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The Politics of Succession

Why the best show about power in the Trump era is not a show about politicians.

Graeme Hunter / HBO

It’s hard to remember how we thought in the years leading up to 2016, but our most accessible record of that psychologically distant era will probably be the crop of “prestige” TV shows that dominated the cultural conversation more thoroughly than any books or movies. Surveying them in hindsight, it’s clear we cared a lot about politicians: whether affectionately idealizing them (Parks and Recreation, which premiered in 2009), mythologizing them as medieval warriors (Game of Thrones, 2011) gleefully mocking them (Veep, 2012), or investing them with tawdry sexuality and menace (House of Cards, 2013).

We cared about fictional politicians because we cared about real politicians, and because in the Obama era, Washington seemed—at least to the educated liberal demographic to which these shows were targeted—glamorous and noble and idealistic. Much of Obama’s White House had consciously modeled itself on a TV show (The West Wing, which ran from 1999 to 2006), which multiple veterans of the administration have said inspired them to enter public service. Barack and Michelle Obama mingled with Hollywood celebrities and were so taken with prestige TV that they went on to produce their own Netflix shows; their chosen successor, Hillary Clinton, was a fan of The Good Wife (2009) and Madame Secretary (2014), shows written in anticipation of her seemingly inevitable turn as the first woman president.

Then 2016 happened, and everything we thought we knew about politics turned out to be mistaken. The Obamas and the Clintons got 2016 wrong, so did all their fans in Hollywood and the Beltway, and so, for that matter, did most Republicans. A confluence of forces—right-wing media, lowest-common-denominator tabloid culture, Manhattan oligarchs and their spoiled, grotesque offspring—turned out to have been badly underestimated by the political class. Going forward, power would continue to fascinate us, but we would have to reevaluate who actually wields it.

This is the context for HBO’s Succession, which wrapped up its brilliant second season on Sunday, and which is an early contender for the most zeitgeisty TV show of the Trump era. Succession is all but overtly inspired by the Murdoch family, whose multi-continental media empire played a crucial role in making Donald Trump’s presidency possible; the show’s creator, Jesse Armstrong (the British genius behind Peep Show and In the Loop), had previously written an unproduced screenplay about the Murdochs, and the parallels between them and the fictional Roy dynasty are too numerous to belabor. But the Roys are also a stand-in for a wider ruling class whose existence wasn’t exactly a secret prior to 2016, but which was never taken seriously enough. Only after a few years of absorbing the shock of Trump’s victory can we fully engage with the kind of people who, we now understand, are really in charge.

Tonally, Succession is best described as a comedy until it’s not, a satire that ranges from merely dark to pitch black as it continually reminds us that just because the Roys are pathetic doesn’t mean they don’t control what we watch, or how the president thinks, or whether the people working for them live or die. Much like what we’ve come to understand as political news, it’s all very funny until someone gets hurt, which happens frightfully often.

The members of the Roy family—patriarch Logan (Brian Cox), his third wife Marcia (Hiam Abbass), his children Connor (Alan Ruck), Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Roman (Kieran Culkin), and Shiv (Sarah Snook), his son-in-law Tom (Matthew Macfayden), and his seemingly hapless nephew Greg (Nicholas Braun)—are all competing over the same prize: the chairmanship of the Waystar-Royco media empire, whose crown jewel is the Fox News stand-in ATN, which features a white nationalist in prime time and offers a platform to climate deniers. Because we are concerned with these and a handful of other characters in Logan’s inner circle, we rarely question the prize itself, which is valued in the billions but which the country, and indeed the planet, would surely be better off without. The same could be said about the people fighting over it, every last one of whom is greedy, selfish, and pitiful. America may not deserve Waystar-Royco or any of the Roys, but somehow a case can be made for any of the Roys deserving Waystar-Royco, and vice versa.

This is a show in which the One Percent owns everything, mostly by dint of inheritance or marriage. But Succession refuses to indulge the meritocratic fantasy that inequality is fine as long as the winners are the smartest, hardest-working people. Most of the Roys are plenty smart—as are the non-Roys, such as Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron) or Rhea (Holly Hunter) with a shot at the title—and all of them work plenty hard, insofar as ruthlessly undermining one another can be considered work. Logan, in any case, is self-made. The problem with Waystar-Royco isn’t so much that one of Logan’s kids might get to inherit it as that it exists at all.

