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Succession - The Toxic Culture of Success | Season 2 Explained

Succession‘s Season 2 Finale ends with Brian Cox’s titan of industry, Logan Roy, cracking a small smile. It’s a smile that might seem odd given that he’s watching his son, Kendall, publicly throw him under the bus on TV and expose his culpability for the cruises scandal that could cause him to be ousted as CEO from the company he built. So why does Logan look, on some level, a little bit happy about this?


TRANSCRIPT

Kendall: “I have an announcement to make about wrongdoing at Waystar Royco”

The Season Two finale of Succession ends with Brian Cox’s titan of industry, Logan Roy, cracking a small, barely perceptible smile. It’s a smile that might seem odd given that he’s watching his son, Kendall, publicly throw him under the bus on TV and expose his culpability for the cruises scandal that could cause him to be ousted as CEO from the company he built. So why does Logan look, on some level, a little bit happy about this?

The Killer Instinct

In the Season Two finale when Logan tells Kendall he’s making his son the “blood sacrifice” for the cruise scandal plaguing Waystar Royco, this scene contains three key moments of dialogue that basically tell us everything about who Logan is, as a businessman and as a father. One involves the Roy family belief that, in order to make it in business, you have to have killer instinct.

Kendall: “Did you ever think I could do it?”

Logan: “The top job? You’re not a killer. You have to be a killer.”

Rewatching Seasons One and Two, we’ll actually notice that we were told all along that Kendall’s lack of killer instinct was why his dad doubted him—from the first episode when Logan tells Kendall he “bent” for the Vice-like media company named Vaulter, to Shiv’s line in the second episode—

Shiv: “You lack killer instinct… I don’t think all that, I’m just trying to be dad’s voice.”

to the two plots in Season One when Logan berates his son for coming for him and losing. Logan’s view of business is that it’s a battle. When Roman half-heartedly tries to suggest that there’s such a thing as a win-win, Logan counters that there’s no success without hurt and killing.

The very first episode of Succession is entitled “celebration”—as the family plans to celebrate both tycoon Logan Roy’s birthday and the planned announcement that Kendall will replace his father as CEO—but really the whole birthday party is a test, one which Kendall fails by choosing to put family first

Logan: “You left the room. The deal.”

Kendall: “To come to my dad’s f***ing birthday party!”

After Logan announces that he’s not going to pass power on to Kendall after all, he reveals that he thinks Kendall is too soft to be CEO. Kendall comes to understand that, if he really wants the top job, he’ll have to kill his father (in a business sense). But whenever Kendall mounts an attempt on his father’s business life, he self-sabotages at the last-minute, seemingly proving his father right that he just can’t summon the will to kill.

Mid-way through the season, Kendall plots a vote of no confidence, but makes the incredibly bad decision to fly out to Long Island to convince Ilona (a vote he actually doesn’t need), thus missing the vote and letting his father muscle him out of the win by refusing to leave the room and bullying yes’s into reversing their vote or abstaining. At the end of Season 1, Kendall decides again to kill his father—this time through a hostile takeover with his private equity buddy Stewie and his father’s enemy Sandy Furness.

In the Season One finale, we hear a callback to the first episode. But again, just as Kendall’s on the verge of actually getting what he wants, he panics and tells Frank about the plan (even though Stewie warned him not to), thus spurring a leak which means the bear hug has to be accelerated and Kendall has to confront his dad face to face at the wedding. Kendall spirals out, going on a bender, driving intoxicated, and causing the death of a young caterer. So at this point, rather than killing his father, it seems that what Kendall really wants is to revert to being that helpless dependent child, to be “rescued” by his powerful dad’s safe arms.

Season Two follows “broken” Kendall who’s so determined to serve his dad loyally that he’s behaving like a robot who’d consider even a thought independent of his father as disobedient. But while at first doing exactly what his dad wants does seem to bring the two closer together than ever, it ultimately leads to his father exploiting him at the expense of Kendall’s health, and planning to sacrifice him. So all this explains why, in that final moment of Season Two—as a father, Logan is happy that Kendall revealed he is a killer…something Roman and Shiv have not yet proved themselves to be

Of course, Logan the CEO and business titan is still gonna to fight tooth and nail against his son in Season Three, but this is the look of a father who is proud of his son for proving a worthy adversary.

