OCTOBER 24, 2019
This is a non-exhaustive list of terrible things the Roy family has done on HBO’s Succession: fired people on a whim, taunted young children, berated service staff; fostered hostile work environments by using employees as ottomans and forcing executives to bark like dogs; acquired and shut down a media company for sport, leaving hundreds unemployed; produced a news channel that promotes tribalism and misinformation; pursued monopolistic control in the worlds of televisual and print news. In short, the Roys represent the capricious and petty powers available to the wealthiest people in America.
And we haven’t gotten to the things they do to each other. The Roy children, whose love language is withering insults and double-crossing, balance family on comedy’s knife-edge. When they work together, it’s a truce, and when they don’t, that’s life. Everything is funny, especially what others take seriously.
For viewers, humor smooths the bumpy ride through Succession’s ethical minefield. The characters are rendered palatable, even alluring, with the seductive comforts of the show’s comedic timing, one-liners, and punchline reaction shots. The comic form sweetens the nasty after-taste of the Roys’ resemblance to real-life moguls and billionaire families taking up so much oxygen on all sides of America’s political stage.
Succession, created by Jesse Armstrong, is about a family, the Roys, and their inner circle (most of whom are relatives or long-time employees of the family business). The patriarch, Logan Roy, founded one of the largest media conglomerates in the world, Waystar Royco. The company includes various kinds of news outlets (including an analogue of Fox News), media companies, movie production companies, theme parks, and cruise lines. Logan’s children — Kendall, Siobhan (“Shiv”), Roman, and Connor — vie for his affection, or at least his respect, but never reside in his good graces long. The Roy siblings have everything, so they want what they can’t have: for Logan to name them worthy and whole.
But feeling for and with miserable billionaires can get uncomfortable.
In response, power rankings, winners and losers, listicles and ledgers circulate weekly as wedges creating distance from the show’s affective reach. It becomes important to make sure that we’re reading the show correctly. Pieces dwelling on whether the show is a comedy or drama, or “how embarrassed you should be about your Succession crush,” indicate discomfort with engaging the show on its own terms, a sense that there might be something wrong about tuning in every week to be fascinated and scandalized by these assholes.
The second season begins with a trip to Logan’s “Summer Palace,” an estate he acquired, as we are conspicuously informed, for $200 million, to discuss a hostile takeover bid by Logan’s main rival. A reek of decay chokes the air. Declaring the stench unbearable, Logan orders the service staff to toss out the delicacies prepared for lunch. Proximity and exposure had, to his mind, contaminated the lobster and aged steak.
Succession engenders such ambivalent feelings itself; the show’s pleasures are always tainted. Writing on negative affects, Silvan Tompkins describes disgust as a matter of distance, a pulling back that requires too close-ness, a reaction to something that has infiltrated the body. Proximity and pulling back are the experiences of watching Succession.
Around the dining room of the Summer Palace, the Roys and their partners sit with untouched pizza. Logan asks his family for opinions on whether they should sell or fight, but his children sense a trap. Roman expresses what others are thinking: if he had a thought or maneuver, why would he undermine his position by announcing it to everyone? Family is a space of competition, not collaboration.
Tables like this one orient Succession’s pivotal moments. Whether it’s Logan’s dinner table, the Waystar Royco boardroom, or dinner with the Pierces at Tern Haven, each gathering is a family reunion in miniature. For the Roys, business is intimate work, and every room with enough chairs is a boardroom. So, the stability of the table’s form becomes the instability of the Roy family form, and instead of structuring support, tables become surfaces for explosion and disintegration. The show revolves around these reunions that are collisions.
And that instability is formalized by a framing that is always in motion: following, swaying, trembling, wobbling, zooming, focusing and re-focusing. In his book Post-Cinematic Affect, Steven Shaviro describes the handheld cinematography of Olivier Assayas’s Boarding Gate as such: “The camera is always restlessly moving, zooming in and out, reframing, panning laterally and horizontally… Rack focus shifts are frequent… everything seems to come in layers.” That film, much like Succession, conveys the dynamic instability of its world through what Shaviro calls an “obsessive deframing.”
Director Adam McKay and cinematographer Andrij Parekh established this house visual style in the pilot. Parekh, who also shot and directed multiple episodes, uses handheld cameras that float around the characters, allowing actors freedom of movement. The frame often pans instead of cutting, and zooms are used to draw attention to minute reactions on characters’ faces. This movement means being in focus is not a constant commandment for the show. In shallow-depth close-ups, when character and camera are in motion, focus is a tenuous negotiation. The deframing Shaviro describes, then, also works as a kind of unending re-framing.
