Succession - 4 SEASONS | 39 EPISODES HBO
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
After five years, four seasons and 39+ hours of broadcast the TV series Succession has come to an end. It has received much praise and commentary, so what’s it all about?
The series is set in the world of Logan Roy, a self-made billionaire and head of media conglomerate, Waystar Royco. Logan, now in his eighties, hopes that one of his four children will step up to lead the company after his departure. Over the course of the series the shifting fortunes of the children make each of them a potential successor, at least for a while.
On one level the show can be reduced to just a tale of a bunch of rich, white, mostly cis, mostly male sociopaths shouting at and manipulating each other. While this summary is superficially true, the ultra rich of New York business provide a rich canvas for showrunner, Jesse Armstrong, to paint a picture of today’s society.
One could also argue that the first episode is merely repeated 38 times with slight variations on the theme. As in other black comedies the characters never progress or learn from their experiences. They can be compared to the characters in Seinfeld. Terrible people in whom we eventually invest our sympathies in the hope that they will improve but who continually disappoint and in the end never surprise.
However, Succession takes the pathos and the bathos to a far higher level.
The show takes its inspiration from the real life, family run, media conglomerates of Rupert Murdoch and Sumner Redstone. Succession, however, has far more subtlety to it than merely art imitating life.
Succession has been described as Shakespaerean. Not only through parallels with King Lear and Macbeth but through the inner turmoil of the characters and how their character flaws lead to their eventual downfall.
It has been described as Machiavellian. Power is the only goal for which they strive. Power is reflected through their obvious wealth and the nouveau riche exert their influence through their shareholdings and the seats on the Boards they control. The family may agonise about the stock price of Wayster Royco but it is only so that they can achieve their business aims.
The series has been praised for its attention to detail. Through the Roy family trust, Waystar has to ride the perils of breaching loan covenants and dancing with the devil as they take on private equity. Logan survives a no confidence vote, swallows a “poison pill” and looks at a M&A to achieve the best for the company. A “kinder and gentler hostile takeover” is not in the Roy lexicon.
Waystar Royco is old media and old media is definitely on the wane. It is threatened by upcoming internet based companies like Vaulter in the first series and GoJo in the final. The smoke and mirrors pitches in these episodes reflect the astronomical but transient values placed by the markets on these new tech disruptors. Fashion and fame can see fortunes being made overnight only for the companies to be reduced to penny dreadfuls the next day.
Power is the lifeblood of politics and the Roys with their money, media outlets and agenda have little hesitation in shaping the country’s political future. They agonise about the “optics” and always seek to control the agenda.
Armstrong has no hesitation in ridiculing their sometimes feeble attempts. In season 2, Tom Wambsgans, head of ATN - Waystar Royco’s media arm, and his sidekick, “Cousin Greg” suggest a new slogan for the company. They opt for Greg’s suggestion of “We hear, for you” but the snickers from the audience at its launch soon causes that double entendre to be canned.
The production quality of Succession has been recognised by industry peers. While the first season starts slowly, the development of the characters over the rest of the saga has been recognised by multiple awards.
Through Succession, Brian Cox (Logan Roy), Jeremy Strong (Kendall Roy), Kieran Culkin (Roman Roy) Sarah Snook (Shiv Roy), Kevin Macfadyen (Tom Wambsgans) and even Nick Braun (Cousin Greg) have had career defining roles.
As a method actor Strong truly inhabits the Kendall persona and while this makes for great theatre the intensity of his performance puts pressure on the other members of the cast. Brian Cox has expressed concern for Strong and his method of acting and has echoed Laurence Olivier’s advice to that other famous method actor, Dustin Hoffman, to ease back and “try acting” instead.
The technical aspects of the filming have also received high praise. Succession is shot in a cinéma vérité style with scene blocking, pop zooms and late cuts. There are no flashbacks or voiceovers in Succession; the audience is strapped to the cameraman as he and they try to find their way through the Roys’ labyrinthine world. Although the plot line has been meticulously scripted, the director allows a degree of improvisation to the actors, cinematographers and editors.
Succession is wordy but the dialogue is often inarticulate. Cousin Greg is the master of this but the audience will often learn more about a character from their silence in response to a vulgar or pithy put down. Each member of the family develops their own intonation of “Huh” that says much more about their situation than any words could do.
The sets and costumes are exquisite. With their wealth the Roys enjoy the best clothes, cars, helicopters, jets, boats, ranches and apartments. Second cousin Greg Hirsch comes from the poor side of the family but weedles his way in and over the course of the series progresses from his humble, bumbling origins to the outer reaches of the inner circle. Unlike the other Roys, when he finally gets a $40,000 Rolex, he joyously flaunts his new found wealth.
Attention to detail is the hallmark of the Succession production. Even the opening credits have been praised for the way they foreshadow the power, wealth, social dynamics and family dysfunction of the Roy household
Similarly, the dissonance in the score by composer, Nicholas Britell, captures the mood of the darker forces at play on the screen.
Succession excels in many ways but it owes its prominent place in the film archives from its depiction of the tensions within a family. Bound to each other through their bloodline the protagonists repeatedly tear each other apart.
Any of them could walk away from the family business and its trauma at any time but the money, the power and their ambition keeps drawing them back. They live in an existential hell. As the philosopher most associated with the existentialist movement, Jean-Paul Satre, has said "L'enfer, c'est les autres" ("Hell is other people"). For the Roys it's the family.
Watching Succession is a commitment but if you survive the first four episodes of season one it is well worth it. If you make it to the end of season four, you can rewatch it to see what you missed the first time around.
Enjoy or marvel at the monsters within.