for slate.com, | November 22, 2021

Is Succession Stuck in a Rut?

Can you still make a good show about bad people?

Read at slate.com

If the heyday of the antihero shows proved anything, it’s that there’s a built-in trap when it comes to shows about bad people. It is basically that badness, whether it registers as people being immoral or amoral or otherwise unmoved by the limits “good” people habitually accept, is incredibly fun to watch. It can (in shows like The Sopranos, for instance) be richly compelling: Most of us have some badness at our rotten little cores, so it’s pleasurable and interesting to see the complicated, compromised, and less savory parts of humanity—the parts we normal people spend a lot of energy keeping down—represented. Finally, badness is an engine. Breaking Bad is about a man who struggled to be good but felt emasculated by virtuous passivity then learning to revel in the momentum badness afforded him. The point is this: Badness makes a lot prestige TV fun, and if the antihero experiments were implicitly testing just how bad a protagonist would have to be in order for audiences to reject him, the answer was frequently never. Forced to choose between morality and entertainment, the bulk of viewers tend to choose the latter unless they’re absolutely beaten over the head with a protagonist’s irredeemability—if he confesses, say, as Walter White did in Breaking Bad, that everything he did wasn’t really for his family but for him, because he liked it. The results of the experiment are in and so prestige antihero shows, in this era of television, must contend with the audience’s well-documented instinct to reflexively sympathize with the charismatic evildoers if their adventures are the ones centered onscreen.

But the solutions to that genuinely interesting storytelling problem haven’t really evolved, and I’ve been wondering whether Succession is in this regard more of the same or an exception. I suggested at the start of Season 3 that Succession might be a sitcom dressed up as a drama—that it was repetitive rather than propulsive and that this ought perhaps to be seen as a strength rather than a flaw. Still, the season is recycling beats to a surprising degree: Gerri is once again being asked to be a placeholder CEO, Shiv once again gets invited in only to be disempowered by Logan, and Logan’s health once again incapacitates him for long enough—in the midst of a company crisis—that his children have to make decisions he’ll hate. Even the decision the kids make without him is the same: involve Stewy (and Sandy) more deeply in the company. What this merry-go-round does, just in terms of negotiating the “badness” problem, is keep the stakes low: It prevents characters from getting what they want but it also limits the impact of their amusing and witty faults to a contained and rarefied space. The board. Fancy apartments. Private jets. Yachts.

The Sopranos dealt with the problem of audience sympathy by confronting viewers with spectacles of their favorite characters doing increasingly unspeakable things. Succession does occasionally deploy that strategy too; it has mostly reminded us of the Roy family’s cruelty by inserting regular examples of their total invulnerability to and contempt for ordinary people. But the glimpses of the havoc they wreak on those populations are extremely brief: When Roman offered a boy a million dollars to hit a home run in the pilot and mocked him when he lost, we saw his family sitting silently in the aftermath, their silence unhappily paid for by the expensive watch Tom bought Logan. And sure, we visit the family home of the waiter who died when Kendall abandoned him, and witness the distress of the homeless man Roman and Kendall coerced into getting a tattoo, but not for long enough to feel much real discomfort about it. These are not real characters and there is little risk of their returning. We have not, for instance, seen the woman from the cruise division who Shiv persuaded not to testify; she was wiped off the show like the obstacle she always was.

[Read: Maybe Shiv Roy Just Sucks]

So in practice, the recipients of our sympathies are those we actually spend time with: Tom, for instance, who has been treated with such brutal and impatient indifference by Shiv, and whose anxiety about his imminent incarceration is so relatable, that it becomes easy to forget that he favored using underlings as “human furniture.” (We do not know these underlings!) Tom benefits from this impressionistic moral calculus by being one of the few characters we’ve seen repeatedly make offers that cost him dearly without demanding anything in return; his decision to let Greg hang his crimes on him in his capacity as Waystar-Royco’s “Christmas tree” is the latest and most moving instance of how the oppressive quid pro quos that drive everyone else can be rejected.

