In 2018, the almighty HBO premiered Succession, a refined drama about a family of billionaires obsessed with power. It is an old story we have all seen many times before, but surely not like this! Created by Jesse Armstrong and produced by Adam McKay, the series had everything going for it: a cast in a state of grace, an impeccable script and a well-measured tragicomic tone.
Succession follows the New York lives of the influential Roy family. The ruthless patriarch Logan Roy is the owner of one of America’s largest media empires, WayStar Royco, and he has his four children, Connor, Kendall, Shiv and Roman, at his beck and call. Throughout the series, we follow the drama between the siblings as they fight to inherit their father’s empire.
Season by season, the series kept on getting more and more attention, and the awards kept coming, of course. The series has been sweeping awards every year; 13 Emmy awards, two for best drama series (2022 and 2020), five Golden Globes, a BAFTA, and much more!
It became quite clear that we are looking at the new flagship of HBO after the end of Game of Thrones! However, unlike GOT, which lasted eight seasons, Succession came to an end after only four seasons with a bloodbath finale reminding us for one last time why Succession was such phenomenal! But why is that? Why is Succession so popular? Let’s find out!
A Portrait of a Very Dark Family, and much more!
Succession was, from the start, a satire of power, an apology of power, a critique of power but most of all, a brutal dissection of power.
Jesse Armstrong smoothly presented a tragedy highlighting the loneliness of its characters and their excessive obsession with power that makes their lives miserable, but with a sense of humour that hypnotised and, at the same time, made us see beyond the obvious, empathising with its protagonists. However, we observed what life is like for the silent billionaires, those who do not boast logos or appear in magazines or on television.
In principle, Succession is about a gritty struggle to become Logan Roy’s successor. But the key to Succession’s success is that it is neither clichéd nor predictable. It’s not about a bunch of posh New York kids tripping each other up from their Manhattan lofts, yachts in the Aegean or English castles (which they also do); it’s about something deeper.
In reality, Succession is about harassment, abuse and perversion, obsession and limitless ambition, pure toxicity and psychological twisting, betrayal and corruption, accompanied, of course, by some very clever strokes of humour.
The series Succession managed to make us empathise with utterly despicable characters who are only motivated by power. As the plot progresses, the members of this peculiar clan grow darker and darker and enter a loop of toxicity that seems to know no bounds. Seeing rich people defeated and suffering more than ordinary people is a classic that always works—who doesn’t find it comforting to think that millionaires aren’t as happy as we are?
Another key to the show’s success is that not a single character is not a villain. They are all despicable, ambitious and capable of anything to get what they want. Watching from the inside all the day-to-day issues of the most powerful families in the world is another element that has managed to hook millions of viewers.
In Succession, there are characters who know each other, maybe hate each other, and certainly those who envy each other! The patriarch Logan Roy, the ultimate bad guy and one of the best TV villains of recent times, has fun trying to destroy his children and exploiting their weaknesses.
Kendall is the most ambitious and, at the same time, fragile. He is a drug addict who wants to win his father’s love and show him, in the process, that Waystar Royco should go digital in its most woke version, with easy Instagram phrases and executives wearing trainers.
Kendall is the most involved in the family business and the most obsessed with succeeding his father. He is constantly on the edge of the cliff, and his progressive descent into hell is as terrifying as it is interesting.
Roman is an immature anarchist with low self-esteem who believes that money falls from the sky. Connor, the son of Logan’s first wife, is out of the Waystar RoyCo business and lives in his own world. He stays on a ranch in New Mexico and makes a splash when he announces that he wants to become President of the United States.
Roy’s only daughter, Shiv, is a shrewd activist who has worked for very left-wing politicians and then turns her life around. Her husband, Tom, is a buck, almost a buffoon, with a twisted mind. Alongside them moves a crowd of other characters, from the top management of Waystar RoyCo to the cousin Greg.
They are all abysmally flawed, rotten, dark, cruel and, on more than one occasion, despicable, but you can’t help but follow their misfortunes. What’s more, you end up seeing their human side or, at the very least, something human, even endearing. The Roy family represents a ruling class who don’t understand the responsibility that comes with power and only know how to interact with each other by hurting each other.
Similar to Real Life!
