I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t immediately see the point of Succession when it made its debut in 2018. Yes, the idea of a televisual roman à clef allegedly based on the Murdoch dynasty – the seemingly indestructible patriarch, the rival sons and daughter vying to take over the empire, the fiercely conservative news channel – was fun. But, to start with at least, I doubted that the joke would be sufficient basis for a multi-season prestige television series. A couple of episodes in, I realised how totally, utterly wrong I had been.
Yes, there was plenty of media speculation about how similar the 80-year-old Logan Roy (Brian Cox) might be to the Australian-born press tycoon; whether Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and Roman (Kieran Culkin) were loosely based on Lachlan and James Murdoch; whether their sister Shiv (Sarah Snook) bore any resemblance to Elisabeth Murdoch; whether the fictional ATN News stood proxy for Fox. And didn’t the offices of Waystar Royco look awfully like those of News Corporation? My favourite (unsubstantiated) rumour was that Murdoch’s younger daughters – the children of his marriage to Wendi Deng – were mildly disappointed not to have counterparts in the HBO drama.
Yet the power of Succession – which returns for its third season on 18 October (Sky Atlantic; Now TV) – has much deeper roots and mythic foundations. It draws as greedily on the familial psychology of Freud, of Greek tragedy and of King Lear (a role played to acclaim, as it happens, by Cox at the National Theatre in 1990-91, an experience he recorded in a fine memoir).
It is through this prism that Succession is best understood. For a young nation, America has a genius for almost instantaneous myth-making. Think of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Thoreau’s Walden, Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, John Berryman’s Dream Songs, the westerns of John Ford, The Godfather trilogy, the landscapes of Ansel Adams… the list is long and prodigious.
With unnerving ease, Succession has already taken its place within that marble pantheon. As its creator and showrunner, Jesse Armstrong – a veteran of Peep Show and The Thick of It – recently told the New Statesman, he and his colleagues in the writing room believe in that “mythical thing of trust the tale, not the teller. It’s possible we don’t know what we’re doing!” (Their creative base is in Brixton, by the way.)
So, as fizzingly contemporary and satirical as it is, Succession depends upon the force of ancestral, constantly repeated tales of power, family and mortality that have lodged over the millennia in our collective unconscious. Logan, played with miraculous power by Cox, is the ageing king and paterfamilias who knows that the integrity of his realm depends upon an orderly transfer of authority to one of his children – but with no less conviction believes (must believe, however irrationally) in his own immortality.
Like Zeus, he is never quite sure whether to empower his children, or to consume them. In Shiv, his apparent favourite, he has a Goneril whom he would like, just occasionally, to be more like Cordelia. Roman (whose real name in the story, tellingly, is Romulus) is the lord of misrule at his father’s court, the master of the one-liner that delivers a bleak truth (“we do hate speech and roller coasters!”).
In Connor (Alan Ruck), Logan’s eldest son by a first marriage (a long-past part of his biography that has yet to be explored), he has a dilettante child who lives in a world of his own, recruiting an escort to masquerade as something close to a wife, mounting an embarrassing bid to run as a libertarian independent candidate for the US presidency.
Yet the central character in Succession is not really Logan at all but his son Kendall, the intermittent heir-apparent whom his father can destroy with a single remark (“You’re not a killer. You have to be a killer”). If all the protagonists wear a mask, Kendall’s is one of ruin. In a single shot, Jeremy Strong – approached by executive producer Adam McKay on the strength of his brilliant performance in The Big Short (2015) – can communicate the cruel price of being Logan’s son: the terrible sense of expectation, the certainty of falling short, the suspicion that all around him think he is an entitled weakling compared to his formidable father. Kendall’s drug addiction, failed marriage and flailing attempts to stand up to Logan only strengthen the sense that he represents a step backward for the Roy dynasty – an impression that his father misses no opportunity to nurture, often in public.
