Two weeks ago, I critiqued “Succession,” mildly, for the overestimation of elite power in its portrait of American democracy. Today I come to praise it — for a perfect series finale and a successful final season that together raised the show to the top rank of TV serials, the most successful examples of the central popular art form of our time.
This is perhaps a controversial judgment, annoying to the many people annoyed by aspects of the “Succession” phenomenon (for instance, by the media types Twittering and hot-taking obsessively about a niche-audience show), and simply mistaken if you regard the show as both too sitcom-ish and too unstintingly dark to rank with “The Wire,” “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad.”
Since that was roughly my view going into the final season, let me explain why I changed my mind — first by emphasizing the distinctive strengths of “Succession” relative to other successful serials, and second by answering the strongest critique of its limitations. (And let me offer, as well, a pre-emptive qualifier: My current view is that there isn’t exactly a top rank of serial television; rather, there’s “The Sopranos” on its own Olympus and the rest, “Succession” now included, a little further down.)
First, with its final season complete, we can say that “Succession” has a rare dramatic unity. Its ending and beginning feel organically connected, its finale brings each character’s arc around to an appropriate destination, its controlling themes are vindicated and its small details (including purported accidents, like the last name “Wambsgans” evoking a famous triple play) pay off in a big way.
This would be a meaningful achievement for any work of art, but it’s an especially unusual one for television shows, which even at the highest level suffer from the vicissitudes of operating in a collective-effort medium prone to both overextensions and untimely cancellations. “Deadwood” didn’t get a proper ending. The final season of “The Wire” was rife with implausibilities, a C-plus after a string of As. The penultimate episodes of “Breaking Bad” are the most pity- and terror-inspiring TV I’ve ever watched, but the finale felt like fan service. The less said about the ends of “Lost” and “Game of Thrones,” the better. Even “The Sopranos” dragged a little in its extended final season. But while “Succession” had some unnecessary subplots and blind alleys, its completed arc looks unusually novelistic — like a story planned and completed without either longueurs or unnecessary compromises.
Second, notwithstanding its tragic themes, “Succession” was written throughout as a crackling black comedy of manners. In this sense, its peers weren’t just the famous antihero dramas but similarly great, entirely different shows, like “Girls” and “Silicon Valley,” and it matched their comic achievements — sentence by sentence, line by line — within a more dramatic and adult and intensely acted world.
So if you give “The Wire” credit for being “Dickensian,” or praise “Deadwood” for its pseudo-Shakespearean language, then you have to give “Succession” a special credit for channeling, with more F-words, early Evelyn Waugh or the colder side of Jane Austen. And since comedy is perpetually underrated, in giving the show that credit, perhaps you should raise your estimate of its position and place it a bit closer to the upper tier.
Third, “Succession” allowed for multiple political and philosophical readings of its narrative, beyond the simple “here’s how rich failchildren enable fascism” reading that many liberal viewers took for granted and no doubt some of the writers had in mind.
As I’ve said, the show wasn’t an entirely realistic portrait of either American democracy or the Republican or conservative elite. But it declined to make its political elements central to the plot; the election that briefly loomed so large basically vanished from the final action, with the passing suggestion that maybe the far-right figure the Roy family helped elevate will be defeated in the courts. This fade enables a reading of the show where the entire Western elite is being weighed and judged, not just the Roys alone — or at least one where their specific political misbehavior is meant as a heightened version of the general solipsism and folly that defines their mostly liberal peers as well.
Then, too, the show’s judgment on elites can be read in two distinct ways, one more left-wing and one more right-wing. The left-wing judgment is a moralistic condemnation of the entire capitalist class, which despite complaints from some left-wing critics is clearly present throughout the show, albeit seasoned with a bit more implicit Christianity (in the sense that wealth leads to power and despair, that the rich are portrayed as cruel and miserable) than you sometimes see in socialist polemics.
Then the right-wing counter-reading is more worldly and anti-Christian, more Darwinist or Nietzschean. It combines elements from Kendall Roy’s eulogy for his father, Logan, his stress on the deceased tycoon as a great shaper of reality, a terrible but also incredibly creative and fertile man (the “great geysers of life he willed,” the “buildings he made stand,” the “ships, steel hulls,” all the “bloody, complicated life” he made), with that same father’s brutal judgment on the unseriousness of his children, and his decision to give his life’s work to outsiders who share his dynamism rather than his DNA.
This reading judges the show’s characters primarily on the basis of their ambitions and their ability to bring them to fruition (through whatever means, which is why the dogged, self-abasing Tom Wambsgans is a victor, along with the more ruthless Swedish billionaire who takes over Logan’s company), not their moral or political intentions. And it takes its epitaph for the Roy siblings from V.S. Naipaul rather than the New Testament: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”
If you aren’t a pure Nietzschean the overlap between these two readings is a pretty dark zone, and that points to the strongest argument for the show’s fundamental limitations — that whether “Succession” is judging the rich for their sins or admiring some of them for their ambitions, it never leaves its characters room to desire anything besides competition and predation, never shows them feeling ordinary kinds of hope and love or, for that matter, guilt and shame, never allows for the possibility of a full, nonstunted humanity. That’s part of Damon Linker’s complaint against the show — “I don’t really care about these people,” he writes, “because I don’t really believe they’re people at all” — and it shows up in Brian Phillips’s post-finale essay comparing “Succession” to the famous golden-age dramas:
… most of “Succession” ’s forebears were drawn to the question of whether broken, hurtful people could ever achieve redemption, while “Succession” never really ventured in that direction. Tony Soprano and Walter White and Don Draper were all conscious, at times, of a desire to make amends, to be honest with their loved ones, to fix the damage they’d done. This consciousness came with varying levels of self-delusion, and none of these shows fully forgave their protagonists in the end. But the possibility of redemption existed for them at least notionally, and I think that’s why “Succession” seems like such an outlier among its peers. There was simply never any chance that any of these characters could be redeemed, because their world didn’t include enough goodness or enough faith for the concept of redemption to make any sense.
