My friends who have never seen “Succession,” the hit HBO show that will soon come to an end, say that they have no interest in watching rich people behaving badly. The darkly comic series certainly fits that bill: It follows the travails of the Roy family, the patriarch of which, Logan Roy, is an avatar of Rupert Murdoch, and whose children, Shiv, Kendall and Roman, jockey endlessly, and haplessly, to inherit his throne.
The characters are immersed in an insular world where the accouterments of obscene wealth — private planes, luxury wardrobes, multiple homes in expensive locales — are deployed casually, as a constant backdrop, and the broader consequences of what happens in this world are visible only occasionally. (Most recently, childish squabbling among the Roy offspring may have pushed a far-right presidential candidate to victory.) It’s understandable that, in the real world, amid talk of a recession and at the tail of a global pandemic, the concerns of the Roy family might seem … unrelatable.
But “Succession” is not just about rich people and the drama they manufacture. Its resonances with current events are not the point, though they helpfully illustrate the stakes of sacrificing integrity, relationships and the public interest to attain one’s own selfish goals.
What the show has been about from the very first episode is American attitudes toward class: who is allowed to accumulate status and power and who isn’t and where overt displays of ambition are and are not acceptable.
The Roy children’s individual ambitions are sometimes risible, but we’re never asked to question why they would be ambitious in the first place. We excuse the fact that they’re ruthless and conniving because being ruthless and conniving is how people get rich — never mind that the Roy children got rich simply by being born.
What’s not acceptable, within the moral logic of the show, is the ambition of those characters who were not born into money and power but want to achieve them. The dialogue is filled with characters taking shots — subtle and not so subtle — at one another, indicating a high degree of awareness about class signifiers and what they mean. A woman who shows up to Logan Roy’s birthday party carrying an oversize Burberry tote is mocked because she brought a “ludicrously capacious bag” to an event where only palm-size evening bags were appropriate. The Pierces (who were inspired in part by the Bancroft family, which sold The Wall Street Journal to Rupert Murdoch) affirm their class status by pretending that any discussion of money is beneath them. The matriarch of the clan calls a multibillion-dollar bid for her family’s empire “disgusting” — crude, undignified, not what civilized people talk about (though she doesn’t rule out entertaining an even higher figure). “I’m telling you,” Kendall tells Shiv, in reference to the arriviste tech entrepreneur trying to buy their company, “new money — you’ve gotta hold those fresh bills to the light.”
Nowhere, however, is the conflict between the already rich and the up-and-coming more apparent than in the relationship between Shiv and her husband, Tom Wambsgans. Throughout the series, the family, including Shiv, regards him as an outsider. He doesn’t like it, but he puts up with it, until the couple’s marriage — never the stuff of egalitarian dreams — begins to fall apart, and Tom and Shiv address the topic they have until now avoided: He will never be regarded as a true member of the family because he wants to achieve what she and her brothers were simply born with. Power and money are fine if you have them already. It’s wanting to acquire them that’s the problem.
In an episode midway through the final season, Tom admits to Shiv that he cares about these things. The truth, he says, is that “all my life I’ve been thinking a little bit about money, how to get money, how to keep money.” He continues: “I like nice things. I do.” He tells her, “If you think that’s shallow, why don’t you throw out all of your stuff for love? Throw out your necklaces and your jewels for a date at a three-star Italian. Yeah? Come and live with me in a trailer park. Yeah? Are you coming?” In a later, brutal argument, Shiv strikes at Tom’s most vulnerable spot. “You’re a hick,” she says, “your whole family is striving and parochial.” Striving — that’s the biggest insult of them all.
In 2021 a New Yorker profile of the actor Jeremy Strong, who plays Kendall Roy, went viral, in part because a Yale classmate of his derided him as having a “careerist drive.” In response, I wrote about the contempt that comfortably middle-class and wealthy people often have for people who try to rise above their station, especially when they make it clear that they, too, are interested in money and power.
In theory, America loves strivers — people who start with very little and through hard work and determination will themselves into success. In practice, we live in a country where people who have overcome tremendous challenges to get here are met with hostility, where people who work multiple minimum-wage jobs are shamed if they also need government assistance and where poor people are told to learn how to code as if the idea of training for white-collar jobs had simply never occurred to them. Americans think we love plucky people who pull themselves up by the bootstraps. What we really love are money and power, period. On some level we think having them is an indication that you deserve them.
This is another core belief that “Succession” deftly skewers: the idea that the rich are somehow better, more intelligent, more competent. The Roy children are not particularly competent and certainly not more competent than Tom. They fumble, do stupid things and — with the exception of cutting one-liners — don’t display any remarkable or special intelligence.
It’s a kind of bumbling we don’t often see in the real world, as money also shrouds people from scrutiny, thanks to public relations professionals, lawyers and luxury isolation. (Though anyone following Elon Musk on Twitter right now is getting a glimpse of it.) As a society, we’ve internalized the idea that wealth is largely the product of good decision-making and that anyone can become a Logan Roy. We demonize and sometimes criminalize poverty because we imagine it as a result of catastrophic and immoral mistakes.
There are no real heroes in “Succession,” just a boardroom full of nihilistic, emotionally stunted children who keep screwing up. There’s comedy and even catharsis in watching people who believe themselves to be better than others demonstrate that they’re not and who may even have acquired extraordinary dysfunctions as a byproduct of their wealth. Tom puts the lie to the notion that ambitious, hard-working people are rewarded with wealth and power. The more common reaction to strivers — as with the party crasher carrying the ludicrously capacious bag — is that they’re told they don’t belong in the room.
Elizabeth Spiers, a contributing Opinion writer, is a journalist and digital media strategist.
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