All of which came to a head in the finale of Season 2, set on a 279-foot luxury mega-yacht at which the family congregated to decide who should take the fall for Waystar Royco’s Original Sin: a vile culture of sexual coercion, hush money and illegality within the corporation’s cruise business that had already prompted congressional hearings.
With something bleakly close to inevitability, Logan decided that Kendall would be the scapegoat. Who else, after all, was big enough and sad enough to play this particular part and submit to the ritual of blood sacrifice? Yet – in the thrilling final minutes of the episode – the son turned upon his father at a press conference, with a ferocity worthy of a Sophoclean drama. Logan was, he said, “a malignant presence, a bully and a liar… This is the day his reign ends.”
No less thrillingly, the trace of a smile flickered across Logan’s features as he watched his son declare war upon him. Why? Because the old bull loves nothing more than a fight, naturally. But also, perhaps, because he felt a surge of paternal pride that his broken child had finally mustered the wherewithal to take him on. Their intergenerational conflict is set to be the lead plotline of the new season.
As Cox observed in a recent Observer interview with Mark Kermode, there is a wound within Logan, too: “The thing that’s so hard for him is that, like Lear, he loves his children, and he would hope to see some of that love reciprocated, as opposed to them just seeing him as a chequebook, or as the road to entitlement.”
It is this paradox that keeps us watching. All the characters in Succession are, to varying degrees, horrible, and the writers never offer us the cheap satisfaction of straightforward redemption. Instead, there are moments of true affection between the siblings; memories shared; years of familial pain sensed in daunting aggregate. Culkin is especially good at this, letting the jester’s mask fall very occasionally to disclose a sense of horror at the tragedy in which he is himself complicit. Because these moments are so few and far between, they are all the more potent.
In its cast of second-rank characters, Succession is almost Dickensian, too. Matthew Macfayden is magnificent as Shiv’s husband, Tom Wambsgans, ditching his lantern-jawed leading man persona entirely to play the part of the overreaching fool of the family, a gurning mediocrity who is deluded enough to believe that he has a chance of succeeding Logan.
At Tom’s side is Logan’s great-nephew, Greg Hirsch (Nicholas Braun) – who turns up at the great man’s 80th birthday celebrations in the very first episode and never leaves. The family thinks that he is a comically gauche hick, miles out of his depth, but the viewer quickly learns that, for all the stumbling and stuttering, Greg has a splinter of ice in his heart.
As they were writing Season 2, Armstrong’s team dwelt upon the lessons of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. For Season 3, they have been consulting The Crack-Up (1936) and other works by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
In every episode of the series, one is reminded of the narrator’s words in the short story The Rich Boy (1926):
Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.
Succession goes further and proposes that extreme wealth, like extreme poverty, is a barbarising force. For all its promises of human fulfilment, it strips away decency and a meaningful sense of community, and reduces those who have it – even when they are posturing as philanthropists in black tie – to the most basic and brutal of primal urges.
On a return trip to his birthplace, Dundee, Logan expresses disgust at the armchair psychologists who use the roadmap of Citizen Kane to search for some sort of secret hidden within his story: “‘Rosebud’ [Kane’s mysterious final utterance] is a dollar bill. It’s whatever it took to get me the fuck out of here.”
In this respect, Succession tells an ancient story in an invigoratingly contemporary fashion. It is absolutely a cultural artefact of the post-Crash era in which the planet’s greatest social fault-line is the fact that a vanishingly small tranche of the world’s population are getting ever richer, while the majority lead increasingly precarious and insecure lives.
“Now you’re not naive enough to think we’re living in a democracy, are you, buddy?” When Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko posed that question to Charlie Sheen in Wall Street (1987), he did so with the outlandish glamour of a supervillain. The characters in Succession wouldn’t even bother to make such an obvious point about the grotesque society upon which they prey.
Consider, too, Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) in which the plutocratic trader, Sherman McCoy, sought relentlessly to separate himself and his family from the sweat and grind of real life: “Insulation! That was the ticket. If you want to live in New York… you’ve got to insulate, insulate, insulate, meaning insulate yourself from those people.” But Wolfe’s great novel is, above all, a morality tale – and, so far at least, Succession shows no sign of being that.
