Succession is the Perfect Eulogy for a Dying Republic

More than simply a satire of the Murdochs, the HBO series tells us where US dysfunction goes next.

by Aaron Bastani

13 December 2021

Actors Sarah Snook, Kieran Culkin and Jeremy Strong attend the Succession Season 3 premiere in New York, October 2021. Anthony Behar/Reuters

In The Prince, the famed instruction guide for the Renaissance ruler, Niccolò Machiavelli warns against the unjustified seizure of property. “Above all things”, he apprises the reader, “he [the Prince] must keep his hands off the property of others, because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony”. 

Originally scribbled five centuries ago, these lines capture the central conceit of the HBO series Succession – the season finale of which broadcast last night. While the show has garnered praise in capturing the zeitgeist, from ebbing faith in democracy to a political sphere increasingly colonised by the media, what motivates the central characters – ambition, inadequacy and lust for validation – are timeless. Like much great art, what elevates Succession is how it dresses perennial themes in the garb of modernity, extracting – as Charles Baudelaire once put it – “the poetry that resides in its historical envelope”. The lead characters may be reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Lear, but the dialogue – from the terminally online Kendall to Shiv, his conflicted ‘progressive’ sister – could only be written now.

On its surface, Succession is a story of dysfunctional billionaires, with three children (Kendall, Roman and Shiv) impatient to assume the leadership of Waystar Royco, a giant media conglomerate, from their ageing father Logan Roy. Despite his advancing years, Logan, played by Brian Cox, retains a personality mass so great that the rest of the cast are, like some law of physics, pulled into his orbit. As a result, the ambitions of his grasping offspring, otherwise entirely self-absorbed, are regularly tempered by doubt and uncertainty.

Beneath the family bickering and corporate bloodfeuds is an effort to parody the Murdoch dynasty, perhaps the Anglosphere’s most powerful clan. Aside from this being immediately obvious – Kendall, the eldest son, resembles James Murdoch, while the ATN network is a pseudo-Fox News – Jesse Armstrong, the show’s creator, drafted a script titled The Murdochs in 2009. Its plot is eerily reminiscent of Succession, with an ageing patriarch – Rupert Murdoch – dividing the spoils of a life’s work in his autumn years.

Yet Succession is much more than a satire of a single family, or even of Anglophone media at its most gruesome. In the background are other questions of continuity which, rather than confined to a single bloodline, span generations, technologies and even political systems. Logan Roy, his brattish children, and the army of quislings at his disposal, are a microcosm of something far bigger. Waystar Royco offers a glimpse of what happens when the elite doesn’t just lose sight of a higher purpose, but become so decadent they no longer bother with the charade. More broadly, then, the misanthropy, greed and narcissism on show tell us something about a republic in decline. 

The Roys, a study in American decadence.

One way of understanding the political meaning of Succession is to contrast it with another series, House of Cards, which also began broadcasting in the 2010s. Whereas the Netflix show offered the scheming duo of Frank and Claire Underwood running amok in a world of occasionally decent people – Succession conveys a more general malaise in social moeurs.  While for the Underwoods politics is an art of deception insulated from popular pressure, in Succession it is instead a social process where we are offered the spectre of elite disintegration and only oligarchs, misanthropic celebrities and rightwing zealots stand tall in a world of universal degradation. While the anti-democratic nature of American empire is implicit in House of Cards – something sinister, dark and embodied in the Underwoods – in Succession it’s a punchline. When Logan describes politics as what “comes out the arsehole” and queries why someone wouldn’t want “to feed the horse” instead, he is ventriloquising Andrew Breitbart, confrere of Steve Bannon and founder of Breitbart News, who often spoke of politics being ‘downstream from culture’. Yet Waystar Royco is legacy media, with Logan offered as the ersatz Rupert Murdoch, indicating that a politics fuelled by triviality and fake news didn’t start with social media but has long been built into the system. The single-minded madness embodied by Frank Underwood, a calculating machine of sometimes deadly self-interest, isn’t the private life of a dangerous politician, but rather the people who determine our culture. 

Given the two shows first broadcast only five years apart, such a difference is instructive. That can be partly explained by the Trump presidency, but also by how new media recalibrated power away from its historic centre over the last decade. House of Cards first aired in 2013, amid the relatively comfortable years of the second Obama presidency. While the Tea Party faction was already challenging Republican ‘moderates’, the world of the Proud Boys, QAnon and president Trump remained broadly inconceivable. 

