This review and discussion contains minor spoilers for season 4 episode 1 of Succession, streaming on HBO Max.
Midway through the fourth season premiere of Succession, media mogul Logan Roy (Brian Cox) sneaks out of his birthday party with his bodyguard and factotum, Colin (Scott Nicholson). Logan walks through Central Park, taking in New York City, and the pair make their way to a diner. Browsing the menus, the billionaire confesses that Colin is his “best pal.” He then poses a question for discussion: “I mean, what are people?”
Of course, it’s not really a discussion. Colin is an employee. There’s some suggestion that Logan’s preference for Colin is rooted in his discretion as much as his efficiency. Colin doesn’t so much converse with Logan as acknowledge him. Logan uses his rhetorical question as a jumping-off point to elaborate on his world view. So, he answers his own question. “They’re economic units,” he tells Colin. “I’m 100 feet tall. These people are pygmies, but together they form a market.”
He continues by breaking down his argument, “What is a person? It has values and aims, but it operates in a market — marriage market, job market, money market, market for ideas, et cetera, et cetera.” Colin replies, “So everything is a market?” Logan then shifts the conversation away from that argument, betraying his own uncertainty. “You think there’s anything after all this?” he asks. “Afterwards?” Again, he answers his own question: “I don’t think so. I think this is it, right?”
It’s a wonderful little scene, one that feels like a culmination of Succession’s recurring themes and fascinations. A lot of discussions of the show tend to compare Logan Roy to Rupert Murdoch, which makes sense given that creator Jesse Armstrong wrote a screenplay about the Murdoch dynasty. For his part, Armstrong insists Succession “really isn’t the Murdochs.” Instead, Armstrong describes the show as an exploration of “the nature of very rich people and media power.”
Succession is a study of capitalism. This is reflected in the show’s fascination with hierarchies and structures of abuse, but there’s also an interesting and continuing tension between the gross inhumanity of late capitalism and the humanity of the people who leverage that power. In many ways, that is the show’s central conflict. This is a system that is designed to dehumanize those who participate in it, but which is paradoxically subject to the all-too-human whims of those who drive it.
It is clear that Waystar Royco only works because it doesn’t see any of its customers, employees, or clients as actual human beings with inherent dignity and rights. At the company’s news division, ATN, senior executives regularly partake in a practice known as “footstooling,” resting their feet on subordinates. To the people who live in this rarefied atmosphere, even their coworkers are little more than “human furniture.”
Over the course of the show’s first season, Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) discovers an ongoing scandal in the company’s cruise line division to cover a variety of heinous crimes: theft, sexual assault, rape, murder. As Greg Hirsch (Nicholas Braun) summarizes, “The bad ones.” However, internal company documents referred to such events using the acronym NRPI: “No Real Person Involved.” It’s a revelation that underscores a lot about how these people see the world.
Throughout the show, Logan repeatedly voices frustration at the lack of real-world experience that his children have. However, it’s notable that even that tends to express itself in economic terms. Logan grows frustrated with his son Roman (Kieran Culkin), calling him “a moron” because he can’t tell his father how many people live in Indonesia or the price of a gallon of milk. Those are questions ostensibly about human beings, but which reduce them to simple economic actors.
This reflects how Logan sees the world. For a man who believes that people are “economic units,” it seems appropriate that his son Kendall (Jeremy Strong) has a name that sounds remarkably like “Ken doll.” In the show’s first season finale, Kendall is involved in an accident that results in the death of a waiter (Tom Morley) at his sister Shiv’s (Sarah Snook) wedding. Logan (and Colin) help to cover up the crime, and the Roy family has faced no serious repercussions to this point.
Kendall had been plotting to remove Logan in an economic maneuver known as “a bear hug.” Instead, Logan uses the accident to force his son into submission; the season ends with Logan embracing Kendall in a more literal sort of hug that reinforces that Kendall will never escape his father. Even the human interactions in Succession seem to bend to the will of the market. The corporate bear hug is mirrored in that terrifying father/son embrace.
In the show’s second season finale, Logan announces plans to offer Kendall as “a blood sacrifice” in the wake of the scandal around the cruise company. Logan confesses that Kendall probably never could have succeeded him. “You’re not a killer,” Logan ironically muses. When Kendall suggests that this is perhaps karmic retribution for his involvement in the death of that waiter, Logan shuts him down. “Don’t beat yourself up,” Logan reassures his son. “No real person involved.”