The perdition is the point. The structural hypocrisy is the point. People may hate the rich more than ever; that doesn’t stop them wanting to be rich themselves – and nobody appreciates that dishonesty better than Logan Roy. As he puts it: “Love… Fear…Whatever…”
Tomorrow at 1pm BST we’ll be joined by Georgia Pritchett, the executive producer on Succession Season 3, for a ThinkIn on learning to cope with – and seeing the funny side of – anxiety. You can book your place, either digitally or in-person, here.
Here are this week’s recommendations.
To an almost uncanny extent, Anthony Fauci personifies the battle of science against infectious diseases in the past half century. From the early Eighties, when he spotted a spike in the number of gay men dying from a particular form of pneumonia, to the global fight against Covid, via Sars and Ebola, he has always been on the front line – and, as Director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases throughout the coronavirus pandemic, has been confronted with (until Joe Biden’s inauguration) a deranged president, a nation fighting culture wars in its divisions over masks, lockdowns and vaccines, and (to a disturbing extent) fellow citizens ready to target this 80-year-old public servant as, in some bizarre way, a bad faith actor. As John Hoffman and Janet Tobias’s excellent documentary shows, he has never been any such thing – quite the opposite, indeed. What marked Fauci out during the HIV crisis was not only his epidemiological foresight but his unique readiness in the health establishment to acknowledge that AIDS campaigners had a point about their right to be consulted and included in the decision-making processes governing clinical trials and prospective therapies. To this day, Fauci remains close friends with the activists from that era who had formerly vilified him. Striking, too, is the extent that – working with President George W. Bush on Pepfar – he grasped the overwhelming urgency of working at grassroots to treat AIDS in Africa. Elite diplomacy, he understood, was not enough (one would like to know more of his thoughts on Covid vaccine inequality today). A flinty son of Brooklyn who likes to quote The Godfather, he is also given to visible emotion when considering the suffering of his patients in past decades: embodying the need, now more than ever, for scientific rigour and the promptings of the human heart to march together in times of crisis.
COBRA: CYBERWAR (Sky Max, 15 October)
Robert Carlyle has certainly come a long way since he first played the psychotic Francis Begbie in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996). As Prime Minister Robert Sutherland in the first six-part season of COBRA (2020), he and his chief of staff, Anna Marshall (Victoria Hamilton) saw off – er – a disastrous energy crisis, caused in this case by a solar flare rather than a shortage of fuel and lorry drivers. In season 2, he must deal with a serious cyberattack upon the nation and a storm of fake news. Richard Dormer (Beric Dondarrion in Game of Thrones) is also back as the almost impossibly reliable Head of Civil Contingencies, Fraser Walker. In Whitehall jargon, Cobra stands for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, where meetings of the Civil Contingencies Committee are traditionally held. In practice, this series owes more to the enduring legacy of The West Wing, 15 years after that show ended, than to the reality of UK government practice: just as most prime ministers yearn for an Air Force One, so those that work for them wish from time to time that they had something like the White House Situation Room to work in. COBRA indulges that fantasy and is, as a consequence, a lot of fun to watch.
Venom: Let There be Carnage (general release, 15 October)
This week’s entry in the ledger of “amiable hokum” is Andy Serkis’s sequel to Ruben Fleischer’s 2018 box office smash, based on the Marvel Comics character – an alien “symbiote” that infests the body of journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) and can emerge at any time as a murderous monster. This time round, Venom and Eddie are essentially a comic double act, taking on Woody Harrelson’s Cletus Kasady – who is himself possessed by an extremely unpleasant red symbiote, calling itself “Carnage”. There are worse ways to spend an hour and a half – plenty of lurid CGI, unhinged action scenes and enough shtick to keep the viewer amused. If you do go, stick around for the mid-credits plot development that points the franchise in an intriguing direction.
