I suppose it makes sense that as our country and world hurtle at breakneck speed toward an uncertain and scary future, as we attempt to make sense of the myriad fires raging around us as a society, one of the most critically acclaimed television dramas of the era has become popular for the perception that it rips off masks aplenty and says: the most powerful people in the world are terrible and they are to blame for all this and there’s nothing you can do about it, so you might as well sit back and enjoy the fireworks.
As the final season of Succession (★★★★★) premieres Sunday evening on HBO, it’s difficult to avoid retrospective comparisons with the other show about incredibly powerful people locking horns: Billions, which was released on Showtime in early 2016, about 17 months before Succession hit our television screens.
Both are dramas about the massively wealthy and powerful, both are critically acclaimed and brilliantly written, but for audiences and critics alike, Succession has definitely eclipsed Billions in the cultural discourse. It’s not even close.
Billions seems to say that the most powerful people in the world exist on a spectrum of morality, and most of them are complicated just like everyone else, but even the baddies have reached great heights at least partially on the strength of their own brilliance.
Succession seems to say that, actually, most of them are objectively bad people, there’s not a whole lot that’s terribly complicated here, and all of them compensate for their incompetence with various degrees of shitty ruthlessness.
When I watch Billions, I am forced to wonder if I’m spending enough time on Duolingo or if I should learn more about fine art or the world of finance or looking up references to things that make me question if they’re excessively obscure or I’m just ignorant and uncultured (probably the latter).
When I watch Succession, I am not compelled to do anything but enjoy the schadenfreude of terrible people doing awful things to other terrible people. There are no heroes. There are no real attempts at moral pandering. There is only pure, cynical honesty delivered in terrifically biting one-liners.
Billions makes me wonder if I should be making more of an effort. Succession tells me that it doesn’t really matter because 99.99999% of us couldn’t even attempt to carry out the level of evil in a lifetime that these characters do on any given Monday morning at work.
Whether or not you agree with that comparison, Succession has undeniably achieved a rare level of simultaneous critical and public adoration, specifically because it posits to us that whatever happens next in our world-on-fire, the fallout can’t be pinned on any of us, and by the way, please enjoy the writers torturing all these characters for their sins. They are disgusting human beings, and they deserve it.
It’s no accident that the most beloved characters in the show — Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun), Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), Roman (Kieran Culkin), and Logan (Brian Cox) — are also the most honest in various ways. Greg would like to be a good person, but he’s pretty transparent about choosing greed. Tom puts on a clumsy front publicly, but privately, his shittiness is proudly displayed. Logan and Roman are unabashedly selfish assholes.
But Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Shiv (Sarah Snook), and Connor (Alan Ruck) — the other three Roy children — are easy for the audience to hate specifically because they actively lie to themselves and everyone else. They are just as greedy and certainly capable of just as much evil, but they pretend to have morals whereas Logan and Roman refuse to play that game.
The honesty is what attracts us all to this show.
This dynamic has accelerated in the final season, as the three younger Roy children, following a disastrous attempt at a coup d’etat against the Patriarch in last season’s finale, are attempting to pick up the pieces and fashion a new power structure that can take out their father.
Logan still has plenty of fire in his belly for combat, but a conversation with his bodyman in a small diner during the season opener signals where his mind’s bandwidth is most of the time these days. He asks his bodyman, “You think there’s anything after all this,” meaning when death comes for all of us.
The bodyman isn’t sure how to answer and attempts to lean on his religious father’s teachings but ultimately concedes he doesn’t know.
“That’s it,” Logan replies. “We can’t know. But I’ve got my suspicions. I’ve got my fucking suspicions.”
The Old Man clearly believes himself to be near the end, unsure of what comes next and possibly just as anguished over what he’s leaving behind.
He’s in enormous pain and is considering the price that must be paid for his lifetime of catastrophic greed, and the precarious legacy he’s placing in the hands of his godawful children.
And for us, it’s delicious to watch them all suffer.
The fourth and final season of Succession premieres on Sunday, March 26, at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. The series will run for 10 episodes, with new episodes dropping weekly on Sundays. Visit www.hbomax.com.
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