What was Succession actually trying to tell us?

What was Succession actually trying to tell us?

Vox/Photos by: Macall B. Polay, David Russell, Graeme Hunter/HBO

Real headlines and “wealth consultants” helped weave an unseemly portrait of wealth in America.

Note: This article contains spoilers for several episodes from all four seasons of Succession.

Early in Succession’s first season, professional simp Tom Wambsgans told his punching-bag-slash-protegé Greg Hirsch that he’ll show him how to be rich, as if it’s a skill to practice and absorb. They’re outsiders — Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) married into the Roy family, while Greg (Nicholas Braun) is a mere cousin, initially prodded into the Roys’ business not by ambition but by his mother. He had only recently wormed his way into the family’s affairs. They’re in awe of the glittering world of billionaires almost within their grasp, with little idea of the misery and humiliation in store.

Over the past four seasons, Succession, which airs its final episode on HBO on Sunday, May 28, has shown its audience not only how to be rich but the way extreme wealth and power can be a pestilence that subtly rots everything it touches.

Without moralizing, Succession carefully built its case over the years, charting the slow unraveling of the Roy family as it chased ever-higher heights of power. The show was a Shakespearean tragedy, a car wreck that gained a huge, rubber-necking audience: The Roys, the magnates pulling the strings at media conglomerate Waystar-Royco, ate, dressed, and lived well, but they were not well. They and their social circle existed in a walled garden, surrounded by an underclass of household servants, bodyguards, drivers, and assistants who oiled the machine of their elegant lifestyle. But their fear of losing even a scrap of power further isolated them even from the people they claimed to love. Their riches didn’t just make them powerful or self-absorbed — they made them paranoid. Far from being satisfied with their lot in life, they hunched over in a defensive position, beset with gnawing anxiety over all the precious things others were jealously trying to take from them.

Succession’s portrayal of the secluded halls of power was deeply cynical, and its allure at times was purely voyeuristic, but it’s hard to deny the show’s realism. Succession’s world — its aesthetics and plotlines, its characters’ grand motivations and little tics — mirrored real-life billionaires and the circles they run in. Under showrunner Jesse Armstrong, the show employed a squad of wealth consultants to ensure the accuracy of the writing on the nitty-gritty of the media business (like whether it’s possible that a CEO of a large conglomerate could hide significant debt from shareholders) and how the wealthy behave (they never wear coats because they’re always transported directly from one destination to another). They wear Patek Philippe watches, which can run well north of $100,000, casually take helicopter rides out of New York to throw around a baseball, relish eating illegal avian delicacies, and have no idea what a gallon of milk costs. Many popular TV shows have portrayed the lives of the wealthy as glitzy and glamorous, but few have so deftly used the real symbols and language of wealth to tell a story of greed and abuse of power that’s also a microcosm of a society suffering under the weight of an increasingly unequal, undemocratic economic landscape.

On Succession, as in real life, rich people have easily, and often catastrophically, meddled in politics and society. It showed us how easily the wealthy misapprehend the magnitude of their power, using it to force obedience and invade the lives of others while never contemplating whether it came with obligation. They used the potent combination of wealth and influence to avoid the consequences of scandal and regulation whenever convenient, and frittered away hundreds of millions on vanity art projects and political campaigns, even to sway narratives about presidential elections. In one episode in season 3, the Roys attended an exclusive political conference where a group of rich donors and business leaders hand-pick the next Republican presidential nominee after the current president has announced he’s not running again, in part because he’s so beaten down by attacks against him by ATN — the Roys’ news network. Logan Roy (Brian Cox), the family’s malignant patriarch, favored whoever was most beneficial to his business interests.

Such private gatherings are where real billionaires also whisper their political desires, throwing their considerable cash behind one candidate or another. Political mega-donors like Peter Thiel, Ken Griffin, Mike Bloomberg, and George Soros (and formerly Sam Bankman-Fried) have undeniably helped shape which politicians make it onto the ballot and what pro-industry, anti-regulation policies these candidates support. The amount of “dark money” in politics — political spending where the donor isn’t disclosed — continues to soar, exceeding $1 billion in the 2020 federal elections. The ultra-rich, being as well-connected as they are, involve themselves not only in elections but in heated political issues and even weigh in on White House policy. Billionaires pour their money into politicians and social causes for a variety of stated reasons, but their interference leads to basically one result: Their power grows, and often, so does their net worth.

The Roys’ most obvious inspiration were the Murdochs, who own a global media empire that includes right-wing network Fox News (though the show also contains dribbles of the Redstones, the media family behind Paramount Global, and others). ATN was Fox’s fictional twin, as was underscored in this season’s election episode when the network spread disinformation and a narrative of anti-establishment distrust that helps Jeryd Mencken, the show’s caricature of Donald Trump, become president. The core drama of the show — a bitter struggle between siblings to take over the company their father built — was drawn from the real succession fight among the Murdoch children, particularly Elisabeth, Lachlan, and James Murdoch. This feud of two brothers and a sister was dramatized across Succession’s four seasons: The Roys constantly scrabbled to move up the ranks, or at least to not tumble from them. Not despite their wealth but because of it, defensiveness was their default state of being.

Even in the small details, Succession was injected with references and homages to the Murdochs and others — Logan Roy’s idea of buying up a raft of local TV stations in season one was a page out of a Murdoch playbook. Logan stood on boxes of paper to give a speech to ATN employees in an early season four episode, just as Murdoch reportedly did for a speech in the Wall Street Journal newsroom. Logan Roy’s direct line to the US president, however, feels tame compared to Rupert Murdoch’s coziness with world leaders.

