Succession Is Television’s Most Devastating Critique of the Ultrarich

Succession is heading toward its series finale, having settled into a portrait of how the ultrarich’s quest for limitless accumulation crowds out any semblance of humanity. The show is the most potent piece of class critique on TV in recent memory.

Still from Succession. (HBO)

As she eulogizes her “dear, dear world of a father” in the penultimate episode of HBO’s Succession, Siobhan Roy repeats the pattern that’s made her such a brilliantly frustrating creation across the show’s four tectonic seasons: she tiptoes up to the edge of the truth, only to retreat from the harshness of its glare. As children, Shiv recalls, she and her brothers would sometimes play outside their father’s office, and he’d burst into the hallway to yell at them, insisting on peace and quiet while he ran one of the world’s most powerful media conglomerates. “What he was doing in there was so important, we couldn’t conceive of what it was,” Shiv says. “Presidents and kings and queens and diplomats and prime ministers and world bankers. And. . .” Then she pauses, swallows, and withdraws. “I don’t know. Yeah.”

A wiser person might have pushed on and said, “And we still can’t conceive of it. And neither could he.” They might have acknowledged that this collective inability to conceive of the scope of Logan Roy’s power has set fire to the world outside the church’s walls. But Shiv, like the rest of her kin, is not wise. She’s just rich. And as Succession barrels toward a supersized series finale, it’s underlining the fact that she and her silver spoon–sucking siblings may never learn how to be anything else.

Jeremy Strong as Kendall Roy, Sarah Snook as Shiv Roy, and Kieran Culkin as Roman Roy. (HBO)

For the duration of its decorated, zeitgeist-dominating run, Succession has been a lot of things: Shakespearean ensemble comedy, venomous satire, diamond-sink family drama. At its core though, it’s always been a show about scale. “Think you know what rich means?” it’s asked, piling a Kanye West–sized birthday party on top of a $10 billion acquisition deal and three eye-bleedingly decadent weddings. “Think again.”

Crucially, the billionaires at the center of the show’s crash-zoom-heavy circus don’t know what rich means either: their influence long ago surpassed the powers of human consciousness, locking them in a kind of terrible tunnel vision that makes their boardroom maneuvers and individual reversals of fortune seem big enough to fill the canvases of their entire lives. Often, this tunnel vision has made the show thrilling, or funny, or both — it’s exhilarating to watch pieces of the Waystar pie change hands, and bitterly hilarious to remember that America’s “movers and shakers” are, by and large, buffoons. As things wind down, though, the Roys’ shortsightedness is begetting mostly tragic shades.

After Shiv shares her childhood anecdote and nearly stares Waystar’s awful reach in the face, she does what all Roys do and brings the focus back to herself. It was difficult to be Logan’s daughter, she admits, because he “couldn’t fit a whole woman in his head.” What she fails to grasp is that this is a symptom of her father’s disorder rather than the disorder itself. For all his alleged complications, Logan’s goal was simple: he wanted more. He lived to grow, period, and had an uncommon lack of scruples about the mechanisms that enabled that growth, even for an oligarch.

In one of his most revealing late-series conversations, he barks, “What are people? They’re economic units.” To keep his engine running, Logan couldn’t fit other people in his head. He couldn’t even fit himself in there, refusing to engage when demons from his past — an abusive uncle, a dead sister, former employees wielding misconduct allegations — threatened to breach the walls he’d built to contain them.

For a while, the structure of the show itself seemed to bend to Logan’s will. A total absence of flashbacks (save the title sequence) trapped the action in an eternal present tense; moments of pathos were washed away by or absorbed into more pressing matters of business. Ever since Logan’s death, though, the center of gravity has shifted, and the show has illustrated how woefully insufficient the meeting-to-meeting mentality Logan inflicted on his children and contemporaries is in the face of forces as tidal as grief and fascism. Absent its Rupert Murdoch–shaped steam engine, Succession is deliberately spinning out, leaving mostly interpersonal misery in its wake, and achieving a warning sign about resource-hoarding far more potent than any more prescriptive piece of class critique in recent memory.

Brian Cox as Logan Roy. (HBO)

King Lear, one of Logan Roy’s clearest literary analogues, famously turned to a room full of underlings and loved ones to ask, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” As Succession has hinted for years, no one — including Logan Roy — could say who Logan Roy was. His fanatical desire for growth crowded out every inch of his humanity. Before Shiv gives her noncommittal eulogy, Logan’s brother, Ewan, gives it a shot too. He shares his and Logan’s traumatic exploits as refugees during World War II, eloquently lays out Logan’s faults, and concludes that he must, in the end, have loved his brother — but any firm, summative portrait eludes him.

It’s only Kendall, Logan’s one-time heir apparent, who comes close to capturing the essence of his father, in a stirring speech that sacrifices personal detail for trumped-up populist rhetoric. “He had a vitality and a force to him that could hurt — and it did,” Kendall begins:

But by god, the sheer lives, and the livings, and the things that he made. And the money. The lifeblood, the oxygen of this wonderful civilization that we have built from the mud. The corpuscles of life gushing around this great nation, this world, filling men and women all around with desire. Quickening the ambition to own, and make, and trade, and profit, and build, and improve. The great geysers of life he willed, of buildings he made stand, of ships, steel hulls, amusements, newspapers, shows, and films, and life.

But what, in the end, did all that bluster amount to? Logan’s name may, indeed, be plastered on amusement parks, cruise ships, and lucrative intellectual property the world over, but he spends his final days estranged from his children, rambling incoherently to his closest advisers, and carrying on an affair with a decades-younger assistant that embarrasses anyone who so much as thinks about it. He dies alone, in an airplane bathroom, fishing his iPhone out of the toilet.

Kendall, of course, avoids disclosing anything quite so concrete. He continues, “Now people might want to prune the memory of him to denigrate the magnificent, awful force of him. But my God, I hope it’s in me.” The joke of the show, of course, is that it’s not in him, nor in his petulant, self-absorbed siblings; the tragedy is that each of them wishes it was, because they have no idea how else to be.

Perhaps the only Lear line more famous than “Who can tell me who I am” is the king’s assertion, to his daughter Cordelia, that “nothing will come of nothing.” Logan Roy lived his long life as if he was haunted by that idea and determined to invert it. If nothing would come of nothing, then he would give everything to his work, and thus everything would come of it, and it would all be his. As the finale approaches, though, Succession seems to be asking whether Shakespeare got it wrong. What if, in the end, nothing comes of everything?