How aristocrats ate prestige TV
Watching the second season finale of Succession the same weekend as El Camino, the movie followup to Breaking Bad, had me thinking about how much "prestige TV" has changed in the last few years.
Succession captures the zeitgeist of our moment because of the essential hopelessness of the premise: Logan Roy is on top and another Roy will succeed him, but the billionaire king can only ever be succeeded by one of his billionaire children, all of them more awful than the next. You can call it a satire, but with Donald Trump as president, satirizing the ruling class feels like resistance on par with a soft pillow. In the end, after you've stopped laughing, the fact remains that they will succeed, while you and I can only fail.
El Camino, by contrast, is a throwback to the shows we watched when "President Trump" was still a corny joke, that run of prestige television (mostly made by Davids and mostly on HBO) that roughly spanned 9/11 and the long financial crisis. But while I enjoyed El Camino, it's the kind of fan service that revealed the stagnancy of the underlying exercise. At its best, it reminded you what a delightful fool Jesse was: lucky, brave, and with a good heart, but not that clever and just a little too eager. Which is why the least convincing part of it all — the part that most reminded you that this is not how this show really ends — is the ridiculous shoot-out and flight to the "last frontier," where Jesse presumably lives happily ever after. It ends as a Western, but the Western is as dead as he should have been.
After all, The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad were all Westerns, in a very particular sense: united by the sense of white masculine history that the mostly-Davids had imbibed as children from the country's then-dominant cultural form. It was why Tony longs for the days of Gary Cooper, why Omar is a cowboy, why Breaking Bad and Deadwood are literally Westerns, and why Don Draper changes the astronaut in a deodorant commercial to a cowboy (as well as why, when HBO made a self-aware prestige television show, they made Westworld). Auteur-driven and obsessed with crumbling masculinity and violence and America, these shows can retroactively blend together into one continuous thing, one feel, one attitude. And like the Western itself, they're not so much defined by a real time or place as by a nostalgia for what one imagines it to have been (but which it never really was).
In retrospect, what these shows most decisively had in common was their old-white-man obsession with American History, an insistence on an essentially Gibbon-shaped trajectory for what happened after the end of the cold war, the luxury, corruption, and decline that followed victory. Put differently, capitalized American History haunted them with the conviction that they were living at the end of American men, at the point at which it was no longer possible to be and live the way you had always thought it was your birthright to be and live, and that winning, inexplicably, had turned out to be losing. But the capitalized problem in all of these shows was successful capitalism, whether that be The Wire's Greek Tragic sense of its omnipotence, Deadwood's portrayal of how civilization brought empire-building corporate politicians and closed the frontier, Tony Soprano's half-articulated moment of revelation that he "came in at the end," or Mad Men's proleptically foregrounding the obsolescence of everything you saw on the screen. Capitalism eats it all up, especially for the men who win the game.
If Breaking Bad was the last of that cohort, however, it's not just because of chronology. In an interesting way, it's exactly because the universe that Walter White graced with his presence just keeps going on without him that he represents such a hard stop for that project. That Better Call Saul revealed that Walt's fixer had a "before," and then, that the recently released El Camino revealed that Jesse had an "after," wouldn't just have surprised Walter White; it would have shocked him. His denial-of-death drive, his refusal to imagine a universe without him, defined the show; however many lies he told about doing it for his family, it was always "the family" as extension of the ego beyond death that animated his criming. And if we place the show in its context, in that run of Prestige Auteur Television, the "him" that Walter couldn't imagine losing was the particular self-image that all of those shows endlessly reiterated, the prospect of (white) power and (masculine) self-sufficiency, of individual greatness, independence, and American empire-building.
Breaking Bad was the last of the shows that truly reveled in that kind of character — condemning him while also letting you enjoy him — because, with the accumulating weight of show's spinoffs, the story becomes how the universe moved on without him and left him behind. In doing so, the show even sketched out the next phase of American culture: an end of history that somehow, hellishly, keeps going.
After all, what has succeeded the era of prestige TV? Who is heir to the crown? "Peak television" is one answer, as what used to be independent filmmaking has been absorbed into an unwatchably vast super-abundance of diverse and mostly basically pretty good shows.
But it's also striking how many dramas of dynastic succession seem to be soaking up the culture, how many shows not only have a distinct apathy about change — much less progress — but seem actively hostile to the idea of history itself. In place of all of those slow-motion collapses of American empire that grabbed onto the zeitgeist in the early 2000s, what has followed after the end of masculine history turns out to be endless, ahistorical dramas about power rearranging itself ... without ever changing.
