You've successfully subscribed to American Purpose
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access to American Purpose
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
Success! Your newsletter subscriptions is updated.
Newsletter subscriptions update failed.
Success! Your billing info is updated.
Billing info update failed.
Our “Succession” Obsession

Our “Succession” Obsession

HBO’s “Succession” offers a Rorschach test of its viewers’ values.

Austin Lamb

As America wakes up from the cultural bender called “Succession,” it seems more appropriate than ever that we have come to use the word “binge” to describe our television consumption. There has been no end of ink spilled on HBO’s Roy siblings in their attempts to take over their father’s Disney-meets-Fox-News media empire. But as we look back and try to figure out what happened last night, so to speak, there seems to be little agreement as to what it all meant.

Jacobin calls “Succession” “the most potent piece of class critique on TV in recent memory.” Ask National Review, however, and you’ll hear that the show is a “not an indictment of how rich people are and behave” at all; it is just a morality play. This fracturing, I think, speaks well of “Succession,” which is a reflection of American culture in the true sense of the word: We all gazed into the brokenness of the Roy family and saw ourselves in it. I’m less sure that it speaks well of us: that reflection is not always a flattering one. Above all, there is something of a moral shallowness to how some of us have received “Succession”—a flatness in response to something that itself has a good deal of depth.

In some ways, “Succession” is a strange candidate for a pop-cultural fixation. In a world of ballooning budgets and familiar IPs, “Succession” scales things back significantly. Against the desperate mediocrity of Amazon Prime’s latest $1 billion Lord of the Rings cash-grab, “Succession” was confident enough to let its smartly-written cast breathe, with intimate camerawork; stumbling, often-improvised dialogue; and Shakespearean, unified settings—some of its best episodes were just people talking in the same place for the whole runtime.

In other ways, however, the “Succession” obsession makes perfect sense. In point of fact, it’s a rather niche show. In its last season, “Succession” had roughly half the viewership enjoyed by The Sopranos and Game of Thrones in their final seasons, according to industry reports. The amount of press “Succession” has enjoyed has obscured that fact, to no small degree because the show’s setting appeals to just the sort of media types who can’t help but write about it—either because they delight in its satire of conservative legacy media; because they see themselves in it; or both. NPR tellingly ran a “special series” of “Succession" Recaps” on every episode from Season Three onward. Evidently, the beloved state-supported media operation thought it was important that everyone know what happened on “Succession.”___STEADY_PAYWALL___

And yet, the Left and the Right have seemingly been watching different shows when watching “Succession.” The Left tends to praise “Succession” as a satire of the ultrarich that we enjoy because of schadenfreude. There’s an inevitable moment in every cast interview when the interviewer asks, with a sick sort of glee, “What is it like to play such terrible people?” The actors, who have spent years living with their characters and do not think they are terrible, struggle to answer. “They’re not terrible at all,” Brian Cox has said plaintively to Stephen Colbert, who does not hear him.

While some on the Left have delighted in seeing “nepo babies” shoot themselves in the foot, others have bemoaned “Succession” for this same reason. “For its mostly middle-class viewers,” writes Alexis Soloski at the New York Times, “‘Succession’ offered both a backstage look at the lives of the ultrawealthy and the comforting assurance that maybe those lives, despite the expensive trinkets that adorned them, weren’t especially nice.” This betrayed “something empty at the heart” of the show, “a kind of cheerful nihilism” that “confirmed and suckled a belief in human nature as hollow, grasping, void.”

People have said similar things about The White Lotus, HBO’s other hit gold-plated character drama. I have to admit that I’ve never bought the idea that shows about the mega-rich are nothing more than “wealth porn” for failed social climbers who want to see people cry into their caviar. Some might watch them for that reason, sure, but shows like these lampoon the upwardly-mobile just as harshly as they do those born wealthy. The final victory of middle-class striver Tom Wambsgans, for example, is ambiguous, and I’m sure many viewers preferred the moral graspings of the Roy siblings to the vacuousness underneath Tom’s midwestern charm. To say the least, “Succession” invites us to ask whether Tom’s obsequiousness is any better than Kendall’s incompetence.

