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The Profane Poetry of ‘Succession’

Humiliation and hazing are constants in the world of the Roys. Language-wise, this means verbal inventiveness (often vulgar and hilarious) is both a source of power for the characters and a way for them to reveal their weaknesses.

HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I have waking nightmares about being insulted by characters from Succession. That’s a compliment, by the way. Good writing doesn’t just make you chuckle or go “Wow, cool description of a flower” or whatever. It temporarily retunes your brain. Your little consciousness is humming its tune, la la la, and good writing drops in like a drummer. It makes your thoughts fall in with its patterns. So there I am. Maybe it’s chilly; maybe I just put on a sweater. I like chunky knits in the fall. Give me a good Donegal tweed and I’m happy. Now, normally, if anyone tried to tweed-shame me, I’d tell them to take the Fuck You Train back to Bad Opinion Town. But lately I’ve been watching Succession, I’ve got that beat in my head, so when I look in the mirror I get this imaginary horror reaction chorus:

Shiv: You paid actual money for that?

Roman: You look like Robert Frost jacked off on a bighorn sheep.

Tom: I actually like it. I think more men should dress like illiterate 1930s mutton farmers.

Kendall: The fuck happened to you, man? Did you lose a bet to a carpet factory? Did a yeti eat part of you and then have to take a call?

Season 3 of Succession debuts on October 17, after a quarantine-inflicted hiatus that feels like it lasted 14 years; I am both excited for and in dread of its return. Excited, because on the level of writing Succession is the most viciously beautiful show on television, its every episode a profane master class in the poetic school of I Hear You Jizzed 500k on a Fake Napoleon Dick, its individual scenes like finely wrought Chopin études in the key of It Was Tom Who Farted in His Shit. And in dread because—well, my God. The strength of the writing means all these moral vampires, the Roy family and its luxury fleet of spine-gnawing hangers-on, will live in my head and take script notes from my insecurities.

It’s worth it, though. For the rest of this paragraph I will paste in sentences from the show out of context, because the work of series creator Jesse Armstrong and his writing room is too weird, funny, and great to appreciate fully when you’re also paying attention to stuff like the story and the acting and the hideous proliferation of Jeff Bezos vests (all of which are class-leading in the prestige-drama space). Ready? If I eat any more songbirds I’m gonna hurl. Great title for your memoir: a Benign Fungus. Did you, like, build a glider out of a Caesar salad? You’re as fungible as fuck. I look at your face and, no offense, but I see dead babies. I’m worried I’ve agreed to be CEO of a dumpster-fire pirate death ship. You’re kind of like a peppy fun-gun set to MILF, with like a Lean In woman-y branding thing that works well with the Fitbit-moron whatever people. (Sidenote: !!!) Love is the last fridge magnet left. What polyglot genius could ever hope to crack your impenetrable code? I am interested in becoming a meth head. Waystar Royco: We do hate speech and roller coasters. Great, get in there and operate, Doctor Google! You don’t really hear much about syphilis these days; very much the Myspace of STDs. You fucked me like a tied goat. Oh, horse potatoes!

It’s not a new thing for the best-written show on TV and the most foul-mouthed show on TV to be the same. TV is easily the most heavily censored medium in the past half-century of American cultural life; it’s also the medium most suited to exploring social groups and their norms on a large scale. No wonder the most raw and intelligent and incisive shows are often the ones most attuned to how people use the words they aren’t supposed to say. The Wire, famously, featured a scene in which the only dialogue was the word “fuck” repeated 38 times in a row. Deadwood used its Elizabethan impasto of scatalogical and misogynistic and homophobic cursing to mirror its argument that violence, brutality, and exclusion shape civilization as much as the drive to suppress them. The Sopranos deployed profanity to underscore its theme of American decline: “Whatever happened to Gary Cooper?” sits right next to “What, no fuckin’ ziti?” The big Golden Age–pantheon exception here is Mad Men, which explored a more politely spoken milieu—its characters only behaved horribly—and was also not on HBO.

In many ways, Succession has the juiciest setup of all for writers who love cussing. (That is all writers.) The world of the Roys is intensely, childishly Oedipal, and its hierarchies are reinforced by constant hazing and humiliation. This is a rad combination, language-wise, because it means that verbal inventiveness is both a source of power for the characters and a way for them to reveal their weaknesses. If you’re ingenious enough to say something is “slicker than cum on a dolphin’s back” (which, second sidenote: !!!!), then you have a weapon you can use in the moment-to-moment Darwinian death match of every conversation. You’ve also opened a window onto something strange, and strangely vulnerable, about your own inner life. It makes sense, in that light, that Roman is both the most verbally brilliant character on the show and the most wounded, pitiable, and dysfunctional; in a universe where Boar on the Floor is a go-to party game for the lords of creation, power will always open onto the Freudian abyss. That’s where great dialogue comes from!

It’s not only the gonzo line-writing and profound vulgarity that makes Succession such a delight for writers. My favorite line in the series is a throwaway from the Season 1 finale, “Nobody Is Ever Missing,” written by Armstrong and Susan Soon He Stanton. No one I have ever mentioned this line to has remembered it; I think it’s my favorite single utterance in the past five years of television. Siobhan, the billionaire patriarch’s daughter played by Sarah Snook, and Tom, the billionaire patriarch’s striving suck-up lackey played by Matthew Macfadyen, are talking in the moments before their wedding. Shiv has cold feet, she wants Tom to agree to an open relationship, which he doesn’t want, but they’re both sort of blundering around the moment and it hasn’t all come out yet. Tom is trying to convince Shiv that their life can be a big romantic adventure; they don’t have to be in thrall to Logan Roy and his money. This is utter bullshit, but she indulges it for a second. “Let’s go to fuckin’ New Zealand,” he says (this isn’t the line), “become sheep farmers.” She laughs at that, so he thinks he’d better kick it up a notch. Maybe he can invite her to run away and become a scuba instructor with him. “Can you scuba?” he says (also not the line).

And here it is: She says, with a complex yet totally accessible mix of impatience, irritation, and encouragement, the sort of tone you hear all the time in real life but seldom encounter on TV: “You know I can scuba!” And I’m sorry, I know that probably looks anticlimactic on paper, but come on. If the goal of TV dialogue is to convey as much about characters and relationships as possible in as few words as possible, “You know I can scuba” belongs on the goddamn Voyager disc. In a funny sentence of just five words, it tells you volumes about this person, the kind of life she’s had (she’s not only had access to scuba lessons, she’s so used to deference from the people around her that she expects them to remember it), her relationship with her fiancé (who wants to sell her on a grand love story but forgets details of her life while he’s doing it, and at the same time is also expected to defer to her), the quality of their shared history (they’ve scuba-ed, but forgettably), the things they understand and don’t understand about each other—all that stuff. I’ve read novels that give you less in 300 pages than “You know I can scuba” gives you in a fraction of a tweet.

The point here is not that this is the best line ever to appear on Succession. The point is that it’s a typical line. It’s just the one that happened to tickle me most when I heard it. Every episode has moments of character writing this rich and economical. And that, surely, is why the show is so beloved. The Roys aren’t the deepest characters in TV history, but the writers give us a clear view of them all the way down. The actors deserve credit here, too, of course, but actors always get credit; writers not so much.

“When it comes to language,” the critic James Wood once wrote, “all writers want to be billionaires.” The creators of Succession get to live that fantasy in a far more literal way than Wood intended. But—and this is what makes the show so much fun—they also get to imagine a world in which the reverse is true. On Succession, when it comes to money, all billionaires want to be writers.