Succession is the obvious example, a comedy about superwealth that has no characters other than the superwealthy and no narrative principle other than proximity to superwealth. But it's only the best example: Dynasty has been rebooted, Arrested Development and Downton Abbey came back, Empire continues, and the Righteous Gemstones just completed its first season of what Danny McBride has promised to be an "epic, sprawling tale, like the f---ing Thorn Birds or something." Meanwhile, Game of Thrones summed up the whole thing when a council of (mostly) nonentities who inherited their positions laugh at the idea of democracy and give the throne to a scion of wealth whose story they inexplicably like; after all of that tragedy and suffering and death, we discover, after fetishizing the Iron Throne and the winter apocalypse and the "wars to come," it turns out that nothing has changed and pointless aristocratic BS will just continue, endlessly, forever.
Different, kind of, but mostly the same: This is what you need if you're going to turn a successful show into an endless replenishing franchise. And so, Game of Thrones has become the expanded Westeros universe, just as is happening with Star Wars and the MCU. Both have already been transformed from what they started out as being: Rise of Skywalker will presumably complete the Star Wars franchise's transition from a rebellion-against-empire storyline into the saga of a dynastic family of wizards (and brand spinoffs) while the no-less-Disneyfied MCU franchise has been obsessed with passing torches and laboring over who the next iterations of the team will be. A decade ago, the Iron Man and Captain America movies were also basically Westerns about the fall of American empire and the fate of white American manhood in its wake, but the "Infinity War" saga turned the corner towards Disney managing its corporate properties and human resources (and staging its entrance into television).
I have a sense of nostalgia for the Difficult Men, those Bush-era melodramas about beset manhood; I'm becoming a man of a certain age myself, and nothing says "you're 40" like being nostalgic for nostalgia. But shows like that still wanted to believe in democracy, in America, and in the struggle by little people to survive in the face of the implacable forces of destiny and capitalism. They were Westerns because their heroes were doomed underdogs set against the arrayed forces of the system. It was a very masculine struggle for heroism, and through a very white sense of history, of course, and cathartic violence took the place of revelation and epiphany (or social justice). But despite their pessimism — as the everyman become extraordinary only to be crushed by the system — these shows at least faced in that "progressive" direction, and their heart was with the little guy (however white and male he was).
To psychoanalyze, I think it was because 9/11 and a warmongering cowboy president gave rise to a particular kind of panic about the American empire at just the moment in which history was supposed to have ended, a deep-seated anxiety that George W. Bush was exactly what the American White Man had always been. But that panic was a function of boomer idealism, not the depthless cynicism that has succeeded it: The men who made those shows, and their audiences, had grown up on cowboy shows and nationalism and an unquestioned patriarchal whiteness, all of which were suddenly revealed in a truly odious form. If they couldn't quite give up that identity — and they couldn't — they could at least immolate it. And so, we got show after show about how bad we were, we white American men of a certain age, shows about empire-building capitalists who discovered, in the process of their rise, the necessity of their inevitable fall.
Put differently, they were all shows about consequences. Tony Soprano's sociopathy was charming, but after long seasons of being charmed into seeing the world through his perspective, the final fade-to-black was the audience getting whacked along with him. The Wire and Deadwood were all about how living in a society meant that the actions you took rippled outward on others, in precisely the ways you didn't intend or control, and Mad Men was about the cost of living as the unselfconscious protagonist of American History, as was Breaking Bad, with a vengeance. Indeed, the entire point of the expanded Breaking Bad universe appears to be to dramatize the suffering and endurance and humanity of the sidekicks and women and dependents who had the misfortune to be too close to a man in the empire business.
We don't do consequences anymore, however; this is an age of impunity. Which is why Succession so perfectly captures the zeitgeist of this late-Trump-era moment, a world without consequences. After all, what can really happen on this show? All the drama is invested in the question of who will end up on top, but every character in the show is literally a member of the 1 percent and even the hangers-on and retainers are wildly more wealthy than you will ever be. There can be no struggle against capitalism in this show, no underdogs, and no unhappy endings. Consequences are foreclosed from the beginning, made structurally impossible by the (realistically portrayed) political system of the show, in which billionaires always win.
