Slouching Toward the Big Seat: A Look at HBO’s Succession

Evan McGarvey takes a look at the best show on TV right now, the HBO original drama, Succession.
By    August 23, 2019

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Evan McGarvey could easily hit a home run off of Roman Roy.

In the aftermath of Toni Morrison’s death, one of her best quotes made the rounds online: 

“All of that art-for-art’s-sake stuff is BS. What are these people talking about? Are you really telling me that Shakespeare and Aeschylus weren’t writing about kings?

Best TV series on screen right now
Best TV series on screen right now

Last Sunday, after the second episode of the second season of Succession aired, an episode in which two big dumb boys spray dumb-dumb-MBA slang all over an online media company’s office before firing the people within, my Twitter feed felt like a group of people in recovery who just watched a Eugene O’Neill play, then went to their AA meeting in a church basement filled with bottles of rum. 

How could we sit here with hillocks of student debt, the creeping knowledge that neither we nor the government will be able to give our parents civilized levels of palliative care as they go off into that good night, and be like “115 characters of pithy fictional account of how I too was at VAULTER lol send tweet” ? 

Is this fun? Or is this a capitalist version of True Detective season one’s misogyny, viewers just taking in well-made visual abuse as we curl up with our loved ones by the iPad’s dutiful blue glow. 

Why in the name of all that is holy are we entertained by Kendall Roy, a warped, desiccated middle-aged fuck boi father who is never more than one Peruvian flake bathroom break away from a ruining someone else’s life? I know Manichaeism is out, and we’re all under the perpetual cosh of trauma or something, but boo this man!

Shiv Roy? A world-class combination of glances and ecru outfits who bounces between majordomo-ing for zaddy Bernie Sanders and the craggy mosaic of her father’s Mephistophelian face? I-N-D-E-P-E-N-D-E-N-T, do you know what that means? 

I went to a New England boarding school. I grew up in an Ivy League college town. These feckless, droopy, surreally wealthy white children for whom sociopathy is both learned and inborn, for whom snarling is constant and hilariously physically unimposing and yet effective socially, whose worst case scenario is an inherited 27 million dollars and whose best scenario is running a dialysis-machines-and-GIFs consortium: the big secret? There aren’t actually that many of them, maybe a dozen in each year at Princeton and at Exeter. But they pull attention toward themselves. Not even intentionally.  They set the culture. Their sumptuous jackets become reference points for campus fashion; their access to the family jet hallowed. Their ruthless confidence goes viral and become worthy of emulation.

Yes, Succession is a mesmerizing and harrowing depiction of how families operate when no one can say “I love you” or “you hurt me when you did that” or “I need your help,” and how a family fills in those wounds with something else. But your family swapped in brisket or Latin mass or an appreciation for Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect. These characters are swapping in the torn garments of democracy and class mobility where your father taking you for ice cream should go.

So I just need to check. Are you furious too? Have you tried to educate yourself on the Volcker rule again? Does Succession send you to build torches as it holds your attention rapturously? I don’t know if I can tell the difference anymore, like watching those videos on The Dodo (another rich kid online scheme!) of elephants suffering for tourists in Thailand. It’s awful and I need to see if this gets better. Oh, look, another video, this time of abused falcons found in an unlicensed zoo in Texas.  Thank you, next. But, again, we’re not talking about wounded animals or ‘everyday’ people at a certain point. We’re talking about how the psychodramas of the most powerful people in the world trickle down suffering and madness onto the working many, the truly vulnerable and every scrap of American consciousness in between.

I don’t mean to accuse. I can’t stop watching Succession either. It’s most certainly the most urgent and compelling show on TV, though it’s not the best nor the most humane (that’s Fleabag or Atlanta, though we might not get anymore of either). I don’t want Succession to be more like The Boys, but I find it wild how close the superheroes in The Boys are to the characters on Succession: some are straight up evil, some are complicated, all are idiots wildly overpowered through sketchy corporate means. All should be depowered swiftly and comprehensively.  

But then Cousin Greg gets the Soho apartment and kicks his gigantic legs in the air with as real a joy as exists in this universe. Then Kendall goes to Vaulter and fires your friends and neighbors. A big beardy boyfriend spits on him and Kendall moves through him like a ghost. Then Kendall turns that apartment into his coke den and won’t let Greg sleep in his own place. Because it is not his place. The money lives there. America: As another character from another great show about wounded rich white destroyers said, “it’s a business of sadists and masochists, and you know which one you are.”

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