I think this critique is partially fair, and that, along with the strengths I described above, there is a savage superficiality to some of the characterizations in “Succession” that’s beneath the psychological level achieved on other famous TV dramas. This is most true, I would submit, in the contrast with the good (or at least goodish) characters on those shows: There’s definitely no “Succession” equivalent of the heroic Hank on “Breaking Bad,” say, or even of the more complicated Peggy Olson on “Mad Men,” and their absence creates a bias against the possibility of goodness flourishing anywhere in the world of the show.
When it comes to the desire for redemption and honesty and love, though, I’m not sure “Succession” is as barren as Phillips seems to suggest. The character of Tom Wambsgans, for instance, is an awful climber, but one of his fundamental motivations is the desire to be loved, really loved, by his wife, Shiv Roy. And watching the agony of his disappointment, and the betrayals that came of it, I didn’t have the sense that his was simply an impossible ambition, that her dark choices and then his dark choices in response were somehow more inevitable than Tony Soprano remaining a mob boss or Walter White becoming a meth kingpin. The fact that Shiv married Tom because she thought he was so beneath her that he would never betray her, yielding a scenario where he needed to betray her in order to achieve equality in the marriage, is the stuff of personal tragedy — but the reason the tragedy works is that you can imagine a different outcome, and even root for it, and feel sorrow at the falling-short. (Or appreciate, if you’re a cockeyed optimist, the happy ending.)
Likewise with the relationships between the Roy siblings, where the show very deliberately gives you scenes — especially in the third season’s ending, and then again in the show’s finale — showing you that they do in fact love one another, that there is a different version of their relationship, less warped by their competition for paternal affection and then for power, that could be loving and joyful instead of ruthless and despairing. That alternative world is out of reach, yes, but is it further out of reach than a world where Don Draper is faithful to his wife? I’m not so sure.
And finally, the central character arc of the show, the tragedy of Kendall Roy, the heir apparent: Surely Kendall’s story includes its share of palpable guilt, especially in the total second-season breakdown that follows his Chappaquiddick moment, joined with a flailing, desperate ambition to be better than his father, to either disconnect and detach or else to set himself up as a moral hero exposing his dad’s sins.
None of this goes anywhere in the end except back — into the desire to simultaneously defeat and become his dad, which finally corrupts him without delivering the victory he desires; he loses his soul and doesn’t even gain the throne. But what separates him from prior antiheroes is the second part, his fundamental weakness and defeat, not his failure to even imagine healing or reconciliation.
In the end, Logan, not Kendall, is the show’s Tony Soprano or Walter White, just further along the arc of life, with his wickedness more fixed and his worldly powers widened. And by focusing on the son’s tragic weakness rather than the father’s tragic strength, “Succession” shows how a strong man’s fateful choices can deny redemption not just to himself but to all the lives he generates and shapes, to everyone who falls under his spell.
Fiona Hill on the revolt against the Pax Americana.
Aris Roussinos on the road from Syria to Ukraine.
Benjamin Wallace-Wells on the long arc of libertarianism.
Christopher Caldwell on Vladimir Putin in the French novel.
Tyler Cowen on the decline of German exceptionalism.
This Week in Decadence
“It is on productivity that demographic decline may have the most troubling effect. Younger people have more of what psychologists call ‘fluid intelligence,’ meaning the ability to solve new problems and engage with new ideas. Older people have more ‘crystallized intelligence’ — a stock of knowledge about how things work built up over time. There are no precise cutoffs, but most studies suggest that fluid intelligence tends to peak in early adulthood and to begin to decline in people’s 30s. Both types of intelligence are useful: companies, industries and economies need both youngsters able to respond to new challenges and seasoned veterans with a detailed understanding of their trade. But the two are not of equivalent value when it comes to innovation.
“Some researchers believe such a demographically driven reduction in innovation is already underway in parts of the world. James Liang, a Chinese economist and demographer, notes that entrepreneurship is markedly lower in older countries: an increase of one standard deviation in the median age in a country, equivalent to about 3.5 years, leads to a decrease of 2.5 percentage points in the entrepreneurship rate (the proportion of adults who start their own business). That is a huge effect, considering the global entrepreneurship rate was around 6.1 percent in 2010.
“What is more, this relationship does not seem to be simply a function of the relative lack of young people in aging societies. Young people in such countries also seem to start businesses at lower rates than their peers in less wizened societies.
“This phenomenon, according to Mr. Liang, may be the cause of Japan’s ‘entrepreneur vacuum,’ As recently as 2010, Japanese inventors were the biggest producers of patents in 35 global industries, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization, a U.N. agency. By 2021, they were the leaders in just three. Japan has fallen behind not only China, which now occupies most of the top spots, but America too.”
— “It’s not just a fiscal fiasco: Graying economies also innovate less,” The Economist (May 30)