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Succession borrows from Shakespeare to make the most of its big twist

‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child’

Kendall (Jeremy Strong) kneels in front of his father Logan (Brian Cox) in the first season of Succession Peter Kramer/HBO

Succession, the HBO drama now entering its second season, has often been compared to some of the millennium’s best shows: a darker Arrested Development, The Sopranos via the Murdochs, a corporate The Thick of It or Veep (showrunner Jesse Armstrong wrote for both), a more politically crafty Game of Thrones (by this site).

Such comparisons to prestige TV are apt and flattering, albeit limited.

Like those shows, Succession explores the precariousness of ill-gotten wealth, familial dysfunction hidden just below a gilded surface, and the black-hole magnetism of terrible, powerful men. But as season 2 kicks off, laying on dramatic tension so thick you could cut it with the dialogue’s deadly sharp wit, Succession, more than anything else in Peak TV, resembles a Shakespearean tragedy.

[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for Succession through season 2, episode 1, “The Summer Palace.”]

Shakespeare is woven into the DNA of the show, informing many dramatic plot twists and witty lines of dialogue. References to the bard are peppered throughout, including a notable scene in the fifth episode of season 2 (the last episode HBO sent for review) in which a rival family empire begins dinner with a passage from Richard II instead of grace.

on Succession, a sitting Shiv and her father, Logan, smile at each other as she holds his left hand in her right
Logan looms.
Peter Kramer/HBO

Brian Cox, who looms over the show as patriarch Logan Roy, has often cited Shakespeare’s King Lear as a strong inspiration for his performance. (Cox has played Lear more than 150 times, according to his own estimation.) Logan has much in common with the aging monarch: He’s an irascible bully whose most frequent targets are the adult children from whom he demands flattery and obedience. And his haphazard succession plans throw an already dysfunctional family into chaos.

If Logan is Lear, his youngest son, Roman (Kieran Culkin), is his dirtbag Fool. One could easily imagine Twelfth Night’s Feste with a smirk calling Duke Orsino a “beta cuck.” Logan’s only daughter, Siobhan (Sarah Snook), makes a valiant effort at, Cordelia-style, separating herself from her family’s machinations, but veers into Lady Macbeth territory as she’s pulled ever closer to her father’s toxic orbit.

But perhaps the most Shakespearean character in Succession is the one who falls the least neatly into its archetypes. Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong), the heir apparent to the Waystar Royco throne, is the linchpin for most of the dramatic turns in the show’s first season. At the start of the series, he’s a mess of contradictions: a socially awkward, arrogant prick; dissatisfied in a job he’s not quite qualified for; desperate both for his father’s approval and to get out of his shadow. Through a series of accidents and screw-ups, by the start of the second season he’s a waxy golem, visibly sapped of vigor.

Succession revels in this kind of dramatic irony, forcing its characters into impossible choices for which the audience already knows the inevitable, tragic outcome. We get the same gut punch when Kendall’s Town Car hits traffic on the way to ousting his father as we do when the messenger fails to deliver Friar Lawrence’s letter to Romeo. The writing is on the wall; all we can do is watch in horror.

Logan (Brian Cox) places his hands on a seated Kendall’s (Jeremy Strong) shoulders in a photo from Succession.
Kendall as puppet.
Peter Kramer/HBO

It’s this commitment to grand Shakespearean tragedy that prevents Succession from falling too far into soapy melodrama, even when it threatens to do just that in the first season’s climactic finale. As a refresher: Kendall, desperate to find some cocaine at his sister’s wedding, takes a drive with a waiter that results in the young man’s death, in an accident that mirrors Sen. Ted Kennedy’s infamous Chappaquiddick incident. (Succession often borrows plot lines from history and current events — as did Shakespeare.)

In the hands of a less confident showrunner, that moment would be played up for shock value. One could easily see the show’s return heavy-handedly focusing on the cover-up, constantly reminding us that yes, that happened. Instead, the incident is barely mentioned in the season 2 premiere, save for one furtive conversation in a laundry room. Rather, it looms over Kendall’s relationship with Logan, a sword of Damocles that grows sharper the longer it’s ignored.

Twisting allegiances, misfired shots, tragic misunderstandings, reversals of fortune, unspoken pacts, the playful mixing of comedy and drama and history — these are Shakespeare’s core dramatic mechanisms, borrowed by Succession.

By the start of the current season, Kendall is a shell of his former self. In the show’s pilot, he bristled at the idea that he took orders from his dad; he now exists only to do Logan’s bidding. Kendall even goes on TV to denounce the hostile takeover that he himself instigated. If that’s not some Shakespearean dramatic irony, I don’t know what is.

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