In The White Lotus, Mike White’s kooky satire of the rich and vaguely New Age, there is an interesting scene around the breakfast table at the titular resort involving a rich, all-American and nominally forward-thinking family, the Mossbachers. Nicole, the matriarch, is a Gwyneth Paltrow type, a little floaty and softly-spoken but evidently steely enough to have made a minor fortune. Mark, the patriarch, makes less money than Nicole working a nonspecific job in, I think, finance – but he is still wealthy enough that he once bought his wife a pair of $75,000 Cartier bracelets as a pretty mea culpa for an extramarital affair. Their daughter, Olivia, is a downtown babe with vocal fry who reads theory on her deck-chair, loudly talks about her left-wing politics, and almost definitely uses Twitter.
In this particular scene, the Mossbachers are wondering, over fresh melon and Bellinis, whether or not it was ethical for the hotel to employ native families to perform traditional Hawaiian rituals as dinner theatre. Olivia and her similarly minded best friend Paula have enough sense to realise how bad the optics of this particular form of entertainment are; Mark, who for various reasons has been feeling thoroughly emasculated for most of the family’s trip, takes it upon himself to teach his Gen Z charges something about how life as a wealthy person works.
“Look – obviously imperialism was bad,” he begins, his eyebrows jumping and his hands gesticulating as if he is launching into a professional presentation, or delivering bad news to a particularly nervous client. “You shouldn’t kill people, steal their land and make ’em dance. Everybody knows that. But, it’s humanity. Welcome to history. Welcome to America. But I mean, what are we going to do? Nobody cedes their privilege, that’s absurd. It’s against human nature. We’re all trying to win the game of life.” Suddenly, he laughs—his tone, no longer coddling but mocking, switching into something that is less suggestive of workplace persuasion, more of a human adult man reasoning with a lapdog that has just relieved itself on a white rug. “Shall we give away all our money?” he asks Olivia, near-disdainfully, pointing his finger. “Would you like that?”
When Olivia’s usual coolness, her stand-offish air of superior hipness, evaporates into nothing, it is so obviously pleasing to him that his pleasure borders on perversion. “Yeah,” he nods, sucking his teeth, “that’s what I thought. Maybe we should just feel shitty about ourselves all the time, for the crimes of the past? Wear a hair shirt, and not go on vacation?” The show’s soundtrack, with its hoots and drums and gasps, swells to an almost-deafening volume. Olivia’s silence is more deafening still.
The dynamic between what might be called (very, very loosely) “self-made” wealthy people and their children – fascinating to a civilian viewer – makes for rich, uneasy tension, so that every family gathering takes on an air that is more redolent of a taut and dangerous thriller than a party. Happily, then, for those who get off on the serial humiliation of millionaires and billionaires, Succession, the smart, sleek, cringe-dramedy show par excellence, begins streaming its third season this week via Sky Atlantic. If The White Lotus’s occasional depiction of familial resentment between moneyed parents and their spoiled, ungrateful progeny offered a hit of schadenfreude, Succession – which follows the unlikeable and unscrupulous Roy family through an endless run of power-grabs and squabbles over their media empire – amplifies this pleasure tenfold. To watch the four manipulative, neurotic and unhappy children of its patriarch Logan sinking their teeth into each other’s jugulars over the promise of a CEO position is to experience two contradictory feelings at the same time – loathing them, and thrilling at the pure, unflinching power of their lousiness. Next to the Roys, the Mossbachers look like the Waltons.
The Roys – unlike families like the Mossbachers – are not just rich, but what Roman Roy describes as “properly ‘f*** you, f*** you, I-don’t-even-care-about-climate-change, I’m-in-New-Zealand-with-my-own-private-army’ rich”, making the stakes surrounding their inheritance and their respective trust funds even higher. Mark Mossbacher, an impotent-seeming common-or-garden one-per-center who has learnt just enough social justice language from his wellness magnate wife to appear broadly sympathetic, lets his mask slip when it becomes clear to him that he is at risk of being overthrown – politically, if not quite literally – by his daughter. In Succession, Logan Roy, the daddy of all moneyed pricks, rarely wears a mask at all. He is not sweet, polite, or loving with his children, whom he sees as either pawns or disappointments or competitors depending on his mood. There is a certain level of wealth, Succession seems to posit, at which making oneself appear to be just like any other man is no longer a necessity, nor a professional advantage.
