How “Succession” Made Us Empathize With The Worst People On Television

The Roys are criminals in their own right. And yet, we can’t help but find ourselves feeling for them.

Spoilers for Succession seasons one and two ahead. Succession season three premiered on HBO on October 17th.

Photo: HBO

As Kendall Roy made his way back to his sister Siobhan’s wedding, hiding from his family and the celebration itself, I felt a wave of anxiety wash over me. He had just crashed a car with a teenage boy inside into a lake, leaving the boy to drown.

My anxiety toward the show wasn’t for the young man who just died because of Kendall, or how Kendall would get away with it because of the enormous resources and power his family has and how the young man’s family wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. It was because I knew that this would ruin Kendall’s chances of a hostile takeover of Waystar Royco.

Wait, what is wrong with me?

I paused and tried to reevaluate how I got here. Succession was a show I debated watching for a long time, as it appeared to be one of those shows that curses as often as possible simply because HBO has allowed them. I finally gave in because of the Cousin Greg memes on Twitter and because of the show’s Emmy wins. I don’t regret starting it; the show has more family drama — albeit less violent — than Game of Thrones, and serves as a more dramatic version of Arrested Development, with characters just as deplorable.

Photo: HBO

The actors and writers both do an amazing job of making us feel for the Roys. Which is exactly my issue.

I want to stress that this issue is a good thing. Although the Roys are terrible people (more on that later), we shouldn’t watch television shows or movies or read books that have characters we agree with one-hundred percent of the time. Succession hasn’t necessarily reframed the way that I view the world or opened my third eye to class conflict in the United States, but it has provided a more contemporary example of how excellent writing can make us empathize with brutish and appalling characters.

Photo: HBO

Modeled after the Murdochs, the billionaire Roys are ostentatious, manipulative, and behind a news empire that tears democracy apart. They employ a right-wing news anchor who is a dead ringer for Tucker Carlson and cover-up multiple deaths of women on their cruise line. Ewan Roy, the brother of Logan Roy, the founder and patriarch of Waystar, argues that “in terms of the lives that will be lost by his whoring for the climate change deniers, there’s a very persuasive argument to be made that he’s worse than Hitler”.

There are plenty of ethical questions to bring up about each individual character as well: Kendall’s aforementioned Chappaquiddick, Ewan claiming to hate the Roys and their legacy yet holding a large inheritance over Greg’s head, Siobhan asking her husband Tom to have an open marriage on their wedding night, Roman avoiding taking credit for a rocket explosion that he most definitely caused, Tom ordering Greg to shred all of the paperwork regarding their cruise scandal, and Greg (yes, even our beloved Cousin Greg!) making copies of said paperwork to blackmail Tom with. That doesn’t even begin to cover Logan.

Photo: HBO

In the show’s first season, it appeared that Siobhan was the smartest of the three—four, I forgot Connor even existed — Roy children. It was hard not to root for her, as she was by far the most liberal of the family and acted as though she wanted nothing to do with the Roy name. When she started working for the show’s Bernie Sanders knock-off, however, she revealed her true nature when she asked Senator Gil Eavis if he wanted hand sanitizer after he shook the hand of one of his voters. She said it as a joke, but it reminded us that no matter how “liberal” Shiv appeared to be, she was still the child of a billionaire and only got her job because of her family name. And because of how the writers are developing the characters, Shiv certainly doesn’t appear to be smartest of the children anymore, either.

Photo: HBO

How the show deals with relationships is another part of what makes it so great. There are a number of times where Kendall and Stewie’s relationship appears to be more than friendly (the time where Stewie keeps pushing Kendall to go into the restaurant bathroom with him comes to mind). Costume designers for the show revealed that Tom’s outfits were chosen to complement Greg’s, not his wife Shiv’s. The show’s head writer, Jesse Armstrong, told The New Yorker that the writers did research into Emperor Nero and his freedman Sporus’ relationship for inspiration on Tom and Greg’s mentor/mentee relationship as well.

Roman’s sex life has intrigued viewers of the show once it was clear his playboy image was all a façade to mask his non-existent self esteem. His girlfriend, Tabitha, makes fun of him in public for not having sex with her. When he tells her to play dead so they can finally consummate their relationship, she immediately gets up and leaves. The only time Roman feels any sort of sexual pleasure is when he engages in his sadomasochistic relationship with Gerri. Their sexual relationship isn’t healthy at all, and yet many viewers are rooting for them (after some digging on Twitter, I found that they even have a ship name: GerriRoman).

Photo: HBO

Yet, again, I feel and root for (almost) all of them. Tom Wambsgans has taken on the role of the housewife in his own way. Shiv can cheat on him, not the other way around. Tom can be ridiculed at dinner with friends, Shiv cannot. Tom’s family’s economic background has never been forgotten by the Roys, as they bring up his modest Midwestern roots are brought up at any available opportunity. Even Siobhan, who was promised the crown by her father, was as just quickly tossed to the side.

When the show revealed that Logan abused his children when they were younger, it added another layer of depth to the Roy children, particularly Roman. There’s a scene where Roman teases Logan, and in a burst of anger, Logan turns and slaps him across the face. Kendall immediately jumps to Roman’s defense, yelling at his father to not touch him. Logan slaps Roman after Siobhan, not Roman, publicly called him a “dinosaur” at a press conference.

Photo: HBO

The scene is so well-written and performed that it revealed more about each character’s psyche in about a minute and a half than most shows can do in a season. First, it was Siobhan, not Roman, that called Logan a dinosaur on stage. Siobhan’s arrogance and general disregard for consequences becomes abundantly clear when she flips her hair and ignores the family when they tell her she crossed a line. It’s clear that this woman is not a leader.

Second, Logan targeting Roman for what Siobhan says shows us that Siobhan is his favorite and he views Roman as the weakest child. It’s obvious that this has happened before by the way Roman and Kendall both react. Kendall jumps to Roman’s defense, the only one not afraid to look his father in the eye and tell him to stop. Finally, we can see in real-time because of the fantastic work done by Kieran Culkin that Roman’s self of humor has always been a defense mechanism. He feels like he’s nothing, he’s treated like he’s nothing, and he acts like he does not care simply because that’s the only way he can.

Photo: HBO

I’ve played around with who should inherit Waystar Royco in my head, but each time I do, I remind myself that ideally their company wouldn’t exist. It doesn’t matter that Kendall and Roman are my favorite characters on the show. Whoever talks the crown on Succession will not only be the most powerful in the Roy family, but one of the most powerful people in this fictional America. The Roy’s news is right-wing, tears democracy apart, and, furthermore, they’re corrupt. Maybe Succession feels more like Game of Thrones than The Sopranos because the Roys are rich; at the end of the day, they’re criminals that should be treated as such.

All that being said, I’m still team Kendall.

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Logan O'Rourke

Logan O'Rourke

Global Communications Master’s Student at The American University of Paris. The Pennsylvania State University Class of 2020.