Skip to main content
In the News   
Ex: Europe, Middle East, Education

Through the Looking Glass - Succession: Between King Lear and the Murdochs

ARTICLES - 26 August 2020

There is no hatred like hatred within a family. At first glance, it would seem that Succession is the perfect illustration for that. 

In reality, the series is about much more. One could think of it as a mix between the story of King Lear and Rupert Murdoch: Shakespeare’s tragic hero betrayed by his daughters, and the international media magnate. Since 2018, two seasons have already been produced by HBO and a third, delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, is underway.

I would like to conclude this mini-series that Institut Montaigne has devoted to the world of TV shows with Succession. It deserves this final chapter, just as it deserves to be analyzed on its own, without being compared to other shows, as we’ve done with the previous parts of this series. Over the course of the show - one of the most popular in the United States, if not in the world - the episodes become more dense and their quality increases. A myriad of very high quality actors star in it, embodying their characters to perfection - starting with Brian Cox who plays the founder of the dynasty. Unlike films, series have the time to showcase many characters. 

The series would quickly become depressing, were it not for the scathing humour, always present and almost redemptive, as if the authors of the series were trying to say: "It's terrible what happens, isn't it? It really is a reflection of our world. But don't take us too seriously, anyway".

As the title suggests, the series describes the fierce struggles between an 80 year old media mogul and his children, to whom he plans to hand over the reins. But who will be the chosen one? Does he really want to step down as he claims he wants to? Or is it just a tactic on his part to show that he is irreplaceable, to cling to power, while he de facto cuts himself off from everyone else? Nothing is more dangerous than a wounded lion. Logan Roy clearly falls into that category. As he ages, he is no longer in complete control of his body (especially his bladder, as the series insists on making clear). His children dream only of taking power, encouraged by competitors who seek to dismember an Empire whose Emperor is as much hated as he is feared. Isn't he detestable, moreover, in his contempt for the "young"? Or in his way of exploiting others’ weaknesses, from the waiter who spills champagne on him to the small businessman whom he refuses to pay decently for his work. Isn’t Donald Trump, the real estate magnate, also known to be a very bad payer? Could it be that he inspired the magnate hero of this series?

The problem in Succession is that the patriarch, though weakened by age and sickness, is of a completely different temperament than his children.

Failed takeovers, hostile bids, shady plots, betrayals, dark traps: events follow one another at a hellish pace. It’s war in the Roy family, Americans of British origin, and this is made obvious from the very first images of the first episode of the first season. There are no holds barred, even the lowest, cruellest, most unthinkable ones within a family. Paternal emotions are diverted, manipulated, exploited in the most cynical, Machiavellian way, at an ever-faster pace. In Succession, everyone is fundamentally "bad" and fundamentally unsympathetic, starting with the patriarch Logan Roy. To maintain control over the empire he has built, he is willing to play his children off against each other, using and even encouraging their weaknesses. An unworthy father, but an incomparable empire builder, he will pay dearly to save his own skin. Next to the Roys, the Borgias would seem almost naive. Even the seemingly most innocent characters will, over the course of the episodes, be won over by cynicism and harshness. In the world of series, Succession is particularly and deliberately dark. No character is supposed to be or become a "nice or almost nice villain", even as we grow to know them better. It’s a far cry from Dallas or House of Cards. Here everything is only "luxury, frenzy and moral ugliness", as Paul Verlaine would say. The series would quickly become depressing, were it not for the scathing humour, always present and almost redemptive, as if the authors of the series were trying to say: "It's terrible what happens, isn't it? It really is a reflection of our world. But don't take us too seriously, anyway". This is the world of realistic satire. 

How do you explain the ever-growing success of Succession? Is it simply the quality of the script, the actors, the direction, or the caustic and provocative humour? Or is the Zeitgeist of Succession too befitting of today’s America? A product of its time, the series comes at the right moment, almost a decade after the financial and economic crisis of 2007/2008, and in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump.

The series comes at the right moment, almost a decade after the financial and economic crisis of 2007/2008, and in the aftermath Trump's election.

