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What Was Succession About?

Photo: David M. Russell/David M. Russell

Succession went out tonight in a grand season finale that was as sharp and slippery as the show has ever been. Jesse Armstrong’s corporate saga about the Waystar family has always been many things at once: On a fundamental level, it’s straddled the line between comedy and drama, pulling from elements of sitcoms as well as Shakespearean tragedies, interspersing manslaughter and rigged elections with “boar on the floor” and meals fit for a king. You can choose many facets from which to analyze the prismatic series, and they all tend to track: Succession is a farce and a difficult-man TV drama and a critique of Fox News and an amoral look at the stupidity of capitalism. But what side of the prism is up? What was Succession, ultimately, about? That’s something we may keep arguing about for years, even as traditional media collapses and tech takes over (hey, Succession’s also about that, too). With the finale fresh in our minds, we thought we at Vaulter Vulture should kick off that argument among ourselves. What was Succession about? Let us each make the case for you.

Not to do the obvious “Succession is Shakespeare” take, but like Seinfeld, Succession’s about nothing. There’s a line in King Lear where the sovereign tells Cordelia “nothing will come of nothing: speak again” in response to her insistence that she will not articulate her love for him in the same way her sisters have. Succession is about nothing! To Logan, these children have never been serious people — they’ve always been nothing, a generation fundamentally unable to turn themselves into something of substance and therefore deserve any part of his inheritance. Roman says it right near the end of the episode to Kendall: “We’re nothing … Okay? … Okay!” The arc of the series is about the Roy heirs trying to go from being nothing to something, failing, and returning to nothing. They have enough power to mess the world up in the process, but not enough to fundamentally change their fates, which is the source of the series’ satiric bitterness. (Look at these unserious people who fly private jets above us all and influence our elections.) But nothingness is also the tragedy. Might they be able to become something if they received actual love from their father … maybe so! The nothingness is his flaw as much as theirs. He’s built himself an empire, but only nothing can succeed it. Well, someone else can conquer a kingdom that’s collapsing on a flailing heir, maybe a Scandinavian prince — hey, that’s Hamlet. —Jackson McHenry

To quote what Trixie and Katya would probably saySuccession had, and was about, it all: abolishing monarchies; how actually, yeah, maybe it is best to just be one and done (Connor <3); super-rich kids with nothing but fake friends; daddy issues, mommy issues, Gerri issues; media buffoonery; board meetings; scheming over the phone; dicks and cunts; spectacularly failing up; hot Swedes; Nicholas Britell’s piano; Lady! Caroline! (face eggs??); how women’s wrongs are always right; and, above all, Emmys. This series played out like an amoral fable about a bunch of baby wolves who never learned real hunger — all excess and theater, choking on fat mistaking it for meat. —Dee Lockett

Succession was about a trio of siblings (sorry, Connor) brainwashed by their often-abusive father to believe they should want what he has: a position as the head of a powerful media empire. Only after their father dies does one realize he never wanted the job, only the street cred he thought would come with it. The sister did want the job, but comes to understand that her desire for her older brother to not have it is even greater than her desire to take it. The third, who had been told since birth that the job was his and therefore wanted nothing more than to claim it, is left with no purpose. All the bells said it would never belong to him. But he could never hear them until it was too late. —Jen Chaney

Succession was about America, an outsider’s perspective on our weird and nasty and occasionally moving attempt to do society better than the British. From its inception, the guiding thesis of America has been “Fuck you, Dad.” We’re a nation of underdogs, always looking to individual freedom from a dominant society. Which is a weird position to take when you are, in fact, the dominant society. So it makes sense that in this last season of Succession, the Roys have been instrumental in letting a fascist take over America. Right-wing freaks love to rail against an elite class while obscuring the fact that they’re part of that elite class. They conjure an overdog so their white supremacy can be the underdog. In the same way, Kendall Roy has been trying to top his dead father. He will never know peace unless he can kill the Logan in his head, and he will never do that. And because he has never been able to acknowledge the immense privilege and power of being a plutocrat, his daddy issues have made the country an unsafe place for his children who aren’t even real. Kendall is still living his life in “Fuck you, Dad!” mode. Sorry, bud. You’re Dad now. —Bethy Squires

Succession was about fuck-you-you’ll-never-have-this real estate. Scrape away those Shakespearean allegories and Murdochian power moves and you’ll find a show that loved reminding us of the power of a gaudy foyer. Behold, fellow plebes, as we gaze at the crystal clear floor-to-ceiling windows of Kendall’s penthouse apartment that could only be purchased by Russian oligarch money IRL. Weep in horror/jealously at the 15-foot ceilings of Logan Roy’s Beaux-Arts Manhattan townhouse that is worth 50 times your life-insurance payout. Join us this week in the Caribbean/Tuscany/Pacific Palisades at a manor whose weekly carbon footprint equals several jumbo jet flights across the Atlantic. Gawk at all the Baroque bathrooms, postmodern kitchens, sumptuous walk-in closets, and just know these rich jerks will never ever know the nightmare of begging an absentee management company to fix the radiator in your apartment that causes third-degree burns. —Alex Suskind

