The quickest way to watch a rich person flail is to set him loose in his own kitchen. In Succession’s fifth episode, self-appointed Waystar Royco heir Kendall Roy invites Frank, the family company’s operations guy, over for a Thanksgiving day meeting. Kendall is plotting a surprise takeover of the company on the basis that his father, Logan, is no longer the businessman he once was. But as Kendall strategizes aloud, he can’t seem to navigate his vast kitchen. “Fuck, sorry, I gave everyone Thanksgiving off,” he says, struggling to dismantle a coffee grinder. As he rifles through gorgeous walnut cabinet after gorgeous walnut cabinet for his coffee beans, Kendall and Frank go through the names of board members who they can count on to offer a “vote of no confidence” against Logan. When they’ve finally finished, Kendall gives up his search. “CARLA,” he yells. “Where do we keep the fucking coffee beans?” The housekeeper appears and produces them. “I thought you gave everyone the day off,” Frank says. “Skeleton staff,” Kendall replies, defeated. The business titan who believes he can organize a hostile takeover of one of the world’s biggest media conglomerates can’t even make himself a simple cup of coffee in his own damn kitchen.
Kendall makes a lot more “big moves” before Succession’s finale, but the coffee bean scavenger hunt tells you all you need to know about how he fares when he flies too far from his father’s nest. The Roy siblings’ considerable public influence and glitzy accoutrements lend them a mythic “masters of the universe” badge that would make Sherman McCoy sweat. As a result, they treat their waiters, butlers, and “business alchemists” like butterflies that can be kept in a jar, occasionally pulled apart beneath a magnifying glass, then forced to sign an NDA. (Anyone who’s read an account of what it’s like to work for the Murdochs is quite familiar with this behavior.) And yet the Roys’ constant reliance on their so-despised servants reveals their astounding naivety and incompetence. They were only ever taught how to function in a world in which their father and his considerable staff took care of everything for them.
Not all condescension is equal, and Succession illustrates its ugly spectrum through various Roy children’s tantrums. The unambitious elder child, Connor, isn’t typically demanding of the mere mortals who dote on his family, especially given that he’s pathologically nonconfrontational. But when faced with even the slightest crisis—yes, I’m talking cold butter at the precious RECNY ball he organized—they quickly become his emotional punching bag. “THE BUTTER’S ALL FUCKED,” he screams into a room of hurried chefs who are plating dishes in the kitchen, like he just missed the last lifeboat off the Titanic. “YOU’RE ALL FIRED! IDIOTS! CAN’T FUCKING BELIEVE IT! SURROUNDED BY IMBECILES!” Later in the evening, when he decides the event was a success, Connor bursts back into the room for a manic victory lap to tell everyone they’re “awesome,” oblivious to the terror he caused. This is cruel behavior, but also a pitiful symptom of what a fragile emotional being he is. Watching Connor go through his toddler-esque mood swings in front of a room of strangers, rather than his family, I couldn’t help but imagine him falling off his first two-wheeler as a child, and being comforted by the nearest member of the domestic staff.
If Connor is the accidental tyrant, Roman is the intentional enfant terrible. And aside from posturing as a Royco executive while literally masturbating to his stunning office view, Roman’s life is mostly occupied by efforts to assert his superiority over anyone unlucky enough to fall into his orbit. That means offering a kid on the sidelines of his family softball game $1 million to hit a home run, then ripping up the check in his face after he fails. It means threatening his personal trainer with a lawsuit for messing up his back, then—after he’s sure the man’s stomach has dropped to his feet—assuring him he’s “joking.” It means forcing a waiter who’s flirting with his date to first pour him a few more glasses of wine, then ask for her number, just so he can laugh at the thought of a serviceworker having a chance over a media conglomerate heir. Roman is the kind of person who, as a kid, probably built an entire Sims neighborhood inside a house with one toilet and no doors just to see what would happen. But his extreme inhumanity is a symptom of his insecurities. The youngest of his siblings, he has always suffered from being the least-important important person in the room. That role has left him inhumane, feckless, and prone to isolation. He can’t feel important unless someone around him doesn’t.
Shiv, the sole Roy daughter, might seem like an exception to the bunch, but that’s only because her offenses apply to a much more intimate kind of helper. Her fiancé, Tom Wambsgans, is more a shit-eating butler than a romantic partner. Before Succession’s season finale, the closest the two come to having sex is when Tom kneels to the ground and speaks directly into her crotch to “pay homage.” Shiv’s affection for Tom depends on his utility: providing information from within her father’s company, support for when she must confront her father’s wife, or a warm body against which she can bounce her latest work or family frustration. Her blatant infidelity with an ex and close coworker is further evidence of Tom’s indentured servitude. When you’re a Roy, a marriage is a kind of employment contract. And though Shiv would like to see herself otherwise, it’s proof that she is just as incapable of functioning like a normal person as her siblings.
Succession’s season finale is the apex of each sibling’s blatant disregard for humanity outside their immediate circle of power, and also their reliance on their servants as a means of survival. High off of a “debate” against politician Gil Eavis, a sort of Kirkland-brand Bernie Sanders, Connor decides to run for president for no other reason than it would make him feel powerful. Roman watches calmly as a rocket launch he rushed ends with the rocket exploding on the platform, then asks the company’s general counsel to clean it up for him, and later rejoices when he learns that only a few workers’ limbs and thumbs were lost in the mess. Literal hours after they’ve wed, Shiv more or less tells Tom that she had an affair, married him for business purposes, and doesn’t want a monogamous marriage. And then there’s Kendall. He feels bad about wrangling control of the family company, so he goes on a search for coke that ends in a freak car accident and the death of an innocent young server. He attempts, and fails, to cover up the mess on his own, and crawls right back into his father’s arms, weeping like a 6-year-old with a boo-boo. It’s a pitiful final scene; the ambitious son who once demanded independence is suddenly hit with the realization that he was never built to operate outside the consequence-free bubble in which his father raised him. He couldn’t figure out his coffee machine without help from his housekeeper, and he couldn’t distance himself from a victim of his latest coke bender without the help of his father’s many shadowy henchmen.
There’s tragedy in power. And the long list of Roy family offenses against their drivers, doctors, waitstaff, and romantic partners not only proves how callously they calibrate their behavior according to status, but also their deep dissatisfaction with their meaningless, stupid-rich lives. Sure, these budding billionaires may wield a temporary sense of self-importance from the way they treat staff. But they’re also infantilized by their presence. And, most tellingly, completely and utterly useless in their absence. Connor is the lonely soul who seeks attention from his many employees (including Willa, his call-girlfriend), Roman abuses his helpers to make up for his own youngest-sibling complex, Shiv manipulates those closest to her into becoming glorified servants, and Kendall treats his keepers with measured contempt, because he hates that he needs them in the first place. At first watch, all the hushed negotiations in helicopter taxis and at sumptuous dinner parties present Succession as a Mad Men–esque drama about the weight that comes with being born into a family of power brokers. But as the season unfurls, ties are loosened, coke vials are emptied, and the Roy siblings are revealed to be something much less impressive: petulant kids who are nothing without daddy’s money.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.