TV Features

SUCCESSION Recorded the Dying Breath of a Primitive Empire… It Was Also About The Roys


At seven years of age, Kendall Roy was cursed. His father sat him down in Candy Kitchen and promised the world. His world. This week, as Warner Bros. Discovery transitioned its flagship streaming service under the umbrella moniker of “Max,” the world parted ways with HBO’s SUCCESSION, a five-year-old farce taken seriously only because its network decided to run it as a prestige drama. The 8.4 million viewer average has proven the gambit successful, even if the series trails THE LAST OF US, perhaps the lone triumph in the recent sweep of studios pumping billions into bloated franchise acquisitions. While the most boring among us will harp against the cringe factor of method acting or the parodical, fetishized operatics underscoring trivial flights of capitalist fancy, it was Jeremy Strong’s pretentious methodology and Britell’s movements that shot this all up from a worthy VEEP successor to the status of modern myth. Standing alongside Voltaire’s CANDIDE and Jerry Lewis’ THE LADIES MAN as one of the best comedies ever made, the SUCCESSION finale delivered one last Roy-packed plummet from “grace.” Not since Cain and Abel has the tale of loser siblings stood so mighty in the cultural consciousness.

Season 1 felt executive producer Adam McKay’s hand heaviest, littered with gallivanting monologues and writing staff soliloquies that hogged the camera, but as the show grew more secure—as evident from the second season’s leap in quality, that growth was startlingly quick—characters barked their dialogue in quicker succession, rightfully fearing that they’d be railroaded by another in a cast of bullet trains. It was music. How the fuck do you talk to these freaks? Too many details and you’re a prattling banshee, too few and you’re hanged and gibbeted for your menial insights. You play the exact tempo or you get Pete Best’d from the band, motherfucker. My best friend forced me to watch SUCCESSION in 2018. I understood the concept: rich people are bad, yes, okay, I get it, we all understand. Do we need another show about this? What Jesse Armstrong posited was… Well, if not how bad, then how recognizably pathetic? This morbid curiosity—evenly inspired by Vinterberg’s THE CELEBRATION and your most nervous breakdown—was matched with the ecstasy of watching a show filled with dickheads who talked just like me, prattling off banter out the urethra of the brain.

It was one of the few shows that dared to be mean. I mean, really fucking savagely mean. You knew each character’s backfoot like they were your own Achilles’ heels, and nary saw their strengths. Rarely was that meanness out of malice, for most times it was to score a private laugh from the bored audacity of having said the thing at all. For better and for probable worse, it resonated deeper than I’m proud to admit. I’d end up poisoning the Roy family’s bowl of rum punch and perch on their fireplace while they choked, but not before I went a few rounds seeing who could emotionally decimate which millionaire mongoloid first.

Succession Heart Attack

If The Roys were mean, then where does that square creator Jesse Armstrong? The delicate nature of SUCCESSION’s moralizing—there is no serious avenue in which one could argue the series was ever in the family’s corner—results from a mix of classical tragedy and sending out the Bat Signal to all types of consultants so they can make fun of fake-job-C-suite freak execs with laser precision. There was never a valiant commoner. What, Jess? Kendall’s assistant, Jess, who leaves her position as the lackey for the failson of a racist, international misinformation network after fascist boy-toy Jared Menken is cherry-picked for the presidency? Tremendous work, Jess, thanks for making room for New Jess. Precious few were the moments that got down on one knee to explain its byzantine nomenclature, SUCCESSION often finding mirth in abandoning its viewers in the fog of a business major’s war. It took me three viewings to understand how Logan fucked the kids in the Season 3 finale (in case you’re too shy to ask: he and Caroline renegotiated the terms of their divorce to strip their voting power within the company).

In translating SUCCESSION’s second language, and extrapolating the laughably minor magnitude of most of its plot, the bubbled insularity of the series becomes one of the greatest jokes of all. None of SUCCESSION is devoted to the effects of The Roys on the world (it’s why the election episode hit like a wrecking ball). Every episode is not about them securing wealth (Kendall’s buyout alone is $2 billion) but ensuring their right to an endless inheritance. The S3 finale isn’t grand corporate espionage, it’s brats killing Daddy because he’s cutting them off to retire permanently. He wins whether Tom informs or not, because Logan never gets fucked. Mountains move offscreen. Many times, core shifts in the show’s universe will be introduced with the same accord as a snarled coffee order. Who is really affected by a moved mountain? This is all make believe, the only rule is that there’s fees on everything and those fees are rising at a higher pace than what fees you collect. The final four chapters see The Roys focus their sights on The World, only to band their efforts into the destructive interiority they know best, burning out and taking the show with them. God only knows how many of us have died or will in the interim.