Those small flashes of humanity and care count for a lot in Succession largely because the governing ethos is one of mutual exploitation. Tom may not be a “good” person, but because everyone in the show is so guarded and awful, his conduct gets graded on a curve. Roman’s does too: When Logan had his UTI in Episode 5, Roman’s concern for his father’s wellbeing was genuinely moving (as was his desire in the pilot for a sweater that smelled like Logan). These things make him loveable; so do his flashes of decency to Kendall, like refusing to sign Shiv’s letter or bringing him chocolates from the airport and acting embarrassed and weird when Ken thanks him—clearly because he’s so frequently been humiliated for expressing warmth. As for Greg and Tom: they started out as comic relief, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the outfit, but their bizarre connection, despite Tom’s belligerence and abuse, is arguably becoming the most genuine and loving relationship on the show. (Entertainment Weekly agrees.)

The real tension of the show isn’t who will take over, in other words. It’s who, in any given circumstance, will reject the inhumane, soul-shredding logic of ruthless corporate chess—the logic of the “play”—and act out of sincere feeling or genuine belief.

This is where Episode 6, “What It Takes,” offers a ray of hope. The show has been stuck in low-stakes reshufflings for two and a half seasons now. The plot—will the Roys lose some control of their company?—is fundamentally and amusingly frivolous. Billionaires can’t meaningfully lose, so these shifts function as proxy battles for more interesting questions about ego and childhood trauma and hubris and mortality. The fate of Waystar–Royco, as a fictional corporate juggernaut, is little more than a MacGuffin.

But “What It Takes” introduces something Succession has (in its capacity as a sitcom, anyway) studiously avoided: stakes that extend beyond its hermetic corporate world. Succession isn’t always great at plot continuity. I’ve complained, for instance, that Shiv’s decision in the Season 2 finale to beg her father to spare Tom from prison—a truly radical moment for her (irritatingly undefined) character that amounted to potentially giving up any hope of becoming CEO, given her dad’s admiration for “killers”—doesn’t even seem to have happened in this version of Succession, even though the season picks up almost immediately after she made the self-sacrificing request. I don’t know how to square that breakthrough moment in the finale with her blithe indifference to Tom’s likely incarceration now. Succession can be sloppy about those kinds of plot mechanics and it gets away with it because the dialogue is great and because most billionaire problems are arbitrary. You might have thought, for instance, that Josh’s embrace of Stewy on that island, implying an alliance against Logan, would matter when it came to the shareholders’ meeting. It does not appear to have done so. You might also have thought that the president deciding not to run again would mean the Roys were in trouble: They’d alienated their most important ally, we were told.

In “What It Takes,” the consequences we were told might imperil the Roys melt into thin air. The FBI raid, which was framed as an extremely big deal, appears not to have mattered at all; Waystar-Royco is cooperating now, we learn, and whatever Kendall has doesn’t seem likely to count much against their cooperation. Far from suffering any ill effects from the president’s retreat, Logan appears to be widely acknowledged—by the show’s entire Republican establishment—as a kingmaker. He’ll just pick the next president! I’d suggest that this is all a little bit dramatically risky because stakes need to be at least somewhat credible to keep viewers engaged, and Succession’s stakes are so shifty that they’re approaching boy-who-cries-wolf territory. It’s getting hard to believe any particular crisis matters because none of the consequences we’re told to fear actually materialize.

But then stakes appear from an entirely different quarter: the presidential candidate Logan picks—thanks to Roman’s machinations, and over Shiv’s horrified objections—is an unapologetic white nationalist. This matters: Not to the Roys, who won’t be affected one way or the other (Roman is correct to observe that Shiv will be fine). But to us. The normies. The people outside the frame.

It’s an interesting solution to the “badness” problem! And an intriguing expansion of the antihero experiment: see if you can get viewers to identify with themselves and their own interests as lowly NRPIs (“no real person involved,” in family parlance) against the charismatic evil-doing protagonists.

Succession may retreat from this escalation in its delightfully misanthropic characters’ bad behavior. It has done so before. But at least this—unlike so many of the reprises fans are wearying of—isn’t more of the same. The relationship between national politics and propagandistic cable news is something we know quite well. So are the consequences of corporate behemoths that have made their peace with white nationalism. It’s not quite as funny, granted, but it is one way of breaking out of the cushy world of the ultrarich in order to better see what all that bad behavior might mean for our own.