Why Watching ‘Succession’ Is Especially Chilling Right Now

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This article contains spoilers for Episode 6 of the fourth and final season of HBO’s “Succession,” “Living+.”

This week’s episode of “Succession” featured a comically bleak premise that could have easily taken place in real life. Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong), in his first major act as head of his family’s media company after the death of patriarch and founder Logan Roy (Brian Cox), presides over an excruciating presentation of Waystar Royco’s newest product: Living+.

Consistent with his penchant for megalomania and performance, Kendall, wearing a bomber jacket on stage, introduces the product using lofty theatrics to mask its dystopian qualities. The concept of Living+ is a Waystar-branded nursing home with a mind-numbing amount of content from the company’s entertainment divisions. Kendall also claims the product could extend an old person’s life by years or even decades, by giving them access to pharmaceutical products only available to the super rich.

If that weren’t uncomfortable enough, he talks to his dead father on stage, using edited and manipulated green-screen footage of Logan, recorded prior to his death. Kendall then tearfully suggests Living+ could have given him more time with his dad. His cringey emotional appeal works. The investors seated in the audience heartily applaud. But there’s one crucial person who definitely doesn’t like it: the tech CEO in the process of acquiring Waystar, Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård), who, during Kendall’s presentation, horrifically tweets a Holocaust reference.

When paired with last week’s episode, which culminated in three billionaires — Kendall, his brother Roman (Kieran Culkin), and Matsson trading insults on a Norwegian mountaintop — it’s hard not to grimace at the real-life parallels the show both draws from and reflects back. The fictional billionaires on “Succession” are a grim reminder that in real life, a lot of hugely consequential decisions — ones that put countless people’s jobs and livelihoods at stake, and shape what we read, watch and consume — are made by rich white men just making it up as they go along. They act on impulse, feed their egos, chase shiny objects and pick fights with other billionaires, with little regard for the damage they leave in their wake.

It’s especially blood-boiling and unnerving to watch these two episodes while witnessing the wave of mass layoffs in media, tech and entertainment. Company executives have cited “economic headwinds” and profit losses, while continuing to earn millions of dollars themselves, essentially making employees take the hit for their own ill-advised business decisions. Rich CEOs are gutting award-winning newsrooms, while putting their eggs in their new basket of AI; and running social media platforms into the ground, while their rockets literally go up in flames.

It must be nice to be able to make such costly decisions on a whim, like during the “Succession” Season 3 finale, when Logan explains he’s pursuing a deal with Matsson because “I feel it in my bones.” (It’s the kind of tactic his kids have tried to replicate — but with far less success, often fumbling their power plays.) It must be nice to act on “harebrained schemes,” as Shiv (Sarah Snook) describes her brother’s theatrics. Or to use your company and exorbitant wealth to beef with a fellow billionaire, as the Roys are now doing with Matsson.

Roman (Kieran Culkin), Kendall and Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård) trading insults on a mountaintop in Norway, during last week's episode of "Succession."
Roman (Kieran Culkin), Kendall and Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård) trading insults on a mountaintop in Norway, during last week's episode of "Succession."

Graeme Hunter/HBO

As it heads into its final episodes, “Succession” has set up a potential collision course: Kendall and Roman are recklessly attempting to torpedo the deal Logan had been finalizing with Matsson. Under Logan’s deal, Matsson’s tech company GoJo was slated to acquire Waystar Royco, with the exception of the company’s popular right-wing news network ATN. But Kendall and Roman, now finally in control after their father’s death, are thirsty for power.

In the climactic mountaintop scene of last week’s episode, Roman impulsively and idiotically admits to Matsson he and his brother intend to tank the deal. Not to diminish Roman’s grief, but this admission essentially amounts to a billionaire being mad at another billionaire. Roman chews out Matsson for heartlessly making them trek all the way to GoJo’s corporate retreat in Norway, just days after their father died.

Remarkably, Matsson makes the Roys look like decent humans in comparison. It’s ironic, yet also weirdly satisfying, to watch Roman, who has committed no shortage of cruel acts on the show, call Matsson a “inhuman fucking dog-man.” But there’s also some satisfaction in watching Matsson expose the Roys’ incompetence, like when he compares them to “Scooby-Doo” and mockingly asks if they went to “Hanna-Barbera fucking Business School.”

