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Arts & entertainment

Succession: Mega-wealth and betrayal with extra helicopters

26 Apr 2022 | Written by By Carolyn O'Donnell

‘I was only stealing so I could win,’ says Siobhan Roy in the recent Season 3 finale of Succession. While simply playing Monopoly with other members of the Roy family, the sentiment could easily summarise her world view. The Roys are probably the world’s favourite dysfunctional billionaire media family right now and taking what you want any way you want is just how the Roys roll.

Loosely inspired by tycoons and powerful clans like the Murdochs, Succession depicts the problems of the stupendously rich Roy family, headed by surly self-made mogul Logan Roy, (played by award-winning actor Brian Cox). His family is comprised of three sons, a daughter, ex-wives and various hangers-on all hustling for a place at the top table as they bulldoze their way through acquisitions, scandals and choosing the next US President. 

These people are seriously wealthy and seriously powerful. Roy struggles – sibling rivalry, legacy, emotional abuse – are issues most of us can relate to, but in Succession they’re played out with the shiniest toys on Earth. 

Logan Roy is approaching an age where his body just can’t keep up with his ever-scheming mind and he must choose an heir. There are parallels with King Lear, where an ageing patriarch grapples with handing his kingdom to one of three disappointing children. Much of the show is concerned with his offspring Kendall, Siobhan (or Shiv) and Roman trying to be that heir. Biological eldest son Connor is the largely deluded spare, though he does quite fancy becoming leader of the free world.

Logan doesn’t suffer fools gladly or otherwise. His favourite word starts with F and ends with K, and his most likely response in most situations is to combine that word with ‘off’. If there was a game where you watched Succession and had a cocktail every time someone used that word starting with F, by the end of an episode most of us would be in an alcoholic coma. 

The Roy children were born with a silver spoon in their mouth, but also a father who might choke them with it at any moment. The kids bounce between wanting to win control of the family multibillion media empire and trying to gain their father’s affection. 

At the end of Season 2, Kendall attempted a coup and called his father a monster on live TV, a winning move if your goal is to facilitate your own exile. Kendall has big plans, flawed execution and a fondness for substances, often accompanied by the expression of a depressed donkey defeated by his calculus homework.  

Shiv, determined though not as sharp as she thinks, was racing to the prize but tumbled at hurdles of misjudgement. Quip-smart Roman pressed ahead to take the lead but fell into a giant pothole he dug, or rather texted himself, when he tried to send yet another unwelcome image of his appendage to senior executive Gerri and pinged it to his father instead. Oops. Logan is not down with millennial digital hijinks and now thinks Roman’s one vote short of a majority. 

Sneaky Shiv would casually disembowel Roman to be CEO, but she’s more accepting of Roman’s eccentricities and when she calls him the Dick Pickler, it’s almost affectionate. 

Weddings are great in bringing characters together for maximum arguments and the latter portion of Season 3 was based in Tuscany for Lady Caroline’s remarriage. Logan’s second wife and mother of Shiv, Kendall and Roman, Lady C is a tad imperious. Dame Harriet Walter who plays her has form in this area, having portrayed a glacial Princess Margaret in Patrick Melrose. Poldark fans may have been excited to note that Lady C was marrying reliably dastardly Uncle Warleggan (Pip Torrens). 

 

These are mostly terrible people doing unforgivable things. But the writing on Succession is a joy, with historical references such as the story of Sporus. It’s thought that Emperor Nero, before fiddling as Rome blazed, found slave boy Sporus comely, castrated and then married him. As you do. No one knows what Sporus thought about all this, but Nero’s wife Poppaea had died and Sporus got to wear her frocks. 

The fact that Tom Wambsgans – desperate Roy satellite and husband of Shiv – referred to Cousin Greg as Sporus is disturbing on many levels, but levels hopefully explored further in coming episodes. Tom is sad, and invites pity, but then you have to remember he has been known to use ‘human furniture’. Devoted to Shiv, Tom was her doormat. Or maybe ottoman. 

Cousin Greg’s an ambitious bumbler. Or a supreme manipulator. The delight of this character is that it’s hard to tell. Happy to accept the affections of a woman whose main aim for the relationship was to annoy Kendall, Greg soon aspired to a princess eighth in line to the Luxembourg throne who was also a guest at Lady C’s nuptials. Tom urged him on, saying: ‘Greg, you marry her, you’re one plane crash away from becoming Europe’s weirdest king.’ 

Elsewhere at the wedding, Connor was cheerful because his girlfriend decided marrying him might not be an utter disaster. Meanwhile, the aroma of curdled takeover wafted over the dessert buffet. Abandoning their Prosecco, the other three siblings gathered in a car park to discuss tactics. Kendall made a confession, there was some awkward comforting, and the trio realised that sticking together might be the way forward in time for a fraught showdown laced with betrayal.

Emmy winner Jesse Armstrong is the writer behind Succession. Co-creator of the popular comedy Peep Show, he’s also at least mildly obsessed with the Murdochs, having written a screenplay about them that was never produced. He’s admitted to a fascination with media moguls such as Conrad Black, Robert Maxwell and Sumner Redstone.

 

A satirical commentary on power and scratchy family relations, there’s one thing the Roys unequivocally care about – their business empire. The company is their kingdom, and Succession depicts a version of royalty – royalty that makes decisions, shapes events and is completely ruthless in the most glamorous locales. King Logan seems determined to stay in command, no matter how much metaphorical blood is spilled. 

By finale’s end Kendall, Roman and Shiv have realised the value of solidarity, but maybe it’s too late. It’s hard to pity or like them, but it’s easy to be entertained by ultra-privileged Roy machinations. Season 3 was described as ‘full beast mode’, and nothing less than battle royale is expected in Season 4. 

  • Season 4 of Succession starts filming in June.

Are you a fan of Succession? Let us – and Carolyn – know your thoughts in the comments.


A former theatre and comedy critic, Carolyn O’ Donnell was a senior journalist at The Times and has written extensively on arts and culture. Her travel writing has appeared in The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, and many airline magazines. In 2021 she won the Christopher Hewitt Award for fiction.

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