A second key moment in the father-son scene is where Kendall reveals why he’s willing to accept this public punishment

Kendall: “I deserve it.”

Logan: “Oh no son.”

Kendall: “Yeah. For everything.”

Logan: “No, no, no, god no.”

Kendall: “The boy.”

Logan: “Nah, nah, nah Not that.”

His father makes it clear he literally doesn’t care about or believe in any of that moralizing. But what Logan has done to his son, which is both genius and evil, is to weaponize the boy’s better self—the human being who feels and cares about things—against him, to make Kendall view that self (and his emotions in general) as weakness, and to use it to control Kendall. It’s actually this nice, moral person in Kendall, who wants to be a “good son” and do the right thing, who gets in his way whenever he’s about to kill his father.

Kendall: “Is this, like, objectively horrible?”

Frank: “You might never get another shot…Strength. You’re a good son.”

It’s right after this line that Kendall self-sabotages over the vote of no confidence, making the call to Ilona’s family which Frank warns him will stir things up—because on some level he wants to mess up his plan so he’ll still be a “good son.”

When Logan reassures his son that the boy Kendall killed “doesn’t matter” he uses a key phrase that we’ve heard pop up in the investigation of the cruises scandal.

Logan: “NRPI. No real person involved.

Logan’s casual use of the phrase is important because it confirms that, if we had any doubts, Waystar Royco’s toxic culture really does totally stem from him. As Senator Gil Eavis puts it,

Gil: “Emerson said, ‘Every institution is the shadow of a single man.’ At Waystar, that man is Logan Roy, isn’t he?”

not to mention that—as Kendall notes—Logan is clearly aware of everything that goes on. So Logan is the head that needs to be cut off. This is why the first thing Kendall says about his dad in the press conference is that Logan is a “malignant presence.” In other words, the energy of his very being and the behavior he’s trained others to view as normal - create an “evil” company culture from which all transgressions originate.

Pass-down-the Pain culture

Waystar Royco’s toxic culture is encapsulated in this phrase “NRPI”—this idea that some people (even most people) don’t matter. The series underlines that the way this abusive power structure functions (in both Waystar and within the family) is by encouraging each individual to pass down the pain they get from their higher-ups onto those beneath them.

Kendall: “You pour the shit I’m pouring on you on your f***ing minions and you ride them.”

This cultural expectation that you take the shit you get out on the people below you is shown most clearly through Greg, the newcomer and distant relative who’s the lowest on the family totem pole, and so is used as a punching bag by everyone—sometimes quite literally. Mostly, Greg is there to take shit from Tom, who—as Shiv’s partner and a relative “nobody” in the Roys’ view—is that one level up from Greg and needs someone who’s less important but still in the “family” to let out his negative feelings on.

As a born Roy, Roman is a level up from Tom, but he’s also the baby of the family who’s known as a screw-up so still low on the family ladder—thus we see him mistreat both Tom and Greg.

Shiv actually takes out her bullying instincts on her fiancé slash husband Tom. And because Tom can’t honestly voice or address his powerlessness in his relationship with Shiv, he literally beats Greg up when Greg tries to be honest about seeing Shiv cheating. He also violently throws water bottles at the kid when Greg tries to get out of working at the Fox News-like ATN by uttering the sentence,

Greg: “It-it could be like, like a business open relationship.”

which strikes a nerve because it echoes the open relationship Tom doesn’t want with his wife.

All this bullying underlines how power imbalances corrupt any relationship. And of course, this culture of exploiting and punishing the weaknesses of the people you supposedly love and are family with, originates with Logan himself. When Greg tells Logan,

Greg: “I don’t want to mention any names because I (stammers) but the culture there, it borders on the personally abusive at times.”

Logan actually laughs and seems almost to approve—to be proud or impressed by Tom’s surprising cruelty, just as Tom, too, is proud when Greg shows he’s learning “slime ball” killer-instinct tactics.

Tom: “Are you asking if you can blackmail me? (laughs) you’re a f***ing slime ball!”

