“You Are Not Serious People”:  On Succession‘s Resonant Satire

Photo: Claudette Barius/HBO

In Succession’s final scene, we follow Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) through Battery Park. The trees have lost their leaves; their skeletal limbs bathed in golden light. Kendall’s face is pallid in the setting sun’s glow as he looks out toward the icy Hudson River. The Statue of Liberty stands blurred in the distance. His father’s bodyguard watches over him, a black-clad, ghostly reminder of Kendall’s inescapable past. He is shell-shocked. Not only has he failed to become Waystar Royco’s CEO, he is haunted by the lengths he has gone to in his attempt to secure the role. It’s the perfect conclusion to a series that scrutinized the ultra-rich and the power that they hold. 

There are some television shows that dominate cultural discourse so thoroughly that they’re difficult to ignore. I’ll admit that I was initially uninterested in watching Succession. Why would I want to spend my time with an obscenely rich family that profits off its fear-mongering media empire? The first season came and went, memes dominating my social media feeds, but I didn’t give the show a chance until the second season was set to air. From the first episode, I was won over by Jesse Armstrong’s satirical portrait of the absurdly wealthy. I devoured the first season and eagerly awaited the next. Like the answer to “Who killed Laura Palmer?” it became clear that the answer to “Who will succeed Logan Roy?” was less important than the characters it cast a light upon. The show’s cyclical treachery churned like a dizzying ouroboros of late capitalism, which could sometimes frustrate, so it felt right to conclude the show in its fourth season. Looking back from the cusp of a new year—newsrooms gutted, another election looming, and the ultra-rich profiting—Succession’s acid satire burns deeper than ever. 

If satire is powered by exaggeration, Succession rarely lifted its foot off the pedal. Still reeling from betrayals that upended their plans to wrest power from their father, the fourth season began with the extravagantly obtuse idea that Kendall, Roman (Kieran Culkin), and Shiv (Sarah Snook) could form a rival platform: The Hundred. But as quickly as a lofty pitch deck appeared for the Frankenstein media hub that Kendall described as “Substack-meets-Masterclass-meets-The Economist-meets-The-New Yorker,” they dropped it. Another shinier, less labor-intensive option for taking revenge on their father Logan (Brian Cox) beckoned. There’s humor in the sharp turn, but also a sting in knowing that these ego-driven ventures can easily come to fruition while established newsrooms struggle to survive. Increasingly, hedge funds determine the fate of local newspapers, with an average of two closing per week in the current landscape. As I wrote this essay, journalists at the Washington Post (owned by Jeff Bezos, whose net worth is an estimated $174 billion) walked out to protest staff cuts, insufficient buyout offers, and the company’s failure to offer pay raises to keep up with inflation. I couldn’t help but think of Logan’s ATN speech, and his aim to build “something faster, lighter, leaner, wilder” to cut the throats of his competition. Logan sacrificed his humanity for the all-mighty dollar, and yet, his death is ultimately a blip—a temporary dip in stock prices that Roman displays on his phone (“There he is. That is dad,” he says). He will be replaced and business will go on as usual.  

In the second episode of Succession’s final season, Logan delivers perhaps the most illuminating line of the entire show: “I love you, but you are not serious people.” The Roy kids were not serious people; they were knotty and embarrassingly human. No one was immune to cringe-inducing, out-of-touch missteps, fueled by a society and tax bracket that refused to tell them no. But there were also scenes where a more primal humanity collided with their privileges. Even as she stood aboard an opulent yacht, I couldn’t help but be moved by Shiv’s shaking hands as she struggled to hold a phone and speak to her dying father, repeating “I love you” while the shock of the moment shot through her. Although Roman practiced his eulogy while wandering around his penthouse with panoramic views of New York, I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for him when he fell apart at his father’s funeral. Each Roy child cracks under the pressure of grief. To sidestep these moments would render the Roys, and those in their orbit, caricatures—less grounded in reality, thereby dulling the sharp stick of satire. But the show’s writers never let sympathy overstay its welcome. Logan’s body is still warm when concerns about “the market” and who will become the new Waystar CEO arise, blotting out our commiseration; we’re brought right back to where we were before. It was in this balance—where characters were allowed to be complicated, but were never in a position where ridicule feels out of place—that made Succession so damn compelling and its satire so effective.

