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Why We Can’t Help but Love the Awful People in ‘Succession’

The Roys are a group of genuinely loathsome, irritating characters with few, if any, redeeming qualities. How has ‘Succession’ managed to make us care about them for so long?

HBO/Ringer illustration

Antiheroes are one thing. But Succession long ago exceeded the notion of morally gray characters and, bracingly, became a show about world-class assholes making open-and-shut cases for their utter destruction.

Take the sixth episode of the third season, “What It Takes,” in which the Roys, sans Kendall, travel south to Richmond to attend the Future Freedom Summit. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a weekend of hobnobbing and jockeying among Conservative luminaries. Here, Logan Roy holds court after hours in a hotel penthouse with several early contenders for the GOP presidential nomination. He must choose whom he’ll sponsor in the primaries. The contenders include the current vice president, Dave Boyer; a young nativist demagogue, Jeryd Mencken; and, of course, Logan’s own son Connor, whose ideological vacuousness and political aspirations have been a running joke since the first season.

Holed up in his suite, Logan briefly humors the idea of bankrolling Connor but then drops the prospect as carelessly as he raised it; in fact, by the end of his deliberations, Logan seems to have genuinely forgotten that he even has a son with a pronounced interest in any of this. The other GOP candidates pass through the penthouse, one by one, to kiss the ring, so to speak—a process somehow still less humiliating than Connor awkwardly standing in the corner, heckling his rivals. Ultimately, Logan backs Mencken. Oh well.

The core story line of Succession is the same as it ever was: Kendall and his siblings each clamoring for control of the family mega-business, Waystar Royco, while their father, Logan, blocks and mocks them. This dynamic is fateful and unchanging. It extends, in fact, beyond the family business and into the respective political careers of Shiv and Connor. Where does it end?

The nominal stakes of Succession have always been impressively low for the viewers, if not for the Roys. You, as a viewer, are mostly watching a shitty guy and his shitty kids run a shitty conglomerate. You’re not solidly rooting for anyone, not even the secondary relatives Tom, Marcia, and Ewan; not even the beleaguered attendants Gerri, Karl, and Frank; and, at this point, dare I say, not even Cousin Greg. At best, you’re rooting for some characters to humiliate others: say, rooting for Marcia to decimate Logan in the divorce agreement. But you’re hardly rooting for anyone to win the contest to succeed Logan Roy. (Succeed him and do what, exactly? Overhaul the prime-time lineup at ATN?) The coveted role is both hopeless and pointless; the company is bloated and in many ways obsolete. In this sense I’d liken Succession to one of those epic role-playing games with moral choice systems and multiple endings, except every alignment is dubious, and every ending is the “bad” one. If Succession, in its fourth and final season, ended in a mushroom cloud, well, I’d struggle to imagine a happier ending.

The real thrill of Succession is in the humiliation, down to the tiniest inconveniences, merrily inflicted on these people by the writers’ room. Even Logan, who “always wins,” is first seen losing his wits and pissing in the hallway in the dark, and he’s last seen selling out his legacy megacorp to a flaky web-tech founder. Kendall is a yammering prick whose nervous intensity about everything sends him constantly crashing to new personal and professional lows. Roman, as frivolous and countercultural as he may be, also seems to spend most of his time at the office, pandering to Logan and playing his miserable game.

Shiv starts the series as an adviser to leftist presidential candidate Gil Eavis, in tacit rebellion against her family’s prevailing beliefs and business interests, before she too represses her morals and throws herself into contention for the top job at Waystar Royco. She’s dropped her tepid Liberal rebellion in favor of a ruthless girl boss posture that has so far earned her far more responsibilities—and liabilities—but little respect. It’s barely won her any additional affection from her father, who still swats her away, even in her finest hour, as if she’s a noisy kid barging into a conference room. Connor is the one sibling who seems largely disengaged from the palace intrigue, instead dabbling in presidential politics, and even then, clearly, the only vote he cherishes is his dad’s.

There’s always been some rough sleight of hand in the reputation management of Logan Roy, father and entrepreneur. He largely built his legacy off-screen. The sheer scope of his influence earns him the benefit of the doubt with viewers whenever he goes on one his prideful tirades about his world-historical corporate genius. The same cannot be said for his children, who are mostly shown to be fools and losers. Kendall running Waystar Royco would, of course, be a goddamn disaster. In the third season, he launches a scorched-earth campaign against the company and more or less proves every case ever made, typically by his father, against him: He’s too moody and impetuous to be trusted with any measure of authority. But Logan is also moody and impetuous. He’s evidently more successful than his children, sure, but his legacy is a crappy cable news channel and a scandalous cruise-ships division. America, I don’t know, indeed. Kendall didn’t build “this empire of shit.” Logan did. Logan built the future he’s no longer so excited about. He failed. He’s just managed to outrun the humiliation, unlike his kids.

What would be the most gratifying way to see these people go out? Succession has always resisted the impulse to give any of them what they want, preferring to give them what they deserve. It’s why the most menacing figure in the series is, and has always been, Sandy Furness. He’s just some asshole, and he doesn’t even have the decency to be as mercurial as GoJo’s Lukas Matsson; Sandy is as crass and impersonal as capitalism gets, and him finally acquiring Waystar Royco would put everyone equally out of their misery. So now, I suppose, in the fourth and final season, I’ll be rooting for Sandy—or the mushroom cloud.