Television

The One Good Reason to Root for the Roys

Succession’s siblings don’t usually deserve sympathy, but their vicious infighting reminds us how damaged they are.

Roman, Shiv, and Kendall Roy.
Who will get the kiss from daddy?  David Russell/HBO

With Succession’s siblings engaged in an episode-long argument about whether or not to join forces against Logan Roy, “Mass in Time of War” felt like the first conversation the four of them have ever had where their father’s presence receded just enough to inch toward an honest reckoning. But while the elder sons make the case for corporate parricide, with Kendall leading the charge and Connor just hoping he’ll finally get to run something, their younger siblings can’t take advantage of the moment, even though if they presented a united front against their father, he would, as as Shiv puts it to Roman, “bleed out.” This failed attempt at sibling solidarity isn’t surprising, but it’s still hard to watch. Succession is not a show that leans heavily on pathos, and it’s hard for any one character to generate sympathy. But there is pathos in this group of damaged people who are unable to come together, even though they are the only four human beings in the world who can understand each other.

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While it’s become obvious to point out there are no good people to root for on Succession, that being Team Roman or Team Shiv trivializes how awful all of these people are, you can still imagine the kind of childhood the Roys had, set against one another by a father who uses his love and approval as a bargaining chip. No amount of money can wash that trauma away. Because while Logan Roy is many things, first and foremost, he is an abuser. The show is cagey about how it shows this—its overall saltiness makes a serious, unironic look at trauma feel jarring, and it’s careful never to put the Roy children in too sympathetic a light. (If we needed a reminder that they are toxic, Connor whines to his father that he and Willa had to fly back to New York “scheduled,” which is apparently how private plane owners refer to commercial air travel.) But the abuse is there, and it is savage.

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In Season 2, after Shiv riffs that Waystar Royco needs “a good old fashioned dinosaur culling,” Roman makes a crack in front of his dad and out of nowhere—sudden, volatile, terrifying—Logan backhands him across the face. “No, don’t fucking touch him!” Kendall shouts, and for once we see the Roys stripped of their rivalry and shitty banter, an older brother trying to protect his younger brother. The moment lasts the briefest of moments, and then everyone else, including Roman, rushes to brush past it. Watching them simply move on is almost as chilling as seeing the abuse itself.

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Then there is the psychological abuse Logan puts Kendall through when he forces him to meet the parents of the man Ken left to drown at the end of Season 1. Kendall has his own crimes to account for, we all know that, but Logan isn’t trying to get his son to clear his conscience. He’s just twisting the knife, reminding Kendall that he owes a debt he’ll never be allowed to repay.

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The fascinating thing about Succession is that it’s not a show about succession at all. It’s about how Logan dangles the promise of the throne as a way to wield power over his kids, and how that rivalry affects the siblings. What does it mean when they’ve all been raised to want the same brass ring, and there’s no splitting it four ways? Kendall, Shiv, and Roman have all been through the same poisonous charade that Logan might name them CEO. (Poor Connor only gets “You’re my number one” reassurances on the phone after getting stuck with the job of ensuring the company jets arrive on the right tarmacs.) But that shared experience still can’t lead them to common ground.

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And that’s painful, because the Roy siblings do love each other. They may treat each other horribly, they may share their father’s talent for exploiting each other’s weaknesses, but they also feel at home around each other. Can you say that about anyone else they spend time with? The genius of this show is that it looks like a shiny corporate thriller but it’s really an intimate family drama about the basic, underexamined bond of siblings—there is no one else in the world who has experienced the same childhood, with these particular parents. And while every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, Succession takes Tolstoy’s concept to the extreme. Lots of families have terrible, abusive patriarchs. But there is only one Logan Roy.

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That’s all part of what makes the siblings’ failure, or inability to join together so heartbreaking. It’s rare to see the four of them truly alone, a mirror of the scene in the first episode where they discuss Logan’s request to add Marcia to the trust. They even agree on some stuff—like the fact that the company, and their father, have done terrible things. And they care, not just from a PR angle, but from a moral one. Waystar’s cover up of the assault and murder of women working on its cruise lines horrifies them. That’s a low bar, but for these kids, it’s something. If there is one thing the Roy kids are truly good at, it’s understanding how power works, so they know if they side with Kendall their father is finished. They can end him. It’s the right play, and for a company besieged by a hostile takeover and criminal allegations it is probably the only play, the only way to gain even the appearance of a fresh start. But they cannot do it.

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Instead Kendall, even though he’s publicly removed himself from Logan’s version of Game of Thrones, cannot help trying to position himself as number one. He makes slippery promises like “I’ll be CEO on paper,” and tells Shiv, “You’re the one I want,” sounding just like his father, even as he implies she’s just angry because she knows he did the right thing and she didn’t. But she’s repelled by his desire to dress up his actions as a moral crusade. Shiv, after all, likes to think of herself as the good Roy, someone who is better than she actually is—distancing herself from the company and backing progressive political candidates is how she coped—and she can’t stand Kendall trying to take the high ground.

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If Ken had approached it differently, he might have won Shiv over. But he can’t help himself, just as Shiv cannot help herself when she coolly attacks Roman by calling out his sexual fixation on Gerri. She needs Roman, but she savages him, with the practiced ease of someone who’s been doing it her whole life. And while Connor is most aligned with Kendall’s crusade—saying “Amen, brother” when Kendall refers to Waystar as “a declining empire within a declining empire”—he also seems the most afraid of his father . When the doughnuts from Logan arrive, Connor stares at them as if they are a dagger delivered for a ritual suicide. He’s out. The others tell Kendall they’re out too, and then the siblings do what they do best, which is to rip each other to pieces. It’s all the more depressing knowing they’ll never get such a good chance to oust their father again.

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In some ways, the sibling dynamics on Succession remind me of The Crown, another prestige drama about a family where no outsider can every fully understand what it means to be part of the Firm. The language, the sense of duty, and the means of succession itself are completely different, but the loneliness is the same. As Succession barrels forward, I’m certainly not rooting for any of the kids. But I am rooting for the Roys, plural, for these four siblings to be able to find some comfort in each other among the wreckage. Even that may be too much to hope for.

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