Two weeks ago, a television achievement of massive proportions came to a sombre, electrifying ending. Succession was a show that pushed the boundaries of character acting and tension while using the resources of HBO to their fullest extent. This is a show that blurred the line between reality and fiction as the miserable band of Roy siblings attempted to navigate the pinnacle of the corporate and political world. The ingenuity of this show lies in the writing room. Allegories and references to Greek and Shakespearean tragedies are thrown into the complex business discourse that, on the surface, sounds like professional talk twisted into riddles and vulgar language but is actually simmering in a veiled dredge of irony and satire.
There is a moment in season 3 of Succession in which Tom Wambsgans, the husband of the conniving Shioban Roy and the lone daughter of media titan Logan Roy, is spinning the Greek tale of Nero and Sporus to his bumbling subordinate Greg Hersch, a cousin of the Roy family. This story tells of the Roman emperor Nero who kills his wife and opts to castrate his favorite suitor Sporus and keep him by his side as his final queen rather than his late wife. This twisted story, which historians have deduced is likely to have actually occurred around the year 65 A.D., plays out slowly throughout the fourth and final season of the show as Tom dances through the fire of corporate, old-money toxicity without catching so much as a scorch mark. Tom dismantles the power complex Shioban built over his shoulders upon the death of Logan Roy, makes friends with the European tech CEO gunning to purchase the Roy media conglomerate, and keeps his oafish, yes-man servant Greg in his corner to deal with the fallout and other morally questionable tasks.
By the end of this modern tragedy that the writers of Succession crafted, we see the Roy brothers, Kendall and Roman, stripped of power and demoralized as the confidence they reeked of for four seasons gets stamped out by their own bloodline and shady histories. Succession is a show that didn’t have any action-packed scenes, yet managed to be the most intense hours of television coming out for years due to the incredible character development and selective nature in which information and conversation are revealed to the viewer. This is a mark of excellent television writing.
The Succession story is heavily reminiscent of King Lear, a Shakespearean tragedy. Both stories discuss power dynamics, both within a wealthy family as well as the things they influence. An essay written in the late 40s by John Danby analyzed the plot of King Lear describing an older medieval society threatened by new ideas as the king struggles to divide his wealth amongst his daughters. The story ends tragically for all characters, with most dying at the hands of their own narcissism.
Succession’s finale had many full circle moments that touched a deja vu feeling to the earlier seasons of the show. The ending sees Kendall defeated once again, losing control of the company for the final time. His end is ambiguous, yet terrifically dark as he claims his ranks among the most tragically hopeless characters on television.
As these thoughts of the tragedy of Kendall’s story arc seep in it’s interesting to take a step back and realize that this show is portraying all of the wealthy and powerful people in real life who have a controlling hand over the ideas and moral state of the world that we could often do without. The covering up and pointing of blame for hundreds of crimes both near and distant from the Roy family directly are pulled from true events in the corporate and political world. Logan Roy’s company in the show, ATN, is a fever-dream combination of Fox News and Disney. The show hides satirical news stories being broadcasted from their right-wing news channel that speak to the channel’s nature better than words ever do on the show amongst the characters. The small details like the Roy family and the company they keep never discussing the real, everyday problems that they broadcast to the world show the disregard for the lies they spread to the public.
ATN touches on the real controversy that Disney was caught in regarding their cruise lines. A central plot point the show touches on is the disregard for sexual misconduct in this upper level of society. People are often treated like objects for the cast of Succession to make use of such as Tom Wamsgans using Greg as a footstool in the second season and the Roy’s selfish relief when the gunshot that erupted in their office building had only been an employee killing themselves at their desk.
Succession has made its mark in TV history as it had 2.9 million viewers on the night of the series finale, reaching a record high. The show could likely be analyzed and scoured for analogies and references for years to come. Succession’s finale aired on May 29th and can be watched through the Max app.
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