What do audiences know for certain about how Succession’s media magnate Logan Roy obtained his power? They know that he and his brother grew up working class in Scotland with an alcoholic mother, born just before the Second World War; that later, they were relocated to live with an Uncle Noah in Canada, a fledgling ad-man who beat Logan savagely enough that he has deep red scars over his enormous, ursine back.
After this, there is a long stretch of his life – the stretch in which he changed himself, improbably and presumably with great strain, from a stone-broke and beaten lad into a billionaire tyrant – that is never mentioned on Succession, save for one or two allusions on his part to having seen or having done the unthinkable, the undoable, and the unspeakable, in ways his children never have and never will. The show’s savage engine springs, therefore, from this great gulf between the father’s life and the lives of his four spoilt children, who can never win his love for the simple and ugly reason that he hates them for the upbringing he gave them – the holiday homes and ponies, the expensive schooling and designer clothes, the permanent protective shield afforded by a net worth greater than that of some nations. “You know,” middle son Kendall tells Logan, early on in the first season. “I was born lucky, I’m a lucky person. And you’re so f***in’ jealous, aren’t you? You’re so f***in’ jealous of what you’ve given your own kids.”
If Mark Mossbacher felt hatred for his pseudo-social-justice-warrior daughter for the easy ride he’d given her during that dressing-down at breakfast, he at least had enough humanity not to fully show it. The White Lotus, a fine show in its own right, feels like the gentle warning nip of a domestic dog in contrast to Succession’s wolfish bite. Whereas White’s players generally pretend to be extremely pleasant, liberal people, even as they treat the service workers who surround them like proverbial dirt, the Roys have only become more abominable in the new season. Just as Olivia will not give up luxury, however many right-on infographics she may share on Instagram, Logan Roy knows that his four children would sooner destroy each other than give up their place at Waystar Royco’s teat. “[Dad’s] like f***in’ Moby Dick,” Roman says lightly, in the second episode of season three. “He could take us all down with his back riddled with harpoons.” The youngest Roy, even if he thinks he is joking, is probably right about the risk his father poses: “When I visited the writers’ room after hours one afternoon in late 2019,” the New Yorker interviewer Rebecca Mead reported last month, profiling the show’s creator and writer Jesse Armstrong, “I peeked at … visual evidence of the group’s creative discussions [that included] photocopied images of paintings, by Goya and Rubens, of Saturn devouring his son.”
In that same piece, Armstrong reveals that in conceiving of the show he was thinking about something Marx said in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” It is a highbrow, historical reference for what is sometimes a highbrow and historic-feeling show, its sensibility quite often closer to Greek myth or Shakespeare than to contemporary prestige comedy.
Much of this springs from its threats of violence between families and dynasties and houses, and its almost entirely theoretical obsession with the act of sex – every double-cross is seen as “getting f***ed”, every character believes the other characters should “f*** themselves”, and so on – even when there’s very little sex onscreen. Although now and then, there is an undertone of incest: “You may want to screw your mother,” Logan growls at Roman, lashing out, “but I’m OK in that department.” (That Roman’s real name is “Romulus”, as in Romulus and Remus, is amusing, since it’s hard to think of anyone who might have more crippling mummy issues than a man who is abandoned by his mother and then raised and suckled by a wolf. Funnier still: Romulus’s father in the myth is Mars, the God of War.)
In addition to being as bawdy, atavistic, and occasionally perverse as anything by Shakespeare, Succession also calls to mind the 1976 teleplay I, Claudius, which ran through the history of the Roman empire from the perspective of its emperors, and which also heaved with power grabs, interfamilial spats, and baroque, betrayal-on-betrayal double-crosses. The world of I, Claudius was a matriarchy to Succession’s patriarchy, and its evil mother, Livia, was played by Dame Sian Phillips with her tongue firmly in cheek. “Just be evil,” she recalled being told by the series’ director, Herbert Wise. “The more evil you are, the funnier it is, and the more terrifying it is.”
One could easily imagine this quote pinned to Jesse Armstrong’s inspiration board beside the Reubens and the Goya. If The White Lotus happened to end with an actual body count – albeit of one – Succession somehow feels more violent, or perhaps less merciful. Lest we forget, its second season ended on one of the most thrilling and chilling shots in TV history, with Logan watching Kendall laying waste to his professional reputation on live television and reacting in the most surprising way, the scene so charged it landed like a sudden slap: the son devouring the father, and the father smiling, almost beatifically, as if for the first time he were feeling something close to love.
‘Succession’ season three is available from 2am on Monday 18 October via Sky Store and NOW, and will subsequently air Mondays at 9pm on Sky Atlantic