Matsson also dismisses Kendall as “Vaulter guy,” referring to Kendall’s failed acquisition of digital media startup Vaulter. Early in Season 2, Kendall, at Logan’s behest, guts the entire site and lays off nearly all of its employees. That scene will always send a shiver down the spine of anyone who has ever worked in media, and experienced round after round of mass layoffs at the hands of gluttonous CEOs. Unlike the journalists losing their jobs, there are no consequences for them. They will simply move on to their next shiny object, whether it’s Living+, or in real life, “pivot to video” or AI.

Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) in Season 2 of HBO's "Succession," when he shuts down Vaulter, a digital media startup.
Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) in Season 2 of HBO's "Succession," when he shuts down Vaulter, a digital media startup.


Watching “Succession” while seeing the huge inequities and structural shifts in the media, tech and entertainment industries is all an uncomfortably familiar reminder that much of the world is controlled by rich idiots. They act like they know what the future holds, or that they have the next great idea for a “killer app,” or that they’re “the adults in the room,” as Kendall says in the Vaulter episode.

But they’re really just bullshitting their way through. They get away with it because as Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron) says of Matsson: “Nobody minds a genius acting weird.” Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) agrees: “Honestly, it probably kind of adds to the mystique.”

Ah, to have the confidence of a rich white man at the helm of a major corporation. Reality is whatever they want it to be, like Kendall dangerously cooking the numbers to overvalue Living+.

One of the many themes on “Succession” is the way the characters never say what they mean, whether it’s emotionally or on a business level. Obfuscation is power. Words are meaningless. As Kendall says in Season 1, they’re just “complicated airflow.” Do any of them really know anything? Is any of it real, or just posturing?

That meaninglessness is everywhere. It’s at the heart of ATN’s slogan: “We here for you.” (Or: “We hear for you.”) It’s Shiv telling now-estranged husband Tom: “I may not love you, but I do love you.” Kendall is the king of throwing around empty buzzwords, like describing his vision for a new news outlet as “high-calorie info parcels” (or “info snacks?”), and asking Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) to “take my cultural temperature.”

In Sunday night’s episode, Kendall advertises Living+ using jargon like “integrated everyday character IP life enhancement.” Earlier, he reads out loud from a company document that calls it “personalized longevity programs.” But what Living+ really is, as he says afterward, is “planning to warehouse the elderly and keep them drunk on content while we suck ’em dollar dry.” Later, Shiv describes it even more bluntly as “prison camps for grannies.”

Like the Roys, real-life rich CEOs obfuscate their misguided decisions using meaningless corporate jargon. What does “economic headwinds” even mean? Or what about the myriad euphemisms for when a company shuts down or gets acquired, and employees lose their jobs: “sunsetting,” “restructuring,” “reorganizing,” “consolidating,” “offboarding due to involuntary termination”?

Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) wears a custom-designed flight jacket while launching a new Waystar Royco product, Living+, in Sunday night's episode of HBO's "Succession."
Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) wears a custom-designed flight jacket while launching a new Waystar Royco product, Living+, in Sunday night's episode of HBO's "Succession."

David M. Russell/HBO

One of the qualities that has made “Succession” essential viewing throughout its four seasons is its ouroboros of life imitating art imitating life. The show is inspired by and satirizes real-life events and figures (particularly the Murdochs, but also other media and political dynasties). But it also doesn’t directly reproduce them.

At the same time, it often feels like there’s a “Succession” reference for everything. Last week, when Fox News abruptly fired host Tucker Carlson, Twitter was full of jokes about how Logan’s assistant Kerry (Zoë Winters), who disastrously auditioned to be an ATN anchor, should take over. Or when a source told Vanity Fair that Rupert Murdoch allegedly wanted Carlson gone to get back at his ex-fiancée, it sounded an awful lot like a “Succession” plotline.

But sometimes, like in these recent episodes, the real-life parallels take on a much darker tenor. We can laugh at the Roys — until it all hits uncomfortably close to home, and we cringe at the resemblance.

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