Dissecting the sterile, dread-furnished mise en scene of HBO’s ‘Succession’

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Warning: contains spoilers for HBO’s “Succession.”

“I guess I’m a climate denier,” Logan Roy (Brian Cox) perfunctorily states at the end of the latest episode of “Succession” on HBO, which aired Nov. 21. The line comes as a tongue-in-cheek response to Shiv’s (Sarah Snook) concern that the company ATN’s presidential “pick” would be too divisive, going against “the climate.” 

The statement’s glaring irony is Waystar Royco’s (and by proxy, the system of capitalism’s) culpability when it comes to environmental degradation. “Succession,” while more tacitly than materially a show about climate change, figures a milieu of dread, weathering and impending collapse that renders it one of the most lurid indictments of American corporate oligarchy and the environmental havoc it has wreaked.

Left-leaning media and its discourses often fallaciously presuppose a certain viewer — a mysterious middle-class everyman, blissfully unaware yet malleable to learn how the rich and powerful have screwed him over in the scramble to accrue massive amounts of wealth. It’s an insulting and sanctimonious assumption to make, and a cheap one at that. Pointing the finger at the naughty, greedy capitalists is easy — shining a light on the system’s all-consuming corrosiveness is harder. 

“Succession” is a show that makes biting, incisive (and often obscene) work toward the latter. The show centers around the tumultuous business and personal relationships of the Roy family and its media empire. Its critiques of capitalism are less cursory than they are in most shows and films, which are content to make some glib statement about the “ugly underbelly” of corporate America; it’s an endeavor that seeks to expose the viewer to something they were not previously aware of, but in reality, only reveals the creators to be painfully out of touch. “Succession” dabbles in this kind of convenient summation from time to time. For example, in the second season episode “Argestes,” the Roys’ opulent dinner party inevitably turns sour — cut to the waitstaff tossing trays of glistening lobster in the dumpster.

Its few cheap shots aside, “Succession” deftly erects a stelae of concentrated wealth and power trepidatiously situated upon a base of exploitation, greed and skirting around the fringes of the law. The Roys are seldom knocked from their ivory tower, and if they are, it’s only by the forces of nature: an ill-timed bowel movement, a urinary tract infection or the stroke that catalyzes the ensuing power struggle at the center of the show. The Roys bend everything in the world to their whims — everything except the raw materials that compose it. 

When the Roys are not afflicted by the gross inconvenience of inhabiting a flesh prison, they delight in bacchanalian reverie. They gorge themselves on tiny illegal fried birds, participate in bachelor party escapades in a swanky speakeasy or go on a ketamine-fueled bender that results in the tragic death of a waiter. For the Roys, the consequences of these base actions are limited to the banal difficulties of an upset tummy, added marital strife or having to temporarily abandon the plot to oust your father — the travesty!

Author Mark Fischer writes at length about the far-reaching tentacles of destruction extended by late capitalism: “Capital is an abstract parasite, an insatiable vampire and zombie maker; but the living flesh it converts into dead labor is ours, and the zombies it makes are us.” Capitalism is pervasive, embedding itself in the mind and body. Bodily horror and rotting caracases plague the Roys, heralding the disaster that is yet to come. It’s hard not to draw a parallel between Logan’s deteriorating health over the show’s three seasons and capitalism’s imminent implosion from the climate crisis.

The script’s liberal use of vague corporate jargon also helps to emphasize the insidious nature of corporate America. Takedowns and coverups are imparted through filler words, tossed around with the frivolity of a hacky sack. Language is inextricable from power on “Succession,” where characters either try and one up each other with perversely poetic digs or an emotionally opaque mask of bureaucratese. Disentangling meaning and emotion from the words actually expressed by the characters is emblematic of the ways in which capital and its pursuit subsume everything else in life. 

So much of the Roys’ success as the proprietors of a media conglomerate is predicated on their ability to reshape narratives in their favor. It’s perhaps a bit ironic that large media companies such as Netflix and HBO presumably need to satiate their shareholders in a similar way to that of Waystar Royco in order to generate profit. The fact that major media corporations can do this while still producing shows and films with anti-capitalist messaging is a testament to capitalism’s vice grip in the realms of politics and economics, to its ability to commodify dissent even if its cultural grip has been weakened. 

Interpassivity while viewing is a given for media companies, and it’s the reason so much of what gets made is oriented around critique rather than solution. “Succession” is not exempt from this paradigm but rather succeeds because of the way it “boars” deeper into the inner workings of capitalism — exposing the bomb poised to go off. 

Contact Emma Murphree at [email protected].