There’s a moment in the second episode of Succession, the new HBO dramedy that wrapped its first season this past Sunday, in which wealth slams headlong into the telephone pole of reality.
Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Siobhan (Sarah Snook) and Roman (Kieran Culkin) — the born-rich spawn of media mogul Logan Roy (played sly and icy by Brian Cox) — yell conflicting nonsense at a doctor who’s just informed them that their father has had a stroke. As they demand “better options” and “immediate results,” it becomes clear that they think a sufficient volume of complaining can actually un-hemorrhage their dad’s brain. They’re so divorced from the mechanics of doing anything for themselves that they can’t recognize the idea that there are problems that money and random demands can’t fix. It’s a moment as ghoulishly ugly as it is laugh-out-loud funny.
Succession, from The Thick of It writer Jesse Armstrong, cracks open the skulls of the ultra-rich to discover exactly which parts of the Roy children’s brains have been replaced with the words “trust fund.” In its 10-episode first season, the series charts the family’s one-percenter woes and intriguingly unpleasant personal neuroses as the siblings vie with their aging, ailing father for control of his increasingly unstable and scandal-plagued media empire.
The story is buoyed not just by a string of strong performances (Culkin as amoral, happy-go-lucky jerkoff Roman, and the steely, dignified Hiam Abbass as Logan’s third wife Marcia, the show’s resident straight man, are particularly wonderful), but by an insightful deep dive on what money does to the human mind. Even the camera seems incredulous toward these people, quickly zooming in during the beats between their unutterably stupid statements, as if it’s squinting to make sure they’re serious.
Watching Succession was cathartic, a chance to laugh at the well-documented stupidity of the ultra-rich. Take this moment from the first episode: During a family softball game, Roman drags a groundskeeper’s kid up to bat to even out the sides, then offers him a million dollars if he can hit a home run. The air practically freezes. Not for the family — which groans at Roman for being an asshole, then do precisely dick to stop him — but for the kid, his queasily hopeful parents and everyone sitting at home in a country where idiots like the Roys could keep food on every table and a roof over every head if it weren’t for the fact that they don’t care to.
The kid hits a drive and runs for it with desperate intensity, but the family tags him out like it’s any other at-bat. The only one to actually do anything is Logan, who offers him a firm handshake and a “magnificent effort” — before making sure his family signs an NDA. The kid’s probably scarred for life. God knows what the guilt of missing out on something that could’ve changed his family’s fortunes forever will do to him. And Roman, the most affably likable family member until that repulsive scene, didn’t even get his home run. The goof was all for nothing, a cruel psychological mind game played by a bored asshole with no idea what it feels like to worry about anything more pressing than who he’s going to fuck next or how much of his daddy’s fortune he’s going to inherit. It makes you want to pound his smirking face into hamburger.
Even when they’re ostensibly trying to do good, the Roys’ myopic worldview keeps their focus firmly inward. On the evening of his family’s annual fundraiser, Connor (Alan Ruck) breathlessly mumbles, “I just hope the seating plan holds, ’cause if it does … look out, Middle East; I can fix anything.” Not only is it the statement of a pompous imbecile on its face, but Connor goes on to spend the night telling a black ballet dancer that welfare should be eliminated, and screaming at his staff over improperly thawed butter.
The slightest wrinkle in his vision for the night shatters the spoiled tyrant’s layers of faux-Zen calm, while the offhand praise of his dad’s old business pals smooths it all over. The people he terrorizes in between are just collateral damage. It’s an object lesson in how easy it is for people this rich to view others as subhuman props in the drama of their lives, and there’s a physical ache to watching it. Seeing people’s livelihoods in the crosshairs of a sociopathic rich boy’s mood swings just feels all too real right now.
Again and again, the Roys prove themselves unable to understand the world around them. Their own emotions occupy the whole of their experiences, and when reality fails to conform, they freak out. It’s like seeing an inbred designer dog booted out of its cushy home and onto the mean streets. How could something so malformed and poorly adapted survive on its own? Raised by abusive, neglectful parents whose absence was filled by the family’s wealth, the siblings lack any semblance of basic empathy. They can’t even read the day-to-day emotions of their spouses and significant others.
“We’re not breaking up,” second Roy child Kendall mutters over and over against his estranged wife Rava’s (Natalie Gold) neck, as they sleep together in the wake of his triumph over the family firm’s debt problem (he got a scumbag private equity guy to dump $4 billion into the company). Rava doesn’t agree, but to Kendall there’s no difference between wanting something and having it. Why let a little thing like your spouse’s heart get in the way of happiness?
While Succession lampoons the rich, it also makes a strong case for wealth and its never-ending pursuit as a kind of degenerative disease, a slow enveloping and digestion of human characteristics by the aggressive cancer of endless, pointless money. The Roys are rotten, irredeemable people by any sane standard, but in letting us both mock them and feel pity for their emotionally stunted fumbling, Armstrong finds a richer, more interesting thread to pull about money and the ways the people who hoard it shape our lives.
Gretchen Felker-Martin is a horror writer with Thuban Press, 2dCloud and others. Follow her on Twitter @scumbelievable.