In their world, the worst imaginable hell is to be only a little bit super-rich, the nightmare of being stranded with only $5 million dollars as "the poorest rich person in America." Cousin Greg is an idiot who doesn't matter and who no one in the show thinks about or respects, and even he would literally have to fumble away two different inheritances in order to tumble so far down the ladder as to be left with only $5 million dollars. Everyone in the show will be massively, incredibly, perfectly fine, in every conceivable circumstance because theirs is a class you can't fall out of. You might not inherit the crown, but they will always be royal.
How do you make drama in a world without consequences or history? About people who the economy will never really hurt? The surprise is that you can. Succession is a great show, with wonderful writing and performances and verisimilitude. Logan's frustration and egotistical war with his children flows out of their freedom from consequences, for example, as someone who wasn't always wealthy and may even have struggled with poverty and privation (depending on which version of his origin story we are supposed to believe this week), and he wants his children to be strong, like he was, the kind of killer that he had to become to get where he was. They never will be, because he once suffered consequences and they never will. No matter how hard he tries to make the show into a King Lear tragedy, they turn it back into a comedy.
And so the portrait of Logan as abuser — whose victims will never leave him — is subtle and nuanced, while the show never makes the bad-fan mistake of thinking he has deep insight or a master plan. What he has are impulses, which he acts on: He resents his children for not being traumatized survivors, so he traumatizes them and makes them survive him. He has had impunity for longer than he can remember, so he doesn't need to consider his actions or plan for their failures, and so he mostly doesn't. He is what Adam Kotsko years ago described as television's fantasy sociopath:
Somehow outside social norms — largely bereft of human sympathy, for instance, and generally amoral — and yet simultaneously a master manipulator, who can instrumentalize social norms to get what he or she wants. [The New Inquiry]
However, most of the TV sociopaths that Kotsko describes are wish-fulfillment power fantasies. In reality, you can't be callous enough to destroy other people without feeling anything and yet also be a master manipulator; you can't ignore social norms and also master them. Good shows about sociopathic fantasy tend to reflect that conundrum, that impossible balancing point, and the great ones show a Difficult Man torn apart by it. To win, you have to be alone; to win, you need other people. Real people can't be both.
The one exception is having billions of dollars, something it seems like we've needed the last few years to really process. But if you have billions of dollars, nothing matters except you. You can ignore social norms because billionaires are society's gravitational mass, curving social space and bending the light towards the depthless, unknowable, vacuous black hole of their psyches. This is why, until he dies, Logan will be the center of the show, the family, and the universe. His actions matter, and have consequences, but never for him, something which is proportionally true for everyone in his orbit, depending how close they are. It's why no one in his family can ever screw up badly enough — or betray him severely enough — to sever their connection to power. I find the show engrossing, but also impossible to keep track of; each episode has a dramatic arc, with a climax, but because no episode ever fundamentally changes the status quo — because that status quo is perpetual — I find myself unable to remember things that happened in earlier episodes, which turn out not to have mattered.
Because Westerns think the universe is ruled by structural, impersonal, and historical forces, there's a kind of grandeur in the individual's struggle against that tragedy: Watching "a great man return to the dust from which he came" inspires pity and fear, Aristotle wrote, because it's terrible to see it happen to the best of us and also to know we are next. This was what Game of Thrones did when it was still a show about consequences, when it was still adapting books that had been written in the 1990s.
In the age of Trump, it's hard to imagine that we are ruled by impersonal, structural forces of history. We know their names. We know so very much about Jeff Bezos and Donald Trump and Mark Zuckerberg and Rupert Murdoch, and that includes how much individual power they have; we know about the frighteningly consequential choices they make, and, in our cynicism, we "know" that they will never face those consequences, that the worst future they will ever endure is to be unhappy in their families. If we cannot imagine them in guillotines, at least we can imagine them hated by their children.
In any case, this is the failure of imagination of all of these shows, the vacuum where change might otherwise have been. In place of history, it's just one damned thing after another. Maybe this is realistic cynicism, or maybe an endless plutocratic stability is preferable to the descent into apocalypse we're currently enjoying. Maybe this is just a narrative necessitated by the needs of corporate entertainers to keep milking the franchises as long as they can. But the one thing that Succession teaches and knows, beyond the shadow of a doubt — and what makes all of these shows less like comedies than likes Aristotelian tragedies turned inside-out — is that the Roys might be the worst of us, but we will never be next.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.