Armstrong is said to have been inspired by the Murdoch family, and it is actually quite easy to see some parallels between Logan Roy and the American-born billionaire Rupert Murdoch, head of News Corp, the owner of newspapers such as The Sun, The Times and The Wall Street Journal, the publishing house HarperCollins and the television channels Sky News Australia and Fox News. Both men are legends and titans of similar ages, have been married several times and have children from their various marriages.
Some journalists have also tried to see some similarities between Murdoch’s eldest children —Prudence, Lachlan, James and Elizabeth— and the protagonists of Succession. Some have even dared to say that the Roys are a parody of the Trump family.
However, the creator of Succession himself, Jesse Armstrong, acknowledged that there are no such parallels, nor are there any with other powerful clans, such as the Mercers (Robert Mercer is a hedge fund manager who has made millions) or the Redstones (Summer Redstone, who died in August 2020, was the creator of the Viacom media conglomerate, which includes control over Paramount Pictures and the CBS network).
Thanks to exquisite production work, Succession doesn’t skimp on realism. Its narrative coherence —in tune with the atmosphere— is first-rate, as are its settings, from skyscrapers in Manhattan to medieval castles in Scotland. The opulence of power spares nothing, just as the coldness and lack of empathy for the base world are chilling.
Shakespeare in the 21st century
Be that as it may, the interesting thing about the characters in the series is how they interact in a macabre game. Logan’s kids don’t want to kill their fathers; they want to be loved—and this is another of Succession’s great truths.
There is something Shakespearean in their relationships and plots: Shakespeare knew how to portray power with cruelty and crudity —as he did in Julius Caesar, for example—and to exploit emotions to their purest degree. Shakespeare’s characters still endure and resonate in universal culture because they embodied feelings in their most primal and pure form. Romeo and Juliet feel their love so strongly that they are willing to die for it; Hamlet dives into his madness and only in it finds sanity; Macbeth is so thirsty for power that he does not hesitate to kill anyone who gets in his way.
There is much of this essentialism amidst the moral rot of Succession’s characters. That, and also those tragicomic plots, where nothing is what it seems, and everything goes wrong just when it seems to be on the right track.
The narrative arc of the characters in Succession is very ambitious in humanising characters who are shown to us as examples NOT to follow. On the one hand, the aspiration for power floods everyone and manages to strip them of their rules and remorse. On the other hand, the Roy brothers are not only the result of systematic vices but also of the education provided by their father, from whom they constantly seek his approval—something they never get due to his egomania.
All the characters have problems and are extremely unpleasant. That’s what makes the show so much fun, but it takes a bit of time to explain all their motivations and endears you to their personalities.
The Right Cast for the Job!
Besides the incisive narrative full of twists and turns, a great deal of the Succession’s popularity is rooted in the superb performance of the cast that lived up to expectations. Starting with the brilliant Brian Cox! Logan Roy has become the ‘Godfather’ of the small screen, with a performance by Brian Cox on a par with any Hollywood legend.
Boasting a career that included titles such as Troy, Braveheart, Jason Bourne and Red Eye, the Shakespearean actor delivered one of the best performances of the last five years, hands down. His presence was like no other, playing Logan Roy, emperor magnate and head of the family, a veritable Tywin Lannister of our era.
The character is an old wolf, a characteristic that is one of the main differences with his heirs. However, he is genuine and extremely ruthless, making him a true jungle king who reacts before everyone else; as the old saying goes: “while his sons go, he’s gone and come back three times”, turning any crisis to his advantage.
As for Jeremy Strong, he played Kendall Roy, tycoon Logan Roy’s closest son and natural heir, as the head of his father’s empire. The Boston native actor brought to life one of the show’s most hapless, despicable and deeply human characters, something that has already made him a Golden Globe and Emmy winner. Jeremy Strong is a huge revelation for the film industry, and his Kendall Roy is the greatest balance and flaw in this entire drama.
Succession took us into a world of betrayal, corruption and abuse with a critique of the privileged class that is so astute and well-crafted that you won’t be able to stop watching. With an Emmy-winning mockumentary-style setting and a mesmerising soundtrack, the series has achieved a distinctive style that will win over even the most discerning viewers.