“The rich are different from you and me,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once said. Ernest Hemingway claims to have come up with the perfect counter-quip: “Yes. They’ve got more money.” The question of exactly how the rich are different has continued to fascinate since Fitzgerald conjured up the gilded world of Jay Gatsby in the 1920s. In the HBO series Succession, entering its second season, it’s as if wealth itself is the protagonist, and “the rich” are merely those unwitting humans on whom it preys.
Perhaps this is indeed another order of humanity, an evolving subspecies whose dynastic concentration separates them from the wider gene pool. Their habitats are cordoned off at the summits of highrise buildings or in sprawling mansions in remote locations; they communicate in heavily coded exchanges mostly incomprehensible to outsiders.
At the start of the first season of Succession, media mogul Logan Roy, the central, patriarchal presence, suffers a stroke that looks as if it will be terminal. He remains comatose for long enough to put the company fortunes in a tailspin and galvanise his son Kendall into making a trial run as chief executive of the family firm, Waystar Royco. Kendall plans to foreclose on any possibility of a reversal by killing his father off in the corporate world. “We’re the ones with the nuts to fuckin’ revolutionise,” he informs his younger brother, Roman.
Roman is indeed nuts, but not in a way that is useful for high-end strategy, and Kendell bungles the attempted ccorporate patricide. By the end of the season, Logan is back in control and Kendall, having taken a serious dive on fortune’s wheel, looks like a broken man. Through the course of ten episodes, the lifelines of Logan and his four children, Connor, Kendell, Roman and Siobhan (“Shiv”) intertwine in a co-dependency that is both vital and toxic.
From a dramaturgical point of view, it’s an ambitious venture, requiring an equal distribution of focus across these principle characters and those they draw into their inner circle. In the final episodes of season one, their story arcs converge as they all assemble in the English stately home for Shiv’s wedding.
The scenes here are consummately orchestrated. The formalities are presided over by Shiv’s mother (Harriet Walters), a lady of the manor with no manners at all, who circulates between groups quietly dropping poison pills into the conversation. Shiv’s fiancé Tom, meanwhile, has discovered she has been having an affair. Tom is a clutz. Ernest, obtuse, but with an alpha male streak that drives a desperate quest to be included in the power base of the inner family. English actor Matthew Macfadyen, who excels at playing on the boundary between pathos and farce, gives him a perverse appeal that has won something of a cult following.
Logan’s younger son Roman (Kieran Culkin), clueless about business, sex and pretty much everything else, issues a stream of unfiltered remarks, in which every other word is “fuckin.’” It’s a kind of defence system: he may not measure up to any one else in the family in terms of achievements, but in his chirpy way he can deliver as many insults per minute as Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It, another of scriptwriter/showrunner Jesse Armstrong’s triumphs.
As that first season approaches its denoument, the breakdown in family relations looks terminal. Logan, in recovery, has fallen out with all of them. Brian Cox plays him as a flinty rock of a man, to be neither shifted nor worn down. Others collide with him at their peril. He is forgiving to his children, treating their callow attempts at treachery as learning experiences, but there are reckonings to be made for any blunders they make in the corporate environment. It is Kendall (Jeremy Strong) who suffers most. Made of less adamant stuff, he takes the knocks hard, and resorts to substance abuse as the only available escape. Shiv (Sarah Snook) combines sensual charm with a quicksilver instinct for the shifting gameplay in the family.
Season two commences with Shiv’s emergeance as the chosen successor. But with Logan back at the helm and driving dangerously, the road ahead is anyone’s guess. He dominates the boardroom with tactics ranging from sophisticated charm to brutish intimidation.
The suave manners are on display when an emissary from a prestigious dynasty of the old New York business world arrives to negotiate. Holly Hunter plays the visitor with brittle poise, never wavering from the tone of quiet courtesy as she says “on behalf of the Pierce family and their media organization that has been privately owned for 150 years, the message would be a typically balanced, nuanced and objective ‘fuck off.’” The benign smile on Logan’s face doesn’t falter while Kendell, standing in the background, quietly recites the numbers. He’s simply raising the bid and she, entirely disingenuous, eventually starts to listen.
Thematically, Succession invites comparison with Billions, which explores the same paradox of the ruthless operator who subordinates the lives of all around him to the obsessive quest for ever more wealth, but in doing so becomes a mere conduit for the imperatives of the corporate world itself. Conspicuous consumption is no longer the pay-off for the all-consuming enterprise of acquiring wealth. Bobby Axelrod in Billions likes to splash it around on occasion, but spends most of his time in jeans and trainers, all his acquisitive instincts concentrated on deals. Logan Roy has a voracious appetite for corporate take-over, moving on other companies like a general whose only need is to gain more conquests.
A nostalgic title sequence in Succession shows the lost world of his childhood, where wealth meant a fine homestead, tennis courts, elegant clothes and carefree play. In the present, no one in the family seems interested in what money can buy. Tom’s attempt to impress Logan by presenting him with a Patek Philippe watch as a birthday present elicits no more than an embarrassed shrug in response. When Shiv learns that Kendall has been shoplifting vape fluid, she is perplexed. “Vape fluid? But he could buy the whole industry.” In one scene, Logan orders the removal of an elaborate cordon bleu dinner, calling for pizza instead.
It is not simply that there is no association between wealth and wellbeing, or even between wealth and gratification. It’s rather that extreme wealth exhausts all forms of gratification other than those on which it feeds: deals, trades, takeovers. The trappings of conspicuous consumption that make up the world of The Great Gatsby are now irrelevant; the ultimate consumer is the corporation, ever more voracious as it grows.
Succession offers obvious analogies with the Murdoch empire and its dynastic challenges, but its creators make no attempt to match the characters to real life. This is a drama in its own right, with its own ethos and tone. Armstrong, teamed up with director Adam McKay (whose recent credits include The Big Short), works at a level of sophistication that might give some commercial producers pause, but it pays off. Audiences, it seems, are greedy for shows that make intellectual demands but promise real insight and dramatic cogency.
Both are delivered, and with more wit and less affectation than the Aaron Sorkin repertoire, where the smart-talk is so generic it really doesn’t matter who says what. Here, every character is as distinctive as an instrument in an orchestra, and the whole effect is one of meticulous composition. The award-winning score by Nicholas Britell feeds allegro piano music through the episodes, adding an at times ludicrously buoyant air to the psychological mayhem. •