Succession, a black comedy about a rich New York family battling for control of a far-flung media empire, is one of HBO’s best current shows, and one of the best series the channel has aired in recent years, but it’s not a huge hit, and if you stumble upon a particular moment in the second-season premiere, you can understand why. Logan Roy (Brian Cox), the family’s 80-year-old patriarch, has called a family meeting at their “summer palace,” a Gatsby-ish seaside estate on Long Island, to discuss whether to sell the company to investors attempting a hostile takeover or fight to stay independent. Servants have prepared a lavish spread, but there’s a mysterious, foul smell emanating from somewhere in the house, and Logan responds by announcing that the food has been contaminated and must be thrown out. So out it goes. All of it. Steaks, shrimp, whole lobsters, and sides go straight into the trash, without a second thought, and the Roys eat pizza instead.
The blithe wastefulness is characteristic of Succession’s view of the superrich as fundamentally cruel, thoughtless people whose senses of decency and civic responsibility have been withered, perhaps at the genetic level, by proximity to billions in cash, assets, and playthings. The show is constantly quoting Shakespeare, and is bound to remind viewers of other HBO antihero families, such as the Sopranos and the Lannisters. But because the series lacks the abstracting effect of genre, you’re aware that these people, however invented, are as real as the plutocrats you hear about every day in the news, and not for one second does Succession leaven its bitter and condemnatory viewpoint with little exemptions and sentimentalizing touches. It’s not “The rich have problems just like the rest of us,” but “Here’s how the rich cause problems for the rest of us.” The log line of Succession could be “King Lear meets Arrested Development.” But while that description captures the series’ peculiar and mesmerizing tone, which mixes the corporate thriller, the family soap, and the blackhearted satire, it doesn’t get across the show’s most distinctive feature: its mercilessly corrosive depiction of the plutocrats who run the global economy and rarely consider its governments to be anything more than momentary speed bumps standing between them and the prizes they covet.
The title refers not just to the practical matter at hand—which of Logan’s four children will run the company when the old man dies?—but to the way that inherited wealth forms a nearly unbreakable chain of influence that stretches across the decades and centuries, becoming (in supposedly free-market nations) something uncomfortably close to the monarchies that democracies are theoretically an alternative to. You could call Logan’s decision to throw out the feast rather than deliver it to a homeless shelter or feed it to the estate’s dogs a middle finger to karma as well as the poor and to nature itself (especially since—literal spoiler alert—we learn that the smell had nothing to do with the food), but only if Logan were the sort of person to give the notion of cosmic justice even a cursory thought. And reader, he isn’t—nor is any character who shares his DNA or cashes his paychecks. The Roys are a billionaire clan of barbarian capitalists that travels in fleets of black helicopters and limos as if they were the despotic royal family of a repressive empire. In an upcoming episode, they “hunt” boars on the grounds of an old Hungarian château by climbing into sniper towers and executing the animals as they’re herded back and forth. Logan Roy is an unholy combination of Rupert Murdoch, Walt Disney, and Sumner Redstone, a creature of pure greed who exists only to acquire, crush his enemies, acquire even more, and then pass his empire on to successors, but only when he’s good and ready. Until then, to use his favorite phrase, everybody who wants to take his throne can fuck off.
And yet the jockeying for power continues in earnest. The sharpest member of the next generation is Siobhan “Shiv” Roy (Sarah Snook), who has more-liberal political values and is the first to be appalled whenever the family makes an especially cruel or destructive decision; but she rarely goes any further than voicing qualms, and she only acts against the others when they’re threatening to take away money or power that she believes should be hers. She consistently pushes back against Logan’s alpha-male bluster and he seems to respect her for this, but when he indicates that he’s grooming her to take over the company, you have to wonder if he really means it, because (a) he’s unthinkingly sexist, and (b) like a certain president whose name starts with T, he’s infamous for sowing rivalry and resentment in his own inner circle in order to fortify his grip on power and position every member as a potential weapon against every other member, just in case. Shiv’s husband Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) is a nattering boob who accepts Shiv’s constant and humiliating infidelities because of the power, money, and access their relationship provides. His father-in-law installs him as chairman of the company’s cable-news channel, a Fox News-like geyser of right-wing dogma whose main purpose is to influence government policy and the movements of the market; the joint runs itself, which is why Tom’s incompetence poses no threat.
Some parts of the company are more successful than others—a financial adviser played by Danny Huston warns Logan that they have to diversify and change, because their TV and newspaper holdings represent a dying world—but it’s a testament to Logan’s stewardship that there’s just so much of it that the totality is still a sturdy and terrifying conglomerate. And the individual parts of the machine are on message, financially and philosophically, to the point where it scarcely seems to matter which family member “supervises” them. Logan had originally placed one of his underqualified yet self-important sons, Roman (Kieran Culkin), in charge of the company’s movie studio, then switched him to the aeronautics division, where he pushed for the premature launch of a rocket that blows up on the launchpad. (No one dies, but one crewmember loses an arm; the Roys consider this a win.) The eldest sibling, Connor (Alan Ruck), is a dimwitted libertarian isolationist who’s hoarding aquifers in anticipation of the impending water crisis, and decides to run for president despite no record of any sort of accomplishments, save for presiding over a family banquet in season one that wasn’t a total disaster. (Afterwards, he rallies the staff with such inappropriate fervor that you’d think he’d just led the first assault on Normandy.)
Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong), a drug addict who’s in and out of recovery, was once the old man’s heir apparent, but now he’s in a kind of probationary purgatory after killing a man in a Chappaquiddick-like car accident at the end of season one, a crime that his father’s goons covered up. Kendall had originally helped mastermind the attempted takeover but is now intensely loyal to his old man, to the point of interrupting a stay at a Scandinavian spa to go on TV to announce that he’s switched his allegiance because “Dad’s plan was better.” This is an ironic and bitter callback to the pilot, where Kendall reacted to any intimation that he took orders from his father with defensive fury. Dad’s plan is to bend everyone and everything to his will, morality and kindness be damned, and Kendall, like the rest of the gang, is fine with it because, to quote a famous line from Mad Men, that’s what the money is for.
The vast majority of shows about rich and/or antiheroic characters encourage viewers to feel sympathy for hollowed-out, thoroughly corrupt people like these, via the simple alchemy of watching them each week and identifying with them over time. But the acid-bath viciousness of Succession prevents the usual mechanism of identification from snapping into place. You feel for a Kendall or a Shiv in the way that you might feel for an apex predator in a wildlife documentary that fell off a cliff while chasing prey. You watch the Roys with something akin to scientific fascination. We’re learning about how the monsters live and reproduce and dominate us, generation after generation. They’re up in the hunting towers, and we’re the boars.
*A version of this article appears in the August 5, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!