Such changes are visible in Succession – indeed they underpin the show’s very essence. In season three, Logan’s nickname for the president – who he ultimately helps remove through a smear campaign focusing on his health – is ‘Raisin’. At one point at the ‘Future Freedom Summit’, a meeting of the country’s most powerful conservative figures, he concedes that he can see his most useless child, Connor, replacing Raisin in the Oval Office. Looking around a room of would-be Republican nominees, even Connor’s sceptical sister Shiv asks if it’s such a bad idea: “Is it just me, or in a room full of Timothy McVeighs [the domestic terrorist who killed 168 people in the 1995 Oklahoma bombing], does Connor suddenly look like a Roosevelt?” The mystique of politics has evaporated into something which is both funny, but also fraught with danger.

At that same event, where the most powerful politicians, influencers and donors meet to decide the next Republican candidate, the masquerade of private interest as public virtue is perfectly captured when a speaker makes a toast asking that God shepherd whoever is selected because “the health of our republic depends on it”. “And the health of my portfolio!” shouts one of the guests to raucous laughter. The elite capture of politics isn’t just a subtext or a single interpretation, but a joke made continuously explicit. What’s more, we, the audience, are laughing. This is because the manner in which the democratic process is subverted is less reminiscent of a shadowy, all-powerful cabal than a gaggle of overgrown children trying to string out a broken system for as long as they benefit. The aura of elite politics is splintering – and it’s clear few people would like or trust these figures – but while the stock market booms, interest rates remain low and asset prices are inflated, not even the oligarchy appear to care. Loose monetary policy and the absence of an organised working class have dulled their senses like laudanum in a glass of wine – they just want to smile and have fun. 

The (phoney) war between generations.

Besides its depiction of a decadent establishment, the conflict between the various Roys offers a microcosm of wider generational discord. While Logan represents the ‘boomer’ cohort – for which he functions as an archetype – Kendall, Shiv and Roman all appear to be millennials aged between 30 and 40. Subsequently the viewer observes a range of cosmetic differences in ‘values’ and how the children see the company being run. Kendall appears to have no discernible talent beyond overstating his abilities, regurgitating media buzzwords and parroting progressive rhetoric to conceal his own ethical vacuity. This is a character who says “fuck the patriarchy!” as paparazzi snap his picture, yet rarely finds time to see his children. Despite appeals to woke culture and an obsession with new media, what makes Kendall tick is no different to his father. He wants money, power, and to be king of the Waystar castle.

Similarly Shiv, who in season two briefly works for senator Gil Eavis – an obvious pastiche of Bernie Sanders – believes herself to be progressively minded. While less overtly narcissistic, her occasional appeals to ethics – as with her brother – are principally deployed to mask personal ambition. Thus by season three she is helping cover for a scandal in the company’s cruises division, including allegations of sexual assault, and poses in a photo – albeit reluctantly – with crypto-fascist Jeryd Mencken. Like Kendall, Shiv isn’t that different to her father; it’s simply the done thing for their generation to appeal outwardly to progressive sensibilities. 

Without doubt, however, the most interesting arc of all three younger children is that of Roman. Initially his introverted, sardonic qualities contrast with his ambitious siblings, and while those traits don’t disappear (his idiosyncrasies include an obsession with taking ‘dick pics’) by season three he has sufficiently matured to be labelled ‘bootcut Logan’ by interim CEO Geri. While Roman’s belief in little initially discounts him from a position of power, it ultimately marks him out for potential greatness. This is because, unlike his brother and sister, his political instincts aren’t driven by a desire to fit in or even be liked (except by his dad) but by the nihilism of the bottom line. This is why he is taken by Jeryd Mencken in his bid for the White House, and subsequently persuades his father that Waystar Royco should endorse the self-modelled ‘aristopopulist’. Where Mencken, who is more reminiscent of neo-nazi Richard Spencer than Trump, offers an avatar for US politics since 2016, Roman reflects a not-insignificant part of the country’s conservative and media establishment. “He’s talked about burning Korans and licensing press credentials,” Shiv says in disgust. “Yeah”, Roman replies vacantly. “He’s shifting the Overton window.”

