HBO’s Succession feels like a comedy. Creator Jesse Armstrong is a British comedy writer who wrote for the political satire The Thick of It. Executive producer Adam McKay, who directed the pilot, is the longtime writing partner of Will Ferrell, who is also credited as an executive producer. The show’s focus on a mega-rich family of fuckups has earned it comparisons to Arrested Development, and it has the mockumentary feel — and the high volume of creatively devastating insults — of Veep. (Armstrong worked on that show, too, as did Succession EP Frank Rich.) Succession is shot in the loose style of much contemporary comedy, with scenes that often end abruptly, on tossed-off remarks that function as punchlines. But Sunday’s season finale made clear that Succession is pure tragedy, particularly in the arc of the show’s protagonist, Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong), the perfect antihero for life under late capitalism.
As the title indicates, Succession‘s dynastic family drama is positively monarchical; the family name even echoes the French word for king, roi. The degree to which familial bonds define the Roy children’s social reality lends the show the scale of Shakespearean tragedy, but with a contemporary twist — the very bonds that allow these characters to live lavish lives so far removed from the rest of society also undermine their ability to enjoy their spoils; it’s an empty victory, being born on third base. The story of the show’s first season is the story of those bonds unraveling, and the ripple effect that has on the family’s powerful company — not to mention the regular people caught in their crosshairs.
If you’re one of those people who can’t stand to watch unlikable characters, you won’t find much to like in Succession. The show kicks off when Logan Roy (Brian Cox), the patriarch and CEO of the News Corp–like global media conglomerate Waystar Royco, has a change of heart on his eightieth birthday and decides to stay on rather than pass off the company to Kendall as planned. When Logan has a stroke, it sets off a season of power grabs and squabbles among Kendall and his siblings: The appropriately nicknamed Shiv (Sarah Snook), short for Siobhan, is a political operative who’s stepped away from the family business, even as she prepares to marry Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), a sycophantic Waystar executive. Roman (Kieran Culkin) is an unrepentant asshole whose first order of business upon being named COO of the company is to close his office blinds and masturbate onto the floor-to-ceiling window while looking out over his fiefdom below. Connor (Alan Ruck), Logan’s eldest child from an earlier marriage, is a directionless buffoon who has to effectively bribe his much younger girlfriend, Willa (Justine Lupe), a playwright and former call girl, to move out to his isolated ranch in New Mexico. This is a man so disconnected from reality that, upon receiving his family at his gargantuan desert compound, he declares, “Welcome to the real America!” By the finale, this man who does not work is considering a run for president.
But Succession, or its first season at least, belongs to the arrogant but deeply insecure Kendall. We meet him in the backseat of a chauffeured car, listening to the Beastie Boys’ “An Open Letter to NYC” on a pair of giant headphones; there’s a sick irony in a white guy named Kendall using this anthem to New York’s scrappy diversity as pump-up music before taking over daddy’s multibillion-dollar company. Kendall walks like he owns Manhattan, but he practically sweats self-doubt, and it’s no surprise to learn that he’s a (barely) recovering addict.
Kendall isn’t some Wall Street wolf snorting blow off strippers’ asses. He pines for his estranged wife, Rava (Natalie Gold), the only person who accepts his vulnerability instead of using it against him. His attempts at tech-bro bravado fall hopelessly flat; in the pilot, he opens a business meeting with an awkward, “So, we ready to fuck or what?” His siblings mock his self-importance, and any swagger he may possess pales when he’s in the presence of his father, whose gravitational pull turns Kendall — who can’t so much as make a cup of coffee without his household staff — into a scared little boy. Kendall may be unlikable, but that’s not a synonym for unsympathetic. The genius of the show is to make the viewer, despite her best efforts, feel sorry for this poor, cracked shell of a man.
The show’s production team presents the Roys’ opulent lifestyle matter-of-factly, in a cool, dispassionate style that mirrors the characters’ detachment from the world outside their gilded bubble. Succession has a feline appeal, slinking back and letting the viewer approach it and make her own conclusions about these characters’ virtues, or lack thereof. While the show doesn’t exactly flatter its subjects, it’s also not entirely clear at the outset whether we’re meant to laugh at them, pity them, or despise them.
In the end, it’s a little of all three. Despite their overwhelming advantages, the Roy children are helplessly dwarfed by their name and the man who gave it to them — none more than Kendall, whose desire to displace Logan as CEO barely masks his deep yearning for his father’s love and respect. In a brutal twist of irony, Logan sees that very yearning as a sign of weakness — Kendall is too “soft” to run the company, Logan tells his son in the pilot, before taunting him, “Are you gonna fucking cry? Kendall, are you fucking crying?” The more Kendall tries to ingratiate himself the more he disappoints — even disgusts — his father.
Like any royal family, the personal is always inextricably intertwined with the professional. (Logan facilitates a group therapy session at Connor’s ranch only after being told that the family’s very public dysfunction is hurting the company stock.) When the clan travels to England for Shiv and Tom’s wedding in the final two episodes, the royal connection is rendered even starker — despite Tom’s genuine love for Shiv, this is a strategic union. The Roys inhabit a literal castle, the ancestral home of Shiv’s mother, Logan’s second wife, and people wave and take pictures when the wedding procession rolls through the town, as if cheering on Harry and Meghan.
These are the kings and queens who now control so much of the world, and if Succession at first comes off as comedy, it’s because these people are such clowns. But clowns can be unwittingly terrifying, and the Roys are never scarier than when they’re casually and thoughtlessly toying with the lives of the little guys — usually people who work for them, like the waiter at Shiv’s wedding who, in Sunday’s finale, accidentally spills champagne on Logan’s sleeve and is subsequently fired. That’s just the beginning of the young man’s woes: Kendall, having finally succeeded in taking down his father by initiating a hostile takeover of the company with his financier buddy, can’t enjoy the victory, and anxiously begs drugs off the just-fired waiter. Then he takes him on a jittery, late-night drive to buy cocaine, which ends in calamity when Kendall veers off the road to avoid a deer and slams the car into a lake, leaving the waiter to drown. Stunned, he stumbles back to his room, bathes, changes his clothes, and rejoins the party.
For Logan, this isn’t a tragedy but an opportunity, and one he immediately seizes. The next morning, he summons Kendall into what can only be described as a throne room and informs him that his key card was found near the scene of the crash, and a witness saw Kendall walking back to his room last night, soaking wet. But all will be forgotten, he asserts, if only Kendall drops his plan and lets his father assume control of the company. “You’re my number one boy,” Logan promises, as he wraps Kendall in a hug before quickly dismissing him. In the end, he proves his father right: Kendall’s too “soft” to take Logan down without running into the warm embrace of his addiction.
In Shakespeare’s plays, comedies end in a wedding, and tragedies end in death. That Succession‘s freshman season ends in both is appropriate for a series about the contemporary American version of a monarchy — one that borrows elements of Shakespearean tragedy but is firmly set among the absurdly, unnaturally wealthy lives of modern kings. Succession is about the infinite lives the wealthy get to lead, the endless second chances that money can buy. Through the figure of Kendall, the series encourages the viewer to see this social reality as rotten to its core — a world in which qualities like vulnerability, trust, and love are not virtues but tragic flaws.