At the time, House of Cards may have heralded Donald Trump’s victory, President Underwood being a pale fictional version of what would happen in reality. As a perfect summary of the Trump years, could Succession be heralding his end? In any case, it reflects a spectacular reversal of America's priorities. The terrorist threat that appears briefly in season one becomes secondary. It now only serves as a pretext for the President of the United States to cancel the meeting he had set with the media tycoon. There could not be a greater contrast with Homeland, or even in its roundabout and indirect version, with Game of Thrones. The enemy is no longer the terrorists. Rather, it is the "hyper-rich", with their scandalous lifestyles and total cynicism, who live on another planet, convinced that their money gives them a pass to do anything. At the end of season one, the drama becomes exceptional. During a lavish wedding in an English castle - Downtown Abbey fans would not be disappointed - a plot against the magnate quickly unfolds, as he marries his daughter off. For the sake of appearances, the family is reunited for the occasion, but the main action takes place elsewhere. The bride is no longer the star of her own wedding. Her father has stolen the limelight from her as a hostile power takeover happens in front of our eyes. 

Has fiction once again preceded reality, or is it merely a pale and timid illustration of it? Would Succession explain the reasons for wrath in the face of rising inequalities and the excesses of capitalism in the world?

Could there be some Thomas Piketty in Jesse Armstrong, the creator of the Roy family saga? The combination of extreme wealth, the greatest immorality and total brutality is certainly not an accident. The world that is depicted is not only fascinating because of the complexity of its plots. Is it not also a world doomed to disappear, a victim of its own excesses? Can the Empire survive the economic or physical loss of its founder? Unable to ensure his succession because of his deep-rooted nature as a narcissistic pervert, Logan Roy more resembles the "after me, the flood", of Louis XV, than a great responsible boss. Facing the media magnate stands a left-wing politician who campaigns for the reduction of inequalities and who will maintain an ambiguous relationship with the capitalist, if not with capitalism.

Succession deeply divides its very large audience. For some it is simply "a little gem", the most perfect series America has given us since Game of Thrones. For others - who almost feel guilty about succumbing to their voyeurism by continuing to watch it - it is simply despicable. For them it is an illustration, or even a defense of what America has become: a country without faith, nor law, guilty and a victim at the same time of the financialization of the world. This society does not need an external enemy. Evil has won from within. Since the recent tragic events in Lebanon, some American commentators have spoken openly about the "Lebanonization" of the United States: the polarization of society, the weakening of the State, the rise of violence and corruption, the dysfunction of politics that has become structural. Could this excessively pessimistic vision - America has not become, and is not in the process of becoming Lebanon - be illustrated, if not encouraged, by the success of a series such as Succession? Has fiction once again preceded reality, or is it merely a pale and timid illustration of it? Would Succession explain the reasons for wrath in the face of rising inequalities and the excesses of capitalism in the world?

There are no answers to this question, but it deserves to be asked. It is at the heart of this summer's exploration of the relationship between the world of series and the world at large. Who influences whom? And in what way? From the parallel drawn between symbolic power (The Crown) and real power (Borgen), to the transatlantic reflection on the crisis of politics (Baron Noir and House of Cards), from the geopolitical analysis of the ways to fight terrorism (The Bureau) to the possible return of fascism (The Plot against America) and the ‘resistible’ rise of populism (Years and Years), or the topical issue of pandemics (Counterpart or The Last Ship), we have drawn up an inventory of the World of Series. Some of our choices may have seemed too obvious, others not obvious enough. As always, there is a bit of randomness in the selection made. Who's ready to write and about what? Subjectivity sometimes triumphs naturally.
 

 

On behalf of the Institut Montaigne and on my own behalf, I would like to thank all those who were up for this summer challenge.

 

Copyright : HBO

 

See also
  • Commentaires

    Add new comment

    About text formats

    Commentaire

    • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type='1 A I'> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id='jump-*'> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
    • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
    • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
    • Only images hosted on this site may be used in <img> tags.

...

Envoyer cette page par email

L'adresse email du destinataire n'est pas valide
Institut Montaigne
59, rue la Boétie 75008 Paris

© Institut Montaigne 2017