THE SHAKESPEAREAN TRAGICOMEDY OF “SUCCESSION”

THE SHAKESPEAREAN TRAGICOMEDY OF “SUCCESSION”

“The Incas, in times of terrible crisis, would sacrifice a child to the sun,” Logan Roy says, gazing steadily at his son, whose eyes are shining with tears. Kendall Roy is a man reduced to almost nothing. He’s just been chosen to shoulder the blame for a massive scandal within his family’s billion-dollar corporation—to fall on his own sword in order to save Logan’s legacy. He was born and raised in the lap of luxury, all to become, in the end, a mere blood sacrifice. 

“What could you possibly kill,” Logan continues, “that you loved so much, it would make the sun rise again?”

This is perhaps the most heart wrenching scene in all of HBO’s Succession, a nerve-wracking and bleakly hilarious drama about the most evil people alive: billionaires. Since the pilot aired in 2018, the internet has been obsessed with the show. On paper, it might seem like a typical prestige cable drama, centering around a repulsively wealthy family fighting over the CEO position—currently held by its ailing patriarch—of a massive media conglomerate. Battling it out in the boardroom isn’t a revolutionary conceit anymore. However, I believe it is the greatest show on television since Mad Men (please, call me pretentious). The main theme alone might be the coolest piece of music ever composed (link to opening credits: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=77PsqaWzwG0&ab_channel=HBO), thanks to composer Nicholas Britell. 

Succession’s primary appeal lies in its characters, performed to perfection by actors who truly grasp the script’s balancing act of tragedy and absurdity. The pedigreed Roy family is chock-full of objectively vile and borderline sociopathic individuals, but they are portrayed so richly it’s hard not to revel in their antics. There’s Kendall, the world’s most pathetic excuse for a finance bro; Roman, a spineless pervert; Shiv, a two-faced and sharp-tongued girlboss; Connor, the delusional eldest son. Rounding out the dysfunctional cast are Shiv’s insane husband Tom, Logan’s third wife Marcia, and poor Cousin Greg. It’s the kind of show where you might happily watch an entire spin-off series about any character, which you’d probably need to be able to peel back all their layers.

Although it’s absolutely worth watching just for the performances, Succession’s writing is really what makes it perfect television. It’s clearly obsessed with Shakespeare (King Lear and Macbeth being the most obvious points of reference), making use of the Bard’s favourite literary tools—twisting allegiances, dramatic irony, reversals of fortune. There’s plenty of Greek and Roman mythology peppered throughout, and both season finales are titled after lines from a niche John Berryman poem. Jesse Armstrong, its creator, started out doing British sketch comedy; Succession is about Americans, but he often taps into that uniquely dry yet profane sense of humour prevalent in his previous work on The Thick of It and Peep Show. Succession shifts between Shakespearean dramatic heights and humiliating cringe comedy with an incredible ease. The phrase “fuck off” has never sounded more poetic. Even the one-off insults and proclamations are like candy for your brain: “he wished that Mom gave birth to a can-opener because at least then it would be useful,” “you can’t make a Tomlette without breaking some Greggs,” and my personal favourite, “Buckle up, fucklehead!”

Maybe it feels a bit perverse, or politically incorrect, to enjoy a TV show about obscenely rich people doing terrible things, while real-world rich people seem to be driving the planet into an early grave. However, Succession runs a lot deeper than other media about how awful rich people are. Instead of merely offering a snarky outsider’s perspective of the one percent, Succession carves into the heart of the billionaire existence, exposing just how hollow and rotten it is. Its meticulous satire and soap-operatic fixation on family infighting lies parallel to a genuinely tragic tale about cycles of abuse; about how capitalism begets trauma and vice versa. 

As the show unfolds, this theme becomes evermore crucial. Logan Roy is terrifying and irredeemable, but his monstrous nature is critical to the way his family attempts to sail through their privileged lives. They’re all cruel egomaniacs, trying and failing to not seem obsessed with status and power. When moments of tenderness aren’t played for laughs, they reveal something disturbing about the characters involved. All they want is love, but they’ve been raised without it; they don’t understand it, and they don’t vocalize it unless they’re using love as a means of controlling someone else. 

We use money to fill a void, to give our lives meaning. It’s human nature. But what happens when you have all the money in the world? What if the void can never be filled? How far would you go to satiate that hunger?

Season 3 of Succession airs on October 17th, 2021. Do yourself a favour and catch up.

HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: HBO

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