HBO's 'Succession' and the Isolated, Depraved World of the Super-Rich

HBO's new drama Succession isn't, necessarily, the show of its time. But it is, most certainly, a show of its time.

It follows an impossibly wealthy family called the Roys—a cabal, really—tucked away in New York City towers, never-ending apartments and vast country estates. Completely buffered from the real world. It seems every Roy is angling for the top job at the family's media empire amid the failing health of the ailing patriarch Logan (Brian Cox)—hence Succession. Yet few, if any, seem to be competent at...anything. Nearly every decision is made with some selfish undertone, or with a barely hidden motive or with no real thought at all. Normal people seem so far away, yet every decision carries the potential to entirely shift normal peoples' lives. The fate of so much in the fumbling, money-lubed hands of so few feels like a fine distillation of American in 2018.

Somehow, it's kind of funny. At its core, it's kind of scary.

"There's a certain class of people on this planet who've always considered people not of their class to be just another natural resource," said actor Alan Ruck, who plays Connor Roy, the oldest and flakiest Roy offspring. "Other human beings who are not of their socio-economic class are just a resource to be utilized. Sometimes exploited. But certainly to be managed."

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Alan Ruck and Kieran Culkin in Episode 1 of "Succession." Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

That's the mindset and world, it seems, of Succession's Roy family. Episode 5 of 10 is set to debut Sunday. The show has garnered generally positive reviews. It does a fine job of tracking the machinations of the power plays of the Roys: stroke-survivor Logan, the stumbling if ambitious son Kendall (Jeremy Strong), the filter-less son Roman (Kieran Culkin), the actually capable sister Shiv (Sarah Snook), the kind of clueless Connor and poor, sweet, bumbling cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun). Think of the family as some unholy mash-up of the Murdochs—Succession creator Jesse Armstrong wrote a somewhat famous, unproduced script about that family—the Trump/Kushners (a comparison Cox made) and a dash of a garden-variety moneyed family with bad habits.

In case you've missed it, wealth inequality in America is, uh, pretty bad. At its best, Succession lays bare that reality. The Roys are as rich as rich gets. Roman tears up a million-dollar check for sport and a nearly $1 million watch is tossed around like day-old bread.

Through four episodes, the viewers have seen Kendall take over as the (somewhat) temporary head of the company but then, out of nowhere, Logan returns. Stock prices rise and fall. Mergers fail then restart. Cover-ups begin. But there's a sneaking suspicion that none of it really matters. The Roys want the power for power's sake—and to prove something to Dad—but not for any real reason. What matters most is the internal family jostling, not the actual real-world ramifications. An ocean of money is a natural border from that noisy racket.

"It reflects that problem of: Why do you work and to what end do you work? Where is it going?" Cox said of the show. "Logan sees it all as a game because he doesn't have much respect for the living process anyway. He thinks it's all a crock."

Brian Cox in Episode 4 of "Succession." Peter Kramer/HBO

Logan built his media empire (called Waystar Royco) playing the game. Kendall, Roman and Connor—each, in their own way, a version of a Large Adult Son—vie for approval. You can see Kendall—played adeptly by Strong—struggle to put on an angry, cursing businessman front. The family's language is business and the sons don't really know anything but they can speak like they do. And at their core, they are all broken in some way.

"We're all fascinated with the allure of power—seeing that rarified world. But I think you still wake up in the morning with the same sort of existential pain and human struggles," Strong told Newsweek. "The problem is: Because this family does wield so much power and controls so much of the discourse in the country and in the world—their health, their mental and emotional health is important. If the family is toxic, or if the family is in a damaging relationship, then that bleeds out into the world."

Kieran Culkin and Jeremy Strong in Episode 4 of "Succession." Peter Kramer/HBO

Kendall sort of bumbles through the CEO job. Roman's a wrecking ball who somehow becomes COO. He's the kind of person who decides to christen his new office by locking the door and masturbating while staring out the window.

"Roman's whole existence is 'no consequences,'" Culkin said of his character in a May interview, sitting next to Ruck. "He was born into money. He's never had to suffer consequences. This billion-dollar, huge media conglomerate that has influence over the world. Don't think about that. It doesn't matter."

It's all so absurd. Billions of dollars are dished out over crushing hangovers and cocaine. As The Ringer wrote: The show is in on the joke. You'll find yourself laughing. And, somehow, it still doesn't feel all that removed from reality. We see it every day on the news.

"They're so entitled because they've been rewarded basically just for being alive," Ruck said. "It's like, 'Well I did it, so it must be right.'"

It's almost sad. Then you see their apartments.