HBO’s Succession and the Capitalist Performance of Persona
Succession Season 3, Episode 3 Power Rankings: Capitalism won this round
*Contains Spoilers, sorry — go watch!*
In this house, we don't say: "hello, how are you?" Instead, after watching Succession Season 3, Episode 3, we ask "how's your headspace, are you happy in it?"
Despite how these questions may sound, they're neither as genial nor genuine as they seem. In fact, they're the opposite.
Season 3 of the award-winning, cult HBO dramedy Succession immediately makes it clear that its writers will pull no punches this season. One of the many shows halted during the pandemic, we've all been waiting seemingly eons for its return. After an agonizingly long hiatus from our beloved, terrible TV family, the show is finally back on our screens and assuages the Sunday night scaries quite effectively.
Dialogue has long been the highlight of this HBO drama. Interpersonally, this family is direct, abrasive, and — most of the time — crass and disgusting. However, they're terrifically funny. In fact, so riotously hilarious that each line — though delivered through the stark attitudes of the unfathomably rich — is a satisfying combination of both smart and ludicrous.
But this isn't merely a show for cheap jokes, it's also about the insidiousness of the capitalist patriarchy.
If I were to describe Succession in one sentence, it would go something like this: the children of a charismatic, evil billionaire competing for the company while, at the same time, competing for his love.
What ensues is a rat race to the highest degree — scheming, scrambling, and petty fighting with high stakes and almost unobstructed access to … literally everyone and everything.
Some family members play politics and others assume coveted jobs like they're hobbies. They rub shoulders with celebrities and artists, and they live in and visit impossibly gorgeous places.
When watching Succession, you neither like nor want to be like the characters. Sure, aspects of their lives seem enviable. But as you watch the chaos unfold, these status symbols lose their luster. These spoiled, adult-brats prop themselves up on nothing but their pedigree.
For example, swimming in a pool that's on a yacht might have seemed cool before I witnessed the carnage of Season 2's conclusion. But watching the Roy family tear each other apart while declaring "$5 million is too little to retire on," only made me want to eat the rich.
Season 3, Episode 3 holds both sides of the coin in a delicate, yet decadent, balance. The showy opulence appears in spades, but so does their embarrassment and putrid shallowness.
Cousin Greg is the constant foil for this bit. An awkward, aimless boy, he's achieved any status because of his family. He so wants to belong to this world he talks himself into buying things that are ridiculous. For instance, in this episode, a $43,000 watch.
The joke carried throughout the episode: Greg got swindled into buying the watch. Despite being surprised and hesitating at the hefty price tag. However, he later convinces himself he wanted it the whole time, mostly by showing it off to people and explaining — in that tactless, bumbling way that boy does — how much it cost, and how exclusive it was.
This sequence epitomizes the character. Cousin Greg is the portrait of an impressionable outsider who is seduced by the way a glittering object looks, and painfully leverages it to try to muscle his way in.
However, the reason his attempts at fitting in are unsuccessful isn't because Greg is just so awkward — okay … maybe partly — like, imagine being bullied by TOM WAMBSGANS. Cousin Greg can't achieve the acceptance he craves because the very idea of it is an illusion.
Like iconic characters before them — Gatsby, throwing boozy parties and obsessing on Daisy's green light, being one of the most recognizable — Succession's characters fend for the ultimate reward: acceptance by the system, which is epitomized by Logan Roy.
Even though the family tries to grab some of that power for themselves, their loyalty to their father betrays them.
This past episode shows Shiv and Kendall fighting in the championship for the title. Logan's also implicated in the scandals to stand sturdy on his own footing, the two baby birds try to make it out on their own. In some ways, they're better equipped than all the others — they have access, connections, and all those privileges. However, they're both bogged down by that strange, familiar cocktail of arrogance and insecurity that comes with high status.
Shiv, tired of being the token-woman, decides to use her insecurities — about how her gender is perceived as well as her lack of experience — to cruelly attack Kendall in an attempt to stifle any sexist comments. Clearly, Shiv is a time bomb, using desperate measures to gain traction on the treadmill to her father's good graces.
Kendall, who's been a time bomb of false confidence through the season so far, finally broke down.
The episode saw him inflated by yes-men while keeping up his public perception with a childish game called "good tweet, bad tweet."
According to writer Hunter Harris, Kendall's constant "auditioning for his father's love has been replaced by auditioning for the public's."
the most scathing review of Kendall Roy, second only to Shiv's lettervia Hunter Harris
Yet, his breakdown comes at the hand of Shiv, whose letter digs so deep into his personhood that he can no longer reconcile it with his persona.
Succession is a lesson in this distinction — the person: their actions, their insecurities, and fears; versus the persona: who they want to be — how they want to be perceived in public.
As the line between the two is clearly drawn clearly for Kendall to see and the world to know, he breaks down.
This moment is the culmination of many of the show's critiques and themes. Had Kendall been allowed to continue unchecked, dropping names and pretending to save the world, his ego would have completely merged with his personality. And he would no longer be able to distinguish between himself and his purported self-image. Not to mention, the character would be insufferable.
While I don't think this will be a big moment of anti-capitalist realization for Kendall, it demonstrates for the rest of us — who maybe aren't as far gone — that constant reaching always leads to a fall.
It's why "imposter syndrome" resonates with so many of us. Of course we feel like we must prove ourselves — it's the system's job to make sure we do. It wants to make us feel inadequate, while putting on a persona so other people feel emboldened to try to reach us.
Rather than a celebration of money and a parade of opulence, Succession shows us even at the highest levels of society, people can still feel excluded and empty-souled. But the show doesn't attempt to make us feel better, or even to empathize. Instead, the Succession says, what are you going to do about it?