A proud patriarch, lording over a massive empire of power and influence, faces old age and must decide who will take his place. None of his children seem up to the task, spoiled and warped as they are by their family’s excessive wealth. Petty grudges and delusions of grandeur mix with familial obligation and poisonous histories to spell doom for all involved.
Pop Quiz: Which series does this premise describe?
- The Righteous Gemstones
- Promised Land
Trick question: The answer is “all of the above.” Something distinct about waning empires is brewing in the American TV zeitgeist right now, and has been for quite some time. One could trace this lineage back to the Bush-era lampooning of the 1% in Arrested Development, or even to the soapy exploits of older series like Dallas and Dynasty. But today’s TV about falling families all seem of a piece while still distinctly specific. Families that wield money and power with impunity exist all too prevalently in the real world, and their reflections in our fiction hit on the inescapable notion that the power to influence our world lies in the hands of too many people with the same last names.
There are a lot of different faces to power, and as many different ways for it to corrupt as there are people who hoard it, on TV as it is in reality. A family unit as a stand-in for a larger social structure gives writers a way to personify and depict vast systemic issues through the guise of interpersonal struggles. How so many series tackle this fact, and how they see these dynastic families crumbling or somehow surviving despite it all, informs how we might view our country’s seemingly inevitable and long-forestalled decline.
Yellowstone follows the massively-successful ranchers of the Dutton family, led by Kevin Costner’s John Dutton, a “speak softly and carry a big stick” type who reigns over the family ranch, which in square acreage is larger than some European countries. The Righteous Gemstones follows the Gemstone family, led by John Goodman’s massively rich televangelist and patriarch Eli Gemstone while his self-sanctifying adult children (though when one of your children is played by Danny McBride, it’s hard to imagine there was ever any chance for a stable personality) live in excess of wrath, pride, most of the other seven deadly sins.
For the Roy family of Succession, power is still more intangible and manifests in the media itself. The Roy family’s Waystar-Royco corporation has hands in everything from children’s entertainment to streaming services to video games to news in a right-wing multimedia monstrosity in the vein of the Murdochs and the Koch brothers. Finally there’s the most recent series of this study, Promised Land, which takes the trouble to imagine an empire not steered by the usual white men. It centers on Mexican American Joe Sandoval’s Heritage House vineyard and his children’s dubious desires for its future, complicated by the fact that Sandoval himself is, as we find out in the pilot, an undocumented worker living under a false identity. Here are four families, four empires, and four permutations on the same root question of what to do — and who bears the blame — when a family business is at risk of collapse.
These shows’ structure of malcontent children orbiting a collapsing father figure is hardly a unique or original way to form a story in and of itself. Shakespeare’s King Lear laid the template for the August patriarch dealing with his squabbling children and his own disastrous go at retirement in 1606, and that play itself was an adaptation from an old English legend traced all the way back to the 12th century. Fathers have been fumbling the bag in dramatic fashion for a few centuries, but there is something compelling about how, as we live through what feels like the end of the American empire and a slow-motion car crash of national dysfunction, so many series have been so concerned with a house falling out of order.
Perhaps this rise of waning empire shows is a natural progression from the “golden age of television” and the advent of the leading man antihero. Tony Soprano, Jimmy McNulty, Walter White, and Don Draper were all one-man empires, holding their personal and professional lives a bit too close together to be sustainable, despite the protagonist’s best attempts to keep their spheres apart. The fault for these protagonists was always ultimately within themselves, and we the audience were there to watch the outside world reflect their inner destruction. The mythical Great Man (because it’s usually a man, though let’s save some love for Nurse Jackie) strives to conquer all aspects of his life, and we watch him succeed and fail. But the solitary man has had his day. One self-destructive morally gray protagonist is no longer enough. You know what’s better than Walter White? A whole family of Walter Whites, raised by another Walter White, all with various levels of competence and repressed resentment.
