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Succession, a TV show located in the stratospheric heights of immense wealth and power, is, at its baseline, a bleak and necessary reminder that capitalism flows unimpeded. Nobody wins, but some lose less — much less— than others.
A tight, taut, tense and ultimately devastating series, at the core of Succession is a discussion of the power of capital and its infinite, constantly metastasizing manifestations. This devastation is achieved, in part, by refusing the audience the benefit of salvation or righteousness. There are no heroes or villains to root for or hate. There are no goodies or baddies, only a steady stream of mostly interchangeable characters whose every breath is engrossed in making sure they’re never toppled from this world of opulence and that they remain firmly inside it. This is no Wall Street affair and Gordon Gekko will not be sent to prison after the brave and valorous fight put up by his union-led employees. No, Succession gives us instead a narrative about capitalism as an abstraction, rather than as an epic battle between good and evil.
Perhaps the least noticed element of the Succession story is that, in the end, Logan Roy (Brian Cox) — the tycoon who drives the narrative — after all his roaring and bellowing, all his playing off his own children against each other, doesn’t get to choose his successor. He dies in episode three of the final, fourth season, ignominiously, in the bathroom of his private jet. While his death does in fact send ripple effects across global financial markets, it quickly becomes very clear that he can be replaced: his own internal cabal of advisors inside the jet quickly gather to work on a public statement even as his corpse lies only a few feet away. Meanwhile, at Logan’s funeral, his son Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) is told by his long-suffering assistant Jess Jordan (Juliana Canfield) that she wants to move on from her job. By the end of the series, Kendall has a replacement, whom he calls “New Jess.” Then, in what Siobhan Roy (Sarah Snook) thinks is a brilliant power move, she convinces Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård) to install her as U.S. CEO when Lukas buys out Waystar Royco (the massive global entertainment behemoth whose tentacles of influence reach into boardrooms and statehouses everywhere) — without any firm commitment from Lukas; Lukas eventually turns around and chooses Siobhan’s estranged husband Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen), after Siobhan has done all the legwork in prepping board members for a turnover. Everyone in the show, from the high to the low, is replaceable, interchangeable. The show highlights the open secret of capitalism, that any monster will do: Capitalism is a system, a virus that simply leaps from one body to the next, finding the perfect host to move it forward. This leads, inevitably, to a question that is inspiring on good days and defeating on bad ones: If the lesson from this show is that capitalism is a relentless system that operates on abstract principles and is not dependent on individuals, and if its power is consequently so effectively potent, is there even any point in trying to defeat it? (Hint: Yes, it’s always worth trying to defeat capitalism.)
The show is one of the most clear-eyed representations of a world so rarified that words like “rich” and “wealth” and “billions” are functionally meaningless. No one is left in financial ruin at the end of the series and even the losers are still worth billions. Much has been written about the show’s representation of fantastic and almost unimaginable wealth: Influencers everywhere have been jostling to pry open the secrets of what they term “quiet luxury” in an attempt to show their eager audiences how to achieve the fashion looks of its affluent characters. All of which ignores the central fact that the occupants of this world — real or imagined — can do whatever they want, in sweats or tailored garments: The choices are always theirs. We can obsessively scan the brands they wear in an effort to look like them but, in the end, when you’re in this world, you’re in; if you’re not, everything you do will out you. In one example, in the first episode of season four, Tom makes fun of the date brought to an event by Greg Hirsch (Nicholas Braun), with what she clearly thought was a high fashion bag: a Burberry tote (that costs nearly $3,000) that he sneeringly refers to as “ludicrously capacious.” The fact that the young woman is a wannabe influencer who tries to get a selfie with Logan only makes things worse.
While the world outside the super-rich might fantasize about toppling the power structures that keep them in place, the reality is that this world generally continues unhindered (just ask U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas). In the final season, we see antifa-like protesters disrupting the streets of New York as the cable network American Television Network (loosely modeled on Fox News) has prematurely called the presidential election in favor of a conservative Donald Trump-like figure named Jeryd Mencken (Justin Kirk). Everything is seemingly in chaos, but still, inside the church where a funeral is being held for Logan (who appears to be loosely modeled after Rupert Murdoch), the wealthy elite attendees continue to circle each other and glide around making deals. This mirrors the workings of corporations in the real world, which continue to function unimpeded as, if we’re honest with ourselves, most of the resistance to such hyper-capitalism is functionally benign (just ask former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and the at least 10 boats her family owns).
