Sunday, 5 January 2020

Power Trip: Unpacking the Success of Succession


With Succession up for three Golden Globes this weekend, I wanted to unpack what got me hooked on the thrilling series about the worst family on television (apart from the Kardashians, of course).

If they gave out Golden Globes for pantsuits,
Sarah Snook would be a shoo-in
Absolute power corrupts absolutely. That's the underlying theme running through HBO's Succession, a show that explores the petty squabbles and power struggles of the fictional Roy family and their multinational media conglomerate.

At the head of the table, there's Logan Roy (Brian Cox, nominated for Best Actor at the Globes), a gruff and foul-mouthed boomer who built his empire from the ground up. Nipping at his heels are his four children; there's heir apparent Kendall (a terrific Jeremy Strong), distanced enigma Connor (Alan Ruck), political fixer and force for change Siobhan or 'Shiv' (Sarah Snook, the show's undisputed MVP) and immature man child Roman (Kieran Culkin, now a two-time Golden Globe nominee). There are others in their orbit – namely, Shiv's meek husband Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) and dazed and confused cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) – but those are the key players vying for the throne once old man Logan conks out for good.

Speaking of thrones; the easiest and laziest comparison to Succession is HBO's former king of kings, Game of Thrones. One is set in New York, the other in a fictional fantasy land, but both are essentially about the same stuff – power, influence and political manoeuvring. Both shows are about dynasties, fragile power structures (and even more fragile egos) and broken familial units who endlessly bicker and squabble. Both are populated with despicable, detestable people who will stop at nothing to seize power, and in the process find themselves clawing at one another's eyes until, presumably, everyone is blind.

But Succession isn't just here to mirror or supplant Game of Thrones. It's out there forging its own empire, one that is built on a bedrock of brilliant acting, sharp writing, captivating characters and sudden shifts in power that expose the hilarity and hypocrisy of the one per cent.

Joker in the deck: Kieran Culkin in HBO's Succession.
In the first episode of season two, the Roy family make a beeline for their summer house in the Hamptons. A montage sees legions of staff set to work before they arrive, polishing candelabras and dusting hearths. A vast seafood buffet is prepared, complete with ample shrimp and lobster that arrived in the back of a special courier van earlier that day.

It might seem extravagant, but this sequence serves a purpose; a foul odour lingers through the house, and all the food adorning the dinner table is swiftly tossed in the garbage at Logan's request – instead, the billionaire requests something more pungent – like pizza – to cover the stench. The food goes to waste, but the family isn't fazed; to them, there's always more where that came from.

Succession, on the surface, feels like a show at odds with contemporary discourse; how can this show, with all its extravagance and excess, connect with an audience when Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's 'eat the rich' mentality continues to gather steam, particularly among a younger demographic?

The answer lies in the subtleties. For all its showiness – from Nicholas Britell's grandiose orchestral score, which feels like power and influence incarnate, to the aerial shots of Manhattan's skyline and corporate helicopters – Succession is satire dressed as celebration. Or vice versa; I'm not quite sure yet. That's the beauty of it.


Every episode – which, let's face it, almost always amounts to the core cast sniping at one another (whether that be in the boardroom, the bedroom, at the dining table or the day spa) is like eavesdropping on something we shouldn't be listening to. We're just mere mortals rubbing shoulders with the Murdochs, the Trumps or the Bloombergs, and seeing them for who they really are behind closed doors. For people who seemingly have everything, the pettiness baked into every action the Roy family makes is what breeds the humour in Succession. Imagine having everything served to you on a silver platter – literally – and still being hungry for more.

Hiam Abbass and Brian Cox in Succession.
As the power swings back and forth between Logan, Kendall, Roman, Shiv and Connor, you'll yearn to see each of them squirm and grovel in one scene, before landing a killer mic drop moment in the next one. The show excels in making us care about or cheer for these complex, contemptible characters.

It certainly doesn't hurt that the cast is note perfect. Cox's grizzled patriarch is a force of nature who dispenses a curt 'fuck off' at the slightest inconvenience; armed with a sly grin, Snook's Shiv faces an uphill battle as a woman with her eyes on the prize; Culkin's weasely Roman is either disguising smarts by playing up the stupid or just straight-up stupid; while Macfadyen's slimy son-in-law Tom has a face that is just asking for a slap.

The deft writing traverses the tonal tightrope with aplomb; we love to hate the Roy family and all their insecurities. The distaste we feel for their constant backstabbing is only matched by the thrill of the pendulum swinging back and forth. None of them are good people, and all of them deserve some form of horrible retribution, but at the same time, don't you just want to see Shiv succeed? Or Roman get his way? Or Logan leave scorched earth in his wake?

For a show that oftentimes is little more than attractive people standing around talking, Succession is packed with intrigue and incident. Thankfully, it's is here to stay, at least for the time being, with season three already in the works. It may not have dragons or ice zombies, but this satirical exploration of the one per cent is awash with all the intrigue and political gamesmanship baked into HBO's former smash hit – and with billionaires like Bezos, Musk and Rinehart under the microscope now more than ever, it couldn't have arrived at a more pertinent moment.

Succession seasons one and two are available to stream on Foxtel. Season three will likely air mid-2020.

1 comment:

  1. So glad this won a few Globes tonight! Easily the best part of the night. This is a great write up. I finally just watched S1 and 2 a few months ago. I like that you mentioned GoT along with it, someone described it to me as "Modern Lannisters" and I thought it was a bit fitting. I can't wait to see where S3 goes. Loved how this last season ended.

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