“In ‘Succession,’ any attempt to leave Logan Roy’s orbit can only end in despair.”
(This review contains spoilers for Succession season three)
HBO’s critically acclaimed Succession (2018-present) has always been about childhood abuse and how unchecked cruelty within the nuclear family, when left to fester for decades, gives rise to the horrific success of multi-billionaires like Logan Roy (Brian Cox). In Jesse Armstrong’s maddeningly brilliant show, the profound absence of love sustains capitalism, and it makes the Roy siblings morally repugnant but ultimately empathetic to audiences. The show’s pilot, for instance, concludes with Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin) tearing up a million dollar cheque in front of a working-class kid — with Logan’s loving endorsement, and everyone else’s calculated apathy to such behaviour. This scene was a huge risk to take in writing a pilot script, especially when a character’s likability is what garners incremental viewership on television.
Yet it is precisely this cruelty — perpetuated by Logan and consequently, by his children — which makes the show’s third season finale so gloriously heartbreaking. The Roy siblings finally see Logan as the bitter, selfish man that he is, and turn against a father whom they love so much that his abuse often feels like attention they deserve. Roman, the son who Logan physically hurts the most, asks him why love isn’t enough. Logan isn’t enraged at their betrayal, but he is enraged that they seem to think love is important. Loving is weak: Kendall (Jeremy Strong) stops rebelling against Logan just to help him down a hill, Shiv (Sarah Snook) destroys her promising career in politics to be closer to her father, and Roman wilfully pretends that the broken tooth Logan gave him is merely accidental.
In Succession, any attempt to leave Logan’s orbit can only end in despair, and the cycle of abuse marches on. The show’s second season concludes on an uncharacteristically high note, with Kendall publicly denouncing Logan’s role in covering up the company’s history of institutionalized sex abuse. The third season begins with the promise of Kendall breaking out of Logan’s manipulation, but as the show goes on, Kendall is seen crying alone episode after episode, not quite sure if his life is worth anything at all without his father. It is repetitive, but that is also what abuse does — it makes leaving the infinitely worse option. The Roy siblings have more than enough security to leave Logan, but they are stuck waiting for scraps of approval that will never come.
Lonely and lost, Kendall turns to his younger siblings, hoping to rescue them, but they refuse his love. Roman offers to kick Kendall out of the company and Shiv launches a smear campaign against him, in the hopes that their father will love them more for being coldly indifferent to Kendall’s pain. Fraught discussions between the Roy siblings take place in a child’s bedroom, and an adult’s 40th birthday party is designed to resemble childhood, with cute tree-houses and all, which reveals Kendall’s desire to return to a perfect childhood which never was. Kendall has to believe that his siblings are not full of resentment for him — after all, he supposedly enjoyed watching Roman being locked up in a cage by Logan when they were kids—because he does not know what family or love or home means in the absence of his father. Yet the only people who could possibly understand his pain are too hurt to see past Logan’s intricate tapestry of lies: Roman and Shiv are still children waiting for Logan’s permission to move on with their lives. They wish their father would one day love them back, even if it means cutting their big brother out of the family.
The question of why love isn’t enough drives Kendall, Roman, Shiv, and Connor further and further apart this season. There are brief references to Connor (Alan Ruck) taking Kendall and Roman out camping as kids when Logan wouldn’t spend any time with them, but to the three siblings, Connor’s unconditional love is worth nothing compared to Logan’s abuse. Logan has trained Kendall, Roman, and Shiv to see love as a form of punishment, something you can measure how much or how little to give. There is nothing worth rooting for about characters who hurt people just because they have the privileged means to do so, but the appeal of Succession lies in its nihilistic portrayal of a broken world filled with so much hate, rage, and corruption.
The three siblings’ eventual reunion in the final episode may be powerful, but once again, it will never be enough. As Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) says, “the verdict is love,” because the Roy children’s unwavering love for their father condemns them to a sadness that is impossible to break out of. It is also this warped love that their cruelty towards others is built on. Nothing bad is going to happen to the Roy siblings, who are billionaires on their own, just because they teamed up and said no to daddy (for once). In fact, Logan’s hatred for his children’s autonomy is repeated over and over again — the ridiculous banality of Logan’s amoral compass, as Succession shows, is a tragedy that goes overlooked.
Yet viewers feel for the Roy children’s devastation at their father’s rejection all the same, because his violence drives the absurdity of the world. It is a violent act to look at one’s crying son, and tell him that love means nothing. Logan pits his kids against each other in locked cages fighting for dog food, but this supposedly private family affair is also a very real metaphor of what the ruling class does to everyone else. The top 1% of the food chain is made up of people like the Roys, and Succession shows just how bleak that is.
Directed By: Various
Executive Producers: Jesse Armstrong, Adam McKay, Frank Rich, Kevin Messick, Mark Mylod, Jane Tranter, Tony Roche, Scott Ferguson, Jon Brown, Lucy Prebble, Will Tracy
Produced By: Regina Heyman, Dara Schnapper, Jonathan Filley, Ron Bozman, Gabrielle Mahon
Cast: Brian Cox, Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook, Alan Ruck, Kieran Culkin, Matthew Macfadyen, Hiam Abbass, Natalie Gold, J. Smith Cameron, Justine Lupe, Dagmara Domińczyk, Peter Friedman, David Rasche