Everyone in Succession is monstrous in that there isn’t a single redeeming main character in the show. Sure, Ewan Roy (James Cromwell), Logan’s older and extraordinarily bitter brother presents himself as a kind of angry but wise liberal sage, going so far as to call his sibling “worse than Hitler.” But Ewan is also monstrously cruel, uncaring about revealing sad and horrifying details about his brother’s early life in public at his funeral, to the shocked faces of Logan’s children. And Ewan remains on the Waystar Royco board and doesn’t mind using his $250 million pile of money to lord over people and organizations — including his own grandson — instead of simply giving most of it away.
For the most part, while capitalism as a problem has been part of the discussions of the show, the emphasis often falls on individuals and their trappings. Given the quality of the writing, the relentless action, and the well-defined characters, it’s easy to see why appraisals focused so much on the relationships between people and on the jaw-droppingly complicated deal-making with so much at stake (the word “billion” is dropped endlessly and carelessly, snorted with ease like so many lines of cocaine).
But the question I want to wrestle with is: Can Succession offer any way out?
A feminist takeover is not the answer, clearly. The women in this show are strong, but all of them are ultimately circumscribed by their roles as handmaidens to patriarchy, and their positions are vulnerable to the whims of the men in control. Gerri Kellman (J. SmithCameron), general counsel to the corporation, is humiliatingly kinda-sorta-maybe let go despite having been the frequent recipient of dick pics from Roman (who, at the time, was Waystar Royco’s chief operating officer). And it’s not as if being women means they’ll be any different in positions of actual power. In the finale, when it looks like Shiv (short for Siobhan) might be assuming power, Karolina Novotney (Dagmara Dominczyk) sidles up and speaks breathlessly of how great it is to have a cultural change and an end to backstabbing, and in the very next sentence suggests the corporation’s do-everything guy Hugo Baker (Fisher Stevens) be let go in a clean sweep.
Any sign of anti-capitalist structure is represented only by various groups of protesters outside various Waystar Royco offices, and the show makes clear that, inside, power continues unabated. We might ask, can supposedly anti-capitalist structures like mutual aid actually impede capital structures that tower this high above the masses? In season one, Kendall presents his father with a deal, stuttering that he wants to “do some good things,” a phrase Logan mockingly throws back at him. By the end, in season four, it’s Logan’s funeral and Kendall delivers a rousing and eloquent (to the gathered mourners) defense of capitalism, about the need for more such titans of industry. What we land on is perhaps the show’s greatest offering, the fundamental calculation that a better, friendlier version of capitalism does not exist, and the only path is to eliminate it entirely along with the conditions that make it such an excellent vehicle for inequality and violence.
One part of this equation lies in rethinking capitalism outside of people, which may seem counterintuitive, given how much we locate our critique of capitalism within human actions. To do so, we have to dispense with our need to find easily identifiable narratives set within recognizable structures. The inability to think about television as a narrative force of its own has been part of the problem; efforts to locate the show within a literary tradition — rather than what it is, which is excellent television — is emblematic of the ways in which we struggle to think about defeating capitalism outside the frameworks we’re most comfortable with.
Succession is often described, for example, as “Shakespearian” in its themes and scope, with King Lear most often held up as the ostensible model, which is how numerous critics show off their English literature credentials (“I read Shakespeare! I can quote him!”) and also, condescendingly, elevate what they must think of as a mere television show. The fact that Succession’s creator, Jesse Armstrong, is British lends some authority to this idea that one of the best-written shows in recent history, surely, has Shakespearian drama in its DNA. (Armstrong’s history is, in fact, in comic television, not drama).
But Succession is, in its essence, a TV show. Unlike cinema, television depends on episodicity, its ability to dwell on tiny details and take us to the brink and then keep us returning: all the binge-streaming in the world cannot erase that surety of the thrill of “what happens next?” Succession was not a movie or book, and its rhythms and cadences are part of a medium that demands our attention in its unfolding. In an age of streaming and binge-watching, it’s easy to forget that the classical rhythm of a TV show — every episode ending on a cliffhanger — is germane to the rhythm of a story. Sure, the themes and characters echo what we see in a very particular form of drama (which is by no means universal, only canonical), but so much of what happens here shoots up in flickers, moments that might go past unnoticed if we did not obsessively watch the screen every single second of its passage.
Consider, for instance, when Kendall makes his speech denouncing his father as a monstrous man who knew about the sexual harassment on his cruise lines — and the camera pans to Logan watching the TV screen as a slow, gradual smile spreads over his face. It’s unclear if it’s pride that his tremulous, scared son has finally shown some backbone (by Logan’s reckoning) or if he has hatched a new plan of his own to get back at Kendall, but it’s the kind of moment that’s only possible on this medium.
