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Succession: Corporate Culture and Family Dysfunction
Lots of spoilers below -- skip this newsletter if you haven't seen the finale!
I came to Succession late. In my first attempt to watch it, I was completely put off by the slew of unlikeable characters from utterly cruel Logan Roy to the insecurities of children Kendall, Shiv, and Roman (sorry Connor, but you’re a peripheral character) to the utterly unserious and manipulative Tom. I was an early fan of Cousin Greg and Uncle Ewan.
But after all the social media and broadcast raving about the show and my own FOMO, I decided to give it another chance. It’s not that any of the characters changed dramatically over 39 episodes (well, except Logan because he died).
When we meet Kendall Roy in the opening episode, he is demonstrating his high-achieving, tech-bro, take-no-prisoners approach to acquisitions. He is also awaiting a gala in which is father, media and entertainment mogul Logan Roy, is about to announce his retirement from active leadership of the company he built. Kendall is ready to take the reins. But Logan surprises everyone by announcing he’s not retiring, leaving Kendall devastated. That pattern repeats throughout the series, even after Logan has passed.
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The series has its roots in combining the central themes of King Lear with a mashup of the Murdoch empire, Disney parks, and Carnival cruises. But the corporate dynamics are merely the device to play out the Lear themes (Roi is french for King, after all). I don’t think I’ve ever made it all the way through a presentation of Lear — the pain in playing the children against each other is just too hard. I’ll come back to these family dynamics after some thoughts about the corporate culture shown in Succession.
As I said, in the first episode Kendall is trying to acquire a startup that shows promise. It’s not clear why Kendall needs this company or how it fits the Waystar Royco model, but then there isn’t a lot tying the various components of the empire together. Acquisition is just what you do to move the share price. (On my previous blog, I extolled books by Bryan Alexander on the impact of corporate raiding on manufacturing and health care).
Corporate leaders are characterized by egomania and narcissism. As the great Texas governor Ann Richards claimed of GHW Bush, “He was born on third base and thought he hit a triple”. Throughout the series, the leaders expect success and acclaim not because of what they’ve done but simply because of who they are. We see this every time Kendall is about to make one of his overly-confident-hiding-fear business speeches (a la Tim Cook at Apple). We see it in Roman’s abysmal movie launch. We see it in Shiv’s partner-then-husband Tom Wambsgan1 as he bluffs his way through investigations of a cruise business cover up. We see it in Shiv’s belief that she can become the US leader of the GoJo merger. We see it in Mattson (a mashup of Musk, and Zuckerberg) and his nothing-even-matters approach to the world. As the siblings are tying to take leadership from Logan at the end of season three, the father says of his children, “You are not serious people.” In fact, none of them are serious people.2 Or, as Roman says at the end of last night’s climatic scene between the three siblings, “We’re all bullshit.” He may have been talking just about the three of them, but I think he was speaking more broadly.3
But underneath all of this corporate game playing, just like in Lear, is the family drama. Connor, the oldest from the first rarely mentioned marriage, is not serious and never taken seriously in his libertarian run for president or for much of anything else. We heard throughout the series that Logan played his children off one another. This was underscored last night when the siblings swap stories about being promised the company: Roman had been told shortly before Logan died, Shiv had been told in a private meeting in season three, and Kendall was told when he was seven! In the same way future leadership of the company was always uncertain, so was their father’s withheld emotional support4.
Throughout the series, we learn of the ways that Kendall tortured Roman5 (putting him in the dog crate and making him eat dog food), of how Shiv was raised as a “princess”, and of Roman’s patterns of sexual harassment. The interactions among the siblings are full of jibes and F-bombs and feigned displays of support. The episode where Logan dies is remarkable in the ways they attempt to provide support to one another while lacking the emotional wherewithal to do so. This contrasts with the one-ups-manship that happens at the funeral.
But their freighted relationship really became clear in the finale. Gathered together at their mother’s place in Barbados, they agree that they will band together to get the board to block the GoJo sale. After a long discussion, they agree that Kendall should become CEO of Waystar Royco. What follows is a remarkable scene in the kitchen where they make a disgusting drink for Kendall, honoring him as the new king. It is the first time in the series where they are acting like siblings. Even in the midst of the hazing ritual, we got a glimpse of what their real relationship might have been like if not for their father’s games and the corporate culture.
That scene stands in stark contrast to the climactic one mentioned above. As they are in the board meeting where they can block the GoJo sale and take over Logan’s company, the vote on the deal is tied only awaiting Shiv’s vote. She leaves for an adjacent room, followed by Kendall and Roman. After a heated and personal conversation, Shiv confirms that she will vote yes on the takeover. She knows that Tom will take the CEO role she wanted but I think she knows what becoming CEO would do to Kendall. It would feed his worst impulses in ways that could destroy him.
We see Kendall in the very last scene looking at the water in the Hudson (there had been hints of suicide by drowning in earlier episodes). But he mostly looks lost, having been blocked from the one thing he hoped for his entire life. He still has boatloads of family money, but not the recognition from his late father or from his peers that he some deeply desired.
“Succession” can be thought of as a successful transition. After four seasons, the outcome for the Roy family is neither successful nor a generational transition. As the producer and writer said in the after episode interviews, this was always an unfolding tragedy.
One hopes that we take those lessons to heart.
Tom’s abusive treatment of Cousin Greg is particularly egregious. Greg wants to be on the inside so has to put up with Tom’s awful treatment (because as we learned last night, he was getting $200K for the privilege).
The old guard of Karl, Frank, Geri, and Hugo may have been serious in the past, but they’ve been giving in to leadership whims for so long, it’s hard for them to see how much they’ve compromised.
His last scene drinking a martini at the bar seems to suggest that he was done playing the role.
We learned about some of the causes in Ewan’s eulogy at Logan’s funeral.
The scene where Kendall hugs Roman with such vigor that Roman’s stitches break open is very troubling because it looked like Kendall knew exactly what he was doing.