By Luisa Moreira
Ever since Succession's fourth and final season was released in late May 2023, it has gained unprecedented popularity in popular culture. Viewers have been following the mishappenings of the lavish Roy family since the show first aired in 2018, but what, in fact, makes the show so captivating?
Disclaimer: I don't necessarily mean to claim that Succession is indeed the greatest TV show ever, that would be fatuously irrelevant. However, there is no denying its immense significance, phenomenal writing, and masterful narrative form, and that is exactly what I will be defending in this article.
ANALYSIS OF STORYLINE AND FAMILY DYNAMICS:
Generally speaking, Succession is a show about bizarrely rich people fighting to maintain their immense power and control in the business world. In the family, we have Logan Roy, the family patriarch and founder of the world's 5th largest media conglomerate: Waystar Royco; Kendall Roy, the heir apparent and drug-addicted son; Siobhan Roy, the only daughter of the Roy family; Roman Roy, the immature and overly sarcastic younger sibling,; and finally, Connor Roy, the eldest son from Logan's first marriage, who doesn't seem to want anything to do with the family business. Apart from these, we also see characters like Tom Wambsgans (Siobhan's husband and Waystar associate) and Greg Hirsh (a distant cousin who is just beginning to delve into the complexities of the family).
As the name Succession already suggests, the fight for control of the multi-billion-dollar company amongst family members and close associates is intricately explored throughout the series. It is evident that, at least for the Roy children, this idea of competition and brawl for power has been instilled in them since they could walk. Logan also never appears to be a very caring or loving father, being seen in the show's opening credits, as well as within the writing, as a distant figure from which the kids desperately seek approval. This desire to be in control is in the kid's blood, and we can see this in their relationships outside the family as well. Shiv, for example, makes up for the lack of power she has in her family by "bullying" and asserting herself as more dominant than her husband Tom within their marriage. In turn, Tom starts picking on Cousin Greg and takes advantage of his newfound and “innocent” position within the family to manipulate him and assert the dominance that he lacks in his marriage. In Succession, the subplots mirror the dynamics in the main plot. Lying, manipulating, “gaslighting”, and deceiving are all ingrained in the Roys’ personalities, and are their way of getting what they want at any given time. All the games, manipulation, and repression are the reason that, whenever a character tells the truth, it hits the audience like a sucker punch to the stomach, because we all know that when the truth is told, any character may stand to lose the power they desire so badly.
Furthermore, Logan is certainly the controlling force of the entire family, and all of his children constantly fight for their positions as well as validation from their father. Siobhan, for example, falls victim to wanting to be crowned by her father as CEO, while Roman possesses the simple desire to be loved by his dad and seeks the affection he never got as a child, and Connor just wants his dad to be proud of him. It is evident that the only Roy sibling who is capable of standing up to their father and is not afraid of losing the position he has in the family company is Kendall. Kendall is a character that can be put in parallel to a Shakespearean tragic hero. He starts off as the obvious choice to succeed his father, but his flaws and addictions end up being his tragic downfall. He is a "recovered" drug addict, an absentee father, and constantly trying to find the balance between his emotions and his rank. Kendall’s character is complex in that he lives in a constant rollercoaster, sometimes feeling on top of the world, and other times at rock bottom.
Diving further into the similarities between Succession and Shakespearean plays (which has been recently brought to light), one of the most significant reasons for this comparison is the relationship between words and power seen in both works. In Shakespeare's plays, it is notable that if characters don't have any power over their language, they don't have any power at all. In contrast, characters with high rank and power speak very adeptly, mirroring their status. Characters in Shakespeare that possess high power and rank tend to follow the iambic pentameter (I know, flashbacks to English classes with Mr. Sweetman right?), as Shakespeare’s way to show they have their affairs in order. In Succession, comparably, it is evident that characters such as Roman, who is constantly fighting for his father's approval, tend to speak with more pauses and stutters, while in Logan's case, even his insults are well-crafted and brilliant to listen to. Perhaps the one of Shakespeare's plays most similar to Succession is that of King Lear, a play about a king who plans to retire and divides his kingdom among his 3 daughters who all have varying degrees of fierceness and assertiveness. (Sound familiar?). King Lear concerns itself with hierarchies, insults, and the treatment of power, much like Succession.