In the episode “Hunting,” the show’s frantic gesturing and editing are on display after Logan announces his plan to pursue the acquisition of another media group as a defense against external threats to Waystar. The scene captures the show’s awkward humor — executives deathly afraid of undermining Logan, express their concerns about the plan in absurd indirect comments. But the cuts are lively and pursue movement — in a few seconds the scene cuts to Kendall in a medium shot standing at the head of the table and then pans over to Gerri (Waystar’s general counsel), zooming into a close-up; then, a close-up of Karl (chief financial officer) expressing skepticism zooms out to Karl and Gerri in a medium shot which then pans to Kendall and zooms into a medium shot of him, cutting to another close-up of Karl. The camera swings to captures reactions and speechlessness, creating movement with pans and zooms that track the flow of a conversation brushing against dissent, a scene organizing itself around whoever might have the best shot at the moment.
Previously, McKay directed The Big Short with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, and I imagine that his work on that film, which introduced dynamism to men wearing suits sitting in boardrooms, influenced the style in Succession. Ackroyd, also known for films like United 93, Captain Phillips, and Hurt Locker, traces his filmmaking roots to documentary. For most of the 20th century, handheld camera cinematography was associated with a kind of documentary filmmaking that idealized mobility and unobtrusiveness. Eschewing interviews and other typical production, small crews became embedded with their documentary subjects, such as the John F. Kennedy presidential campaign in Robert Drew’s Primary (they became “part of the woodwork,” said Drew). Directors associated with direct cinema and cinema verité believed that they had collapsed the distinction between the real world and the cinematic — that they had captured truth.
But truth proved slippery.
By the late 20th century, the handheld aesthetic became a kind of shorthand used by American genre films looking for a sense of realism or immersion. A notable example is 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, which preceded other horror films made to look like found footage. Divorced from strict documentation, the trembling frame incorporated an intensity of feeling and spatial instability. Handheld cinematography, also called “wobbly” or “shaky cam,” has been used for action moves like The Bourne Supremacy, The Hunger Games, and Hurt Locker. This kind of cinematography can be contentious, with detractors calling it sloppy or nauseating. In an ironic twist of its origin, shaky cam is a kind of framing that is often noticeable and intrusive even to those who are not moved to retching by it.
Succession is wobbly and disharmonic and tenuous. This is thematic. When objects are in harmony, they sit or dance in coordination with each other. When they are in disjunction, movement causes collisions and loss of balance. Truces are tentative, interests misalign, the comedic and tragic meet. Wobbling is not a state, it is transitive, it is the trace of failing to be in sync.
If you’re a fan of Succession who has proselytized at all, you have probably found yourself starting a sentence with: “I know, I know. It’s a show about a terrible, rich white people…” An understandable air of fatigue has descended on your conversation. An abundance of evidence on social media sites and comment sections expresses some version of the axiom terrible people doing terrible things (or sub in horrible, unpleasant) from those expressing disinterest as well as those who feel ashamed of their fascination. Reviewers and commenters also call the show grotesque, debased, stifling, and nihilistic. Even fans of the show acknowledge that there’s something unsavory going on.
In his writing on ambivalence, Robert Pfaller calls this the ‘I know perfectly well… but still…’ formulation that allows people to invest in (suspended) illusions. Belief in illusion, in this sense, doesn’t connote a magic trick but a symbolic practice required for us play games, or watch sports, appreciate camp, and smoke cigarettes. The key is that the ‘I know well…’ does not subtract from the fascination or fetishization of engagement, but in fact solidifies our subjection to its rules. Everyone complaining about another show about terrible rich white people is actually right, but that doesn’t offer a way out.
The Roys’ unpalatability extends not just to actions but to their obstacles and how they discuss them. It doesn’t actually matter that their news anchor is a Nazi, it matters whether the evidence can be dismissed as circumstantial. In the episode “Argestes,” when a national magazine reports on the history of sexual coercion and hush-ups at Waystar’s cruise division, the show depicts how appeals to the nonhumanity of the corporation allow employees to behave inhumanly in its interests.
As viewers, do we separate our ethical concerns from the conniving and calloused amorality of the Roys’ business machinations? This is related to another question: is there something suspect in feeling for these fictional power brokers who are so similar to those causing actual harm and systemic violence in the world? This issue isn’t unique to Succession; for example, see the responses to Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film about Italy’s proto-Trump, Loro, or debates about depiction versus endorsement in Martin Scorsese’s glam and sleazy Wolf of Wall Street. Depending on where you stand you might read Jesse Armstrong’s story about a family to be a satire “skewer[ing] the rich,” or question how its “half-baked class politics” makes you care about the Roys. The text supports both interpretations, and personal sentiment (how you personally feel about the Roys) will affect where you land. I propose a third route; digging into Succession is a purposely winding road with no outlet. Succession means to make you conflicted and repulsed, guilty about your enjoyment, and gratified in discomfort.
