Succession and Us

The latest season of Succession has once again left viewers entranced by the spectacle of obscene wealth. What does the popularity of the show say about our relationship with elites? 

Brian Cox , Kieran Culkin , Sarah Snook, Matthew Macfadyen and Zoe Winters in the HBO series : Succession

Whether devouring the latest season of Succession, reflecting on Mad Men, or gorging on more subversive TV pleasures such as Breaking Bad or Dexter, our dedicated almost obsessive viewing habits reveal that as an audience we are captivated and fascinated by aspects of society the majority of us watching at home will never in truth wish to experience, but can all agree are hypnotically drawn to. Perhaps a reassurance of being free to empathize with deplorable characters, barely a redeemable personality trait between them, inert jealously of the super-wealthy, and shows such as Succession offer an accessible, hyper-realistic but nevertheless immersive impression of their lifestyle, or a genuine curiosity to catch a glimpse behind the veil and gawp at the unfathomably rich. Audiences are firmly engrossed in TV anti-hero worship but society has reveled in an elite fetishization since long before the age of water-cooler TV.

The latest season of Succession, following on from season 2’s jaw-dropping press conference and Logan’s (Brian Cox) implication (plus wry smile) cliffhanger, immediately drops the audience back into the fray, as both Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and Logan attempt to wrestle control of the company and manage the nuclear fallout following the press conference. Succession handles the audience impeccably, there’s no easing in, the script, language, and character motivations are almost Shakespearean in nature, Logan, head of the Roman era Nero-Esque dynasty, consumed by a pathological and toxic need to maintain ultimate power, even as his empire immolates in front of his eyes. On more than one occasion I found myself scribbling down dialogue or rewinding scenes to fully enjoy the conversation and magnitude of information being jousted back and forth between characters. Whether it’s the re-occurring fear that one family member might poison the other (doughnuts E02/Ken & Logan dinner E08), the sublime script and character delivery, (E04 Logan: “You’ll say anything to get fucked on a date”), (E05 Roman (Kieran Culkin): “The demented piss mad king of England over there”), or pretty much every conversation between Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) and Greg (E07 Tom: “It’s like a haunted scarecrow asking out Jackie Onassis”), (E09 Tom: “You’re a plane crash away from becoming Europe’s weirdest king.”), Succession’s creators much like the Roy family takes pride in its elite form of storytelling and wit.

What allows Succession to continually rise above its TV rivals is a refusal to pander to the viewer, it instead challenges them to attune their attention and listen more intently, Jesse Armstrong’s scripts and direction forcing the audience to adapt to the fast-paced, sharp bickering, and intelligent conversation being spoken amongst the Roy’s and the Waystar policymakers. For three seasons Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) has effectively been the audience’s avatar into the elitist world, but similarly to the audience watching, regularly finds himself flummoxed and consistently out his depth regarding the minutiae and machinations involved in understanding what is happening. Regardless of what happens, there does always seem to be a grudging level of respect, admiration and perhaps even love between the Roys, as if playing chess against each other but on a political, world-altering scale. In E02 (Mass in Time For War), when Roy siblings Con (Alan Ruck), Roman, and Shiv (Sarah Snook) appear at Rava, Ken’s ex-wife’s home for a pow-wow, it’s clear they all love but equally distrust each other and to Ken’s chagrin are defiantly loyal to their father, which is similar to any patriarchal familial power structure. Whether you’re working class or obscenely wealthy, the father figure in any family tends to wield ultimate power.

It’s abundantly clear that no matter what the situation, regardless of who is on speaking terms, whether they’re toppling Presidents or casually anointing them, the cardinal rule of the Roy dynasty is that control must always remain within the family, this is none more evident than in E05 (Retired Janitors of Idaho), and the wheeling and dealing needed to avoid a dangerous shareholder vote, which unknowingly to the viewer also sets in place the foundations for season 3’s bait and switch showdown finale. Jesse Armstrong’s consistent ability to ground and humanize characters via humbling situations encourages a connection between the audience and a grotesquely elitist family each of whom would have no problem ripping up a million-dollar cheque or paying obscene amounts to tattoo their forehead as sport. Compassionate conflict has always been one of the carefully constructed foundations across Succession’s three seasons, but the season 3 finale (All The Bells), Ken mentally broken and beaten, rising from the literal ash, to rescue his siblings in their time of need is almost heroic. It feels like an end to the hero’s journey, a structured and reassuring trope of every television series, a satisfactory conclusion to the previous 29 episodes, a knight riding to save the family castle from the impenetrable vice-like grip of darkness.

