“Succession” has a simple premise: It’s a show about rich people creating schemes and playing games to gain power and money, despite who or what they might destroy along the way. It doesn’t sound particularly unique, and prior to its many accolades, I wasn’t especially drawn to this show. But throughout its three-season (and ongoing) run and one long winter break binge, I’ve found that there’s something particularly enticing about this surprisingly addictive show.
At its core, “Succession” is about the Roy family. Logan Roy (Brian Cox, “Blade Runner: Black Lotus”), is the business/media tycoon who’s built an empire through his media and amusement park operation, Waystar Royco, for decades. Connor (Alan Ruck, “Twister”), Kendall (Jeremy Strong, “The Trial of the Chicago 7”), Roman (Kieran Culkin, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”) and Siobhan “Shiv” Roy (Sarah Snook, “Steve Jobs”) are his four kids who are trying desperately to take over.
In every episode, it’s obvious that the Roys are deeply out of touch with reality. All four kids grew up with money, and any mistake they ever made was easily swept under the rug by their father and his eagle-eyed PR team. When Roman taunts an underprivileged young boy by ripping up a million-dollar check in his face, Logan immediately sends his team to pay off the family and have them sign a non-disclosure agreement. He covers their tracks, but not because he’s a good father. He constantly threatens, insults and manipulates his children. He intimidates them into submission and gaslights them to preserve his own image as a father. The day after slapping Roman in a fit of rage, Logan claims it was an accident, asking, “Did I even make contact?” In fact, Logan does all this not out of pure love for his children, but to maintain the position of power he’s already sacrificed so much to have.
By revealing how Logan and his children turn every action into a business scheme or a game to accumulate power, the show makes clear that this level of untouchable power and money is not achievable without sacrifice and incredibly intentional, atrocious actions.
This isn’t necessarily groundbreaking information. I’ve often wondered about what terrible things people like Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and countless other untouchable rich people have done to get to the point they’re at today. I know there must be something. Like with the Roy family, however, the public may never be privy to exactly what that something is.
The freshness of this show lies in the abundance of unflinching details. “Succession” refuses to provide the viewer with economic escapism. Other shows about the lives of rich people, like “Gossip Girl” and “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” force the viewer to look up at the lives of the wealthy from down below. These shows consist of B-Roll shots of Ferraris, lavish penthouses and elite vacation spots I’ve never even heard of. Sure, bad things happen, but they seem minute compared to what they have. People enjoy these shows because even though we know we’re on the outside, it’s nice to imagine a life where we can be rich and where our biggest problem is dropping a diamond earring in the clear blue waters of the Tahitian ocean.
In “Succession,” we’re forced on the inside, but we don’t even want to be there. The handheld cameras move in such a way that it seems like someone is behind it, and maybe that someone is us. Sometimes, a character looks at the lens or close enough that it feels like they recognize your presence in the room. They never talk to you, and there’s zero indication that the characters think they’re in a documentary. But we have no choice except to be there, through all the immoral and power-driven decision making. By putting us in the room, the wealth is normalized, as is the seriously messed up drama.
The show rarely provides the opportunity for us to gape at and yearn for the family’s wealth. Sure, their yacht vacation seems heavenly. But the yacht is a mere stage, and if we want the yacht, then we have to understand Logan’s mind games. We also have to observe what the serving staff endures from wealthy families such as these. In the scene where the Roys go to their vacation mansion, they find that there’s a horrid smell, later sourced to a dead raccoon in the chimney. Leading up to this discovery, we’re put in the house, and see the serving staff working hard to create a huge meal for the family. After the discovery, we see the serving staff throw out that same meal, completely untouched, because of Logan’s complaints that they can’t eat anything that existed in the smell.
The Roys sacrificed a lot of their emotional capacity and personal relationships to get where they are. The biggest thing they gave up, though, is stability. Anything can happen in any episode of this show, and the creators made sure to ingrain this instability in each layer, even subconsciously. Composer Nicholas Britell (“Don’t Look Up”) used an out-of-tune piano and mixed the audio a little more than he normally would to make “Succession’s” iconic theme song into the haunting classical music/hip hop mix it is today. Instability is embedded in every second of the show but doesn’t seem all that absurd.
It’s all to say: Money does not equal happiness. “Succession” conveys this in the exact way that people need to see. While economic escapist media may try to make it seem like you’re better off having problems in the comfort of a Rolls Royce, “Succession” shows us that power and money at that high of a level is not as comforting as it may seem. It makes you paranoid, willing to destroy your own family just to make sure a drop of that power doesn’t fall out of your hands. It’s true that for many, a lack of financial means is the primary reason that one’s life is unstable. And I’m in no way trying to downplay what money can give someone in this day and age. Money is access, power and most simply a way to provide for your own basic wants and needs. But at a certain point, chasing down more when you already have enough will make you lose a whole lot more than money can buy.
Daily Arts Writer Sophia Yoon can be reached at email@example.com.