The Right, meanwhile, has tended to see “Succession” as a tragedy or a family drama, which is a little more on the money. But they’ve also tended to pass on a show that lampoons a fictional Fox News. Ross Douthat might say that “Succession” belongs in the pantheon of great TV serials, but right-leaning commentary on the show is in general much harder to find, and feels the need to qualify itself with headlines like “Don’t Dismiss 'Succession.'”

It is no coincidence that the Right had an easier time perceiving “Succession”’s awareness of the natural yet rare occurrences of individual greatness, however terrifyingly amoral that greatness may often be. Kendall’s eulogy for Logan captures this brilliantly:

By God, the sheer lives, and the livings, and the things that he made. And the money. The lifeblood, the oxygen of this wonderful civilization that we have built from the mud.… Now people might want to prune the memory of him to denigrate the magnificent, awful force of him. But my God, I hope it’s in me.

Jacobin, on the other hand, called Kendall’s speech “trumped-up populist rhetoric,” as if paeans to a natural elite were necessarily “populist,” or as if naturally great men and women do not exist. But National Review’s claim that the show does not problematize massive accumulations of wealth is just as wacky. The Right is inclined to value the timeless tragedy of the Roy family while ignoring the show’s socio-political critique; meanwhile, Left-leaning watchers tend to appreciate “Succession”’s satire of mega-rich mores while ignoring the show’s not-entirely-negative depiction of Logan and his forceful charisma.

“Succession” was all these things: political and familial, ruthless and tender, contemporary and timeless. It’s this moral subtlety, in part, that prevents me from following The Bulwark in calling the show an “amorality play.” “Succession” oozes morality; it’s just not moralistic. Some writers did lament its apparent amoralism—its lack of any character with principles that transcended self-interest and who was able to hold to them throughout the series. But if the show does lack a good man—and it is awfully hard to portray a truly, consistently good man in fiction—it is more than aware of the unanswerable longing for goodness in a society that seems to reduce everything to self-interest.

In a word: this is Kendall, that flawed heir-apparent with a glimmer of Logan’s awful force who is held back from greatness by his incessant desire to be, or be seen as, a good man. When Kendall asks contemporary America what a good man is, all it can give him are pseudo-leftist liberationist platitudes, and all he can do is repeat them. “F*ck the patriarchy,” Ken shouts on his way to a company gala, uninvited, in Season Three. “I’m better than you,” Ken later tells his father. “I hate to say this because I love you, but you’re kind of evil.”

In last season’s election episode, Shiv’s last-minute appeal to keep Ken from making a dangerous call—“You’re a good man, Ken”—works for a moment, but only a moment. Ken realizes Shiv is playing him, a fact reinforced in the series finale, when Shiv reminds Ken of the man whose death he was partly responsible for. Ken finds himself trapped in a world that will not yield to his desires to be a good man, or at a minimum, to be perceived as one. And so he hurtles toward his unraveling.

With such pathos, “Succession” was not the kind of show that you could watch—really watch, not just have on—without discussing it with someone. Great stories beg discussion. I got my dad hooked on it, and for a moment there, it was almost our sole topic of conversation. (Is there something strange about watching “Succession” with your own father?)We talked about how we couldn’t stand Shiv’s scheming; how we were drawn in by Jeremy Strong’s stellar rendition of Kendall (One head, one crown!); and how we knew, despite this, that Ken would come apart at the seams.

Not all of the writing that has spun out of our collective “Succession” obsession has been good. Still, I’m glad we didn’t have to watch it alone. “Succession”’s contemporary parallels certainly drummed up media chatter. The show is not without its flaws, but it refuses to be subsumed into the spin cycle. There is no one “take” that exhausts it, Left or Right. We can and should continue to read ourselves into stories like “Succession.” With any luck, our next reading will be richer than this last one.

Austin Lamb is a Ph.D. student of political philosophy and American politics at Boston College. He has written for The American Mind, The American Conservative, and Bright Lights Film Journal.

Image: The cast of “Succession” in a publicity poster for the final season. (HBO)

CultureOn ScreenUnited States