Television

The Sadness of Succession

The show assures us that the ultra-rich may be ruining our lives and destroying our world, but at least they’re not happy.

Succession finale shot of sad Tom.
At least the Roys aren’t happy.
HBO

Why do we love Succession? Or, more to the point, why do we allow ourselves to love Succession? It’s a show about loathsome, irredeemable characters, modeled after some of the most pernicious people on the planet, and it puts us firmly in their corner, if not precisely on their side.

You may love or hate the Roys—or, if you are a dedicated viewer, a little of both—but you have no choice but to empathize with them, if only because there’s no one else to care about. We’re provided with periodic reminders that the Roy family, whose collective net worth runs to the tens of billions, and whose tendrils stretch into industries ranging from (right-wing) media to theme parks and cruise lines, are so removed from the realms of ordinary human experience that they can destroy other people’s lives without a second thought. Their extreme wealth makes it almost impossible for them not to be sociopaths. But the people to whom those ruined lives belong—the boy taunted with the possibility of winning $1 million in the show’s pilot, only to have the possibility snatched away as quickly as it appeared; the caterer left to drown by a drugged-up Kendall in the show’s first season finale; the employees of a media website whom Kendall fires en masse, mostly to prove to his father that he can; the actress whom Kendall convinces to abandon her Broadway play, then tells his security guards to dump and put on the first plane home—aren’t treated as real characters. They’re just devices to remind us, again and again, that the Roys are very, very bad people.

Is it just that the show provides a mildly more palatable version of inescapable reality—that, as the writer Maris Kreizman suggested, it’s “a pleasure to be momentarily distracted by a monstrously evil and dumb family that at least has snappy dialogue and nice sweaters”? Or is it that Succession, as invested as it forces viewers to be in the Roys, or at least a Roy’s, eventual triumph, also provides them with a measure of comeuppance, forces them to face consequences of the kind that seem so infuriatingly elusive in the real world?

The finale of Succession’s second season saved its biggest kick for the end: Kendall’s long-in-coming betrayal of-slash-emancipation from his father, Logan, who thought he’d convinced his son to sacrifice himself for the good of the family company. But as heartbreaking as Jeremy Strong’s portrayal of Kendall’s quiet suffering has been, the episode’s most poignant moment came earlier, during a conversation between Logan’s daughter Shiv and her husband, Tom.

Tom is one of few non-blood relations granted access to Logan’s inner circle, and the only one who hasn’t gotten there by earning it. As ruthless as he can be, Logan is also loyal enough to his family, or at least to the idea of family, to give his son-in-law a string of high-ranking jobs. (Why Logan, who usually brooks no incompetence from his hirelings, would hand this awkward buffoon control of his troubled cruise-ship division and then his TV news channel—the crown jewel of his empire—is never really reckoned with.) Although Tom doesn’t exactly come from humble stock, he approaches his newly acquired fortune with unabashed enthusiasm; he’s nouveau ultra-riche. He squires the even-more-nouveau Cousin Greg through the world of VIP nightclubs and impossibly inaccessible restaurants like Willy Wonka showing off his chocolate factory, chomping down ortolan like a Midwestern rube gorging himself at a buffet table. The Roys were born to wealth and accept it as their right, but Tom savors it, which has made him both Succession’s most enjoyable character and its easiest to despise.

The scenes with Tom and Greg tilt Succession furthest toward satire, while the confrontations between Logan and his children, especially Kendall, lean toward tragedy. But in the show’s second season, Tom’s story has taken on more dramatic weight. We’ve known since the first season, when he helped cover up a history of criminal activity at the Roy’s cruise lines, that his dopey bungling could cause serious harm. But in the second season, Tom himself has started to doubt whether his life is all that it could be. As much as his climb up the corporate ladder, Tom seemed to view his relationship with Shiv as proof that he’d made it. One of the richest women in the world not only loved him, but needed him.

One of the show’s great mysteries is why a confident, accomplished woman like Shiv-fucking-Roy would settle for a nobody like Tom, but she explains early on that he’s a stabilizing force in her life. Before they met, she was, she said, “a mess.” But while Shiv might need Tom, she can’t manage to respect him, which is why she waits until their wedding night to inform him that she wants their marriage to be an open one. Tom agrees, because Tom always agrees, but he’s not happy about it, and although he’s cheated on Shiv before, he seems to have no desire to now. In the second season finale, she tries to broker a compromise by suggesting they bring another woman into bed with them, but rather than jump at the opportunity, Tom balks, and then tries to argue that would be really kinky would be if he and Shiv had (undoubtedly missionary) sex while the woman watched them through a keyhole. As much as he delights in the lavish surreality of the 1-percent lifestyle, his desires with regard to his marriage are almost touchingly prosaic. He just wants to screw his wife.

And so it is that in Succession’s second-season finale we’re introduced to a new character: Sad Tom. In the midst of negotiating which Roy will take the fall for the cruise division’s illegality, Tom and Shiv decamp to a private Mediterranean beach, where he finally unloads his dissatisfaction about his wife’s unilateral polyamory. “If I think about it,” he tells her, “a lot of the time, I’m really pretty unhappy.” When he was on his way up, Tom didn’t have time to reflect, but now that he’s near the peak he can look down and see the ruin he’s made of his life. He’s wealthy beyond imagining, but he’s treated with contempt and indifference by the people whose respect he wanted most, including his own wife.

Succession is never far from reminding us how miserable its main characters are—and that’s what makes it possible, even permissible, to keep watching. The show is a satire and a tragedy, but it’s also a fantasy, comfortably reassuring us that the ultra-rich may be eliminating our jobs and destroying our world, but at least they’re not enjoying themselves. (Shiv: “Wouldn’t it be nice to just wake up in the morning and not feel like a fucking piece of shit?”) That’s also what every article on the subject tells us, but we do know that the wealthy live longer, that they exercise so much power that it makes democracy a joke, and that they grow more powerful by the day. That ruining our lives doesn’t bring them true fulfillment is the coldest of comforts—and yet it may be the best we can do.

It doesn’t seem incidental that Succession has been embraced by the media and the internet-addicted, people who, whether by vocation or by choice, keep the closest tabs on the day-to-day deterioration of the world. (Succession is currently the 13th-most-popular series on HBO, ranking below The Righteous Gemstones and Ballers, but if you spent an inordinate amount of time on Twitter, you could come away thinking it’s the only show on TV.) The “we” obsessed with Succession is a small faction, but it’s a loud and influential one, primed to enjoy stories about soulless media barons and the defenseless websites they shutter. The show flatters those prejudices artfully, but it could stand to challenge them as well, and suggest that if the world’s ruling elites are going to face justice, it won’t be fiction that holds the gavel.