Who each show decides to cast as, for lack of a better term, the “hero” tells us much about each series’ central beliefs. For Succession and The Righteous Gemstones, the focus is on the children and how they do or don’t measure up to the expectations set down for them, as well as how they squander the tremendous opportunities afforded them by their privileged position. In Yellowstone and Promised Land, the structure is inverted: the patriarch is the only one who can right the ship, and even if he can be thick-headed and stubborn at times, ultimately Father has to know best to preserve the status quo and preserve the main character’s control over the narrative. For all four of these shows, the older generation has handed down some degree of untenable destruction to the current generation. But in the latter two, only the father can still remedy it.
But whether father really does know best isn’t always assured. Gemstones and Succession disagree; from their perspective, the past generation handed down misery to the present, and the endless echo chamber of toxic familial resentment bears little promise of resolving happily, especially not with any involvement from the fathers.
These series often subscribe to the American idea of the nuclear family, the mythical notion of a perfectly contained family unit with 2.5 kids, a picket fence, and a loyal dog. The nuclear family is entirely self-sufficient and needs no larger community to lean on for support — the true American way is for each family to be fully under control.
In these waning empires, we see that insularity and the delusion of the nuclear family unit break down: No matter their wealth, their status, their power, or literal land that they call their own, these families cannot keep the rest of the world out. Children get married and bring in spouses with outside interests, both benign and malicious. Characters become enamored and obsessed with each other when they try to shrink the entire world down to just their family members — see Roman Roy’s obsession with his siblings’ sex lives, and Beth Dutton’s similar fixation on insulting her brother Jamie’s masculinity and sexuality.
These families’ hunger for total control — of their legacies across all four families, of their literal products in Promised Land and The Righteous Gemstones, and of what becomes of the last names that have given these characters so much. They would like to operate in a vacuum, a perpetual-motion machine where their money itself makes them enough money to sustain a lavish lifestyle, but the rigors of the world (and the narrative structure of episodic TV) mean that their sense of prosperity will be threatened by others who want what these characters have, but haven’t exactly earned.
Each of these empires exemplifies some aspect of American excess. The Roys’ all-out conservative blight is the most obvious one, but the Gemstones’ empire of converting faith into dollars is just as insidious (and typically conservative-aligned) as the Waystar-Royco’s media machine. The Dutton Ranch stands for America’s bloody domination of land occupied by Indigenous peoples (which the show often casts as either antagonists opposite the Dutton clan or as outright villains), and its ardent refusal to cede this land back to its original stewards or to even acknowledge the centuries of cruelty and inhumanity that has come with the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.
Of these four shows, only Promised Land makes any attempt to slightly invert the usual social pyramid and show a marginalized identity that has managed to perform the impossible: the American miracle of Joe Sandoval pulling himself up by his bootstraps. Even so, the success has come at the cost of participating in the same capital system that created every other intractable and tyrannical patriarch, to a further degree than you or I are forced to cooperate in modern society’s endless parade of low-volume inhumanity. Sandoval’s business practices are no better than Logan Roy or Josh Dutton, both of whom instill a cultish devotion from their underlings (ranch hands in Yellowstone are literally branded just like the livestock they manage, so braided are they with their status as subordinate laborers). The cost of excelling in capitalism is higher than just participating — to win, you have to put more skin in the game than your own, and profit off of the blood, sweat, and skin of others.
Audiences are clearly gravitating to these stories of families falling out of order. Succession has been a critical and audience favorite, with just about every cast member receiving heaps of praise. The Righteous Gemstones in its second season has continued to walk a fascinating line between satirical comedy and crime drama. Yellowstone might be the biggest hit of all, with spinoff 1883 launching untold Paramount Plus subscriptions (like my dad, who has never willingly fired up Netflix), and two other spinoffs reportedly in the works to show the Dutton empire in different time periods and locations. It wouldn’t be an empire without multiple conquered territories.
A pop-cultural obsession with the waning days and internal ruin of empires of various forms seems almost too easy to connect to modern events and the current state of the world, but it bears consideration anyway. In an empire in decline, we’re watching stories that make this systemic breakdown feel like the exploits of a few spoiled kids, either warped by their fathers or for whom the father is their only hope. And as American empires (be they political, cultural, financial, etc.) fall, like so many have before, will the collapse come as tragedy, or as farce?