It’s visceral, nail-biting storytelling, and thanks to the camerawork and cinematography it feels to the audience as if happening in real-time, however as we should have now come to expect, and yet something Succession successfully manages to subvert, is our expectations. If there’s one thing that triumphs above all else in Succession, it’s not the hero, it’s the depressingly inevitable corruptibility and lure of ultimate power. Did Tom turn, or did Con connive? Although it seems certain that Terminal Tom shivved Shiv and the siblings, Tom justifiably feels unloved by Shiv and unappreciated by everyone else after his willingness to face a jail sentence, and Logan’s manipulative “I’ll remember” offering him the universal acknowledgment and affection he sought. However did dark horse Con, repeatedly patronized and dismissed by the whole family, craving an opportunity to gain respectability, whatever the cost, alert Logan to the upcoming power move by Ken, Shiv, and Roman? Two things we’ve been taught by Exec Producer Jesse Armstrong and the creative team behind Succession, audience expectation will be subverted, and above all else; ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.

Our fetishization of elite society extends far beyond our viewing habits, it’s arguably the reason we obsess over celebrity culture, have worshipped film stars for nearly 100 years, and in recent culture, explains (at least in some part) the explosion of reality television, reality TV stars, and the addictive nature of social media and its influencers. It could be argued that society has been engrossed in the lives of the super-wealthy and elites since the concept of sharing information was developed. From tales of the Crusades and King Richard, King Arthur and the Round Table, to the coronation of Popes and Royal births, death, and weddings, where there are stories, there has always been a fascinated audience willing to listen. Beyond the UK, the history of the Napoleonic era, the anointing of US Presidents, the Gettysburg Address, and the complete early history of the United States, elite fetishisation and the personalities within have captivated society since history was first recorded for mass consumption. As long as there have been wealth, greed, and power struggles, there has been an audience eager to discover the scandal, and thanks to the development of mass-produced print publications, there has been a recipient and eager audience. The public is forever drawn like moths to flames of the lifestyles of the elite upper echelons of our society.

The Roy family and real-life contemporaries such as the Trump and Murdoch dynasties live as Gods amongst Earth-born mortals but like all of humanity are cursed in the knowledge that as we live, one day we must die. Regardless of wealth and status, science is unlikely to ever grant us the escape of eternal life. It’s for that reason psychologists consider our obsession with heroes and antiheroes to be an extension of the fear of our death. Immortality doesn’t come in the form of living forever, which we’re born knowing is impossible, but instead comes in the understanding that beyond our lifetime there’s a possibility our name and our story could live forever. Again it explains our fascination with film stars, historical figures, celebrities, and fictional figures such as the Roy family, individuals who in effect have the power to live forever, people whose lives can be studied by historians for the rest of humanity’s reign. At the heart of our elite fetishization, it could be argued lies jealously, who will deny that to experience a day in the life of the Roys, each born with untold fortune and power would be nothing short of incredible. Knowing that it’s unlikely to happen, the next best thing as a viewer is to watch them be corrupted by power, ambition, and greed. Although we enviously lust after a lifestyle we shan’t attain, we arguably enjoy a fall from grace even more. The satisfaction of watching wealthy segments of society, effectively the 1% of the 1% squabble, backstab and succumb to temptations that people from every section of society have experienced. Whether it be addiction, wrath, selfishness, or something as equally fallible, it’s in these moments that the upper elites such as the Roy family and the audience watching at home are for the briefest of moments equal, aware of how it feels to be consumed by the same primitive instincts as one another. It’s for that reason (and many others) Succession within the space of three seasons has become one of, if not ‘the’ most interesting and important television show on our screens right now. Roll on Season 4.

Gregg James Kelly is a freelance journalist whose writing has appeared in esteemed cultural publications including DJ Mag, City Metric, Glasgow Living, SnackMag, many of Scotland’s top online news publications including Evening Times, The Herald, and The National, and countless other online music publications across a decade long career

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