Such a comment not only belies Roman’s disinterest in politics, but also demonstrates how dangerous the impulse to remain ‘relevant’ in an ever-accelerating media environment is. Roman expresses this in his own inimitable style when telling Mencken where his presidential tilt fits alongside the company’s changing brand: “I’ve got some ideas for ATN [the TV network], you know. Sluice out the fucking porridge and add some sriracha. Poach some of those TikTok psychos, you know? […] Deep state conspiracy hour but with, like, a fucking wink, you know? […] And the whole show […] is kinda set up for the star. President Jeryd Mencken.” While Frank Underwood retains respect for the institutions of the republic, which embody the majesty needed to rule the multitude, for Roman Roy they are disposable props which can be discarded as necessary – something which also likely applies to civil rights, the rule of law and universal suffrage.

Roman’s nihilism, charming and strangely honest, reveals a political culture not only hollowed out by the media but which no longer believes in the possibility of anything other than debasement. If his dad was “pillows and bedpans”, he tells Mencken, then the new ATN is “strictly bone broth and dick pills”. The point here isn’t necessarily a generational handover, where iconoclasts exchange new values for old ones (a perennial feature of any healthy society) but a suggestion that as boomers depart the stage of history, along with their politics of triviality and paranoia, something more dangerous could emerge. What becomes increasingly clear over time, amid the slapstick and shit-talk, is that legacy media offers no real firewall against the far right. As Roman puts it to Mencken: “Fascists are kind of cool […] but not really. So, is that, like, a problem, a thing?”

What comes after boomer neoliberalism?

Succession is, therefore, not only a show about the passing of power within a single family, but political continuity between generations and society more broadly. After all, a central feature of democracy is the regular, peaceful transfer of power – the issue of succession resolved through majoritarian principle rather than political violence or, as with Waystar Royco, bloodline. 

None of the main protagonists in Succession appear to care for US democracy – indeed the business model of Waystar is built on discrediting the very idea of it. But it also feels that the final years of Logan Roy represent the twilight of something else, namely a decades-long experiment where neoliberal economics and oligarchic media ownership mutually supported one another. 

While the demise of mass politics has long been discussed, most memorably in Peter Mair’s Ruling the Void, never before has the erosion of liberal democratic politics been a subject of comedy. In The Newsroom, first aired in 2012, the fact the US is no longer ‘the greatest country in the world’ is cause for anguish. Watch that back and you can almost see Roman and Logan blowing raspberries and calling the lead character, played by Jeff Daniels, a fucking idiot from the audience. This reflects something broader: the ruling ideology has gone from managed democracy, anxious of decline, to conspicuous mass cynicism.

Which raises the question of what kind of politics this all gives rise to – as a bankrupt economic model staggers on and US might is undermined both within and beyond its borders as inequality spirals and China’s rise continues. How does a culture built on new frontiers and the promise of a brighter tomorrow deal with the loss of hegemony and defeats like Afghanistan and Covid-19? In this context, and like Waystar Royco, it is increasingly unclear what the US itself stands for beyond its own preservation – a problem when mythology is so central to your collective sense of self. Is the mission of the company simply to remain at the top – even if that means hastening the demise of the body politic? Does the same apply to the US and our planet? Just as the passing of power between Logan and his children is a totem for boomers and millennials – and their phoney war at the level of the elite – the chaotic juggernaut of Waystar Royco is nothing less than America’s tottering republic. 

In the Discourses, written four years after The Prince, Machiavelli alleged that it was the loss of their pagan religion which precipitated the fall of the Roman Empire: “As the observance of religious teaching is the cause of the greatness of republics, similarly, disdain for it is the cause of their ruin.” In writing those words the Florentine did not mean religion in a theological sense, but was rather highlighting how successful societies need stories which cohere them – the word ‘religio’ likely derived from the Latin ‘ligare’ (meaning to bind together). No republic, no matter how outwardly powerful, can last if its citizens inhabit separate mental worlds. If the US elite has proselytised a shared creed in recent decades, it can be distilled in a single sentence: look after number one. Succession offers the perfect snapshot of where that leads, as much of the public not only becomes indifferent to democratic decay, but elites are ambivalent as to whether something worse might come along. 

Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.

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