‘The Righteous Gemstones’ and ‘Succession’: Generational Resentment, Served Two Ways

·7 min read
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

What’s a power-hungry father to do when his wretched children start harboring fantasies of taking over his billion-dollar empire? If you’re Succession’s Logan Roy, the answer is to play them against one another—but if you’re Eli Gemstone, the looming mega-church leader at the center of The Righteous Gemstones, the answer might just be to break one of your kids’ thumbs.

The similarities between these HBO cousins make themselves obvious from the jump: Brian Cox and John Goodman both play imposing patriarchs whose children have been raised to view the family business and the family itself as inextricable. As a result, both men are now stuck with broods so dysfunctional and incapable of teamwork that the idea of handing over the reins seems about as appealing as bankruptcy. Season 2 of Gemstones even goes so far as to introduce us to “Grandaddy Roy,” who spent his final years on the compound battling dementia and incontinence. Sound familiar?

These series, which aired back-to-back during Gemstones’ debut season in 2019, make fascinating companion pieces; they’re two sides of a generational struggle for power that’s playing out in real life. The phrase “OK, boomer” didn’t come out of nowhere—it’s emblematic of growing resentment between younger generations and older folks who are seen as hoarding all the wealth and power.

Consider, for instance, last week’s argument between Eli and his oldest son, Jesse, who can’t understand why his daddy won’t hand over millions of dollars so he can become part owner of a Christian resort. “All you ever care about is building this church,” Jesse told his father. “You cared about that more than being a daddy, more than anything—even now, when it’s so painfully obvious it’s time for you to slow down and let me have a crack at things.” (Never mind that Jesse himself spends the very same episode trying to get out of talking about masturbation with his own son.)

In a later scene, one half of the couple Jesse wants to invest with sums it up even more succinctly: “Boomers,” she says. “Most selfish generation to ever live… They won’t get the hell out of the way, even when it’s God’s plan.”

While Succession finds Logan’s children desperately searching for a sense of righteousness within a locus of power, The Righteous Gemstones explores the inverse of that equation–thanks to their televangelical upbringing, Eli’s stunted children have no doubt in their own righteousness. They’re all about consolidating influence—and while Kendall and his fellow Roy siblings’ power trip grows more pensive by the season, the little gems’ bombastic incompetence is pure comedy. Take this week’s episode, in which Jesse, Judy, and Kelvin struggle to hack into their dad’s phone because not one of them can remember his birthday.

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Succession mines its drama from the younger Roys’ individual journeys toward recognizing and processing the abusive environment in which they grew up. The comedy lies in just how oblivious each one of them—save for possibly Roman—seems to be regarding just how much of that toxicity they’ve internalized as personality traits. Gemstones, meanwhile, hones in on the humorous flip side, running on explosive performances and vile turns of phrase that would even give Roman a run for his money—like, “I hope the Devil sucks you dry.” Is there anything funnier than pure, sequin-coated hubris?

Both series seem to agree that these kids are no better than their parents—and that their central families’ salvation will lie in learning how to actually love one another like human beings. But that’s easier said than done considering the patriarchs at the head of these family tables. While Logan’s early life remains sketchy (even to his children, who only seem to know the vague details of his life on his uncle Noah’s farm), pieces of Eli’s backstory unfold in flashbacks throughout Righteous Gemstones Season 2. The future megachurch impresario got his start as a teenage wrestler in Memphis known as the “Maniac Kid,” and his promoter didn’t waste much time before putting those fighting skills to work for more nefarious purposes. Eli claims that when he married his late wife—the kids’ mother, Aimee-Leigh—he left that life behind in pursuit of a higher calling.

Eli and Logan both stand in for that stereotypical “walked uphill both ways through snow to get to school” generation; their built-something-from-nothing stories estrange them from their children, who grew up benefiting from the privilege their parents provided and now want their piece of the pie. (As Kendall put it to his father in Succession’s first season, “You’re so fucking jealous of what you’ve given your own kids, you can’t handle it. You can’t work it out.” And as Logan later rebutted in Season 3’s penultimate episode, “You’re my son. I did my best. And whenever you fucked up, I cleaned up your shit. And I’m a bad person? Fuck off, kiddo.”)

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But while Logan centralized his power in the openly cutthroat sphere of New York media, Eli’s domain is his Southern megachurch—where the pretense of divine calling is king. Both men built their empires by converting human beings into devout consumers of content, but the packaging (and their relationships to their respective brands) are worlds apart. You can see it even in their wardrobe choices. While the Roys favor the brandless simplicity of the “coastal elite” mega-rich, the ostentatious Gemstones go for duds that could only be described as “aggressively loud.” The Roys use their media to put on a show to distract the world from their own depravity; the Gemstones make themselves the show. And this season, they’ve even launched their own streaming network!

Both fathers’ insistence on making the family business everyone’s business has begotten broods that are utterly incapable of acting like a family (or, really, cooperating with other people in basically any context). But only one of these series has genuine love at its core. Unlike Lady Caroline Collingwood, the icy mother to three of Logan’s children, Aimee-Leigh Gemstone was a source of warmth and morality for her family—and while her kids and husband were certainly never angels, it’s her death that catalyzed their estrangement from one another.

Perhaps that’s why the daughters of these two families turned out so differently. Judy Gemstone and Shiv Roy might be equally mistrustful of other people, but Judy has found something Shiv has not: a spouse with whom she shares a truly loyal bond. While Tom seems more than happy to sell Shiv out after years of letting her do the same to him, BJ and Judy are the kind of bizarro couple that seems bound to stick together till the end.

Edi Patterson plays Judy with the kind of unhinged mania that’s both repellant and irresistible. She’s a font of gross-out humor, incest jokes, and sexual bravado. (“I have regular woman panties where the string goes up my crack,” she proudly proclaims. “I have tits. I do sex. I'm carving my own path!”) And while her husband is an outsider desperate to join the family, just like Tom, she actually wants him to join the inner circle as a true Gemstone. Perhaps that’s because in doing so, BJ will amplify Judy’s power within the church. But there does seem to be genuine love and appreciation there as well—the kind that’ll compel a person to wear heinous matching pink outfits. (No spoilers there, but… just wait for it.)

Just as Tom became the centerpiece of Succession’s stunning third season by the end, Tim Baltz’s BJ runs away with this season of The Righteous Gemstones. Maybe it’s the unstoppable stream of embarrassing outfits, his pathetic desperation to call Eli “daddy,” or Baltz’s gift at portraying repressed discomfort. If these televangelists are trying to reconnect with the heart their family lost after their matriarch’s death, it might not hurt to embrace a little of this lapsed agnostic’s tenderness. Then again, that would probably make for a far less entertaining show.

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