What Logan relishes most of all is something that he and the family vaguely refer to, in a variety of contexts, as “the game”. In the first episode, we’re introduced to this through a literal ballgame Logan is itching to play. But even the baseball game isn’t really about that game—it’s an opportunity for him to work each of his children in business negotiations around changing the family trust. Likewise, we’ll see in later episodes, often the play is blinding others to where the real game is and which big moves are happening outside of the apparent game. But strikingly, all of the constant “games” we witness the Roy circle playing are not fun at all. They’re based on humiliation, on someone being the winner who inflicts cruelty and public shame on a loser. And all this circles back again to that NRPI acronym, which expresses that human beings matter only insofar as they are reflections of wealth and power.

“The game” really stands in for capitalism and corporate power in today’s world—and what Succession is underlining is that this “game” is based on a refusal to value the humanity of people. Because it’s only by blinding oneself to the fact that talking about, for example, waving “skulls” to shareholders means actual people losing their livelihoods, and ignoring the fact that this game is no good and no fun for any of us. It actually makes even those at the top pretty miserable.

Logan passes down his hurt, especially onto his primary son Kendall. During his visit back to the UK to be honored in his hometown of Dundee, Scotland, Logan’s trying to push away difficult feelings about his own aging. And after Kendall makes the mistake of being honest about Rhea, Logan responds by inflicting a kind of emotional torture on his son by forcing Kendall to visit the family of the boy he killed.

We also see the way this “pass-down-the-pain” culture extends to how Logan’s children treat common people outside their circle. In the first episode, Roman thinks it’s funny to play with a young kid’s hopes and dreams by offering him a million bucks if he can hit a home run, passing on the public humiliation he’s experienced so often due to his father and brother’s “games.” This kind of behavior is taken to an extreme in the Season One finale, during which the central Roy children callously destroy other people: in addition to Kendall killing someone, Roman pushes up a launch that’s not ready, causing an explosion, and Shiv hurts her groom by revealing her affair and “adult” view of their relationship.

Shiv: “You know because I thought we were both grown-ups and we had an agreement.”

Tom: “Did we?”

None of them cause hurt intentionally, but through a thoughtlessness that stems from how they’ve been taught to see themselves as the only “real” people, at the center of the universe, different and better than everyone else, and blind to the need to act responsibly toward other humans.

The Dark Father

A third key moment in the Season Two finale father-son scene is when Logan justifies his choice to “kill” Kendal by citing the Incas’ rationale for sacrificing children.

Logan: “What could you possibly kill that you love so much it would make the sun rise again?”

This is exactly the kind of supernatural trick Logan is reaching for—making the sun rise again for himself, i.e., giving himself more life.

Succession has a lot of Oedipus references.

Lawrence: “You and Kendall are thinking of killing your dad? That’s a little Greek tragedy.”

A lot—many of which focus on Kendall wanting to kill his father and Roman wanting to f*** his mother (which we’ll have more time to get into in another video). But in addition to the Oedipal idea that the the child must destroy the parent, the father-son finale scene underlines that Logan is a “dark father,” in the vein of Darth Vadar or Greek mythology’s Kronos—the figure who would steal life from his own child.

Succession evokes Shakespeare’s King Lear through its premise (and its star Brian Cox, who says that he’s played Lear over “150 times”), but it’s kind of an inverse Lear. While that play deals with Lear’s folly in giving away his kingdom to his children before he’s actually dead, here, as Cox points out, it’s the opposite: “ [Logan is] taking it back.” Over time, it becomes clear that Logan’s resisting the succession choice not just because he’s keenly aware that all the candidates are lacking, but also because he’s resisting his own death.

When Kendall talks Naomi Pierce into considering the deal for the Roys to acquire the Pierce family’s news business, he sells her on the idea that money is freedom. But for the Roy children, it’s the opposite: their father’s money has trapped them into what’s effectively a very small existence—where their whole world is about striving for their father’s approval (and by extension, love) while knowing deep down they’ll never get it.

Shiv: “I’ve managed to get myself into this situation where ‘what does my dad think?’ is my entire f***ing universe.”

They’re frequently talking about being “adults” because they all feel like little kids who are constantly worrying about what their dad thinks. As Dr. Patti Britton told The Cut, everyone in the show besides Logan “lives in a kind of caricature of themselves, and a projection of what they believe their father expects of them.”