Succession was about power corrupting, but it was just as often about power disgusting, literally. The final episode relished serving its privileged, pathetic characters grossness in excess: pounds of expired food, Kendall’s meal fit for a king, Roman repeatedly picking at his stitches, Greg calling Kendall with a nuclear bomb of intel from a toilet, and Tom and Greg’s (Disgustingly Brotherly!) slap fight in a bathroom. In the end, Shiv’s climactic twist in Kendall’s gut is to tell him not that she hates him but that he sickens her: “I love you, but I cannot fucking stomach you.” Delicious. —Eric Vilas-Boas

Succession was about “face eggs.” Or, if you prefer, “pain sponge.” Or “second-tier bereaved,” or “full quad,” or any of the other linguistic baubles adorning the final episode of a series that kicked off with Logan receiving a gift of “bread goo,” i.e., sourdough starter (from Connor, natch) and never looked back. Not since Deadwood — hey, another show with no shortage of Shakespearean comparisons! — has a series had such a rollicking good time with the English language. Also like that series, a lot of attention gets paid to how gloriously profane Succession could be, and rightly so, but it could also be incredibly profound — and when it can do it at the same time, as with Roman’s gut-wrenching “Hey, we are bullshit,” well, that’s the true meaning of Succession to me. —Genevieve Koski

Fox News, daddy issues, the brain-eradicating power of an M.B.A. … no, no, no. Succession was always about the mortal wounds only a sibling can inflict. The kinds of insults spewing from Kendall, Roman, and Shiv’s mouths are honed via decades of sustained verbal and physical warfare, and no outside threat — not a parent’s stroke or sister’s wedding or interloper coming for the family business — holds the power and fury of a sibling scorned. Shiv’s finale maneuver will live on in the pantheon of wronged sisters falling on the sword if it means their brother gets skewered, too. —Julie Kosin

Succession was about how simultaneously horrible and great it is to be extraordinarily, fabulously, obscenely wealthy. Yes, you’re psychologically fucked by the partriarch who broke the world to build a global conglomerate, so emotionally stunted you can barely maintain a genuine relationship, and so isolated from the world nothing can really matter on a human level. On the other hand, the prevailing image of the show for me will always be Stewy sniffing lavender after consuming a plate of cheese in Italy, which evokes so much wealth envy. Yeah, I’ll take that trade. —Nick Quah

Textually, Succession was about generational wealth, generational trauma, and the unique cruelty of the one percent in America. Metatextually, Succession was about our intense desire to hope for the best in people, even to our detriment: that Kendall really cared about protecting his children and younger brother Roman from abusive dad Logan, that Shiv was capable of some kind of love toward normie husband Tom, that Roman’s kindness toward Kerry signaled a larger personality shift for our favorite smug sociopath, that Caroline could be a mother for her children when they needed her, that Connor would realize the American people do not need (nor want) him as president. The fact that very few of these “Gee, won’t these characters rise to our best expectations for them?” readings came to pass by the end of Succession was, I think, Armstrong making a point about the limits of humanity available from people at a certain level of wealth and power. These people have been protected and coddled their whole lives, and our hope that they’ll act more like us — more recognizably normal, more well-adjusted, more willing to reach outside of their own self-certainty and delusion — is a false one, a lie we tell ourselves to think that the absurdly rich are just like us. They’re not, and they never can be; the Roys would spit on us in the street and go home to their billions and not think twice about us again. Succession was about sympathy and empathy, but it was also about how the one percent doesn’t need any more of either. —Roxana Hadadi

Succession was about how there are ultimately some moral absolutes. If you kill someone, you can’t just get away with it. Eventually your acting teacher will shoot you. Wait, no that was Barry. It was about “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” Oops, sorry, that was Ted Lasso. It was about how great people are not born or bred. They are rare. And they are terrible parents. Hmmm, that was The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Succession was about how, as much as you want to eat the rich, you have to give it up for the people who are self-made and not just given it. It is about our collective resentment toward nepo babies, even though being a nepo baby comes with a tremendous emotional burden. Nepo babies pursue the field of their parents because that successful parent tends to be so busy and consumed with work that the only way to get their attention is to try to follow in their footsteps. But it is a trap. Rich people shouldn’t have kids. —Jesse David Fox

Succession was a harrowing exhibit of boundary-less people who needed to make noisy large-scale public art of their interior landscapes. Therapy is worth it, please make time for it! —Choire Sicha

Succession was about Stewy being bi all along. —Wolfgang Ruth

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What Was Succession About?