Succession, which premiered on HBO over the weekend, tells the gripping and vicious story of media mogul Logan Roy and his family, who seem to be the exact midway point between the real life Murdochs and Arrested Development's the Bluths (just with more cursing). The show, written by The Thick Of It & Peep Show creator Jesse Armstrong, mixes satire and Shakespearean heft to interrogate the ruthlessness of these ridiculously privileged people who have so much power to control the discourse of our culture.
It's also in many ways a spiritual continuation of The Big Short. The director of that film, Adam McKay, is one of the producers here. McKay also directed the Succession pilot, and his zoom-in, handheld camera work sets the tone and perspective for the entire show. If The Big Short was an indictment of banking and banking institutions, Succession quickly becomes an indictment of the media industrial complex.
The pilot has to do most of the heavy lifting of introducing us into this insular, often grotesque world. It's best exemplified by the moment when the arrogant, chatty Ronan, played to slick and uncomfortable perfection by Kieran Culkin, cruelly taunts a maintenance manager's son with a million dollar check if he can hit a home run during an impromptu family baseball game.
Next week's second episode—which is almost a bottle episode, taking place mostly in a hospital after a serious health scare—is even more compelling, and the show just gets better as it digs into each of the Roys and their damaged neuroses. You may have an initial allergic reaction to another tale about rich white people who control the universe, but it wins you over through its trenchant, highly relevant commentary about the state of media (ATN News has a lot of similarities to Fox News), and its surprisingly compelling character work.
Co-star Jeremy Strong—who also starred in The Big Short and here plays Kendall, the heir apparent to the Waystar Royko media empire (he's also a recovering addict)—says the show explores how the trauma in the Roy family is like poison that then becomes societal trauma. "It's looking at our culture through the lens of this very powerful family and the allure of power and the perils of power," Strong told Gothamist.
"What if you have a family where the language of that family and the glue that holds that family together is essentially corporate," he said. "The language of this family is business, is commerce. The currency of this family is not love. It's business. And so at the heart of that is, I think, the father-son relationship for my character—and how in a family like that, the only way I think you can earn a father's approval and love and respect is by distinguishing yourself in that field and through the question of succession."
Strong sees it as a dysfunctional love story between Kendall and his father Logan, played by the brilliant Shakespearean actor Brian Cox, who has starred in everything from Manhunter to X2 to Super Troopers. We spoke to Cox about Logan's motivations, the toxic relationships within the Roy family, his desire to make a show about Andrew Carnegie, and the problem with the Constitution—not to mention the current state of Deadwood.
Our conversation started with us talking about Donald Trump and comparing Brexit with the 2016 election...
Well, these guys, they get in that position of power and they either exercise it properly or exercise it badly. But it's also the confusion of the states, they're just so freaking confused. And they don't know. You know, the great, horrible thing in the American Constitution, which I think is really horrible because it doesn't mean anything, is the pursuit of happiness. What the hell does that mean?
Originally, it was the pursuit of property, but then it was changed by Jefferson. And it was all a bunch of lawyers. That's the thing that you have to realize about the American Constitution—it was written by a bunch of lawyers. And of course, it's geared that way. And so all notions of egalitarianism, which is what I love about America, just don't have the same validity anymore.
Certainly not in the upper echelons of power. No, they don't. Of course, it's Tower of Babel time, because the upper echelons of power are so confused. But then I've been working on another thing, an idea that I've got about Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie is the father of American capitalism, but he's also a man who regretted what he did. But he could only do what he did, and then he knew... that the philanthropic is wonderful in one sense, but you need something to pay for the philanthropy. And you do it individually, which is great, but really, it should be the state. It should be the state that's philanthropic, not the individual.
And he tried to do something, at the time of the Homestead Strike, he's charging people, he won't give them what they [want]. He's got his bad cop, which is [Henry Clay] Frick, saying, "You fight that." And meanwhile he's going off giving away free libraries, so it's very confused. And I think it's a really interesting story about capitalism, and where capitalism is actually finally coming unstuck. And it came unstuck right at the beginning of its conception.
Do you think that there is such a thing as "compassionate capitalism" now? Well I think there can be, but then human beings are so venal. It's the human beings that let it down, because human beings, I think, are probably the most disappointing experiment ever. And yet something extraordinary happens, and you go, "Oh, we did that, did we? That's amazing." We're so contradictory, we don't know who we are anymore.