Feelings v Success

The Roys have internalized the idea from their father that being rich, powerful and successful requires you to be a cruel, heartless, overall bad person who’s totally shut off to feelings.

One of the running themes of the series is the way that Logan uses rhetoric of caring about his family when it suits his business goals, but shows time and again that his children’s well-being always comes second to the company.

Logan has no time for discussing his or anyone else’s feelings, and moreover, he views them as a weakness—one which he can exploit in order to get an edge in business and manipulate his kids.

When Logan stages a family therapy session at Connor’s retreat for a photoshoot and to revamp the company’s image, the episode (like the ranch) is named after a Napoleonic battle; the therapist ends up in the hospital, and the actual sharing of feelings later that night, is an all-out emotional brawl with the father bullying the kids.

Kendall’s, Shiv’s and Roman’s English mother is likewise pathologically averse to sharing feelings or having them shared with her. This is most poignantly illustrated when Kendall attempts to tell her about his emotional struggles over the death of the boy he killed, and his mother rejects his request for a heart-to-heart:

Caroline: “Are they difficult things? Because…bit tired for home truths…It might be better to do it over an egg.”

then purposely misses breakfast just to avoid hearing Kendall’s feelings. Even her bargaining to have them come for Christmas is just another game to prove to them that their dad will choose real estate over them

Caroline: “He can keep the summer palace if I get the family every Christmas. / Let’s make him choose.”

Each of the first two seasons has a moment when Logan is actually physically abusive—and in both cases the showy reaction that it’s not okay feels like a jarring form of protesting too much, because (whether or not he’s been physically abusive much before, which isn’t clear) Logan is constantly emotionally abusive and bullying. He only gives his kids love and approval when they’re totally broken and in need of him. If they start to appear too happy, independent or flying high, he cuts their wings. So by infantilizing them, shaming them, keeping them as helpless dependent children, he stays as the top dog important guy—forever—stealing back time from his own kids.

Kendall: “He loves me, he-he-he does. I think it’s just a wrong kind of love expression.”

Naomi: “Yeah. He loves the broken you. That’s what he loves.”

All of the kids have an internal split between two selves—a “nice” or “real” person who feels things, and a “hot shit,” “exciting bastard” persona they perform because they think it’s what will prove to their dad they’re good at “the game.” They attempt to succeed by being dead inside, but then inevitably their feelings rise up and get in the way. The kids are all surprised and taken off guard whenever one offers the other genuine emotion. They’re also intensely full of shame, and trying very hard to hide how desperately they crave for their dad to acknowledge that they’re smart and can do the top job, when it’s clearly written on their faces the second they get a drop of validation.

As Dr. Tammy Nelson, sex therapist and author told the Cut: “In many ways shame is the flip side of narcissism… the show is about… this incredible narcissism of the father, and how he has created these narcissistic extensions of himself. It creates kids that are these little balls of shame.”

What all the kids need is to find a way to reconcile these two sides of themselves—the narcissist and the ashamed person, the “hot shit” and the “nice” person—to stop believing that strength and feelings are inherently at odds. Ironically, as Kendall realizes at last in the Season Two finale, in his case “killing his father” is the “right” and moral thing to do—so in fact, his moral feelings can be his power. It’s this journey toward being a real person—who feels things as part of being a mature adult in the world—that increasingly looks like the Roys’ way out of the hell that is living for their father.

SOURCES

Silman, Anna. “What Is Up With Roman Roy’s Sex Life?” The Cut, 9 Sept. 2019, www.thecut.com/2019/09/what-advice-would-a-sex-therapist-give-roman-on-succession.html.

Tangkay, Jazz. “Interview: Brian Cox On Playing The Patriarch In ‘Succession’ -’ Children Are Both a Blessing and a Curse and There’s Nothing You Can Do about It.’” AwardsDaily, 22 Apr. 2019, www.awardsdaily.com/2019/04/22/interview-brian-cox-on-playing-the-patriarch-in-succession-children-are-both-a-blessing-and-a-curse-and-theres-nothing-you-can-do-about-it/.