But for all their wealth and power, Succession argued, the Roys were never a happy family. Logan, who set the tone for the rest of the family’s moods and behaviors, flew into a rage at any hint that he was being insulted — and was always grinding his teeth at the unease that someone, somewhere, might not be giving him his due respect. (Think: Elon Musk, a frequently impulsive, blustering tech billionaire, who has increasingly spouted off on his perceived persecution in the media, despite his history of doing or saying things that affect his company, shareholders, and the public at large.)

Logan Roy was a billionaire who founded a giant media conglomerate; one would think his self-evident accomplishments would be enough to appease his ego. Yet Logan was petty, thin-skinned, and reactive to every slight. He delayed announcing a Waystar successor — just as Rupert Murdoch, now 92 years old, has — because he could never bear the thought of giving up power. Instead, he spent his last years viciously fighting off any perceived threat to his throne.

It’s hard not to see the parallels, too, between Waystar’s cruise line sexual harassment coverup and Rupert Murdoch’s biggest scandal: His newspapers had been hacking the phones of politicians and celebrities, including those of the British royal family. Under parliamentary testimony, Murdoch’s son James admitted that he’d received an email about the phone hacking after initially denying he had been aware of it. Did Rupert know? In the end, other senior members of the paper took the fall, some being arrested, one senior editor serving a prison sentence, and many other staff resigning or being fired. Murdoch’s company also paid an undisclosed amount in damages — but no one in the family was personally punished beyond financial and reputational damage.

In a eulogy for Logan in the penultimate episode of the series, Ewan (James Cromwell) spoke of the meagerness his brother brought out in others. He had a stinginess of spirit befitting someone forced to aggressively defend his scarce resources — not someone with billions in assets. Not someone whose son cruelly dangled the prospect of a million-dollar reward to a groundskeeper’s young child at a family baseball game in the show’s first episode.

Such unkindness was the least of the damage the Roys wreaked on the less-privileged people around them, whose suffering they barely even register. Kendall (Jeremy Strong) accidentally killed a cater-waiter while high and on a reckless pursuit for more drugs; an ATN employee shot himself at work because he couldn’t bear the workplace harassment he faced; the cruise scandal revealed that in incidents involving violence or abuse against workers at Waystar, the victims were labeled “No Real Person Involved” — as in, not high enough in the ranks to merit much of a response. Later, when Waystar came under scrutiny for their cruise misdeeds, Shiv (Sarah Snook) manipulated a sexual harassment victim into silence. They carelessly left a trail of casualties in their wake, brushing the destruction aside as collateral damage for their all-important need for more power, and for their father’s praise. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Armstrong included a nod to Ghislane Maxwell in the show, invoking a figure who has become a notorious example of powerful men and women abusing vulnerable people.

Yet, in a real sense, the Roys saw themselves as mistreated and maligned. Connor (Alan Ruck), the eldest son, was a libertarian who frequently railed against taxation. His family reins him in not because they disagreed with his stance but because it lacked subtlety. Quietly reducing their taxes was what they hired accountants and financial advisers for. (During Logan’s wake this season, Waystar CFO Karl Muller, played by David Rasche, unironically opined that burning the Gauguin paintings Logan kept in a Swiss vault would be ideal for avoiding taxes and collecting insurance money.)

The Roys’ particular brand of meagerness has been well-documented in real life. The actual billionaires of US society pay incredibly little in taxes compared to the average middle- and low-income American. A ProPublica analysis of billionaires’ tax records in 2021 showed that the 25 richest Americans paid a tax rate of about 3.4 percent, while the median American household paid about 14 percent of their annual wages in federal taxes. Billionaires often argue that tax breaks for them benefit everyone, freeing up capital that can be reallocated to charitable causes, to their innovative companies, to creating jobs. Succession gave us the sense that the truth is far more avaricious.

In The Wealth Hoarders, author Chuck Collins — director of the program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies, as well as the heir to the Oscar Mayer fortune — offers an insider’s view of the mentality of high-net-worth individuals, who consider it sacrilege not to hold onto their wealth. Give away the interest generated from your assets, sure, but to chip away at the principal is “class suicide,” as one rich person suggested to Collins. The wealth management industry — sometimes called the wealth defense industry — has ballooned in the past few decades, consisting of an army of professionals paid hefty sums to ensure that the Roys of the world never have to give too much away, whether it’s by using obscure tax loopholes or taking advantage of trusts and tax havens.

Armstrong’s subtle messaging about the Roys’ vague discontent isn’t some moralistic fable about wealth; the uber-rich often report being perplexingly dissatisfied and uneasy about their financial state. Having “enough” money tends to be relative. Millionaires worry about being able to retire. A famous 2011 Boston College survey of extremely rich American households — whose average net worth was $78 million — revealed that multi-millionaires generally aren’t content with their fortunes, with one respondent saying he wouldn’t feel secure until he had $1 billion. Psychologist Robert A. Kenny, who helped create the survey, told the Atlantic, “Sometimes I think that the only people in this country who worry more about money than the poor are the very wealthy.” One wealth adviser told the New York Times in a 2017 article about the anxieties of the ultra-rich: “They never do feel they have enough. It takes some coaxing to get them to spend money.”

Ewan gave his grandson Greg some trenchant wisdom in the first season, before he’d begun to be corrupted by his association with the Roys. “One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is ever so important,” Ewan said, quoting the philosopher Bertrand Russell. That’s been the essence of the entire show: a wealthy family teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown. As the show comes to a close, it’s closer to the precipice than ever.

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