Succession’s Masterful Vibe Check
The latest episode of Succession showed us just how dangerous it is to care about these characters.
With Season 4, Episode 8 of Succession, ‘America Decides’ series creator Jesse Armstrong just executed one of the most masterful vibe checks in recent TV history. The most recent episode left many viewers questioning how the show ever got us to feel for these characters in the first place. The answer? Careful curation of perspective.
Succession is a show about despicable rich people, inspired by real life controversial families and their figureheads. Echoes of the mythos surrounding the likes of the Murdochs, the Maxwells, and Silicon Valley millionaires like Peter Thiel and Elon Musk all make up Succession’s DNA. But simmering beneath the corporate espionage and political manoeuvrings is also an intricate subtext portraying familial abuse, sibling rivalry, patriarchy, and the ruthlessness of life under late-stage capitalism.
It is this humanising subtext that has always made the Roys legible. The average viewer of Succession likely can’t relate to orchestrating hostile take-overs, executing acquisition deals, or being wealthy beyond human comprehension. However, at one point or another we can all relate to feeling unseen by our family, parental abuse, dealing with sexism from loved ones, repressing childhood trauma, or even just fighting with siblings.
Sympathetic moments, like the one in the pilot episode where Roy family patriarch Logan eviscerates Kendall before calling everyone in to lunch, have always acted as ciphers. They make the characters more human and push the audience into understanding and relating to them. The world falls away and we cannot help but do the very human thing and empathise with these characters even when the next scene shows them, say, tricking a child into thinking they will get a million dollars.
What has always made these characters feel so compelling and realistic is that moments where they are truly degenerate co-exist with moments of sympathy. Over four seasons, as more of the subtext pertaining to Logan’s abuse of the Roy siblings was revealed, it became easy to root for them to supplant their father. So too, did it become easy to sympathise with them increasingly as they failed. This culminated in the Season 3 finale in which Logan defeated the siblings’ coup attempt, betraying them by ousting them from their majority share in the family company.
Now, I am not about to lie and tell you I was not devastated to witness the siblings manage fleeting unity only for Logan to find another way to break them. It remains one of the greatest betrayals in television, but it is also, strategically, a very myopic series of events. Our view is of the ladder, not what lies at the top.
Episodes like Season 3’s ‘What It Takes’, in which Roman and Shiv compete over who can choose the best presidential candidate for their father and Waystar to back, offer glimpses at the extent of the Roys’ malign influence on the world. However, it’s framed carefully inside the sibling’s thankless battle for their father’s approval, cushioned by the sympathy we feel for that plight. Even when Kendall’s recklessness leads to the death of a waiter at Shiv’s wedding, its Logan blackmailing Kendall over it that focuses the tragedy.
But small insights into the siblings’ true natures have always been part of the series – from Shiv’s adultery to Roman’s bullying and serial sexual harassment, and Kendall’s relentless, self-serving scheming. Their status as perpetrators of abuse was often complicated by their overwhelming personal reality as victims of their father. With Logan’s death in Season 4, however, the source of much of our sympathy for the Roy siblings died with him.
Logan, who orchestrated much of Waystar Royco’s dark empire singlehandedly, has left this role to be filled. Shiv, Kendall and Roman are now filling that role, for better and mostly worse. While some have criticised this final season for feeling more like work, it is a wonder what these critics expected from a show in which the Roy siblings shifted from vying for the top job to actually having to do it.
Out from under Logan’s influence, the Roy siblings are finally without an antagonist and the audience is without a focal point for Waystar’s wrongdoings. Their father’s ruthless apathy allowed the siblings to position themselves as “better” than their father. But this too, is gone with Logan. The reality of who the Roys are, not in relativity to their father but as people, is what remains.
In the most recent episode, Shiv, Kendall and Roman become complicit in unlawfully influencing the process of a federal election to install fascist candidate and Waystar ally Jeryd Mencken as president. Through the Roy-owned conservative news network, Fox News — I mean, Sky News — I mean, ATN, the siblings conspire to call the election result early despite a substantial number of votes being lost in a fire.
Roman, Shiv and Kendall each have their own reasons for backing Mencken by the episode’s end. Each of these reasons boils down to them wishing to maintain their personal wealth and influence, despite each of them being aware of the legal and social ramifications for both them and the country with a fascist in the top job.
For Shiv, even misogyny from her brothers and the threat of a patriarchal fascist state is not enough to make her forgo her chance of power at Waystar. For all Shiv’s political posturing against her father and now her brother’s choices, she still chooses to stay in the room and fight for a seat at the table.
Similarly, Kendall’s moral doubts over Mencken’s election centre on his adopted daughter’s experiences of racism. But when the shallowness of Shiv’s convictions is revealed, no love for his daughter is enough to deter him from backing Mencken to spite Shiv. A move he hopes will give him power to oust Shiv and Matsson from Waystar in the short-term.
Then, of course, there’s Roman. For Roman, illegally electing a president is “a good night of television,” securing a business interest and making a powerful friend. Despite being touted as the sibling with the most empathy by Time magazine, Roman’s privilege and lust for power sees him abandon it altogether when it does not suit his interests.
Fans are questioning why creator Jesse Armstrong teased ‘America Decides’ as the most “shocking,” episode of the series. Was it a misdirection to avoid spoiling Logan’s death in Episode 3? Perhaps. More likely, he meant that ‘America Decides’ would be the ultimate mask off moment for the Roy siblings.
With ‘America Decides,’ Jesse Armstrong presents this context with ruthless efficiency and harrowing accuracy. What the Roy siblings have personally suffered or even believe as individuals is irrelevant to the harm brought by the institution they have fought to rule.
There is no abuse from Logan to distract from what the Roys have chosen to do. Their capacity for love, empathy, or progressive beliefs is trumped by their desire to keep places of power in an institution that stands for none of those things. Kendall loves his daughter, Roman loves his siblings and Shiv cares about democracy — so what? In the Roys’ world where wealth and influence speak for power. Love and belief hold the least amount of value, the least amount of capital, and, after this week’s episode there is no way to unsee that big picture that now.