Full of Sound and Fury
At the end of Succession’s second season, Kendall Roy, preparing to immolate himself to save his father, Logan, asks if there was ever a chance that he would have taken over as CEO of Waystar|Royco. His father declines, resigned. “You’re not a killer.”
A little further down the road and Ken is facing this question again, but now Logan is dead. It is instead his sister, Siobhan, who tells him no. “You can’t be CEO, because you killed someone.” Ken loses, and as the company he was raised to take over is mundanely signed away from his family, my eyes kept flickering to the windows of Waystar’s boardroom, expecting to see his body plummet past them.
Instead he reaches the ground via elevator. He walks stiffly through Battery Park, trailed by his father’s bodyguard, until stopping at a park bench in front of the Hudson. He stares, unmoving, unchanging, as the water shifts and crashes before him.
Kendall’s relationship with water has become a meme, a sort of Tropes 101: the river he crashes into in season 1 that kills the waiter, the spa in Germany where he tries in vain to recover, floating above the Alps, the pool in Tuscany where he nearly drowns, even his own dual baptisms in the final season: first after besting Logan to acquire another company and leaping into the Pacific, and second in the Caribbean in the dead of night in as his siblings anoint him king. Water is about emotions, you’ll learn in Tropes 101, and if you remember Metaphors 101 you’ll recall that it also represents femininity, nature, birth, renewal. Water, for Kendall, means change. But Succession is a tragedy, and a tragic hero is static.
The most harrowing moment in the brilliant 90-minute Succession finale comes 25 minutes before it ends. Kendall has secured his siblings, sat in his father’s chair and put his feet up on his father’s desk. His brother, Roman, starts to waffle, wondering why he wasn’t chosen for the job. Kendall takes him in for a hug, then pulls Roman’s forehead — stitched, bloody and bruised — into the sharp front of his shoulder, Ken gripping the back of Roman’s head, boring the wound into the bone. Roman splutters and twitches against his captor. “You fucking bastard.” Kendall kisses him and tells him it’s going to be okay.
Later Kendall describes himself as a cog “built to fit only one machine.” All the Roy siblings are, having been pounded into shape by Logan’s cruelty, reeling even after his death. And as Kendall grasps and hurts his brother, promising him love, he has finally filled into his assumed form: a shadow of his father. A brute. “By God, I hope it’s in me,” he said at Logan’s funeral, the day after he worried whether “the poison drips down.”
“Life’s but a walking shadow,” says Macbeth, one of the various Shakespeare characters that Succession alludes to. “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Like Macbeth, the Roy’s tragedy is that they longed to prove their own importance, that their lives signified everything. They had to be masters of the universe, not only because power felt good, but because it proved their own value; the worth that they never found through the typically human means of love. They had to be Great Men, otherwise they signified nothing.
Much of the Succession discourse has been on the topic of the Roy’s wealth and position: obviously based on the Murdoch family, obviously meant as a mirror to American society, etc. And yes, the Roys are rich and conservative in all the worst ways, and yes, perhaps there is something pleasurable about watching those assholes trip over their own feet week after week. Succession is among the lineage of shows about American Enterprise: from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad, narratives where an industry is a stand-in for society, the desires of the protagonists representing the American Dream. Conveniently The American Dream means almost nothing: in the most generous sense, it is to be rewarded by the tenets of freedom and capitalism. You can do anything, and you can have anything.
Typically, American Dream stories are rags-to-riches tales; of a poor or unremarkable person transforming into a Great Man. America is built on the idea of Great Men: the Founding Fathers, Captains of Industry. A Great Man transcends flesh and blood, he invents light bulbs and automobiles, he spins the world upon his finger and we are lucky that he did. A Great Man is brilliant, ruthless, charming, an Ayn Rand protagonist, ahead of his time and proud of it. He is a self-made myth, a tall tale, a person who must stand singular and alone atop the shining city he designed.
There is also the antithesis, the Great Monster, a powerful figure who wields his influence for abuse and cruelty. This, in fiction, is commentary: see, this Great Man wasn’t so great. He was petty, mean, maybe he killed people, maybe he hurt people. Another myth is built around the person, making them a symbol of evil, a foil for anyone who would never be like that.
Neither of these men are real, because life really is a walking shadow, signifying nothing. It is mundane, “all bullshit” as Roman says. To try to become a great man is to become something that does not exist. Kendall will never succeed in becoming the great man his father was, because his father was a brute. “Good tragedy should feel inevitable” says director/producer Mark Mylod, after the credits roll.
It’s easy to assume that Succession is not meant to be a moralistic story; that it is nihilist to the core. After all, nobody really wins in the end: Kendall is destitute, Shiv is merely a wife, Roman is left with his ghosts and martinis. Shiv’s husband Tom is CEO, but only because he agreed to be malleable and weak, the “pain sponge” for his new boss, Mattson, who seemed to buy Waystar|Royco out of curiosity and the love of the hunt. Only Connor, the black sheep of the family, seems to be happy in an aspiration-less existence after failing to keep 1% of the presidential vote. The show seems to have no core thesis: it lacks a real hero, a person who has learned and transformed into what the author thinks is an important reflection of humanity. But remember, this is a tragedy, and tragic heroes never change.