We never shook The Roys. We had no part in their payday downfall. And Americans will likely never shake “The Roys.” The members and inhabitants will be cycled out via personal traumas or financial liquidations, but the structures will stand tall for eternity. Cultural change—the social climate—is a cudgel for short-term movements. Throughout SUCCESSION, perception is seen as a nuisance: fruit flies on the parfait. The fundamentals always stay the same. Success is analysis, capital, and execution. Any monkey can pull it off, that monkey just needs to persist through the moral sludge and compromise all they’ve ever believed—if they ever believed in anything in the first place—and the only ideological opposition in positions of power are venture capitalist Dems and centrist ghouls. In Wambsgans’ words, the US is late imperial: we have our own Paris, and when it burns we’ll build another. Truthfully, that’s a rosier outlook than I’m used to. In Murdoch’s world, it sure smells like we’ve reinvested our debts into early imperialism for one last rodeo. Or rather, we’ve divested our futures into the sound and fury of good TV.

It is a series that lulls you into the same board meetings, the same backstabby, interloping sessions, the destination weddings that doubled as corporate retreats, and then loops those repetitions into a dimwitted inertia of the damned. Even the constant threats of incest are cuddly revolutions, the Roys relating to one another via the threat of fucking, the pursuit of sucky suck on their dicky dicks, and the quest for Daddy’s lap. “I love you” and “I like you” as indicators of fucks to come. Jeremy Strong’s mischievous grin emits a mix of Buttigieg “I will convince you so hard that I have this when at no point in time I have ever had this” phoniness and the spaced glee of Robert Armstrong’s Mickey Rat. It’s a travesty that he’s emerged as a Pacino-level powerhouse right as original cinema has hit its nadir. You’d latch onto intonations and their triggers. I know the difference between Sarah Snook leveraging her accent work into the serpentine, faux-sincere girlboss speak as Shiv intimidates a sexually abused cruise employee and the genuine tongue-tied bumbling of her “I did strategic review!” Ivy League linguistics. It was these reliable cycles that turned such a baneful saga into a comfort watch. I’ll cue up an episode where ATN is faced with an active shooter like it’s “The Contest.” The explosive Season 2 finale regarding Kendall’s possession of incriminating cruise ship documents is defused several hours later by Sanaa Lathan’s tortured superstar lawyer overseeing the evidence and disproving their, well, explosiveness. Back to square one, for the umpteenth time. And it’s those same repetitions that inform every chapter to come for the Roys beyond “With Open Eyes.”

Succession Face Squeeze

SUCCESSION ends amidst a parade of major IPs shuttering their doors in the same financial quarter, this era of hostile turnovers where unanimous creator sentiment seems to be “let’s get this shit over with.” The whizz-bang pow of the perfectly delightful GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 3 is hindered by Gunn’s standoffishness, his last hurrah tinged with the bitterness of abject contract fulfillments. Everyone’s ending on their own terms, but that doesn’t make the terms sweeter. The same night as SUCCESSION’s death was BARRY’s, the Bill Hader dark comedy that zeroed in on the “dark” for its bizarrely swift swan song. It’s no coincidence that both shows have vehement hatred for both who David Zaslav (CEO and President of Warner Bros. Discovery) stands for and who he explicitly is, let alone the general disdain for the follies of fading old media in the eye of a new media storm. From afar, it would appear that the insipid invaded the raped fields of the doddering old guard, but the two have actually signed a simpatico transitional pact. Extract the parts of my broken machine, baby, tug them out hard and fast. Best of luck to all who are about to be ripped clean off the bone; time to spring before they run your pride and joy into the ground. Death’s in the air when even Damien Chazelle is throwing all his personal stock into an autobiographical eulogy for the cinema. Logan recited one final gasp in favor of traditional media then croaked on the shitter the next day. Every SUCCESSION predictor should’ve taken the hint when the exact same vicious strings play after Kendall lays out his world-ruling plan to a woofing Hugo (Fisher Stevens as the Kay Adams of the season, and, much like Diane Keaton, shattering the backboard when called to do so). HBO Max dropped the “HBO.” As tech consumes media, the writers are on strike for the foreseeable future. Does art stand a chance when we, collectively, clearly don’t? In killing itself, SUCCESSION documented its direct analogues to an eerily real-time tee.

Armstrong ends it all with an episode that takes place almost entirely on the Roy compound’s playground, seemingly designed for first-time viewers tuning into the ending of this show that’s been flooding their timeline. How else do you explain the magnificently long in the tooth “Meal Fit For a King” sequence, scored to that goofy 808 remix of the show’s theme? From a production angle, surely, it clicks: the Barbados sequences at Caroline’s beachside manor were the final scenes Culkin, Snook, and Strong filmed together, and this bonding montage was a rare moment of compassion shown toward the actors of a show that just this season cast Jamie Chung as a walk-on extra and continued its streak of placing Hope Davis in the back row of any given room. All gossip and bickering and having your mom dread the next dinner you and the sibs are gonna disrupt. Good for them. The videos from production are lovely. It’s a slow start to the finish line.

