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Monday's Cool: A Feast for the King
'Succession' was never about who was going to win.
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NOTE: Succession finale spoilers ahead! Normally, I have my free post up on Sunday, but wanted this post to be about the end of Succession. Such is my flexible calendar as a Substacker.
For a show that managed to dominate the online discourse as much as it did, Succession proved very resistant to discourse. Some of that is because Jesse Armstrong and his writer’s room were smart enough to stay one step ahead of internet chatter, anticipating tv pundit takes and undermining them on the weekly.
But another part of it is the extremely messed up state of fandom and the dire state of American media literacy. Half of Succession’s loyal fans badly wanted to uwu Ken, Shiv and Rome into their precious smoll beans who must be protected at all costs, but the show wasn’t having it. Every time you started to feel a little sympathy or affection for any of the Roy kids, they’d commit some unspeakable act and pull the rug all the way out from under you. Rooting for Rome? Go to hell. You think Shiv should be CEO? Succession thinks you should be walking off a bridge. Maybe Ken deserves the throne? Maybe Ken deserves jail. Not since Mad Men has a show so cunningly thwarted attempts to fall in love with its leads.
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But another part of the fandom that’s been cropping up recently takes the opposite track, arguing that the show has basically done too good a job humanizing these horrible people. As one poster put it, “my problem with Succession boils down to making the super-rich interesting and compelling as characters, with tragic depths, instead of making them boring weirdos for whom huge wealth is functionally equivalent to a severe cognitive impairment.”
Regular Clusterhuck readers will know I’m not inclined to be sympathetic to the wealthy, but I can’t abide this take either. For one thing, I’m not sure this person really understands the show he’s talking about, which has bent over backwards to make it clear that these people are boring weirdos for whom wealth has not only been a severe cognitive impairment, but an emotional, spiritual and relational handicap as well. Their tragedy is that their deep human impulses towards love and connection are throttled by something as stupid as money, and this has ruined all their lives in multifarious ways.
As The New Republic noted, Succession is sort of a bizarro West Wing for these current times. Sorkin’s drama lifted its characters up as brilliant superheroes of virtue while Succession does the opposite, but both shows are on a moral crusade reflective of their respective eras. The West Wing sprung from a decade of surging neoliberalism when it seemed like the system really could save us, as long as its tools were wielded by the right people. Succession grows on the bleeding edge of late stage capitalism, as it’s become clear that giant media conglomerates have claimed the scalp of a functioning electorate. It’s the end of a certain era of TV — maybe the best era we’ve ever had — and it was around to chronicle the forces of greed that led to this ignoble end.
But if this were just an angry screed against billionaires it wouldn’t have the sticking power this show has had, and that’s where I think The New Republic gets its analysis wrong. Because the show was never just about rich people are bad. It was about how these rich people, specifically, are bad, and how they are bad in ways they could escape if they could just muster the force of will to reject the cycle of power and influence they’ve been caught up in. Their father enlisted them all in a poisoned game, and was incapable of shaping them into the sort of person who could win. Logan raised shallow, unremarkable nepo babies who were born on third base and couldn’t find their way to home plate with a map. They are human, but their humanity has been stunted in ways they don’t dare question, because they know how damning the answers would be.
Ken can’t approach the truth without tumbling into an existential crisis, which is why the show ends with him back at the water, where he has spent so many of his most contemplative moments, his father’s literal “shadow” over his shoulder in the form of Logan’s bodyguard. Shiv is almost there, and is conflicted enough to balk at a crucial moment in the vote, and her reasons for doing so are a complex mix of her connection to Tom and her opinion of Ken. “I love you but I can’t stomach you” feels like a pretty good assessment of how we’re all supposed to feel about all these characters (Culkin and Strong have been aces all along, but Snook is my pick for MVP of the season). In the end, Roman comes closest to approaching the truth: “We’re bullshit. We’re nothing.” He’s been the closest thing the siblings have to a conscience, and it’s not until he sees his dream of running Waystar has well and truly imploded that he can face the music.
I’m sure it’s unintentional, but it’s hard not to compare these rich young rulers to the OG in Matthew 19. Like him, the Roy kids followed the rules as they understood them. Like him, they expected some reward for this lifetime of obedience. In the Gospels, the rich young ruler goes away sad, and Jesus tells the disciples that it’s hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven. And if we can understand that Heaven is not just some magical utopia in the clouds, but a life of spiritual abundance in the here and now, then here too, the Roy kids share the rich young ruler’s fate.
It’s the opposite of a feel-good ending but, then again, it leaves the Roy kids in a healthier spot than they’ve ever been, probably ever. Their obsession with their father’s company has been the driving force of their lives, rotting them from the inside out since birth. Taking it off the table is not redemption, nor does it guarantee any sort of salvation. But then again, it’s the only way any such salvation would even be possible.