How ‘Succession’ Turns Getting What You Want Into Hell
Two years ago, as HBO’s “Succession” finished its second season, we saw Logan Roy, the head of a right-wing media empire, looking for someone in his inner circle to serve as the scapegoat for a corporate scandal. One candidate was his hapless son-in-law, Tom Wambsgans. But Shiv, Logan’s daughter, asked him to spare her husband, and Logan’s sights turned instead to his second-born son, Kendall. For once, though, Kendall would not do the old man’s bidding: He showed up at a news conference and, instead of taking the heat, blamed his father.
The pandemic kept “Succession” from continuing the story until this fall; its third season, nine episodes in all, ended Dec. 12. But it featured, midway through that run, a remarkable moment that captured the series’ great trick: Whenever these One Percenters succeed, the outcome is worse than if they had failed.
Because with Kendall gone rogue, it is indeed Tom who volunteers for sacrifice and resigns himself to facing criminal charges. He assumes he has few days left as a free man, so he spends them reading prison blogs and trying to get used to cheap food. It’s only in the seventh episode that he learns the federal investigation he was afraid of will most likely end in a financial penalty. Suddenly spared years behind bars, he heads to the office of his wary sidekick Greg and destroys it in celebration: Screaming, he flips over a desk and leaps atop some filing cabinets, pounding his chest. But his ecstasy is short-lived. An episode later, Shiv — under the guise of role play — tells him she doesn’t really love him, though she would consider having the child he wanted. Having avoided prison, Tom gets to remain in a loveless union, trapped in a cage of wealth he lacks the audacity to leave. He wins, and he may well be worse off for it.
Tom’s fate seems to have taken a very different turn in the season’s finale. But those earlier scenes reminded me, more than anything, of “Peep Show,” the sitcom that Jesse Armstrong, the creator of “Succession,” made in Britain between 2003 and 2015. The series, which used point-of-view shots and voice-overs to reveal its protagonists’ inner thoughts, centered on two characters: Mark, a cynical and awkward loan manager, and Jez, his perpetually out-of-work roommate. Its humor derived from many things — Mark’s repressed fury and anxious conservatism, Jez’s sexual carelessness and delusions of cool — but the writer Jim Gavin, creator of the AMC show “Lodge 49,” reported in 2016 that he had discovered the “central narrative conceit” beneath all of it. “Mark and Jez,” he wrote, “ALWAYS get what they want” — and it inevitably turns out to be terrible. “Getting what you want is a form of hell,” he wrote, “and ‘Peep Show’ is nothing if not a complete and terrifying vision of hell.”
“Succession,” a prestige hit, attracts far more attention in America than “Peep Show.” Perhaps that’s why, amid obsessive discussion of each episode’s winners and losers, it’s not often noted how much this tradition continues among the Roys. Look at both shows together, and you sense a creeping, overarching worldview. Each sets its characters in looping environments where it’s rare for them to face lasting consequences. Instead, they are constantly humiliated by their own desires — and then, even more so, by the fulfillment of those desires.
Throughout the early seasons of “Peep Show,” for instance, we watch Mark pine after a co-worker named Sophie, played by Olivia Colman. But when he finally succeeds in his romantic pursuit of her, it becomes clear that they have little in common — a fact that Mark, clinging to what he suspects is his sole chance to be a normal man, strains to ignore. The two become engaged based on a miscommunication, and Mark spends an entire season trudging toward a wedding he dreads, fearing it will be too embarrassing to back out. But there, again, he gets what he wants, in the worst way: After a catastrophic ceremony, Sophie flees, seeks an annulment and convinces all their co-workers that Mark is a monster.
“Peep Show” was unquestionably a comedy, an unglamorous half-hour of laughs. “Succession” is an hour long, with remarkable acting and an HBO budget. As a result, critical discussion around it has often focused on form: Is this a comedy? A drama? A “sitcom trapped in the body of a drama” (as Slate had it)? “Seinfeldian in its cyclical efforts” (The New Yorker)? Has its repetitive nature made it boring? The Nation said the show has a “repetition compulsion”; The Atlantic explained its stasis by asserting that “late capitalism will always insulate the extraordinarily privileged from real consequences.”
It’s true that the patterns of a sitcom, in which hardly anything ever truly changes, run the risk of disappointing prestige-TV viewers who tune in anticipating real stakes or didactic punishment for the superrich. But the circularity of such comedy is, typically, cozy. Sitcoms assure us that their worlds will remain stable, that the characters will arrive each week to behave in exactly the manner we’ve become so fond of. This was true of “Peep Show,” but in the most unsettling way possible. Mark and Jez were self-aware enough to realize how hopelessly stuck with each other they were; they knew full well that whenever either of them achieved what he wanted, the other would promptly help ruin it. As Gavin noted, “Virgil makes clear to Dante that all the souls in Hell remain there by choice,” unable to let go of the very thing that damned them in the first place. Mark and Jez will repeat their mistakes forever.
What makes “Succession” a variety of sitcom is the way it, too, relishes this vision of the afterlife. The Roy children’s battle for status mostly immiserates them, yet they can’t abandon it. Each time they help save the family empire, their father lambastes or humiliates them for their trouble. Even Logan’s death scares repeat: It’s as if he literally can’t perish, as if hell cannot exist without the devil. As the show’s third season ended, we saw his children scramble once again to maintain family control of the company — to remain in the very cycle they’ve all toyed with escaping. They failed. But can there be much doubt that the situation will reset, as it has in the past, just as surely as a sitcom character’s new adventure will resolve itself in 30 minutes, leaving things right where they began? In Armstrong’s hands, character flaws are not simply quirks to be blithely repeated for our amusement. They are anchors that are constantly degrading the characters’ own lives. “Peep Show” let that degradation sit, awkwardly and hilariously, on the screen. “Succession” finds the tragedy at the heart of the sitcom form, the structure whose characters can never break free of it.
The Roys’ corporation feels like their show’s Sophie. I’ve never had any trouble imagining what would happen if Kendall or his siblings wrested control of it from their father, or what they would do to address its many failings: They’d have absolutely no idea. Like Mark on “Peep Show,” they’d struggle to admit their victory was hollow from the start. This is the joy of Armstrong’s shows: They let us set aside judgment and just marvel at how ardently, how comically, people will chase after the worst thing for them. People, each season suggests, do not change that much. What we share with the Roys and two inept London flatmates might be, simply, that we only think we want them to, and would probably hate it if they ever did.
Above: Screen grabs from HBO and YouTube.
Alex Norcia is a writer in Los Angeles. He last wrote for the magazine about John Krasinski’s YouTube show “Some Good News.”