Most discussions around HBO’s enormously successful series “Succession,” which returns on Sunday after 15 months, focus on the show’s depiction of the ultrawealthy and the media. With good reason: The absurdly rich Roy family at the drama’s center controls a huge media empire, and its members squabble for control. This fourth and final season will likely determine which Roy will end up on top.
But those discussions elide the show’s nuanced discussion of intergenerational trauma and families built atop a legacy of abuse. They also miss the series’ sharpest sociopolitical point: When those with money and power lose themselves in a trauma spiral, it’s often everyone else on the planet who gets damaged.
“Succession,” like a lot of art being made right now, explores trauma and its perpetuation. Trauma is a reaction of the brain to something so painful or stressful that it disrupts our narrative of the world around us, which is why children of abusive parents are so often riddled with it. Often, trauma survivors will do anything they can to attain security and safety, yet their ideas of what security looks like can become deeply warped.
In the case of the Roy children, who have suffered their father’s abuse their whole lives, that security has taken the form of endless amounts of money and power that might seal them off from anything objectionable. They live in a luxurious snow globe world where they have all of the very finest things. Yet the money that affords them such a heightened lifestyle has also sealed them inside the snow globe with a father who terrorizes them.
Brian Cox plays the tyrannical Logan Roy, the patriarch of the Roy family and the man who built Waystar Royco, a media conglomerate with its fingers in everything from 24-hour news networks to theme parks. Logan’s four children regard him with varying degrees of awe, yet even when one dares suggest Logan’s body and mind are slowing down, it’s nearly always prefaced with a tribute to how great the man was in the past.
Logan isn’t a great man, but he has terrified his children into worshiping the ground he walks on. He browbeats them. He emotionally manipulates them. He strikes one of his sons at a critical moment. He finds the things they’re most ashamed about and mocks them. He is quick to rage, and in scenes where he lashes out in anger at one of his children, you will see the others flinch, turn away, try to avoid his attention. To Logan, this is what love looks like. His children are too soft to survive in a cutthroat world. He is simply toughening them up.
Whatever lesson Logan means to impart, his children have perhaps overlearned it. Their fear of their father extends to situations he isn’t even in. Like so many abusive parents, Logan uses his children’s anxiety to pit them against one another. In the show’s third season, for instance, the siblings meet in secret to discuss scandals plaguing their father and the company. Then a box of doughnuts sent by Logan arrives. There’s nothing overtly threatening about the doughnuts, but the siblings are so shaken that he knows they’re meeting behind his back that any prospective alliance dissolves immediately.
Once you read “Succession” as primarily about how abusive cycles replicate themselves across generations, so much of what it’s saying about wealth and power snaps into focus.
If the Roys were a middle-class family, the way their individual traumas play out would still be awful, yet the damage would likely be limited to the people in their immediate circle. But the Roys aren’t a middle-class family. They’re one of the most powerful families in the world. Because they wield such vast influence and their actions affect millions, their traumas ripple outward from their clan to anyone who’s unlucky enough to come in contact with them and, from there, across the entire globe.
“Succession” understands the cyclical nature of abuse and how it can hurt even innocent bystanders. The series has hinted at several points that Logan’s own childhood was deeply abusive. Scars run along his back, and he refers occasionally to a long-dead sister he was unable to protect. Whatever traumatic cycle he was caught in he now perpetuates. His children perpetuate it, too. They ape his behavior and mannerisms. (Everyone in the show says “uh-huh” with exactly the same cadence as Logan.) They try his manipulation tactics out on the others in their lives.
The show is keenly aware of how survivors of abusive parents can turn their survival mechanisms into one-size-fits-all strategies for every conflict they encounter. Logan’s second son, Kendall, played by Jeremy Strong, does try to stand up to his father, however ineffectually. That instinct to fight back extends to his dealings with those who aren’t his father and situations that don’t need to be fought. He tries to intimidate people into doing what he wants, but he’s simply not as scary as Logan. Who would be? Indeed, when he guts one of Waystar’s subsidiaries in Season 2, he says he did so because his dad told him to.
Sooner or later, everybody the Roys meet gets dragged into their abusive spiral. Just as he does with his children, Logan berates the Waystar boardroom members and forces them to anticipate his whims. His daughter, Shiv (Sarah Snook), treats her husband like a handsome accessory, deliberately belittling him. The youngest son, Roman (Kieran Culkin) repeatedly propositions an unwilling colleague. Kendall, a recovering addict, not only falls off the wagon but accidentally kills a waiter in the process.
In countless scenes from the pilot episode on, people who exist several rungs on the class ladder below the Roys come in contact with the family and are flattened by them, almost as a matter of course. The family of the waiter Kendall kills can never receive anything like justice when it comes to a family like the Roys. The best they can get is a wad of bills Kendall perhaps not so secretly shoves through their mail slot at night.
Of course the Roys would think they could heal this particular wound with money. In several interviews promoting the show, Mr. Strong has given a Carl Jung quotation his own spin: “Where love is absent, power fills the vacuum.” In the love-starved Roy family, each and every interaction becomes a game of dominance politics, with no room for anything else. It seems to exhaust them, but it’s all they know.
And everyone else pays the price. In a story line that will continue into this season, Roman is so desperate to be seen as a bold thinker that he persuades Logan that Waystar’s 24-hour news network should back a presidential candidate best described as fascism-curious. As Patrick Nathan recently wrote, fascism is “a politics of abuse on a national and transnational scale.” Roman’s just trying to appease his father; the consequences seem likely to send his family’s trauma rippling out through the nation and beyond, inflicting more trauma on those who will feel a pain they barely understand, then visit it upon others.
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