The moment a quivering Siobahn utters “It’s Tom,” the hairs on your neck stand up. Soon after when Lukas shows genuine, frantic concern for the first time in the entire series, the KILL BILL sirens start blaring and you get a final half-hour that subsists the high and brutal comedown of shoving a full pound of crack up your asshole. Mylod’s camera glides through the top floor of Waystar one last time, Karolina and the rest of the executive suite snaking through their choreography like it’s Busby Berkeley’s THE WEST WING. Rome busts his stitches open on Kendall’s shoulder in a show of sadomasochistic brotherly love, while Shivvy winces more than you’d want the deciding vote on the Gojo sale to be wincing.

Succession Shiv

Then comes the shocking decision that has left many grumbling, and more completely unsurprised. Let it never be understated: clumsy ‘ol Shiv so aggressively does not have it, stomping all over it in her work boots. Tom bombs his cod cheek-reeking pitch as CEO, but Lukas made up his mind when Shiv sold him as the most prominent dick-sucker in any room. And, though we witness Shiv resort to her lone specialty of keeping her options chronically open, it’s not a Lady Macbeth maneuver to vote against her brothers, and, subsequently, herself. In the virtual dinner held at Connor and Willa’s soon-to-be remodeled home, Shiv sees who her father was, immediately thereafter sees how dopey her brother looks on the literal throne, and just doesn’t see it ever for him. Ever. So she goes for an empty fucking suit. Shiv caves not to save Ken from a life of professional slow-drip suicide, but to ensure she never has to see her doofus big brother win. Ken fumbles every bag imaginablel the moment he tells Stewie “You’re a grilled cheese with a sucked dick.” Often, it’s that petty. And the show bravely lets its heroes lose harder than almost any popular media has ever allowed its players to lose. When Shiv trumps Ken with “Well, you killed somebody,” Kendall caves in the same moment Logan had mocked her: it’s the same as the “supermajority” trick, except the prey was on par with the bait this time. The mission to preserve their father’s birthright crumbles like few prospects have ever crumbled in the history of the show. And much like THE WIRE, even the winners are kind of losers.

It’s maybe the most plot-oriented the show’s been in its whole run. Who actually wins the election? Which board members will secure the vote? Who does Mattson choose as Waystar CEO? Does Greg join The Quad Squad? Usually you wait for the last 120 seconds of a season finale for the plot of SUCCESSION to progress. The snips aren’t as snappy, it’s all so desperate. They’re sweating. It’s the episode where everyone talks like Shiv. All four score billions but come out more cucked than anyone’s ever gotten cucked—imagine having your dreams of what you wanna be when you grow up shattered at 40. The Roys become grown ups before our very eyes. Shiv courts her dad after all, Rome will spend his treasure trove likely investing in militias and scheduling wax play appointments, while Kenny gets partially GODFATHER PART II’d with a heavy pour of deluded destiny being ripped from his balmy palms. Namely, the business psycho destiny of killing himself in a manner fit for a king. There’s Tom Hagen pulling you in to share that your father has plans for your future, and then there’s the ghost of Logan Roy pulling out a white flag from your hobo pouch for you and decreeing that he’s won, as he always has and always will. Wrestle, you boars, for the sausages that roll off the table. We’re shown each of the children’s tombs. All the bunks are filled.

There have been far better SUCCESSION episodes—this falls in line with the plodding “Living+”, an amusingly stagnant chapter designed to remind stans that when you remove these freaks from the confines of their witticisms, they are just your dipshit bosses that you dread reporting to every moment of your dwindling life—but it was a wonderful ending to SUCCESSION, a towering work worth dissecting for its Shakespeare analogues, the dramaturgical intricacies of its fluctuating share prices, and every muttered aside that ranged from comparing Denver omelettes to camels’ labias to recalling your Uncle Lester, who Dad wouldn’t let the kids in the pool with, and was also called Mo, because, uh, Mo-Lester. It wasn’t all hype: in the jungles of forcibly generated content, SUCCESSION was considered and ripe and so ever dense. It was the work of intelligent, dastardly, nasty bastards. It was art you could chew, and art you could taste. It was England’s first worthwhile contribution to the world. In the great American tradition of entertainment, The Roys spent their rancorous final moments together as animals in a glass cage. In a greater American tradition, I gazed and laughed.

Open in Spotify

Kevin Cookman
Kevin Cookman is a Film Editor for Merry-Go-Round Magazine. Deserted in a video store as an infant, Kevin was raised on Fulci, Tarantino, Kubrick, and Whoppers. Now he's a graduate of Chapman University who acts as editor for Merry-Go-Round on the side: what a success story.

Video Premiere: Onesie’s “What You Kill”

Previous article

Join Merry-Go-Round Magazine at Bear Mountain Music Hall on September 8th!

Next article


Comments are closed.

Free ebooks Library zlib project