To that end, given how much lies in such minute details, it is time to let go of the idea that Succession is about Murdoch and his family and empire — whether that’s actually the case or not. That particular idea, that the show is a parable of sorts and that all of its most menacing characters are based on the villains of our time, like Murdoch and Trump, only gives us a story of capitalism and individuals to despise; equating Murdoch and Fox News with Logan and ATN does very little in practical terms. If we persist in thinking of capitalism as a story about good and evil, with a beginning and an end and specific villains, we persuade ourselves that vanquishing it in the real world is possible simply by ending the reign of individual tyrants. We also miss the ways in which the “good side” exerts its own tyrannies. While we, of course, have to fight despots and titans of all the empires that crop up, we can’t be distracted from the need to fundamentally end systems that continue unabated.
Another part of the brilliance of Succession lies in the fact that there are, in this fictional world, no better alternatives to the Roy world. At one point, the Pierce family, also a media empire but liberal (the comparison is clearly to the Sulzbergers of the New York Times) and headed by its matriarch Nan Pierce (Cherry Jones), is skewered just as much as the Roys. When the two families meet at the Pierce residence spread across rolling hills, the contrasts could not be clearer, with the Pierces tut-tutting at the conservatism of ATN and dropping Shakespeare quotations like confetti. They are pompous and self-assured about their innate goodness. Before the massive dinner, as a large and humming room of people hover around with drinks in hand, waiting for the meal, Nan insists to her housekeeper (who’s scurrying around) that she really must take a breath and join them all. This is, of course, an impossibility as guests and dinner need tending, but Nan scores points for being democratic and friendly with her staff. Similarly, she flounces into the dining room holding aloft the first dish for all the world as if she — not her many minions in the kitchen — had cooked it herself. Toward the end, Nan — hypocritical all the way and pretending she really doesn’t have a capitalist thought in her beautifully trimmed head — deftly plays the Roy siblings against their father to sell her storied, liberal family media conglomeration to them for $10 billion. As much as the Pierces like to rant about the bad politics of the Roys, they’re not above selling themselves off to the highest bidder. One leviathan bargains with another.
What Succession shows us in such moments is that the people at the heart of capitalist enterprises will always follow the money trail. There is no other story about capitalism, only systems that we have to tirelessly work to defeat, in all their abstractions. In that sense, Succession is a show about power, not people. If we are to defeat capitalism — and we must, or we and our planet will simply die — we have to think about how to challenge that power. We cannot get lost in the quest to find individual billionaires to “do good things” (a quest that will always end in abject failure and disappointment). At the same time, we can’t rely on the idea that only anti-capitalists understand the problems with capitalism. The shortest yet most brutal evisceration of the British Empire was delivered by Logan in episode nine of the first season. Speaking to the idealistic and somewhat surprised socialist presidential candidate, Gil Eavis (Eric Bogosian), Logan jabs a finger at the English castle where Shiv is soon to be married and snarls, in disgust, “I mean, look at this fucking place … slaves, cotton, sugar. This country is nothing but an offshore laundry for turning evil into hard currency … and now it just lies here, living off its capital, sucking in immigrants to turn it and stop it getting bed sores.”
Everyone paying attention understands what capitalism does. Logan gets how empires are built, but that doesn’t prevent him from creating one in a different country, in the new empire that — with his help — wreaks havoc across the globe. The problem is not that there’s a lack of understanding, among capitalists, about the pain and death-making of capitalism. Appealing to their pity is pointless. The task ahead is to build systems that are just as merciless in destroying the machinery of capitalism as capitalism is in building upon itself— without remorse and with a keen understanding of how the enemy works. We have been broken for centuries by our fight against capitalism, so strategies like mutual aid are, of course, necessary — and sometimes the only way in which we can recover for the moment. But, too often, anti-capitalists tend to focus on creating perfect human ecologies and asking that all of us be perfect people (social justice circles in particular focus endlessly on creating our most perfect selves: the most kind, the most loving, etc.). While, of course, we should not encourage abuse and should aspire to be our best, we need to pay less attention to what kinds of people we are and, instead, focus on getting as many people together as possible to destroy the beast of capitalism itself.
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Yasmin Nair is a writer, academic, and activist. She’s an editor at large at Current Affairs, on the editorial board of the Anarchist Review of Books, co-founder of the radical queer editorial collective Against Equality and the (Volunteer) Policy Director of Gender JUST. She’s currently working on her book Strange Love: A History of Social Justice And Why It Needs To Die. Her writing can be found at www.yasminnair.com.