These moments of humanity teased the possibility of change, a hope that the Roys could interact differently with the world and each other. The tragedy in this particular tragicomedy is that they did not and never will. Dramatic events could not break the vicious cycle. What really changed after Kendall caused a man’s death in the show’s first season? Besides interludes of guilt masterfully played by Jeremy Strong, there were few repercussions.  Kendall struggled internally, and we felt for him when he once again turned to vices to anesthetize his anguish, but all he could think to do was to quietly slip money to the bereaved family. In the end, he denies the entire incident in a transparently manipulative attempt to win Shiv’s vote in the show’s finale. Even Roman’s funeral breakdown, an opportunity to address genuine emotional turmoil, is used as evidence that he is unfit to become CEO. Just as we are brought to the edge of sympathy, we are lasso-ed back to the stark reality of how the ultra-rich operate when the “win” is always the end goal. 

I don’t believe that a neat emotional journey must be experienced to admire or connect to art, nor do I prescribe to the notion that a narrative must offer a likable protagonist or a character we are patently meant to root for. Succession made clear that rooting for any of these people was a mistake. If we hope that a billionaire profiting off fear-mongering will have a change of heart and do the right thing, disappointment is waiting just around the corner. Yet social media continued to be fueled by various factions—“Team Kendall,” “Team Shiv,” and so on. It reminded me of the adoration for Tyler Durden as some viewers missed the point of David Fincher’s Fight Club. While some of Durden’s criticisms of capitalism weren’t completely off the mark, his reasoning and over-simplified non-solutions are key to understanding why he is not someone to emulate. It’s why his “real” self eventually rejected that part of him in favor of meaningful human connection. 

Maybe it was the superficial appeal of Durden’s nihilistic approach to life that led to misinterpretation. The Roy family roused a surface-level allure as well; their immense wealth inspired articles examining “stealth wealth” and the multi-million-dollar properties that stood in for the Roys’ residences. Popular Instagram accounts identified Kendall’s logo-less $600 Loro Piana baseball cap and $200,000 Richard Mille wristwatch for followers to covet. Media fed our fascination with the Roys’ immense wealth and privilege, but when we look deeper, the veneer of their “enviable” lives crumble and a cognitive dissonance creeps in. The Roys were constantly moving from place to place, though no location ever felt like a home in the true sense of the word. Self-interest continually trumped family bonds, and they were otherwise friendless. Stewy (Arian Moayed) was a cardboard cutout version of a buddy to Kendall, but their essential connection was business. Logan called his bodyguard his “pal” when, really, he was only a paid employee. The Roys could jet off to sunny locales whenever they wished and dine in expensive restaurants nightly, but there was little to no joy to be found when it really mattered. There was always some inter-family-cum-stockholder drama to contend with or an ego to soothe. 

The Roys’ acute unseriousness is reflected in how they see themselves as well. Kendall believes he is a cunning disruptor. Shiv thinks she possesses stealth maneuvering skills that she can then parlay into running the family business. Roman fashions himself an “edgy” contrarian. And eldest sibling Connor (Alan Ruck) imagines himself as a maverick presidential contender. It’s all surface and no substance, and it’s eerily familiar in our modern landscape. Kendall and Roman share similarities with billionaire Rupert Murdoch’s sons Lachlan and James (although, unlike Kendall, Lachlan can accurately claim to be “the eldest boy” and managed to land a CEO spot in his father’s media empire). Likewise, Shiv’s more progressive leanings could be connected to Elisabeth Murdoch, while Connor’s position in the family corresponds to half-sister Prudence Murdoch (with a little rich-kid libertarianism thrown in). The Roys’ attempts to distinguish themselves entertain, but the jokes land harder when these screen specters arise in real life and their power becomes clear. Lachlan Murdoch, for example, once set up his own investment firm, but eventually returned to the family business where he is now the executive chair and CEO of the mass media Fox Corporation, which includes Fox News—an organization facing multiple lawsuits related to its role in spreading misinformation during the 2020 presidential election.

As viewers, it was easy to become so ensconced in the Roy family’s dramas that we were rarely reminded why these kids wanted so badly to succeed their father. What would the crown offer them? They already have money and power. Did they crave love, or was it all part of seeing the world in terms of acquisition? (Certainly, in the exaggerated corporate language that poisoned their relationships—who can forget Tom [Matthew Macfayden] and Shiv’s “love portfolio”—their idea of love was deranged from the start.) After vying for “wins” for so long they became enamored with the fight itself. Did the Roy children want the top spot for any other reason than that their siblings wanted the same? Rather than believing they were right for the job, they acted on mimetic desire that stoked sibling rivalries, recklessly threatening the empire they were after. Speaking of his own children, Rupert Murdoch once said, “If the kids fought hard enough, the whole thing would break down.”