What do you think the Murdochs of the world would think of the show? I think they would recognize it. From my point of view, from the point of view of Logan, I don't see Logan as a bad man. I see him as a man of the times. And he does see clearly... how many episodes have you seen?
Three or four I believe. Okay, well later in the season, he says, "It's a game." Nobody understands it's the game, and that there is an element of this whole thing which is game-like. It has that kind of meaning.
And Logan, he's a player. Anybody who plays the game plays it seriously. But it is a game, and it is about moving things around. Logan, because of his own history, which has been revealed throughout, he's a mysterious figure. He's not cut and dry. He's not just the bad man, because that would be pointless. There would be no virtue in that, in terms of playing him, from the point of view of me trying to create human beings.
I'm interested in people who do things for certain purposes that they think are right, but ends up wrong. That's what's interesting to me about the human experience, is that we all think we're trying to do the right thing, and we end doing the wrong thing.
We're all the protagonists of our own story. Exactly, and I think that Logan is very much part of that. He has this family who is entitled, and he doesn't believe in entitlement, but there's nothing he can do about it, because these kids have been brought up that way. That's how they are. And they have their own weaknesses. They've been spoiled, and also abused. It makes for difficult characters. And he doesn't feel that they're ready. The only person he feels is possibly ready is [his daughter] Shiv. But he doesn't feel that those two boys [can do it], and the other boy [Connor] ran away.
He wants nothing to do with it. He doesn't want anything to do with it, he's just into his sourdough and what have you. Though he does have delusions of it, like he eventually wants to become a libertarian president, which is an interesting concept. And we'll see how that goes if we do another series.
But Kendall, he's where Logan has put a lot of his energy, and he's found wanting. It's his tragedy, in a way, that Kendall seems to want this thing, but it's not good for him. That's what he recognizes, because he's too soft, and he hasn't got the killer instinct.
It's what precipitates the pilot surprise that he springs on the family. That's right, and he does it in a way that he's trying to save his empire. He's giving it all away, and he's realized there's something not right. It's not working. These guys are not up to it. And that's basically the premise of the show, how it started.
Now the reason they're not up to it—and he's also part of the reason they're not up to it, because of who he is—it's the problem of any patriarch. I'm of a similar thing. I've come from one environment. I moved into another environment, but I've got kids. I've got an older family who suffered along with me, so they're a little bit more in tune. And I've got younger kids who are... it's not their fault. They've lived quite good lives, and they go, "Well this is life. This is the way life is." And you go, "Well, you know it's not."
It really isn't the way life is. And they also understand that. But of course, you can't blame them for the fact that they haven't got that experience, that's not their fault, in a way that's your fault. The only thing that Logan realizes is the game, and if you play the game, you don't get touched in the same way. There's a structure, and so he puts a structure on something. Whereas if you think, "It's my survival," then you're screwed.
Then that becomes your all-encompassing sort of reason. Yeah exactly. And that's why there are so many things that are revealed about him throughout the season. Essentially there's an element of mystery about Logan, which I love. I love that mysterious element, that he isn't all that he's painted out to be. But he is a killer, you know?
At one point in the pilot, I think it was Kendall who calls him, "Big Dick Dad." There's a cruelty that Logan seems to wield on some of his children. Do you think that is a symptom of mass wealth? It's also a way of reminding people where they are, and reminding the people of how they got there. And I think he's very conscious of that. And it is ruthless, but it is saying, "Look, I did it this way. You didn't do it that way. And you don't really understand what that process was, and why should you? You have no interest." But you gotta have something to hold in reserve, in order to make it work.
And it's their sense of reserve that concern him more than anything else. They don't have it. They have their own fears. Kendall or Roman, there's a certain ability, but they don't have that thing of perspective, because they can't see any further than their own dicks, or their own coke or whatever. And Kendall's been caught with that, time and time again. He's always reduced to that.
And it's a source of great pain to Logan, though he would never admit it. But essentially he's going, "Well I fucked it. I fucked it. This is my fault." [Laughs] But again, he will never let anybody know that, because that would be a sign of weakness. And then he has to hold it together, on behalf of his children, he has to actually see, "Fucking wake up. Get with the program. Realize it's the game. Do that."
And of course that's sort of bucking the system, and they don't know how blessed they are, you know? But they're also abused, I think. So that's what I think is so interesting, it's not cut and dry, and there's elements of mystery about them all.
