All in the (dysfunctional) family
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The final season of Succession starts this weekend (on Crave, with new episodes Sunday), and I’m conflicted.
On the one hand, I’m excited. On the other hand, I’m overcome with existential dread.
Succession has always been an exquisitely, excruciatingly painful series. It’s one of the few shows I’m relieved I can’t binge. Following the dysfunctional Roy family as they claw at each other for control of their massive media-entertainment empire can be draining. I need the week to recover.
The drama feels emotionally exhausting, morally corrosive. The acid-etched satire is cringey, nasty, often coming off like insult comedy given narrative form.
But I can’t look away. As Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) would say, “I can take a lot in terms of psychological pain.”
This season, my Succession-related stress is not helped by the fact that Episode 1 kicks off with a swanky gathering to mark Logan Roy’s 80th. Every Succession fan knows there’s nothing more soul-annihilating than a Roy family “celebration.” Weddings, birthdays, bachelor parties are all marked with rancorous conflict, ritual shaming, profound sadness and — occasionally — actual death.
The party also immediately makes clear who’s in and who’s out of Logan’s inner circle. Waystar Royco is on the block, and Logan (Brian Cox) is making a play for the media corp of his equally plutocratic, unbearably sanctimonious rivals, the Pierce family. Party guests Greg, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) and the wonderfully irrelevant Connor (Alan Ruck) are currently aligned with the Roy patriarch — at least for now.
Meanwhile, Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Shiv (Sarah Snook), and Roman (Kieran Culkin) are in uneasy exile. They’re torn between making an offer for the Pierce holdings and trying to launch their own new media venture, The Hundred. (“Substack meets Masterclass meets The Economist meets The New Yorker,” as Kendall pitches it.) The siblings are supposedly united in their opposition to dear old dad, but they keep eyeing each other, ever alert to signs of defection, deceit and betrayal.
As always, the show plays this all for maximum discomfort, with its juddery, zoomy camera and its jangly score. There is a constant barrage of small, petty power plays — who makes who wait, who hangs up the phone first, who tells who to f*** off.
Perhaps the most discomfiting aspect of Succession, though, is its weird, wavering line between drama and comedy. The Emmys insist on putting Succession in the drama category, and critics often namedrop Sophocles and Shakespeare when chronicling the Roys’ internecine emotional warfare.
Other commentators compare Succession to a sitcom, citing its funny dialogue, its cyclical story structure, its love of repetition and callbacks. (Oh, that Roman, with his incessant masturbation talk. Oh, that Connor, with his overcompensating obsessions — hyper-decanting, Napoleonica, libertarianism. Oh, that Kendall, with his tin-eared attempts to establish street cred: “I’ve smoked horse,” he declares during a business confab. Who says this?)
The tone, wherever you place it between tragic and comic, feels disconcertingly topsy-turvy. In Succession, the jokes aren’t there to lighten things up. The jokes actually plunge us deeper into darkness, with their unrelenting demonstration of awful people doing and saying awful things. It is only in those rare moments of undiluted drama — and there’s a doozy of a scene between Tom and Shiv near the end of the season opener — when the show lets in just a little light, just the barest glint of humanity, just the smallest reminder that these characters are appalling but also pitiable.
As the Pierces happily exploit the Freudian undertow of an intergenerational Roy bidding war, it becomes clear that the real conflict in Succession isn’t about money or power or (hah!) character. The battle for the business is just a multibillion-dollar stand-in for the characters’ dysfunctional family dynamics.
Logan despises his adult children when they give in to him and rages when they stand up to him. The children love him and loathe him, but more than anything are desperate for simple acknowledgment. As we hurtle toward Succession’s conclusion, someone might finally claim the Roy empire, but nobody will win.
In a sense, the entire show is encapsulated in its opening credit sequence, with its fuzzy, fugitive images of a disappearing father and his bereft children. Wherever we end up in this bloodbath of a final season, it will bring us back to that beginning.
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Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.