That Logan’s inevitable death occurred largely offscreen is a stark reminder of mortality lashed upon a character that moved through the world as though he was untouchable. In that vein of impermanence, what the Roys desperately aspired to hold onto will surely one day be consumed by another larger, richer machine. It’s one reason why the Roy kids reacted so strongly to Lukas Matsson’s (Alexander Skarsgård) aggressive power moves to buy out their company. He stood as a threat to their sense of entitlement and to the notion that their money made them immune to any unpleasantness. Matsson insulted Kendall’s team, calling them a “tribute band” at the Norwegian retreat to discuss the GoJo sale, and reacted to Roman’s mountaintop tirade with a smirk. He had no respect for the Roy kids, and he didn’t hide it. A viewer might be tempted to see this in terms of comeuppance for the ultrawealthy Roys, but the contentious GoJo deal was merely a minor exchange of wealth from one privileged group to another. Matsson was another variety of the same, more self-styled tech-bro than old-school wealth, but similarly corrupted by power. Likewise, the left-leaning Pierce Global Media contrasted the right-leaning Waystar brand in its politics, but Nan Pierce (Cherry Jones) was willing to entertain the idea of a buyout when the money was significant enough to entice. 

Succession satirized how power corrupts absolutely, including those outside of the Roy bloodline and further down the pyramid of wealth, which the Roys, the Pierces, and the Matssons of the world sit atop. Tom and Greg (Nicholas Braun) had further to climb, although family connections and marriage enabled the prospect of ascent. Tom’s intentions when marrying Shiv were debated by viewers and characters on the show alike, but his shifting allegiances left us with little doubt about his priorities. Similarly, Greg’s bumbling didn’t obscure his ambitions. Although Tom never stopped toying with Greg (forging one of the best comic duos ever put to screen), by the concluding season, Tom and Greg had become more forthright in their ruthlessness. Greg happily accepted Tom’s “deal with the devil” to betray Shiv, Kendall, and Roman’s plans to overthrow Logan at the end of season three, though he then goes on to leak information to Kendall for his own benefit in the next season. The shaky “Disgusting Brothers” alliance can’t compete with their own soulless, selfish aims. As Greg said when accepting Tom’s devilish offer, “What am I gonna do with a soul anyways?” Still, even as Tom emerged the victor, as far as the vaunted Waystar title goes, we understand that he will essentially function as a puppet for someone wealthier and more powerful.

The show also skewered not only extreme wealth, but jabbed at the “American Dream”—a phrase that has become an increasingly hollow political talking point. In the heightened world of Succession, meritocracy is a joke; nepotism and money rule. Logan Roy’s rise was an outdated narrative that came at a heavy cost; it begat a cancerous legacy for others to claim as their birthright. The Roys’ place in this contemptible hierarchy is made clear from the very beginning. Although Roman’s crass insults often entertained, it was impossible to forget how he humiliated a little boy by offering him a million dollars if he hit a homerun, and then ripped up the check as he laughed in the kid’s face. The examples were never subtle. We know who these people are. 

Succession’s satire was always a hard pinch rather than a wink. It placed a magnifying glass on those in positions of power, and in doing so, it questioned our perceptions of the powerful.

After the promise of the show’s title was resolved in the final episode, the show ended with a nearly wordless epilogue: Shiv and Tom driven away (limp hands touching in a sad substitute for hand-holding), Roman sitting alone at a bar, Connor in his father’s apartment with a wife who doesn’t love him, and Kendall staring into the void. All the Roy children are left with in these moments is money, not love or anything of substance or meaning. To feel that some justice was served would be to forget all that came before, and risk viewing the show as a tidy moral tale that ends up insulating us from our reality—a reality where the vast majority of bankers escaped jail time for deceitful and unlawful practices spawned the 2008 financial crisis, and billionaire Mark Zuckerberg can settle for a fraction of an expected fine for mishandling data that could be used to target and influence voters. The ultra-rich live by a different set of rules, and Succession never failed to remind us that these characters would likely return to a warped state of contentedness facilitated by their exorbitant wealth. In a bold but apt move, the issue of the election outcome, a season four storyline that echoed vote counting issues à la Bush v. Gore, was never resolved. For the Roys, it wouldn’t matter who won; they wouldn’t be the ones who suffered. A lack of catharsis weighs heavy, and the show (and viewers) are better for it, as painful as the truth may be.