While re-watching Succession with roommates in the months leading up to the finale, one of my friends remarked that I reminded him of Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin). I grinned a little too wide. Roman, I can say without a shred of recency bias, is the single funniest character in television history, and it would have been impossible at that moment for me to think of a higher compliment for myself. Relentless and unbreakable, Roman could facetiously kneecap anyone in conversation with the self-aware smirk of a man floating above everyone else, and he would do it purely for fun. This is, after all, the man who convinced Connor that he would spin yarn to the shrink about how Connor touched him growing up, solely to get a brief laugh at Connor’s horrified panic. I have no Hollywood writer feeding me lines, but like Roman, my mind can only communicate in crass jokes, and it can only conceive of the world as a stand-up audience. As immoral as Roman is, though, my parasocial fondness for him is an exceedingly normal byproduct of modern TV. The golden age of prestige television has rarely focused on portrayals of pure-hearted personalities, yet, as with my appreciation for Roman, fans commonly grow to see these characters through an aspirational lens. Look at how people write about Heisenberg, Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Tywin Lannister. It's challenging to spend so many hours with someone, particularly someone with exaggerated strengths and liberties, and not become their homer and them your fantasy. Thus, Roman Roy is a vicious troll and a walking HR complaint and totally fitted to be a fictional hero of mine. I saw myself in Roman, and I wanted to be him–that my friend saw it, too, made me proud.
This said, like the monsters he shares the screen with and the fellow beloved characters of this era, Roman is not supposed to be a man viewers look up to. Roman Roy is despicable and selfish and often pathetically broken. This is a protagonist who un-consensually spammed his elderly subordinate with a constant stream of genitalia pictures. By season four, Roman's nauseating villainy became outweighed only by the humiliating losses that consumed him. Immersing myself in Succession content, then, I was forced to reconcile the brilliance I loved with the complete picture of the boy unfolding in front of my eyes. Roger Ebert once famously said, "Movies are like a machine that generates empathy." While that's true, the most exceptional film (and art) is the type that can allow you not just to experience the lives of others but to fundamentally reflect on your own. To shatter you and leave you to pick at the broken pieces. That's what Succession was to me. I am not all of Roman Roy, but I connected to him through neither empathy nor a misplaced sense of external appreciation. In Roman, I saw a part of myself. And eventually, I saw too much.
Roman is not a deranged class clown because he enjoys making people smile. Following the cliche of stand-up comedians, Roman's humor is a deflection strategy; it redirects his extraordinary pain outward while making himself adversarially likable. Moreover, he knows that when everything is a joke, then everything is. As a result, his suffering and everything that causes it ceases to have any meaning, and cannot inhabit the same world as him. I understood his thinking as soon as I remembered to look for it–not conceptually but as a familiar fact of life. I remembered who I'd become. The causes of our pain are, on paper, different. Roman's abuse at the hands of Logan (Brian Cox) left him sick in the head, while three years ago, my health faltered, and I was left trapped in the broken confines of a chronically pained body. But the effect of both causes left us possessed by that simultaneous desire to fight the world, flee it, and undermine its very existence. Like Romulus, I realized I fundamentally cannot fathom the perverse weight of my afflictions. I've always been a class clown, but I've felt my normal maturation into adulthood falter in recent years. My only goal is escaping the pain of the present, so I've let my circumstances sharpen my brain into an arrow that seeks only the next joke as if it could kill its way out of the beastly jaws of the present. I finally saw it in Roman, and I could not look away.
As humans, the present is often too fleeting to ever feel beyond the instant imprint it leaves upon our minds. But, inexplicably, moments stretch with a bounding continuity when you're in pain. Kieran Culkin is just 5'6," an intentional casting choice by the creators of Succession to help present Roman as maintaining the immature presence of a child. Watching this small boy squirm and fidget, often unable to sit normally in a chair (ironically, something my own health physically prevents me from doing), I was confronted with the tragedy of my desperation to pull myself out of my skin and out of time. Yet eventually, and maybe most horrifically, that pain is so omnipresent that you begin to rely on it as Roman did, be it from the hands of his father and brother to his intentionally destructive approach to his relationships with loved ones. In a way, it makes the short-sighted ramifications of obsessively vulgar self-immolation purposeful; like Roman, I realized I was fating myself to enlist the pain so that it could no longer shock me.
Of course, Roman's tragic arc is a cautionary tale. He loses Gerri, his brother, and the company. In the final scene, we leave him drinking away his pain in a bar. I am not Roman, but I found a hauntingly prophetic glimmer in how he let his pain consume him. There's ostensibly a sliver of hope for Roman in the series finale as his self-awareness grows to acknowledge the nauseating truth that he and the siblings are all "bullshit." Yet, as Roman has shown countless times throughout the series, his meta-perceptiveness is meaningless when he lets his worst impulses control him. Succession shoved a mirror in my face better than any work of art has ever done, yet at the end of the day, I find myself in the same position as Roman.
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