Silverview – John le Carré (Penguin Viking)
One of the characters in John le Carré’s last completed novel, published posthumously in the week of what would have been his 90th birthday (19 October), speaks of “a discourse between books”. Aficionados of the master storyteller’s work will be familiar with that idea, for le Carré’s own narratives interconnect not only with one another – profoundly so – but also with literature in a much broader sense (Silverview owes an explicit debt to W.G. Sebald’s 1995 travelogue-novel The Rings of Saturn).
Once again, we are presented with an agent, Edward Avon, whose loyalty is being tested; with a stoically persistent MI6 fixer of problems – Stewart Proctor, or “Doctor Proctor” – whose methodical calmness, intellect and apparent marital problems naturally evoke George Smiley; and an outside party, Julian Lawndsley, who has renounced the City to set up a bookshop in an East Anglian seaside town, only to be drawn into the intrigues of the secret world (shades of the initially hapless publisher, Barley Blair, in The Russia House). Even to the last, le Carré was asking spikily contemporary questions. What happens when the political class goes Awol on a deranged populist adventure? “Did Edward fear that in the absence of any coherent British foreign policy, the Service was getting too big for its boots? Well, the thought had crossed Proctor’s mind too, he wouldn’t mind admitting.”
Entangled with newer dilemmas are the author’s perennial preoccupations: loyalty, patriotism, doubt, identity and the mystery of human character. As in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, when Smiley compares the traitor Bill Haydon to a Russian doll, the innermost figure being known only to his spymaster, Karla, so Proctor puzzles over the very same question as he considers Avon: “..he would ask him frankly, man to man: who are you, Edward – you who have been so many people and pretended to be still others? Who do we find when we’ve pulled away the layers of disguise? Or were you ever only the sum of your disguises?” A magnificent novel, worthy of one of the greatest writers of the past century.
(Hodder & Stoughton): Launched on Monday at Spencer House with a speech by Tony Blair – who described the late Rabbi Lord Sacks as “my rabbi too” – this collection of essays, articles, contributions to Radio 4’s “Thought for the Day” and speeches, encapsulates what made the author (who died in November 2020) such a unique and revered intellectual and moral leader. Sacks’s religious learning was formidable, but one of his greatest gifts was to stretch out a hand to believer and non-believer alike, and to explain why inherited wisdom was of more value than ever in the complex, hectic, and often bewildering context of 21st Century modernity. This compilation, like all his books, is a box of gems to be treasured. (You can watch me interviewing Tony Blair on the legacy of Lord Sacks here).
The Beatles – Get Back – edited by John Harris (Callaway Arts & Entertainment)
Peter Jackson’s three-part documentary on the Fab Four (Disney+, 25-27 November) is one of the most eagerly awaited documentaries of the year. But before then – and on its own merits – don’t miss this truly wonderful, revealing and often moving book of transcripts and of photographs by Linda McCartney and Ethan A. Russell of the group as they record ‘Let It Be’ and film the original accompanying movie (dir. Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1971).
There is a fine introduction by Hanif Kureishi, but the book’s rigour, wit and cultural weight reflect the excellent choice of editor – the Orwell Prize-winning journalist, John Harris, whose task it was to sift through 120 hours of audio and raw material amounting to hundreds of thousands of words. What he distils is absolutely gripping (lavish as it is, this is much more than another Beatles photo album). The role of Yoko Ono is, naturally, central. “I mean, I’m not going to lie, you know, I would sacrifice you all for her,” John Lennon tells the others. “She comes everywhere, you know.” More interesting, given the orthodoxy that Ono was somehow instrumental in breaking up the band, is how sympathetic Paul McCartney actually was to his musical partner’s emotional situation. He urged the entourage “to realize she’s there, you know, and he’s not going to sort of split with her just for our sakes. And then it’s not even as much of an obstacle, as long as we’re not trying to surmount it… It’s not that bad, you know… It’s all right, let the young lovers stay together.” Even at this point, as the sense of an ending descended upon the four, there was love, humour, siblinghood and a sense of absurdity. In the end, they were still, and would always be, four lads from Liverpool, who just happened to have been the greatest band in history.