Even its comedy is not pure pleasure. Succession mines humor and tension in equal parts from scenes of cringe and embarrassment. Its protagonists conduct awkward atmospheres, brimming with the slapstick of misrecognition and mistiming, of failures in trying to relate to others. The show is populated by characters that Lauren Berlant calls combed-over subjects, insisting others accept their own versions of reality and revealing their own vulnerability in the process (which others then accede to protecting by playing along and pretending they don’t notice the bare scalp). If watching the Roys live and move haplessly makes you squirm in your chair, as it does me, it might be because we recognize our own incoherence in theirs. And we’re always trying to look past our incoherence, though it’s sitting right there. The queasy comedy of the combover happens when we laugh “because we know it could be us, is us.”
Humor doesn’t just create distance, allowing viewers to laugh at the despicable things the Roys do, it brings us closer too. Comedy is social and shared, something in common. Laughter, too, is not unambivalent; but it is bodily. A laugh can be uncomfortable, nervous, shocked, and, yes, queasy. Laughter can turn into a groan or sink into your gut. Question: are you laughing with the Roys or at the Roys? Follow-up question: What’s the difference?
Midway through Season 2, the Roy family meets its mirror image when they spend the weekend with the Pierces. “Custodians” of media conglomerate PGM, Waystar’s opposite number on the left, the Pierces are polished and over-educated old money who recite Shakespeare in lieu of prayers before each meal. Logan wants to buy PGM, but the Pierces won’t sell unless the Roys pass a sniff test. Like many viewers, the Pierces are repelled by the Roys, but they still want to spend Sunday night with them.
During dinner, tensions run high as the Roys and the Pierces spar. Members of each family are interspersed along a long banquet table designed to spark conflict. The camera swarms around them following the assorted flavors of conflict at every corner. To sustain his posturing, Roman accidentally improvises a fake novel (Timothy Lipton’s The Electric Circus) with Shiv goading him on. Kendall and Naomi Pierce bond and flirt over their addiction issues. Connor bludgeons another Pierce cousin with his paranoid-libertarian platform (“That’s just the sort of expert analysis I’d expect from a deep-state wonk with both lips glued to the Soros teat.”). Logan’s blood is running hot and he compensates for his lack of control over his children by speaking over his wife, Marcia, who won’t stand for it. The Roys are at their most bumbling when trying to be polite and not offend, like their bodies reject it. Shiv punctuates the scene with the tactless announcement that she’s been promised succession — an ill-timed spew.
The Pierces are opposed to the Roys politically and morally, and their distaste is visceral. The sale being brokered between the Pierces and the Roys is a relationship of great intimacy: will the Pierces swallow it, keep it down? Or will the Waystar culture stink up the deal? Business and politicking are always the crude and extreme; deals are sex or violence or some other nasty deed. Kendall wants to betray his dad, but does he have the stomach for it? Death, decay, and bodily waste are also present in literal terms: a dead rat, festering raccoons, pissing on carpets, defecating in beds, vomiting over lunch. If you get too close to the Roys, you might feel your stomach turn.
I mean that literally.
Shaky cam is often associated with a propensity to cause nausea and motion sickness. The website MovieHurl.com, which aims to rate movies by how much they will affect viewers sensitive to motion sickness ranks three films shot by Barry Ackroyd in its top ten “Hall of Shame,” including Adam McKay’s The Big Short. If you search for public comments about Succession’s cinematography, you will find comments on social media and beneath reviews calling it nauseating, jerky, super shaky, unbearable, bouncy, again nauseating. Use of the handheld is sometimes described as a moral issue; not just a choice but a commitment, substance that can be used and abused.
Motion sickness happens when there’s disagreement between how you see the world and how you feel the world. Literally, it is when you feel movement but don’t see it or visually detect movement but don’t feel it (which means you are moved, but not in the right way). The physical symptom most associated with motion sickness is nausea, which originates from the Greek term for seasickness. I want to call this ‘see-sickness’ an affective ambivalence, mixed feelings that take over your body.
Succession is a disagreement between how the Roys see themselves and the world. It’s also about the way we see the Roys, ourselves, and the world. Sometimes those feelings disagree. The frame wobbles. A cut to a pan, then zoom. A close-up sways in and out of focus.