The writing in Succession is, let's just face it, remarkable. It is telling that most of the writers in the show were previous playwrights, hence the amount of historical allusions in the dialogue and the complexities of the characters. In its writing, the show never relies on flashbacks or elaborate backstories to identify the characters’ roots, instead providing small clues dispersed through dialogue to help viewers figure out for themselves who these characters were before Season 1, Episode 1. There are a lot of ways to write a TV show, and none of them are wrong, but in today's day and age there is something all but revolutionary about the "watch, or you'll miss it" model, and the temerity of a show that makes you actually watch it, even if you weren't paying very close attention. I, for one, sometimes find myself watching Succession on the TV while scrolling through social media on my phone, and yet, I never find myself missing out on the plot. Succession's writing and what you hear is the fundamental force that drives the story along, not necessarily its pictures or visual aspects (even though they are definitely very helpful), making the show engaging but also laid back all at once.
Succession has some of the most interesting dialogue I have ever encountered on TV and has a lot of aspects that distances itself from other dramas. Critics have said that what makes Succession's dialogue so engaging is that it perfectly balances realism and hyperrealism, as well as the vulgarity of the terms used by the characters. Characters are constantly seen throwing sassy and witty insults at each other and using profanity to a great extent. This language, combined with the pace at which the dialogue goes on, makes the show seem much less fictional and much more relatable since this over-reliance on swear words and expletives is much closer to real life than your typical, cleaned-up, suitable-for-tv, drama dialogue.
The cinematography in Succession is perhaps one of its most notable and unique features. Just like in shows like The Office and Parks & Recreation, the show is filmed in documentary style, with playful and sometimes even confusing camerawork, littered with imprecise framework, characters who block others, and the occasional awkward focus poll. Strangely, these are all things that, in the formal style of TV and film, you wouldn't expect from a show like Succession, and given its storyline and high budget, would be considered inadequate and unacceptable. Yet, these elements are not flaws but rather they are essential to the viewer experience and the audience's understanding of events.
If you were to take apart each scene in Succession, you would see that the vast majority of them are the same: 2,3, or 7 people go into a room and talk to each other about business or family-related matters. Without the camerawork, combined with the grammar and visual language employed by the directors, these scenes would be unbearingly boring, and the show in its entirety would be dry and repetitive. However, these scenes are usually captivating and exciting, and we viewers find ourselves getting engrossed in the character's dramas. Why? Well, the camera acts in a certain way that it seems as if the person behind it is taking part in the story. In a way, the camera person sits in the unconscious mind of the viewer and aids in the telling of the story through observational cinematography. Ultimately, the camera movement makes viewers feel as if they are present in the scenes and allows them to fully grasp the circumstances of the characters.
It is also important to address that, through its cinematography, Succession completely avoids the trap of displaying the characters' wealth extravagantly. Throughout the show, these characters are seen in some of the world’s most expensive vehicles, travelling to stunningly beautiful and exotic locations, and spending time in multi-million dollar estates. The directors could easily employ wide shots and panoramas of such scenes, and display the character’s billion-dollar lifestyles in the most lavish of ways, however, they shy away from that completely. The camera treats the Roys' wealth just as the Roy family does: a fact of life, just the way things are and have always been. The camera never lingers on the magnificence of their luxurious lifestyles, because their wealth isn't necessarily something to be ogled at and bragged about, it's just their everyday life. The camerawork allows for a scene of Logan on a multi-million dollar yacht to be portrayed with the same level of importance as him simply sitting in an office chair, because to them, neither one nor the other is really that big a deal. When you’re a billionaire, none of that stuff really matters.
Ironically, Succession so badly does not want to be a show about fashion that it ends up making one of the most powerful fashion statements on TV. While we might find the character's outfits basic but neutral, understated yet elegant, the truth is that every outfit worn by the characters is certainly intentional. Similarly to the cinematography of the show, the costume design makes the statement: "I'm so rich, I don't even have to tell you how rich I am". This style is otherwise known as Quiet Luxury, where seemingly basic items with plain colours and no logos cost thousands more than the same items that have luxury brand logos imprinted on them.
As part of the Roy family, you're so rich that you can just have Brunello Cucinelli (one of the world's most expensive luxury brands), and a label/logo would never indicate your power, because you already have so much of it. It is also telling that the only time we do see something a bit outside this standard for clothing is when Kendall loses his way as a character, stepping out of the family business throughout season 3, and is seen wearing somewhat flashy jewellery and clothing items. In the show, costume designers are not concerned with portraying the Roy family in flashy name brands. To them, money talks, and wealth whispers.