A Matter of Obscenity: The Politics of Censorship in Modern England – Christopher Hilliard (Princeton University Press)
At a cultural moment when free expression is given less priority than it once was, it is timely to be reminded of how hard won has been the liberty to speak and write freely. Spanning the period from 1857 to 1979, Christopher Hilliard’s book is rich in scholarship and academic command of the sources, but never loses touch with the general reader. The description of obscenity trials famous and less well-known is superbly rendered, as is Hilliard’s analysis of the ever-changing link between social morality and the law.
Easy on Me – Adele (15 October, 12am BST)
Twenty-one seconds of video, a mere 13 of plangent piano, a glimpse of mascara-lined eyes in a rearview mirror – that’s how Adele teased her new single on Instagram on 5 October. Four days later, there was a little more, on an Instagram Live session: that voice, as heart-rending as ever, and lyrics deep from the soul: “There ain’t no gold in this river/ That I’ve been washing my hands in forever/ I know there is hope in these waters/ But I can’t bring myself to swim/ When I am drowning in the silence/ Baby, let me in.” Meticulously choreographed hype? Most assuredly. But then, six years since Adele’s last release – the multi-platinum, Grammy-winning 25 – what did you honestly expect? The new track is the first from her forthcoming fourth studio album, reportedly entitled 30 (the singer is actually 33 now). We know that the production team includes Greg Kurstin, Shellback, and Tobias Jesso Jr., that the sound marks an “evolution” (unspecified, naturally), that the dominant theme is “divorce, babe, divorce” (Adele finalised her divorce from Simon Konecki in March) – and not much else. Precedent suggests that the girl from West Norwood will knock our socks off again. In fact, I’d put money on it.
Friday update: and here it is!
In his classic book on Bach, Music in the Castle of Heaven, Sir John Eliot Gardiner describes the composer’s late masterpiece, The Art of the Fugue, as music at “its most monumental and imposing… [in which] we come up against membranes so impenetrable as to thwart even the most persistent for the face of its creator.” All credit, then, to the Russian virtuoso pianist Danniil Trifonov for this bold exploration of that work – and, to enrich the sequence, of works by Bach’s sons and compositions that the family itself enjoyed (striking that, as in the Bridge Theatre’s production of Nina Raine’s Bach & Sons earlier this year – see Creative Sensemaker from 1 July 2021 – the composer is once again being interpreted through the familial prism).
The double album ranges from lighter fare such as Johann Christian’s Sonata No. 5 in A major to fourteen fugues and four canons of The Art of the Fugue itself. As Trifonov observes, the eternal mystery of Bach is his combination of rigorous order and transcendental feeling: “[ it is] far more than a scientific experiment: as always with Bach, he managed to make music of indescribable beauty and emotion”.
Censored – Loski (15 October)
The release last November of the 21-year-old Kennington rapper’s debut album Music, Trial & Trauma: A Drill Story marked the emergence of a talent with clear potential: sophisticated, intelligent, eclectic. As if to ensure we had all got the message, Loski posted a sharp and thought-provoking 16-minute-film of the same name, directed by André Reid & Dijian Eccles, on London life. Produced by M1onTheBeat, CZR and Rymez, Censored, his new 10-track EP, promises to be even more bracing in its whip-smart pulse – try the already-posted ‘Rolling Stones’ and ‘P.U.G’, and the terrific ‘Woosh and Push’, a collaboration with Active Gang’s Suspect. This is street music so gutsy and unfazed, you’ll think the pandemic never happened.
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner
Photographs HBO/Sky Atlantic, Scott Eells/Bloomberg, Silver Screen Collection, Alamy, Keystone/Hulton Archive, 20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock, Sascha Steinbach & Getty Images