“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald
“Look, here’s the thing about being rich, it’s like being a superhero, only better. You get to do what you want. The authorities can’t really touch you. You get to wear a costume, but it’s designed by Armani and it doesn’t make you look like a prick.”
— Tom Wamsgans, Succession
Has there ever been an HBO series as timely as Succession? From The Sopranos (1999) to Watchmen (2019), many of HBO’s classic series have been about the making and ongoing remaking of the United States of America. They’ve been about how America sees itself and what it looks like to those outside the so-called American Dream. Many of them have been, to some extent, about the interplay of capitalism and authoritarianism, about the corruption and the sense of entitlement of those in power and about how those without it scramble for scraps. About how systems come to resemble one another, such as the way The Wire showed the drug trade to be a not-so-funhouse reflection of the police in a nonsensical war on drugs. Succession, likewise, feels like an echo of The Sopranos at times, as we watch a spoiled, entitled, monstrous family destroy, well, pretty much everything they touch – including each other and themselves. Except: when you do it as a mobster, it’s criminal, when you do it as an ultra-capitalist, it’s how the world works, and you’re the one making it work. Right?
In its first few episodes, Succession feels very much like a 21st century update of King Lear by way of political satire The Thick of It. (It comes as no surprise that the creator of Succession, Jesse Armstrong, was one of the writers of The Thick of It, as well as co-writing Chris Morris’ Four Lions.) Patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox) is an entertainment mogul fashioned on the likes of Rupert Murdoch, overseeing a media empire that is a super-charged Fox coupled with Disney on steroids. His children Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Roman (Kieran Culkin) and Siobhan, tellingly called Shiv (Sarah Snook), are torn between trying to please their father and freeing themselves from his suffocating rule. (If we stay with the Shakespearean analogy, the fourth and eldest Roy offspring, Connor (Alan Ruck), is the fool of the outfit, which, considering the foolishness they all display at times, is saying something.) After Logan suffers a stroke, the children, especially Kendall, try to use the changed circumstances to their advantage – but while the cruel, controlling patriarch may be wounded, he is by no means down for the count, and he isn’t willing to let anyone else take anything away from him. He doesn’t share, and if he appears to do so, there is always a steep price involved.
The cast, complemented by the likes of Matthew Macfadyen as Shiv’s financé Tom, and Hiam Abbass as Logan’s steely-eyed wife, is superb. They handle the cringe comedy well – and believe me, cringe follows the Roys around like the world’s most devout dog – but the series surprises by becoming much more than a satire about the ultra-rich. It becomes a tragedy worthy of its Shakespearean inspirations.
Do we need any more tragic stories told about sad rich kids, so damaged by their wealth and privilege that they can barely function? Does Ken Roy – who wants nothing more than to be the son his father wants him to be, even if this means trying to destroy his father – deserve our sympathy? I would fully understand anyone who avoids Succession because of its subject matter, seeing how I got to the series fairly late myself much for this reason, but just because it depicts its characters as having the potential for tragedy doesn’t mean that it is on their side. The tragedy of the Roys isn’t that Logan is a cruel, controlling monster of a father. They wouldn’t be good, kind, philantropic yet still ultra-rich but for want of paternal love. They are ultra-rich and damaged exactly because the system that allows the likes of the Roy family to exist is corrupting to begin with.
The world of Succession, its cynicism and satire, its cruelty and ridiculousness, these complement the stories told by the HBO series by David Simon, such as The Wire or Treme. In its best material, HBO talks about the world we live in, and Succession has a lot to say. Its story isn’t new – Fitzgerald already knew everything about it – but it is one that is of relevance, and never more relevant perhaps than these days. The ultra-rich are different. Perhaps we need more stories that show us their cynicism and sense of superiority, and the damage they do by living as if they were the only ones who truly exist. Stories that very much make us not want to be like them. However good those Armani suits might make us look.