unknowable cipher. In Succession, we only hear echoes of the world's opinion of the Roy media empire, as when an app-maker, in a moment of drunken honesty, compares them to the Hitler family, reminding Kendall of what he should already know: that the Roy name is as feared and poisonous as Murdoch or Koch. But is she correct to say this? Is the public at large — or their populist stand-in, a slightly less grouchy version of a Bernie Sanders-style senator — right to view the Roys as a force for evil? The show seems uninterested in interrogating the question.
Indeed, for a show about a media mogul whose cable news network (and backdoor connections to the president) make him the equivalent of the creator of Fox News, we see almost nothing of the concrete conservative project that animates so much of our real-life billionaire class. That Logan has an attachment to news that goes beyond its profitability is something his children can't seem to understand, but it's not clear the show wants us to either. Because it's so much more interested in the comedy of the cluelessness super-rich — insulated from all consequences by their grotesque wealth, they are incapable of learning or self-consciousness — it insulates the audience from the real world as well. How and why Logan has acquired the kind of political influence he has is never explained, referenced but left in the out-of-focus background. There are some lovely tossed-off jokes — like the cable news chyron "Gender Fluid Illegals May Be Entering the Country ‘Twice'" — but if you blink, you'll miss them; the focus is elsewhere.
In short, because the show's politics only exist at the level of the suggestive vignette, they never really cohere. In the second season premiere, for example, we see a montage of servants prepare and serve an epic lobster banquet to the family until Logan commands that it all be thrown away, uneaten; the smell of dead raccoons in a chimney has made the food distasteful to him, so he replaces it with pizza — that no one eats — and then proceeds to screw the contractor that he blames for the raccoons out of his relatively miniscule fee. As a brief and understated window into class, it's a vivid and compelling scene. And yet, compared to these sparse and economical sketches of class — which imply more than they reveal — the inner lives of the Roy family are painted in sumptuous rococo detail, so rich and elaborate and baroque that you get lost in their dramas, overwhelmed by the unquestionable artistry.
All of which is to say: let's not mistake this show for what it isn't. It's a show about a decadent billionaire family that falls in love with its subject, and it carries the audience along with it on the strength of the writing. But by making them pathetic — by wringing pathos out of their suffering and comedy from their clueless ineptitude — it redeems them from all of the utterly true critiques it might otherwise seem to be making of the super-rich. Could anyone be evil if they are this lost, unhappy, and stupid? It seems strange to answer "no" during the Trump presidency, and yet that's where it feels like Succession is landing.