Succession Is a Darkly Comic Warning About the Transfer of Generational Power
The old guard titans might have been monsters. But, the HBO series warns, the young wannabes vying for power might be even worse.
There are no heroes in Succession, HBO's darkly comic drama about a cohort of wealthy, privileged media-business strivers, all of whom are rather unpleasant, or at the very least deeply pathetic in some way. But the show does have something like a villain, in the form of Logan Roy, the aging, raging patriarch whose Foxlike media business, Waystar Royco, is the empire all of the show's other characters seek in one way or another to control.
Yet Logan Roy is also the lynchpin of the series, the prime mover in a cast of rich and nominally successful yet essentially feeble and gutless wannabes. And therein lies Succession's central critique of our era: It's a show about the uneasy and uncertain transition of power and authority from an awful yet decisive and pivotal elder generation that has held on for too long to a younger cohort that lacks Logan's gumption: The show corrals a cast of influencers from the worlds of media, tech, money, and politics, all of whom have the trappings of success and ready access to real power—but neither the vision nor the will to effectively wield it.
Played with Shakespearean menace by Brian Cox, Logan is the show's stormy king, reigning over his children and other potential heirs to his throne, all of whom know from the series' outset that his time is limited. Over the course of four seasons, he's been variously portrayed as abusive, cruel, domineering, callous, cold, condescending, and, if usually not overtly racist in his own behavior, far too comfortable with business endeavors that promote racists and racist political ideology. Over the past four seasons, the show, which ends this weekend, has announced his villainy repeatedly and with a sick sort of glee, letting it glare from every surface. It is obvious and easy to spot.
What is less obvious, however, is that Logan is the only character the show affords a measure of respect and deference—not because he is a good person, but because he is adept at exploiting power, money, and influence.
Unlike the scheming children and incompetent executives—or, perhaps, his incompetent children and scheming executives—Logan built something, shaping the world through his will, his vigor, his vision, and, most of all, his comfort in accepting the consequences of his decisions.
(Warning, spoilers for the show's final season ahead.)
That idea of Logan—as a builder, a maker, a doer, a world shaper—was put in the spotlight in last week's penultimate episode, which revolved around Logan's funeral, following his surprise death early in the season. First, Logan's estranged, angry brother gives a harsh, unexpected eulogy filled with coldness and criticism: "He has wrought the most terrible things." He accuses Logan of having "fed that dark flame in men." Then, younger brother Roman, who'd been set to deliver a more positive eulogy, one intended to bolster both his father's legacy and the company stock price, melts down with emotion. Finally, Kendall, the eldest of the three Roy children vying for control of Waystar Royco, stands to defend his dad.
"Yeah, my father was a brute," Kendall starts. "He was. He was tough. But also—he built. And he acted."
Kendall goes on to pay tribute to his father's acts of willful creation, tying them directly to his father's nastier tendencies.
Logan Roy "had a vitality," Kendall says. "A force—that could hurt. And it did. But my god, the sheer…the, the, look at it. The lives and the livings and the things that he made. And the money. Yeah. The money. The lifeblood, the oxygen of this wonderful civilization we have built from the mud. The money. The corpuscles of life, gushing around this nation, this world. Filling men and women all around with desire. Quickening the ambition to own and make and trade and profit and build and improve. Great geysers of life, he willed. Of buildings he made stand."
Succession is too wry and too cynical, too wary of earnestness to fully endorse this view. It's very much the perspective of Kendall, Logan's (possibly) chosen successor who is nonetheless too weak, too gutless, too indecisive to fill his father's big shoes.
But the show doesn't exactly undercut Kendall's sense of his father as a world-building titan either: In its presentation as an off-the-cuff, from-the-heart defense of his father at a pivotal moment, the show lets Kendall's starstruck vision of his father as a maker, a mogul, a kind of god figure stand unchallenged. It may not be the truth; but it is a truth.
Logan Roy, the show seems to say, was a bullying, brutish, menace of a man. And one has to consider the possibility that it was precisely because he was a bullying, brutish, menace of a man that he was able to do, build, and create so much. And the question, then, is what comes next—not only in the cloistered world of Succession, but in the real world it reflects.
Logan Roy is not just a sharply observed fictional character, but an avatar of our age—the tyrannical old guard baron who held on too long and didn't plan very well for his own demise, acting as if he was invincible until the very end. Those competing to rule his empire and build the world that comes next are similarly cast not only as specific characters, but as modern archetypes of power.
First, there are the children: the soft Kendall, the freakish Roman, and the shallow and vainly political Shiv. All of them are too weak, too indecisive, too clever by half, too coddled and inexperienced to lead.
Then there are the company executives, a troop of anxious and weaselly paper pushers coasting on Logan's waves, and the low-born strivers, men like Tom Wambsgans, who seek to acquire a stake in the family via marriage and employment, but who are fundamentally incapable of building something of their own.
There are politicians, left and right, who seek power almost entirely for its own sake, and in particular, a vile right-wing demagogue, Jeryd Mencken, who appears to ascend to the White House via help from the Roys.
Finally, there are money men and tech moguls, the latter represented primarily by Lukas Matsson, a billionaire tech CEO who is portrayed as simply too weird, too inhuman, too out of touch with ordinary human emotions and realities to sit on the throne.
Succession, then, isn't merely a narrow narrative about which character will take over from Logan, but about which center of power—tech, money, politics, dynastic inheritors—will triumph in our own world after the ruling gerontocracy eventually passes away.
And what the show constantly seems to say is that none of them are ready to rule—not in Succession's world and not in our own—because, unlike the Logans who built the empires we now inhabit, none of them have the will, none of them have the brio, none of them have the guts to make decisions and take responsibility for the consequences.
Thus, the series is not a defense of Logan so much as a kind of acknowledgment of his capabilities—and a warning about the frailty and fecklessness of the next generation's would-be kings.
Logan might have been a monster. But he built. He acted. He bent the world to his will. "Life, bloody complicated life," Kendall says of his father, concluding his eulogy. "He made life happen." And it's not at all clear that any of his possible successors can do the same.