Home Featured TV Shows All TV Shows Movie Reviews Book Reviews Articles Frequently Asked Questions About Us

Series Review: Succession

“No real people involved.”

HBO’s Succession is a heady, puzzling, and possibly unsatisfying exploration of the three (no, four: I almost forgot Connor) adult children of media tycoon Logan Roy (Brian Cox) as they attempt to outmaneuver their father, their acquaintances, and each other.

A few days after I binged the first two seasons of HBO’s Succession, I met with a sane, normal colleague to discuss how to get funding for snacks for a workshop. “Okay, so if we talk to X we can frame it this way, but we have to be cautious of Y, because Z feels this way, and don’t get me started on the optics of working with A, or B, or C...” As I heard myself speak, though, I trailed off with a meek “Or, we can just ask for the money.”

“That does sound best,” said my reasonable work buddy. That’s what we did. (And we got the snacks!)

Succession had gotten to me. The constant maneuvering, the backing-and-forthing, the shifting pieces on what at first seems to be a Go board but is really just checkers played with a toddler who constantly makes the wrong move: I had gotten hooked on endless pseudo-Machiavellian pragmatism and lost sight of the basic simplicity of most human interactions.

Succession is addictive the way that the bubble-popping game on my phone is addictive: if I win I get a dopamine hit, so I keep playing. If I lose I want more dopamine, so I keep playing. The viewer’s reaction (if I can speak for all of us) mirrors the Roy family’s relationship to wealth, clout, and “the win”: they keep seeking more, bigger and better. It’s no coincidence Kendall struggled with addiction issues. The show is as addictive as wealth and as tasty as the beautiful food no one ever eats.

Its cultural impact was huge, especially if you spend time reading center-left publications (The New Yorker, Slate, etc) or haunt the leftist corners of Twitter. People, especially people who work in media, couldn’t stop talking about it. It was a driver of the current fashion trend of “quiet luxury” (shout-out to Siobhan’s incredible clothes), the subject of rampant theorizing (which always made me laugh, since Logan wins every time), and seemed to sustain some of us through lockdowns in a way I’m sure the writers appreciated and feared.

It is also a show about a media empire that critiques media in general, yet is written by people who (obviously) work in media and perhaps more importantly, participate in the consumption of social media, which lead to some really fascinating “extremely online” callouts for those of us who are also extremely online, like casting Dasha Nekrasova, host of the dirtbag-left/really-alt-right podcast Red Scare, as a secondary character in the third season, or using lines from protest signs that went viral (“Medicare for All, Abortion for None”) to describe the presidential candidate Jeryd Mencken, who is what Josh Hawley wants to be. It is a show written by, and enjoyed by, people who tweet “Eat the Rich!” from their iPhones as their HBO subscription auto-renews on their maxed-out credit cards.

Creator Jesse Armstrong has an extensive portfolio, but to me the most important text in his back catalog is the Black Mirror episode “The Entire History of You,” in which near-future technology allows us to replay all of our experiences, leading to an inevitable downward spiral of neurotic attempts to re-do, re-think, and repeat circumstances. Jesse Armstrong might just be devoted to demonstrating Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

But if Black Mirror is a vicious satire of technology and neuroticism, Succession is less easy to categorize. I’m tempted to call it a comedy, because the main characters fit neatly into the character types that have been around since the days of ancient Rome, and because the pure repetition of the wheeling-and-dealing evokes Henri Bergsson’s notion of automatism, in which comedy occurs when we are most like a malfunctioning machine. It even has a catchphrase: Logan’s iconic, automatic response to encountering adversity: “Fuck off!”

It is also a family drama. Those automaton billionaires are trapped in a terrible cycle of power, unaware that there are other ways to live. They can’t seem to realize that they have enough—more than enough—and can just, like, get a hobby. Kendall (Jeremy Strong) desperately wants to be the man his father is, but can’t pull it off. Siobhan (Sarah Snook) seems like the most relatable character, but that’s probably only because she thinks, and we might think, that she stands slightly apart from it, with her wry glances and allegedly liberal outlook. Poor Roman (Kieran Culkin) desperately needs to go to a therapist. None of them resolve any part of their issues over the course of the four seasons.

(Oh, dear. I forgot Connor again. Well, you know how he is.)

For me, the most terrifying characters were Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) and Greg (Nicholas Braun), because they chose that life and fought to keep it. Tom wants money and power. Greg has no idea what he wants, until he encounters money and power, and then he wants it, too. He wants it so badly that he asks Tom, his mentor/tormentor, if someday he can have a Greg, too. Someone else to treat badly, blackmail, and train in the art of eating songbirds. Because that is when he will know he has made it.

In the third season episode “Chiantishire,” at a wedding, Tom and Shiv talk about their own marriage, and Tom asks Shiv if she loves him. “I love you, but I don’t love you,” she responds. In that moment, my heart broke for Tom. By the end of the last season, I hated him, because he could have truthfully said the same to Shiv. He loved her money, and her proximity to power, more than he loved her. He’s like an F. Scott Fitzgerald character who pushed past his inevitable disillusionment in a shocking second act to realize that he can play this game, and win. It’s no coincidence Tom is from St. Paul, Minnesota, too.