For me, though, the message of Succession is clear. There are no Great Men, and to aspire to such is folly. The myths that we tell ourselves can become delusions, the stuff dreams are made of. In trying to achieve the impossible, Kendall seeks power without knowing how to use it, courts love without knowing how to feel it. He wants what he feels he is supposed to have, but lacks the ability to wonder why; probably because it was smacked out of him when he was seven years old and his father told him he was anointed.
Logan, for his part, doesn’t need to write his own mythology, he has his children to do that for him. Before Logan’s funeral, Roman paces through his penthouse, rehearsing his speech. “My father, Logan, was a great man in the true sense of the word.” He turns to paraphrase, “I am the man. Here I am, talking loudly about my father, and don’t I, perhaps, remind you of him a little?”
There are details Roman leaves out of his practice, muttering “sad, sad, saddy sad.” Instead, he focuses on a triumphant ending, repeating: “a great man. A great, great man.”
He is upstaged for his eulogy, though, and his uncle fills in the sad sad saddy sad details: the trauma of Logan’s youth, his guilt over a young sister’s death. He calls Logan what he was: “He has wrought the most terrible things. He was a man who has, here and there, drawn in the edges of the world, now and then darkened the skies a little.” He speaks of a man consumed with greed, who gloated at the misfortune of others. “He had a meagerness about him. And maybe I do about me, too. I don’t know. I try. I don’t know when, but some time, he decided not to try anymore. And it was a terrible shame.”
Mylod’s camera pans about the church, and when it lands on Roman we watch Kieran Culkin’s face crumple in on itself, as a man hearing a truth for the first time and realizing its verity. He cannot rise to deliver his speech, cannot call his father a Great Man. He, too, now has a meagerness about him, and he falls into tears. A few days later, bleeding from a wound his brother reopened, Roman will say how it’s all bullshit.
Kendall can’t take bullshit as the answer. At the funeral, he stands in for his brother and delivers a word salad of Great Man mythology: “Great geysers of life he willed. Of buildings he made stand. Of ships, steel hulls. Amusements, newspapers, shows, and films, and life. Bloody, complicated life. He made life happen.” Logan was the lifeblood of civilization, he had to be, otherwise everything Kendall has gone through has been for nothing. Revisiting his eulogy, set in a cathedral, Kendall seems more like a fire and brimstone preacher, telling the congregation about God.
This isn’t Kendall’s first religious allegory: at his 40th birthday party he plans to present himself crucified in a tuxedo, punished for revealing the sins of his father. At this juncture Kendall has fashioned himself as a pariah, building a birthday party that supports this new myth. One room is his father’s office in flames, another full of juvenile fake headlines fantasizing about his siblings’ downfalls. He crumbles, of course, when his brothers and Shiv roll their eyes at him, when his father sends a card telling him to “cash out and fuck off.” He cannot, in this form, be a great man, nobody believes in his self-imposed divinity — and what’s a God to a non-believer?
When Logan tells Kendall that he’s not a killer, he means it as a myth: to kill is to triumph, prove greatness, win, be lauded. It’s an unreality that is allowed to exist in the Roy’s gilded, miserable world. Opposite of that is the fact that Kendall is a killer, responsible for taking the life of an innocent person. This, too, can be made into unreality: by the finale Kendall has changed the story, saying that he didn’t kill anyone, he wasn’t even in the car, No Real Person Involved. Logan was a god who could decide whether or not a person was real, and Kendall thinks he is too, but the bubble bursts. He did kill someone, Shiv reminds him. No matter how he spins it, it’s true.
The Roys are horrible people who need justification; they are Great and everything they do is in service of that Greatness. Logan says that everything he has done is for his children, even though they are more his victims than his protégés. Kendall says the same to his ex-wife as he empowers the people who bully his own daughter. Roman crumples under one punch.
The only way the story ends is for the mythologies to die, for the Great Man who was Logan Roy to crumble into history, to be bullshit. Instead the helm goes to Tom Wambsgans, a small man with just enough competence and little enough ambition to keep the ship afloat.
The question at the root of Succession always seemed to be: who will take over after Logan? Who will be the titular successor? In the end it almost didn’t seem to matter, because the tension was never about who would triumph, but what version of ‘succession’ would win: would it be the mythic family legacy of Great Men? Or would it be the other definition: a number of things happening one after the other. The mundane drumbeat of history, no sound, no fury, no significance.
Succession is a story about people who want the wrong thing, who believe in something that isn’t real. It asks us to wonder what they might need, how they might have been better people without the delusion, without the abuse, without the striving toward a mountain that doesn’t exist. Waystar|Royco ended up being the ultimate McGuffin, but unlike so many heroes who realize that what they need isn’t what they want, it ended up being too late for the Roys.
Or maybe it isn’t, but that’s for another story, beyond the horizon and the Hudson River. Succession was a myth that ends in reality; a fantasy that finishes at the ground level, and even if it shows a meagerness about us, we can still try. Unlike Kendall, we can change.