The racing pulse of HBO’s prestige hit Succession is the emotional whiplash of unresolved family abuse. By Sarah Krasnostein.
Francisco Goya’s untitled Black Paintings were cut from the walls of his home after his death and transferred to canvases that hang today in the world’s finest art museums. The bleakest may be Saturn Devouring His Son (c. 1819-1823).
Hesiod recounted how Saturn/Kronos, envious of his father’s power, castrated him before trying to outfox his own foretold fate – that he’d be similarly overthrown – by eating his offspring so “no other of the proud sons of Heaven should hold the kingly office amongst the deathless gods”. Watching the fearsome patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox) drain the life out of his children across four seasons of Succession brought to mind Goya’s rendering of that ravening giant, eyes stretched desperately wide as his fists bring the headless body of his adult child to his mouth.
Premiering in 2018, Jesse Armstrong’s Succession follows the Roy family – who own media conglomerate Waystar Royco dominated by the ageing, Murdochiavellian Logan – as the children jockey for position, together with the partners, employees and hangers-on who orbit them like lesser planets.
We are introduced to Logan as he’ll be remembered in the end: through his distressing impact on the nervous systems of those he pretends to protect. Opening on his 80th birthday, his children dance over eggshells at a gathering that feels less like a celebration and more like a ritualised sacrifice for propitiating an angry god. When Logan’s health plummets, they are jerked out of fawning and resentment and sent spiralling into the bewildered panic of a younger age. This emotional whiplash – a tell of internalised gaslighting following abuse and neglect – is the racing pulse of the show.
As Logan recovers, his children’s stunted trajectories become harder for them to rationalise. The result is a brilliantly scored, allusion-rich tragicomic drama of Shakespearean depth staged in cloistered interiors and expensive expanses, framed with the technical skill of the Dutch masters. “This whole family is a nest of vipers,” Logan’s estranged brother observes before making a sensible retreat. “They’ll wrap themselves around you and they’ll suffocate you.”
Frequently filmed at Elysian altitude in jets, helicopters and skyscrapers, blame-shifting Logan is rat cunning and brute force poured into perfectly starched shirts. Stunningly inflexible, he’s a constant transmitter of Harvard psychologist Craig Malkin’s “three Es” of pathological narcissism: exploitation, entitlement and empathy impairment. Scars on Logan’s back indicate his parents’ failure to protect him: early traumas that explain his rigidly defensive organisation around shame. His children’s scars are no less visible for not being physical.
The wealthy Roy kids were raised in emotional poverty. As paterfamilias, Logan alternates between iceberg and incinerator. His first wife was institutionalised. His second, Caroline (Harriet Walter), mother to three of his children, is manipulative and dismissive, absent even when present. Their self-centred, stonewalling stepmother, Marcia (Hiam Abbass), his third wife, is overtly demure and covertly cruel, demonstrating both the personality eager to labour for powerful men such as Logan and why the wicked stepmother is an archetype in folklore.
Succession’s superior storytelling rests on unerring character observation. As psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas once wrote, “character is the trace of relationship”. Built for connection, we can bury parts of ourselves in attempting to maintain relationships with those who are morbidly alienated from parts of themselves. Embroidered into the personality structure of each Roy is the unaddressed pain inflicted by other Roys.
Connor (Alan Ruck), the eldest, deludes himself that he’s above corporate life from the distance of his ranch. He busily channels his powerlessness and grandiosity into an obsession with Napoleonic history and presidential politics. Connor’s capacity for violence is particularly insidious because his self-image demands its disavowal.
Next is heir apparent Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Logan’s eldest from his second marriage. Kendall’s insight isn’t entirely dimmed: at one point he whispers, “Another life is possible”. However he lacks fuel for that journey, because his resentment doesn’t burn as cleanly as the righteous rage required to truly escape the strangling family system.
Roman (a luminous Kieran Culkin) is the youngest in personality, though not in age. A volatile, self-loathing jumble of conflicting parts and unrealised potential, he refers early on to his borderline personality disorder. Last is slick-talking Siobhan “Shiv” Roy (Australian Sarah Snook), the baby who learnt it was safer not to see or feel too much. Keeling between cynicism and gullibility, Shiv breaks from Waystar before Logan, Godfather-style, pulls her back in.
Damage is relational – but so is healing. While the Roys don’t lack optimism, they are short on reasons for it. Logan values the optics of idealised love – hence his well-paid wife and fatherly photo ops. Away from that pantomime, each kid takes their turn luxuriating in his fleeting warmth when idealised as the Golden Child (“You’re my No. 1!”) before they’re demonised and discarded as the Scapegoat (“You’re a fucking nobody!”). The superb scripts and acting portray Logan and his love-starved adult children as insecurely attached individuals: each wounded in their own way but all lacking the confidence that marks what the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott termed “good-enough parenting”. Such confidence has nothing to do with outward bolshiness and everything to do with the inner sturdiness of learning through accumulated experience that one is inherently worthy of love and trust.
Logan is more real to us than his children are to him, and to themselves. “You’re not a real person,” an enraged Kendall spits at Roman. Winnicott taught that we are loved into “realness”. Raised in unstable environments where belonging was as transactional as a share purchase and “everything [was] always moving” in relation to Logan’s insatiable appetite for ego supply, the Roys lack integrity, self-compassion, empathy, true competence and the courage to withstand the vulnerability required to sustain intimacy. They fight over scraps of power and profit, addicted to the impossible dream of finally receiving their father’s approval. The greatest tragedy in a show thick with them is how that avoidant optimism prevents them from healing. Nothing changes, so nothing changes.
Perhaps more damaging than Logan’s dysregulated rage is his boredom when his kids aren’t performing. Razor sharp when it benefits him, he’s capable of the intellectual empathy that makes him an effective manipulator. Emotional empathy is another matter. Some of psychology’s most unsettling debates concern whether narcissistic pathology can be treated, given the narcissist’s limited access to the vulnerability required for change.
Brian Cox has maintained in interviews that Logan loves his children. His character would insist likewise. To the degree that may be true, it’s love in the smallest sense – a fleeting and private experience. If Logan could truly love, he would probably love his kids – and that’s as much safety as they’ll find with him. They continue showing up at the butcher for bread, knowing they’ll be annihilated but also unknowing it – or tidily blaming themselves or each other – to preserve the childlike hope that their loving father will imminently arrive.
The baroque permutations of this simple hope – and the aftermath of its evaporation with Logan’s death – is the show’s genius. Succession is so distractingly funny, propulsive and dense in detail that it’s easy to overlook the fact it is a flat circle. While many wild turns are taken in the corporate labyrinths, the story boils down to the endlessly repeating past pulverising the possibilities of the present.
Freud observed that repressed pain presents “not as memory but as action”, the patient compulsively re-enacting their unaddressed trauma in a futile attempt at better resolution. Maybe this explosion will make Logan feel safer on the earth. Maybe this time Dad can be trusted. But what is denied cannot be healed and what is unexamined will be repeated.
Goya’s painting evokes the monstrosity of the narcissistic abuser so effectively one is therapeutically shocked at realising how small it actually is. Likewise for Logan Roy, who is never more than the “hollow king” that is the meaning of his name.
Succession’s majestic arc is undeniable. This tale of a single dynasty suggests another reading of Goya’s alarming image: the ways we’re all force-fed the fears of others. From the damage wrought by corporate irresponsibility to the dangers of marketing bigotry as “news”, this show gestures towards the countless victims of the unexamined personal pain that radiates outward from too many kingly offices. So goes the succession of trauma down the generational line.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 27, 2023 as "Devouring the kids".
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