Are the protagonists in Succession winners or losers?

October 20, 2021   4 mins

Watching rich people do terrible things is a longstanding passion of the public. It’s why we can’t get enough of Succession and its family of grotesques. We can track back our obsession four decades, to the corporate cruelty and conspicuous consumption of Dynasty and Dallas. But the Eighties were different. Today’s tantalising depiction of the super-rich has better characterisation, considerably less shonky sets and some breathtakingly abusive dialogue.

When the show was first broadcast in 2018, much of the buzz came from the question: but who is it really about? To some, the fracious backstabbing children lining up to take control of a vast media megacorp were an obvious analogue for the Murdoch empire. Others saw the Trumps. There were shades of the Redstone family (owners of the private company behind CBS and Viacom).

But as director Adam McKay has said, if the show actually followed the real lives of the super-rich, audiences would reject it as implausible: “If you did the story of the Koch brothers being raised by a Nazi nanny who then went back to support Adolf Hitler, you would just never believe that in a show. With Kushner, didn’t his father hire an escort to sleep with his brother-in-law? And then send the tape to the sister?”

Such baroque outrages are more the stuff of music mogul saga Empire, or private school schemefest Gossip Girl — dramas that treat money like a rising tide lifting protagonists free from the demand to seem “realistic”. “Wealth porn”, these shows have been tagged, for the way they luxuriate in luxury. The pleasure of viewing them comes at least as much from being able to vicariously devour the lifestyles of the characters as it does from the switchback plots.

Succession gives you the thrills of gorgeous tailoring and private jets, but what makes it a fundamentally different kind of show is its attitude to wealth. It’s something you can see by comparing the opening credits. Watch the intro to Dallas or Dynasty, and you’ll see sweeping shots of opulent homes intercut filmed from helicopters, intercut with beautiful people and glimpses of where the money gets made, all set to gloriously stirring music.

These are programmes that feel good about money. They portrayed people doing vicious things in the service of it, sure. Every once in a while they even made vague gestures towards the idea that acquisitiveness might actually be corrupting. But at bottom, the world they portrayed was a world it would be nice to be part of. If you had to have a catfight, wouldn’t you want it to be in a beautifully appointed studio with only the finest knick-knacks to use as weapons?

Now watch the opening credits to Succession. A lot of it is filmed at eye-level, consisting of super-eight style home videos of the Roy family, presumably filmed in the Eighties (Logan would have been in his pomp at the time of Dallas). There’s a sense of dominion in the modern-day birds-eye shots of New York, but it’s undercut by the music: an insistent clang of unhappy piano rubbing up against frantic strings. The power the Roys have is more precarious than they would like.

Succession’s credits show where the profits come from, there’s none of the quiet dignity of Dallas’s oil-churning nodding donkeys or the pristine gleam of financial centres in Dynasty. Instead, we get flashes of some of the media the Roy family operates. One blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gag shows a screen of the Roys’ fictional Fox News style channel, with the headline: “GENDER FLUID ILLEGALS MAY BE ENTERING THE COUNTRY ‘TWICE’”. It’s an absurd and shameful way to make a living.

Capitalism in the Roy style is not something you can feel proud of. All the lavish wonders in Succession’s worlds derive from activities that are, at best, unwholesome. Extremely unwholesome, in the case of the company’s cruise business, which has taken a very Jeffrey Epstein direction. Principles are simply something else you can put up for barter: watch Logan announce in the latest episode that the way to suppress malpractice revelations about his company is to threaten rival media outlets that if he falls, they’ll be next. Freedom of the press, but only as it suits him.

The rich are a suspect caste in 2021. An Eighties viewer could genuinely aspire. Who, watching Succession, ever imagines that they could grift their way into the distant echelons of the 1%? Money has gathered itself to itself and taken up residence very far from normal people’s lives. No wonder the series doesn’t go in for Nazi nannies and honey-trap hookers. It’s hard enough to believe that the super-rich are even human at this remove, never mind that they’re capable of true strangeness.

The big pleasure of Succession isn’t only in the viciousness of the characters. It’s in the bathos. Their money can’t save them from being disappointed, frustrated, stuck in traffic, forced to wait out the whims of a capricious father or confront the betrayal of a thankless child. Money fixes almost everything, but even the kind of wealth that makes a Rolex into a disposable trinket can’t give you ultimate control. You can make people conform up to a point, but you can never outright own them.

If they do show their willingness to be bought, they instantaneously lose value — witness Logan’s open contempt for his oleaginous son-in-law Tom Wambsgams (played, with skin-creeping greatness, by Matthew McFaddyen). Compare that to the brief tremble of respect we saw at the end of season two, when Logan’s formerly favoured son turned whipping boy Kendall (Jeremy Strong) finally turned on his father. Logan now hates Kendall and will do everything to destroy him now, of course. But ever so briefly, Kendall made himself matter.

It’s too much to say that Succession invites us to see the rich as victims and pity them for their privilege. But it does, at the very least, show the kind of hell one can end up in when you’ve confused money with love, as the Roys have. Logan holds out the prospect of running the business as a prize to make his children compete for his affection, and they comply because they don’t know any way to feel wanted that doesn’t involve a bank balance.

Jerry Hall (now the fourth Mrs Murdoch) is a fan of Succession. Not an obvious reaction to a drama said to be an unflattering portrait of her family, and maybe it’s just a self-conscious performance of in-on-the-joke good humour. But I think there’s more to it. For viewers in the 99%, Succession is a reminder that, regardless of privilege, the achingly wealthy are still pettily human. And for viewers in the 1%, Succession is a promise that the world could see their humanity — however little sympathy the super-rich might deserve.

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.