Succession: On Mythmaking, Patricide, and Escaping the Belly of the BeastPhoto Courtesy of HBO TV Features Succession
KENDALL: I thought I had an out. I could see it, I could… I could see the way markers… and I thought I could take us all out of it. (Succession Season 3, “All the Bells Say”)
As the legend goes, Jonah spent three days and three nights in the whale. What if it had been a lifetime? What if he’d been born there, in its warm, damp belly? Jonah descended into the beast with a vital advantage: memories of the sunny outside world. A child would know nothing. The roof of the whale’s mouth would be their sky, its flesh their earth.
A smart aleck could ask what they’d eat or how they’d breathe. In answer, I could task Jonah to scrape plankton from the teeth of the whale’s capillaries with a stick of driftwood. I could describe the special respiration of God’s special fish. I think most know better than to ask. Myths offer images of ourselves so clear that those questions seem impolite, like casting stones into a pool because we hate its reflection. It is into this magnificent, mythical claustrophobia that we find the Roys.
At the beginning of Succession’s third season, Kendall thought he was Zeus, a child planted by fate on the outside. He thought he’d gallop to the rescue, cut his siblings free, and show them a new way to live. Watching him try to reconstruct a “normal” life was an unholy spectacle: the “nights out” with hangers-on, the cheap humility, the birthday party… Did he really think normalcy could include the limousines, the rolodex, the name that opens doors to the talk show circuit? Does Prince Harry?
By the end of the third season, he realized that he’d never left Logan behind him at all. His messianic airs deflated, he was able to see his brother and sister as captives of the same jailor. That was the great leap forward.
The fourth season opener of HBO’s titan drama shows just how far they have to go. The siblings get into a bidding war with their father, and Roman has a moment of clarity that Ken and Shiv blow past: “Ten [billion]? Just to show that we’re really serious?” Ken’s cautionary tale will get a second verse, I think, but with an ensemble this time. They catch on slow, these Roy kids.
Then again, it’s always easier to see these things when you’re on the outside.
EWAN: Feting the king. Tacitus comes to mind… He’s made a wasteland and calls it an empire.
GREG: God, Tacitus. All killer, no filler with him. (Succession Season 2, “Dundee”)
Tacitus reads like a suicide note. In his Histories, he writes, “The secret of empire was now revealed, that an emperor could be made elsewhere than at Rome.” What a gracious way of saying that Rome was now openly a bandit nation, its leaders elected at sword-point. Being about three generations deep into this mess called the Roman Empire, Tacitus confined himself to cataloging its decline and making pithy remarks at imperial functions. Where was he when the temples of his republic were crumbling, when states were ready to revolt, or when minds were ready to reform?
Tacitus clearly perceived the beast and the depth of his predicament, but thought the effort of climbing out beneath him. How very Ewan Roy. Regardless of how often their flailing brings them full circle, the Roy children can at least imagine something more than the empire into which they were born—whether or not they can actually get there.
Succession also prompts the word “Shakespearian,” a term flogged to death by carelessness. Not even a script in hand and Sir Olivier on the stage can give it life again. But no, Succession is primordial. Every culture worries about the grip older generations have on the living, and they have myths about rearranging the world to fit the young. In such stories, the patriarchs must seem inescapable—a problem you can only solve by fighting your way out. They’re the size of planets or command men-at-arms or head multimedia empires.
The Roys are the right metaphor to tell that story in this moment. It’s a metaphor that’s arriving amidst multiple generational failures: climate change; the state of our democracy’s checks-and-balances; hopes for lasting peace with Russia; repeated recessions and bank “contagions”; the pursuit of infinite growth in a finite space.
Americans are merchant folk. The search for profit drove us forward and a hatred of taxes united us. We don’t believe in the divinity of kings or a personal connection to the stars. On a visceral level, we believe Ken, Shiv, and Roman plot to “kill” good ol’ dad, even when what they’re really talking about is financial insolvency or throwing him off the seat of a company board. On a subliminal level, we believe in John Smith’s order “He that will not worke, shall not eate.” On a transcendental level, we know that a full hour of toil from a stevedore doesn’t earn as much as the five minutes Frank spends sweating in a chair beside Logan.
These are our current culture’s gods, or they have deific overtones. They’re above right or wrong. Logan sleeps with a woman fifty years his junior. Ken, Mr. Type-A personality, still speedballs drugs. Roman dismisses his team’s pitch for his startup “The Hundred” with the same incomprehension of work he’ll always have. Shiv remains Aphrodite, a dedicated shirker of commitment at all times.
None of them flex our sympathy, teach virtues for us to follow, or provide the meaning of more traditional fare. Succession can’t even claim that it’s lifestyle porn. An “eat the rich” black comedy like The Menu makes the high life look sumptuous. Seeing businessmen shuffle in and out of boardrooms or travel in fleets of black Cadillacs, on the other hand, is an icier display of power.
We’re actually watching a reorganization of the American cosmos—three billionaires’ search for a new order outside Planet Logan. A lot of those stories demand patricide, and we may yet see Logan in a coffin or, like Chronos before him, locked away in prison.
But the sweetest victory, I think, would be taking ATN off the air forever.
Sean Weeks is a student of classics and mythology who’s wandered slightly off course. If you want to join him in his odyssey, you can visit him at www.weeksauthor.com.
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