Unreal People in a Hyperreal WorldThe Empty Rich of ‘Succession’
Mic Wright unpicks the attraction by repulsion of the hit HBO/Sky Atlantic drama, partly inspired by the Murdochs, but wonders whether it gives solace to the super-rich
The four most important words in the HBO/Sky Atlantic series Succession make up the grotesquely dismissive phrase used for those individuals hurt or killed in the unspooling Waystar Royco cruise line scandal: “No real person involved.”
In the penultimate episode of Season 2 (‘DC’), the central players in the Roy family – Murdoch analogues, led by monstrous patriarch Logan (Brian Cox) – which controls Waystar Royco, and some of the attendant figures in their corporate court gather to watch a TV interview with the whistleblower James Weisel.
The journalist asks Weisel: “What does ‘incident NRPI’ mean?”
“No real person involved,” Wiesel responds. “That means it’s a sex worker or a migrant worker at a foreign port, not involving a guest or a permanent member of staff.”
This is the moment at which Logan explodes in one of his now-familiar bouts of rage (“I can’t watch any more of this fucking bullshit”) and throws the remote to Kendall, the broken eldest son who oscillates between betrayal and desperate child-like requests for validation.
Everyone in Succession is miserable. The only moments of joy come from someone else’s suffering.
It is the return of that phrase — “No real person involved” — in the season finale (‘This Is Not For Tears’), this time coming out of Logan’s mouth to describe the waiter killed by Kendall in a Chappaquiddick-echoing accident at the end of Season 1, that seems to trigger Logan’s submissive son into action.
By the end of that episode, Kendall is on television, just as Weisel was, declaring his father to be a “malignant presence, a bully and a liar” and that “this is the day his reign ends”, refusing to be the “blood sacrifice” Logan had demanded. And Logan? As he watches this unfold, once again mediated through a TV screen, we see a smile on his face. His son, who he had earlier dismissed as “not a killer”, has wielded the knife and shown himself to be real.
The divide between “real people” and the NRPI class is at the heart of Succession. Each character – Logan included – has two faces; the human one that we occasionally glimpse in moments of extreme stress and pain: the wounded animal cornered, and the monstrous creation. Logan has made each of his children – the pitiful yet boasting Kendall, the sexually dysfunctional Roman, the outwardly strong but inwardly brittle Shiv, and the empty shirt Connor trying to buy himself through a presidential run (as Roman says: “Do you think that’s, like, a natural progression from never done nothing never to most important job in the world? Like, could you maybe get a little experience, at like a CVS?”) – unreal.
The New York Times’ television critic, James Poniewozik – who has had the privilege of watching ahead while the rest of us make do with an episode a week – writes that later in Season 3, Kendall tells Roman: “You’re not a real person.” It’s a more stinging insult than the baroque abuse the show tends to specialise in.
One of the central themes of Succession is that despite Kendall’s claim to his sort-of girlfriend Naomi Pierce – the scion of another billionaire media family whose business Logan has been trying to acquire – that “money is freedom”, it is, as the old cliche goes, a golden cage.
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The rich of Succession are beyond the “careless people” of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby. The rest of that famous Fitzgerald quote reads: “… they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
But where the Roys retreat to contains only more mess. Money doesn’t fix anything because it is so plentiful that it has become tokens in “the game” to which Logan so often refers. It is all a game and every member of the family as well as anyone entering their orbit becomes a player. Look at how Cousin Greg has gone from pot-smoking screwup vomiting from the eyes of a theme park character suit to a soft-spoken blackmailer.
Despite its almost peerless dialogue, expensive production values, and excellent acting, Succession is, at its heart, a soap opera. It is a family story of cruelty, cliffhangers, and romantic betrayal. But where it differs from the ‘rich people suffering’ sagas of the 70s and 80s like Dallas and Dynasty, or even more high-end movie morality tales about money like Wall Street or The Wolf of Wall Street, is that there is nothing to be jealous of, no vicarious fun to gawp at. Everyone in Succession is miserable. The only moments of joy come from someone else’s suffering.
And that’s why, despite my love for the show, I suspect it’s rather a good thing for the real super-rich. It leaves you thinking that to be so wealthy must feel like being under a genie’s curse, the gold you wished for filling up your mouth until you choke.
Succession needs you to feel pity for the Roys even at the most monstrous. But that pity should not extend to the real super-rich because to them, you’re one of the NRPI class.
There are no real people in Succession; not just because it is fiction but because within its fictional world, no one is capable of or allowed to be their real self for long. All of the main characters, trapped playing their roles in the chess game triggered by Logan’s near-death experience in Season 1 are now forced to go on as the king refuses to fall, cannot be “real” people. The game requires them to play the roles within the roles. They are tragic figures but it would be a mistake to believe the same of the rich people who inspired them.