This is the reality of capitalism, a system that prioritizes growth and profit ahead of any larger human concern. After all, the push to maximize economic efficiency is one of the driving forces behind climate change, which may render the planet uninhabitable to future generations. The race to build self-driving cars has resulted in large numbers of fatalities. Attempts to maximize click-driven revenue through social media algorithms have done untold damage to the social fabric.
There is, of course, a grim irony in all of this. As much as the market forces of Succession strip away the humanity of the people who live within the system, reducing them to economic units, the market itself is subject to the biological limitations of the people who operate these systems. That’s obvious even in the title of the show. Succession is built around an understanding that Logan Roy is a mortal man. It makes sense that the show’s final season finds himself contemplating that mortality.
The Roy family has been transformed by its enormous wealth. At the diner, Logan complains to Colin, “Nothing tastes like it used to, does it?” There is a recurring sense within the show that Logan’s children aren’t quite right. In particular, Kendall often seems inhuman, like a person-shaped chatbot approximating human behavior. Roman mercilessly mocks his older brother as a “broken robot.” When the pair arrive at an exclusive retreat for the super wealthy, Roman notes that Kendall is “scanning for influence like a yuppie RoboCop.”
Roman is similarly at odds with his basic biological impulses. Much is made of his impotence, his inability to have sex with his girlfriend Tabitha (Caitlin FitzGerald). Instead, he spends his first day as Chief Operating Officer jerking off out a window to the New York skyline and then clumsily and embarrassingly trying to clean the residue off the glass. He also gets embroiled in a submissive relationship with the company’s chief legal counsel, Gerri Kellman (J. Smith-Cameron).
However, despite these dysfunctions, Succession continually draws attention to the basic biological realities of these characters. As Megan Garber has pointed out, there is a recurring theme of body horror running through the show, with a particular emphasis on dead animals and bodily fluids. Succession is constantly reminding its audience and its characters that there are certain inevitabilities that do not bow to the demands of the market.
A stench in the family’s rural retreat is revealed to be the rotting remains of raccoons, crawling with maggots. After attending the premiere of a stage show financed by Logan’s eldest son, Connor (Alan Ruck), Greg complains that there was “something living” in the sand. During the company’s crucial shareholding vote, Kendall arrogantly instructs his children’s babysitter to feed their pet rabbit some bagel, seemingly resulting in the creature’s death. Shiv and Tom keep their dog, Mondale, in a cage.
Logan himself is not immune to such ravages. He might be “100 feet tall,” but he’s still subject to gravity. The show’s opening scene finds him confused and disoriented, urinating on the floor of his luxurious apartment. Later in the season, he’s unable to make it to the bathroom in time and so relieves himself on the floor of Kendall’s office. During the show’s third season, he’s unable to go to the toilet by himself, and so he has to rely on Tom to physically assist him.
Throughout the show, there’s an emphasis on the reality that these characters cannot control their basic biological functions, illustrating the absurdity of building an entire system of economics around them. During an attempt to negotiate the acquisition of the rival Pierce Media Group, Kendall sleeps with Naomi Pierce (Annabelle Dexter-Jones) only to wake up and discover he has literally shit the bed. During his bachelor party, Tom swallows his own ejaculate, maintaining “a closed loop.”
Indeed, the show’s premiere ends with Logan having a stroke, a reminder that there are things that money can’t buy him. While Logan’s health is outside the control of the market, his struggles have very real implications. “The socio-economic health of multiple continents is dependent on his well-being,” Kendall warns the doctors in the show’s second episode. In the show’s third season, Logan’s urinary tract infection drives him mad and almost sends the company into freefall.
This is reflected even in the show’s fourth season premiere. Cut off from their father, Kendall, Shiv, and Roman are working on their own project. Shiv has separated from Tom. However, the trio spontaneously decide to abandon their plans when Shiv and Kendall discover that Tom and Naomi are sleeping together. The entire market shifts based on extremely personal grievances. Human beings are fundamentally irrational actors, and it is insanity to give them such power.
This is the beautiful irony at the heart of Succession, the understanding that capitalism is a fundamentally inhuman system that reduces its subjects to economic units, but is itself subject to the limitations of the people who control it. It makes sense, then, that Logan Roy’s assertion that this is all there is and that there’s nothing more feels like an attempt to convince himself as much as anybody else.