Amongst the many trends available in television and cinema these days, the self-destructive family dynamic remains among the most potent and popular, except the targets are successively growing bigger in stature.
I have recently caught up on HBO’s Succession which, if you haven’t managed to catch it, truly is one of the finest pieces of drama anywhere today. With a third season on the way either this year or likely next—delayed, as much else, by Covid-19–Jesse Armstrong’s series has rocketed into the public consciousness following two incredibly strong opening seasons which focus on the Roy dynasty, a New York-based family in control of Waystar Royco, a multi-billion global news and entertainment multinational company, a family faced with challenges within and without as they strive to navigate an ever-shifting media landscape. Armstrong’s series is rich in Shakespearean plotting, razor-sharp writing, complex characterisation and laugh out loud black comedy which underscores a series which, ultimately, is about the self-destructive nature of exorbitant wealth on not just family, but humanity itself – both figuratively and literally. If Game of Thrones saw families physically stab each other in the back, Succession’s pain is psychological.
In watching the show, which Armstrong has worked hard to stress should not be interpreted as one particular family or another (but it isn’t hard to get a strong whiff of the Murdoch, or even Trump dynasties here), I’m left to wonder if part of Succession’s appeal is in watching people who have everything reduced to a personal, psychological nothing. The series is nominally concerned with the titular question of the successor to patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox, on brilliantly snarling form), with his grown up children variously positioning themselves to take over his sprawling, vastly lucrative empire, but the meat of the drama is in how Logan’s cruel, amoral lens on a world he is sucking dry belittles, damages and threatens to destroy his children along the way. As Logan’s brother Euan puts it in one episode, “In terms of the lives that will be lost by his whoring for the climate change deniers, there’s a very persuasive argument to be made… that he’s worse than Hitler.”. There is much current, real world relevance in what Succession deals with, but the heart of the drama, so finely balanced as it is with gallows humour that often resembles The Thick of It (which Armstrong also worked on), lies in how the rule of an empire is enough to destroy an entire family.
This feels like a tale that keeps being told. Succession follows Game of Thrones, or The Crown, even Ozark, in depicting the super-powerful lose their souls, or at the very least their happiness. I wonder… are we perversely enjoying their pain?
I believe that all good things taken to an extreme can be self-destructive and that everything must evolve or die. This is now true for capitalism.
So wrote Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater aka the world’s biggest hedge fund company, in a long essay posted on LinkedIn about why modern capitalism needs reform and how income inequality in the United States is a bad thing. His words were written just over a year ago. Dalio is worth an estimated $18bn dollars, small fry compared to the Jeff Bezos’ of the world (who is worth almost ten times that amount), but he is among a cadre of billionaires who might be seen amongst more left-leaning citizens as the ‘good guys’ in a widening chasm in which men like Dalio, or Bezos, or if we look at Logan Roy’s most apparent proxy Rupert Murdoch, are pillaging the world’s wealth and resources for their own personal gain. Succession certainly makes no bones in painting Logan as the epitome of late-stage capitalism. A Scottish boy who came from nothing, came to power in pugilist fashion crafting a multimedia empire over decades, and whose own children now fear is losing his grip on what constitutes a successful empire in a world of social media, protests, movements and rapidly shifting social mores.
The reason that Succession, in particular, is thrilling television, is that it both paints the absurd vulgarity of such monstrously exorbitant wealth while never truly allowing any of its characters to really enjoy it. Logan is a Machiavellian monster of a human being lacking in any reasonable empathy, who treats his children like chess pieces to be used and discarded; his second born son Kendall (played with heartbreaking angst by Jeremy Strong) is an absent father & failed husband utterly cuckolded by his father’s force of will; his youngest son Roman (Kieran Culkin, frequently stealing scenes with a hilarious, impish lack of tact) is outwardly confident and carefree but quietly impotent and venal; and his daughter Shiv (a great breakout role for Sarah Snook) is calculating but trapped between liberal personal politics and inside a misjudged relationship with a devious but dopey leech (played with acres of comedic smarm by Matthew MacFayden). All are rich as Croesus but none are happy. They are all victims of Logan more than successors and to a far greater degree than inheriting a global empire, they are driven by earning their father’s respect. Logan’s toxic culture of twisted, game-playing meritocracy has bred a collection of damaged children often fighting against their own consciences or human impulses (with Kendall particularly), morality that Logan lost long ago – if he ever even had it.