There is so much plotting, and so many shifting alliances in the show, I started to feel like I was watching an adaptation of a Shakespeare play. Especially with the close quarter, one on one conversations that dominate episode two and three in particular. Well I've done King Lear, and that's an obvious example. King Lear has all those things. The thing about King Lear is it's an entity that is revealed totally of a night, so you get the whole thing. Whereas we don't do that in Succession, because we have to reveal the entity throughout. But in Lear, you have a man who wants to give away his empire, and he just asks for love in return, and of course you can't do that. You can't say, "please love me," and everything will be alright. That's the mistake he makes, because he's getting old and he's losing the plot.
And of course the sisters who want to get something out of him will give him that, pay lip-service to him. The youngest daughter will not, and she says nothing, and he said, "Nothing will come of nothing." He wants something palpable out of them. The Shakespeare element is very strong. I don't know if it's conscious on Jesse or anything, but it is that kind of world that you're dealing with, and those kind of high-powered families. And Lear is a very, very good example. And of course at the end of Lear, he does this wonderful thing, which Logan hasn't gotten to, where he says, "I've taken too little care of this."
He takes responsibility. He takes responsibility. Logan knows that, but it's coming to face these responsibilities.
Do you see parts of the show reflected with the Trumps and Kushners? I think it's very reflected. I think it's about this thing of entitlement, which is what these children suffer from, and it's what Kushner and Ivanka Trump suffer from. There's no more obscene sight than seeing them open that embassy when all those people were being killed in the Gaza Strip. It was like...you couldn't have written that.
It seemed like it was right out of an episode of Veep. It really was. You couldn't have written it. And you go, "This is what's wrong with the world. This is what's really wrong." The egalitarian principles of this country have been so watered down, they don't have any meaning anymore.
And so a series like this is absolutely about reflecting that—and how it goes, and what it goes to, the potential is enormous if we get a chance to do it again. The potential is enormous. But I think that it's vital, and it is reflecting the time, and reflecting that whole thing of those kids who do feel that entitlement, and feel, "Well we should be a part." And you go, "Yeah, but you fuck it up." You know, Jared Kushner, you fucking idiot.
He also helped fuck up the NY Observer. Exactly. He already had his media empire, now he's rewarded with a job in the White House. You go, "this is no good." That kind of nepotism is no good at all.
I was curious, were you a fan of Peep Show or Jesse's work before this? I didn't know Peep Show. But I know The Thick of It, which Jesse worked on, which I loved. And I love Armando Iannucci's work. Armando, he's clearly affected Jesse in many ways. And I've seen the episodes of Veep, which I think has really developed into something really quite extraordinary.
What did you think of The Big Short before this? Were you a fan? Yeah, I liked it a lot, but [Succession is] clearer, much more clarity. The problem about The Big Short... there's wasn't a problem, but there was a lot of emotionalism which was kind of wonky. Yeah, wonky. It's just sort of an American thing, actually. It's an American kind of feel it.
But I think this is what's interesting here, because this is written by a Brit, with a look at the American sensibility. So there's a real critical eye at work. And it's American enough, but I think that this is different. This is what the strength of our show is. It's much more, in a kind of real, deep way, satirical.
The last thing I have to ask you, because I have to ask everybody I meet who's associated with this—are there any updates about Deadwood? Well they're writing it now. It's all there. They're trying to get the script together. I know [former Deadwood staff writer] Regina Corrado's working on it at the moment. So they're all trying to get it together, so they say maybe in the fall. But, it's a shifting thing.
I think [creator David Milch] is really trying to find what that story is. It was so clearly about the forming of America, but it also has to reflect the now. It's a big job. Of course if there's anybody who can pull that off, it's David Milch.
It still breaks my heart that we never got that fourth season. Breaks my heart when I never opened my theater.
Your character Jack was set up in the third season for some big things in the fourth season. Do you know where the story was going? Yeah it was. Well the story would go that Swearengen would find himself more and more alienated, and Jack was his one contact, because they had a deep friendship. Swearengen has this idea of a community, but then he can't fit in. And it just becomes really well and tragic. So I thought the potential of it was enormous.
And then of course the fact that the town really did burn down. Yeah, it's an amazing story, but it is a microcosm of what this country's about.
You can catch Succession on HBO on Sundays at 10 p.m.