If it’s possible to sympathize with any of these large adult children, it’s because all of them have been psychologically and in some cases physically abused by Logan. On paper, they are the biggest beneficiaries of his immense wealth, but as human beings, they are the most intimate victims of the relentless bullying and gaslighting he has unleashed on the rest of us. They may cover up murders and sexual assaults and criminal negligence, they may callously lay off entire digital newsrooms and humiliate their lowliest employees, and they may be battling over who gets to be the richest when they’re all going to be just fine regardless—but to them, the only inheritance that matters is the affection that Logan has stubbornly withheld since their childhoods.

Each of Logan’s children is unhappy in their own way. Connor, the laziest and stupidest, is in a nakedly transactional relationship with the much younger woman whose play he is financing, and is pivoting from having done nothing his entire life to campaigning for president as a doltish libertarian. Kendall, long considered the anointed successor, is a perpetually recovering drug addict who crumbles in the face of pressure from his father or anyone else, even before the most shocking incident on the show to date renders him almost ghostlike. Roman, who pretends to be a clownish vulgarian, is actually quite shrewd, but so emotionally stunted that he can only express intimacy onanistically. Shiv, who at first glance is the most put-together, knows her father will never take her seriously because of her gender, and has compensated by marrying Tom, the least intimidating, least secure man she could find, and making him a receptacle for her own cruel manipulations. (Tom, in turn, has recruited Greg for the same role). Logan has thoroughly broken each of them, and continues to pit them against each other in a contest that will invariably disappoint him. He only ever seems to take pride in them when they’re at their worst.

I started this piece off talking about politicians, and there are really two worth noting on Succession, not including Connor. One is the president, who is never named or shown on screen but who, we’re given to believe, is a shriveled right-wing imbecile who consults regularly with Logan, much as Donald Trump has consulted regularly with Rupert Murdoch since the instant he won his election victory. The other is Senator Gil Eavis (Eric Bogosian), a left-wing populist who may be popular culture’s first significant attempt to reckon with Bernie Sanders. Eavis appears to be sincere in his tirades against the One Percent, but, like everyone else, he has a price, and the Roys are able to find it, just as they are able to wriggle out of the Senate hearings he subjects them to in much the way the Corleones did, through brazen last-minute witness intimidation. Politicians can’t control the Roys. Political careers may rise and fall, but Logan’s right-wing media empire will continue to broadcast and profit no matter what.

Real power lies with the Roys. It also lies with rival media dynasties like the WASPy liberal Pierce family, with Logan’s arch-nemesis Sandy Furness (Larry Pine), with coke-snorting venture capitalists and oil-rich oligarchs in the Caucasus, with the people invited to subterranean orgies who commute between their many homes by private helicopter, and with Facebook and Google and Amazon, all of which exist with their real names in this otherwise alternate universe. Real power lies with Logan, who has built his fortune on a bet: that by holding the average ATN viewer in marginally less contempt than he holds everyone else, he can dominate a market that his more cosmopolitan peers and heirs can only squabble over.

Meanwhile, in the margins of the show we see the actual working class: the young gamekeeper’s son who is taunted by Roman with the possibility of a million-dollar check if he can score a home run (the boy narrowly fails as his parents watch); the immigrants who are called upon to serve lobster and steak at the Roy estate in the Hamptons, and to throw it out uneaten when Logan commands it; or the British caterer whose gruesome fate represents the show’s most wrenching moment. Their lives are worth nothing to the Roys, and their stories will never snag more than a few scattered minutes of screen time, but they are the ones being plundered and exploited and discarded by these pampered sociopaths. We can understand why Roman feels compelled to ejaculate onto his office window as he gazes out helplessly at the Lower Manhattan skyline, or why Kendall literally shits the bed at a New England blue blood compound after a night of hard partying, but we will never learn the names of the people who have to clean up after them.