It is not quite that audience satisfaction comes from seeing these people suffer, but Succession distinctly lacks the kind of almost pornographic veneration of enormous wealth witnessed in a Sex in the City. Season Two finale This Is Not For Tears is set mostly on a super-yacht so obscene you would never believe it actually exists (it does), but all of the Roy family are miserable on it, indeed they use it as a bolt-hole to avoid the glare of the media, post some tricky Congressional hearings. Sex in the City might have revelled in these settings a decade or more ago but Succession’s determination to paint the world of the ultra-rich—very much in that series the modern equivalent of courts, castles and royal dominions (Roy is close to ‘royal’, that may not be a coincidence)—as a world tainted by familial dysfunction, psychological torment and in terms of relationships, a field of emotional failure, suggests the way storytelling seeks to portray the wealthy has changed in a decade of fierce reactionary politics to rampant austerity and sickening wealth, particularly now in the wake of Covid-19.
Just look at Ozark, the Netflix inheritor to Breaking Bad’s collision of white collar America and parochial Midwestern tradition, which has systematically grown into an unmissable slice of crime that is built on the Byrde family, led by Jason Bateman’s Marty and Laura Linney’s Wendy, being entire fragmented as they strive to ward off execution by a major crime cartel by laundering millions in the Ozarks. The cost of constructing a criminal empire of their own in the picturesque backwater has been murder, destruction and ultimately the complete dismantling of their middle-class, white collar unit. If Ozark has a weakness, it’s that the teenage Byrde children are thinly characterised, but they serve a purpose – a tether of humanity as Marty & Wendy are pulled further into their dark deeds. These deeds, however, are what make Ozark so compelling. Much like you’re not rooting for any kind of cathartic redemption for Logan in Succession, Ozark—much like Breaking Bad—is not built on the salvation of the parent or parents. We are compelled to watch their Machiavellian survival but they are too far gone now to deserve any real happiness. As in Succession, it’s the children you feel the sorriest for.
This applied, of course, to Game of Thrones—the show that Succession is, to an extent, the most indebted to—which was filled to the brim with damaged children, victims of their parents crimes and mistakes, many of which fuelled their own misdeeds or quests. Broken families are what made Game of Thrones, whether we were rooting for the reconstruction of the tragic Starks, or the fall of the corrupt Lannister’s, but in all cases, the children involved were products of their controlling, self-destructive parents. Logan Roy could be Tywin Lannister or Walder Frey, should he exist in a Medieval fantasy world, and equally Charles Dance could have played Logan Roy in just as twisted and rewarding a way (much as it’s hard to imagine anyone better in that role than Cox). At least with Game of Thrones, we did have families to root for, but whose journey in the end was the most thrilling? I’d argue watching Cersei grow into a tyrannical leader, her brother Jaime wrestle with his own humanity, or Daenerys’ ultimate evolution from powerful revolutionary to mass murdering dictator. We are compelled, as audiences, by the echoes of broken families to a greater degree than we are those who are steadfast, who triumph over adversity. We enjoy watching the powerful lose, if not their power, then their souls.
What I wonder is if the success of shows such as this are indicative of a broader sense of wish-fulfilment on the part of audiences who seek some kind of justice against the titanic, unequal forces that, democratically, we are struggling to combat. The Crown gets away with its familial fragmentation more because it’s not only reflecting real life events, but the Royal Family are not actively corrupt or downright criminal (although this could of course change…), or indeed slaughtering their rivals using magical shadowy assassins, but while feeling for the young Prince Charles struggling at boarding school or witnessing Elizabeth’s enforced sense of restraint and martyrdom for the titular ‘crown’, at the same time their lives drip of inherited wealth and privilege. There is only so far the support of the commons will go, even as these people face emotional hardships. Are the public sociopathic enough that pleasure comes from the misfortune of others, however wealthy? That would be unfair to suggest but equally, one wonders if storytellers understand that a modern reckoning for the empire builders of our age, particularly those who are proven to be corrupt—such as the retail titan Steve Coogan evokes in Michael Winterbottom’s Greed—will only come from within. Control the world, lose those closest to you.
It will be interested to see if such a trend continues. There is clearly an audience for the Succession’s of this world, and I genuinely urge you to take a run at that series before it returns because it’s sublime – ditto Ozark‘s recent third season. But as inequality widens, and the plea of even billionaires such as Ray Dalio continue to fall on deaf ears, might fiction be the only way to ‘eat the rich’? It’s entirely possible.
Now, as Logan Roy might eloquently put it, f*ck off.