The Success of "Succession"

A board room with a central table and the words "Do Good Things" written on the wall.

My father and I agreed about many things. “Simon & Garfunkel.” “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid.” Tastykake Jelly Krimpets. But one thing we never saw eye-to-eye on was “Seinfeld.” For me, it’s the absolute pinnacle of America’s greatest artform, the sit-com. But he never liked the show because, to use his exact words, “they’re all a bunch of jerks.”

This makes me think of “Succession” (although, to be clear, Wayne Sorge was a billion times better father than Logan Roy).

Everybody has their pick of the prestige TV litter. There are “Breaking Bad” people and “Sopranos” people and “Mad Men” people and “The Wire” people – the latter group is easily identifiable, just say out loud that you’ve never seen “The Wire” and one of them will emerge from seemingly out of nowhere to chastise you. Even “Game of Thrones” people would have a strong argument if the whole series was only six seasons long. Personally, my pick is HBO’s other crowns and conspiracy drama, “Succession.”

The series finale just recently aired. It’s understandable if you think I’m being a prisoner of the moment, but I’ve felt this way since the first season ended. This show just hits me squarely in my taste. There is so much to recommend it, from acting to design to direction (and, yes, brevity), but I think its most significant value is in its subtly subversive approach to accepted narrative rules. 

Most storytelling on television – most all narrative, in fact, but for the sake of clarity we’ll keep our focus on television – works on the assumption that the audience is identifying with, or rooting for, or both, at least one character on the show. This is the protagonist. The protagonist wants something. Then there is at least one character, or force, standing in the protagonist’s way, keeping them from what they want. This is the antagonist. Almost all of the narrative drama comes from the protagonist and the antagonist being in conflict. And one of the most crucial elements binding together these basic building blocks is that we, the audience, are hoping for the protagonist to succeed. 

But “Succession” completely upends this paradigm. 

There are plenty of antihero stories, of course. Vince Gilligan, the creator of “Breaking Bad,” famously pitched his classic show as “taking Mr. Chips and turning him into Scarface.” Strangely, though – and I believe Gilligan’s intention was to make us acutely feel this strangeness – we still rooted for Walter White, even as he descended into objectively abhorrent behavior. (There are literally hundreds of other examples like this, stretching all the way back past Shakespeare, but again, we’re focusing on TV here.) There’s almost something intrinsic in stories that forces us to place our sympathies on the person at the center of them, even if that person doesn’t “deserve” it.

On the other hand, the creator of “Succession,” Jessie Armstrong, doesn’t give us antiheroes. We’re not meant to root for the protagonist even if the protagonist is doing bad things. We’re not meant to root for anyone at all. The gang in and around Waystar-Royco are pretty much all bad people who do bad things. In fact, the show almost invites us to actively despise its characters. That’s the whole point of the satire. (“Veep,” on which Jesse Armstrong was a writer, does a similar thing for a similar reason.) Unlike the odd sensation of identifying with a drug lord in “Breaking Bad,” “Succession” pretty explicitly states that if you want these characters to emerge victorious, you’re probably doing it wrong.

The generally accepted wisdom is that, without a clear and relatable protagonist, a story becomes unmoored, pointless. One of the most common criticisms you’ll hear about any work of dramatic fiction is, “I just didn’t care about the characters.” But “Succession” doesn't just put this to the test, it – in my opinion, anyway – totally obliterates it. Because without a central protagonist, we’re free to enjoy the twists and turns without any pesky emotional attachment to the outcome. It might even be more fun to watch all the chaos unfold when we’re not so caught up in how it might negatively affect our “hero.” If we’re rooting for anything, it’s karma and drama - and whatever shred of morality and decency might miraculously break through like a sliver of light in the deep of the sea. The show’s humor depends on it. 

Even a tragedy, which “Succession” is, can still be hilarious, which “Succession” is. At heart, it's a comedy. A dark, biting, hard-edged satire, yes, but still a comedy. In the tone, in the details, in the acting, and in the writing – encompassing set-up-punchline jokes, wry observations, and foulmouthed wordplay all at once – "Succession" succeeds (pardon the pun the show wouldn't be caught dead making) in being incredibly funny. But the humor wouldn’t land if we cared too much. The brutal insults might sting a little more if they were directed at someone we identify with or were rooting for. If there was a traditional protagonist, we probably wouldn’t laugh as much at the pomposity, the arrogance, the borderline sociopathy that these people display, because we’d be worried the carnage might ensnare this character we’re hoping to see complete their hero’s journey.

To be clear, this is exactly why most narratives work. This conflict, this concern for the central character, drives the story forward. And in “Succession,” conflict still abounds. Every seemingly innocuous interaction and densely layered line of dialogue is rife with striving, back-stabbing and manipulation. For the people in the show, it’s all a type of game. And it becomes that for the audience as well. But games without conflict aren't very captivating, and though we might have a favorite team among the characters, we (hopefully) don’t morally relate to them. "Succession" proves that conflict is an essential element of storytelling, but it also proves that identifying with the central character needn’t be an essential element of conflict. 

Lest you think that this lack of emotional attachment makes for a lesser viewing experience, the magic trick of "Succession" is that it turns the emotional attachment around on us. Our sympathies need somewhere to settle. Rather than placing our emotional attachment on the people in the show, we place it on ourselves, our society, our nature. We observe in the characters' traumas and pathologies a central source, be it capitalism or (very, very) bad parenting or some sort of primordial selfishness within our species. This is why the satire works. This is also why it’s heartbreaking. 

Instead of the travails of some tragic protagonist, “Succession” focuses outward. We inevitably feel for Kendall, Shiv and Roman, sure, but from a safe – perhaps more chilling – remove. Their fractured family, their feckless ambition, their inability to trust, their unhealable wounds, their diminished identities and cartoonishly burnished egos, these are all palpable and keenly observed. But when everyone engages in villainy, there is no villain. Or else the villain is a force, an idea. In this case, the villain is the inherent emptiness of affluence. Rather than setting a hero up against this power, the show chooses to simply watch the way wealth and influence can, like the unceasing trickle of water against stone, corrode humanity. As the cliche goes, hurt people hurt people - and every character on “Succession” hurts, in every sense of the word. 

The central heartbreak of the show is how this all feels like the inevitable outcome of a culture that values money over love, power over compassion, and that renders almost all human interaction into a competition in which there are winners and losers. The message of “Succession” is that, in the world of the show, there are only losers. Even the winners. And we the viewers are neither impartial nor applauding. Yet, strangely, it still works. Because we are observers of a fictional world that we identify as our own, much like the basics of narrative dictate we should identify with a protagonist. So, our emotional attachment, the reason we keep watching, ends up being the same as any show: to see ourselves reflected on screen. We just aren’t meant to like what we see. 

Which is why I love it.