It took me a while to get into the first season of Succession. I don’t think I was the only one. At first glance, the show looked like a glorification of rich, bad people doing awful things to each other and the people around them. I’m still not entirely sure if this was the show’s fault or my own faulty interpretation of what it was trying to do. What I do know, however, is that I got way into the show in the back half of the season. The key was the realization that (almost) everyone on the show is terrible and broken, and that’s the point.
Start at the top. Logan Roy is a cranky old dinosaur who views every interaction in his life as a zero-sum game. It’s made him a titan of industry and a feared adversary but it’s also made him a very bad dad. I was going to start this next sentence with “I’m sure he loves his kids, but…” until I thought about it for a second. Does he? Does Logan Roy love his kids? I honestly do not know. They’re not so much children to him as they are chess pieces to maneuver around a board. Sometimes he’ll torment one of them for no apparent reason. I think if I heard him say “I love you” to any of them I would assume it’s part of a manipulative scheme he’s brewing to pit them against each other. He’s gruff and domineering and the alpha in every room he’s in but also just a mess of a human being.
Next up, Kendall. Poor Kendall. Yes, sure, of course, he’s a spoiled party boy disaster with delusions of big business grandeur. And okay, he did kind of kill a guy. But he’s so clearly been broken by the father he wants to impress that I can’t help but feel bad for him. A little. Even his big takeover attempt was just a transparent “LOOK AT ME NOW, DAD” move, the business equivalent of a disgruntled teen taking a steak knife to his dad’s favorite recliner. It’s all self-destructive and sad and it would be more sad if not for the thing about him kind of killing a guy. Maybe I’m just sympathetic because he has a son named Iverson. I don’t know. I will report back as new information becomes available.
Let’s keep going, lightning round. Roman is a fully-grown little boy who has been bullied by his father and older siblings to the point that he can only feel joy from bullying others. Connor is an idiot who thinks he is smart (the most dangerous kind of idiot) and is now entering politics despite the fact that his partner is a former escort and he has no platform beyond “rich people are good.” Shiv holds it together better than her dipshit brothers but has a bubbling cauldron of resentment and rage where her soul should be as a result of being looked over for most of her life, most obviously manifested in her working for a loosely-fictionalized Bernie Sanders character who stands against everything her father stands for. Tom is a shell of a person who shamelessly kisses up to anyone above him and cruelly torments everyone below him in flailing attempts at acquiring acceptance and/or respect.
They’re all awful. They’re all absolutely shattered emotionally and psychologically as a result of Logan’s twisted winner-take-all approach to parenting. The whole thing is at once a damning takedown of capitalism and a snapshot of ugly family dynamics and a bleak look at the forces at play behind our major media outlets. It’s also, in parts, really funny, especially once you realize the show isn’t glorifying their antics as much as it is kicking over a rock and showing us the slimy critters scurrying away. It’s kind of like Billions, but meaner. It’s a lot like Billions, actually. Both shows have featured ortolan dinners and rocket explosions and billionaires trying to ruin each other for sport. I don’t know what it says about me that these are two of my favorite shows. I should probably just not think about it.
I think the key to making all of this work was the rise of Cousin Greg. When the season started, he was puking through the eyeholes of a mascot head in a Roy family theme park. By the end, he was squarely inside the inner sanctum. Having a nervous and bumbling Everyman on the show is what turned the bad behavior on its head. Cousin Greg became the Greek chorus, the audience’s representative on the show, the gangly goldfish in the piranha tank. He’s what prevents the reprehensible actions on the show from becoming too normalized. All he has to do is stammer out an “Um, I don’t know… if we should…” and, even though he’ll promptly be cut off and shouted down, we’re all re-centered morally, if only for a second. That one second can change everything.
Season two is set to kick off this weekend. It’s very good and pretty dark in spots and as addictive as all the drugs flowing through Kendall’s ravaged bloodstream. In the lead-up to it, I’ve seen and heard some people admit to bailing on the first season after the same three or four episodes I struggled with. That’s fine. Life is short and I’m not one to “but wait, it gets better” you on this one. Here’s what I will say: The things that turned me off when I first started watching are now the things that suck me in more. It’s a perspective thing. The show isn’t depicting heroes. It’s depicting monsters. All of them.
Except for Cousin Greg. Cousin Greg is cool.