But that focus on wealth and power—specifically power, since no one on this show seems to worry about losing their money—makes Succession more than a comedy or a drama. To steal a line from Kendall himself in the fourth-season episode “Living+”: “It’s enough to make you lose your faith in capitalism.” That was in response to him demanding that his accountants fudge the numbers on a shady deal he was trying to push to investors, but it also acts as a mission statement for the show.

In a Substack newsletter, Matt Dinan described the show’s “moral and political intention” as the argument that “the billionaire class, if it is to persist, at the very least shouldn’t be in charge because the love of money is so abstract as to be indistinguishable from nihilism.”

This is, I think, true. True of the show, and true of how we ought to think about greed and what it costs everyone. The Roys’ tendency to describe some situations as NRPI (“no real people involved”—that is, nobody who matters) shows exactly how nihilism and wealth intertwine.

But this perspective, which is often more pithily summed up on social media as “Eat the Rich!”, can often devolve into greed of its own. The show is, like all shows on HBO, gorgeous. The sets are elegant. The clothes are tantalizing. The food, which (I’ll say it again) almost nobody ever eats, looks really tasty. Succession does for wealth what Peaky Blinders did for violence: tell us that something is bad, and then giving it to us in its most glamorous form.

That does not make it bad TV. It is very good TV. But Succession is not a substitute for more meaningful assessments of the issues at stake, which the show only partially portrays, and does not remotely solve. It has pretensions to being a scathing cultural critique, but really just gives us luxury porn and luxury problems. (No real people involved!) The luxury is aspirational, but since we also know we can only aspire rather than attain, we want to take what they have, like a child who would smash the checkers board rather than let anyone win, which might make us as bad as Tom and Greg, who started off as real people and became something much worse.

It may sound like I expected too much from the show, but I think my discontent is with how glowingly the show has been received, as though it perfectly distills our current political moment. Or, maybe, I am upset that it does seem to perfectly distill our political moment. Perhaps I can best explain my struggle with the show with a Russian parable adapted from Adam Hochschild’s introduction to Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary, which kept coming to mind as I procrastinated about writing this review:

One day, a woman in her apartment hears a protest outside. She sends her daughter downstairs to see what is happening. Her daughter returns, and says, “Mama, they’re on the street saying that nobody should be rich!”

“Ah,” says her mother. “In my day, they said that nobody should be poor.”

Three out of four Alexander Skarsgårds.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


  1. Thanks for your insightful review. You have convinced me the show is not for me.

  2. Josie, I've been so looking forward to your review, and you never disappoint. I binge-watched the entire series as the final season was running, and it kept reminding me of how we all feel if we eat too much candy all at once. (Maybe like I was stuffing myself with all of the fancy, gorgeous food the characters were never eating, delicious but ultimately unsatisfying.)

    At the start, I found both Tom and Greg so amusing, and the way it ended with them was just sickening. I really wanted Greg in particular to be the character to root for. I wanted him to see them all for what they were and to decide it wasn't for him. Like his grandfather, played by the marvelous James Cromwell. But no.

    The character that intrigued me the most was Roman. As you said, in desperate need of a therapist, he was so unlikeable but so desperate for his father to love him.

    I doubt I'll ever rewatch Succession, but it was intriguing, and I'm not sorry I watched it. It was just exceptionally well-written and well-acted, and I thought it ended the way it should have ended.

    A difficult show to review, for sure. Thank you, Josie.

  3. I have never been drawn to watch Succession. I haven’t read any reviews. Is it bad that I just carefully read this whole review because the 3 out of 4 Alexander Skarsgards caught my attention? Lol. I’m a fan since Tarzan and I loved his dad in Andor.

    1. Mage, there is no shame. He doesn't feature in the show until the end of the third season, but he's a delight.

  4. Great review. I started watching in the first season before the show was so hyped, so I can see someone’s being disappointed going into it with such high expectations. It’s a great show, but not exceptional and I found it’s better to watch in bite size portions rather than binging entire seasons at once. I’m happy they got to end the show on their terms rather than dragging it out.

    1. Miguel, since I started watching it around the time the second season ended, I think it was a combination of expectations and the discourse surrounding the show as it aired.

      After the first few episodes of the fourth season, I almost decided to quit the show after a conversation with a friend in which we realized how little forward progress any character makes. Billie emailed me the next day to ask if I'd be interested in reviewing it, and I'm glad she convinced me to stick with it. :-)

  5. Also, recently finished. Also, a guilty pleasure. It's ridiculously well-made and the performances are to die for, but it also happens to be gleefully meandering. It was fun, but kinda irritating.


We love comments! We moderate because of spam and trolls, but don't let that stop you! It’s never too late to comment on an old show, but please don’t spoil future episodes for newbies.