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Succession - What’s Really Going On with Roman

Roman Roy is an emotional exhibitionist, wanting people to see and acknowledge how screwed up he and his family are. A court jester-type character, he’s more aware of how the family looks to outsiders than the rest, becoming a running commentary on Roy family pathology. We don’t usually get insight into the “jester” character’s feelings, but with Roman, we see where his pain comes from, and what makes him compulsively crack jokes. The Season Three finale gives us hope that he just might be able to escape his father’s influence. The way out of his trauma is going through it, again and again, and again.

TRANSCRIPT

Gerri: “Just be brave, okay?”

Roman: “Yes, Mommy.”

– Succession: Season 2, Episode 4

Roman Roy is an exhibitionist, and not just when he’s giving New York City a view from his office. He’s an emotional exhibitionist, wanting people to see and acknowledge how screwed up he and his family are. It’s this predilection that leads to the Succession fan-favorite game in which Gerri tells Roman how sick he is, and Roman… listens attentively.

Gerri: “You are a revolting little worm aren’t you.”

Roman: “Yeah, ”

– Succession: Season 2, Episode 4

But Roman’s kinkiness doesn’t just make him a memorable treat of a character. His particular perversities outline the Roy family’s psychological pitfalls. His absent mother Caroline shaped his masochistic personality. His father Logan’s abusive parenting resulted in Roman’s arrested development, stuck in his childhood trauma and never maturing. And more broadly, for the business power plays use the language of sex, and love is associated with humiliation and pain.”

Initially written as a bratty, congenitally sadistic King Joffrey type, over Succession’s first season, Roman’s character unfolds into the filthy-minded sad clown of Corporate America we love today. A court jester-type character, he’s more aware of how the family looks to outsiders than the rest, becoming a running commentary on Roy family pathology. We don’t usually get insight into the “jester” character’s feelings, but with Roman, we see where his pain comes from, and what makes him compulsively crack jokes. And the Season Three finale gives us hope that he just might be able to escape his father’s influence and find a way to become a separate, more whole human being. Here’s our take on Roman Roy, and how the way out of his trauma is going through it, again and again, and again.

PART 1. Mommy Issues

It’s safe to say there’s something wrong with Roman, although no one is sure what, exactly. To be fair, there’s something wrong with all the Roys - they’re a family of pathologically narcissistic and deeply damaged individuals with personalities warped by cruelty and obscene wealth. But the surface-level explanation for Roman’s particular weirdness are his “mommy issues”.“Mommy issues’’ can be defined as an umbrella colloquialism for a number of ways an unhealthy relationship between mother and child can affect the child’s personality and attachment style.. In the case of Roman and his mother Caroline Collingwood, she was a cold and absent mom. Caroline is a textbook narcissist, turning any criticism her kids have back on them and making herself the victim.

Shiv Roy: “I was ten, Mom. I was a f*cking kid.”

Caroline: “You were. And you knew how to twist the knife.”

– Succession: Season 3, Episode 9

Since the mother is usually the initial caregiver, this relationship lays the foundation for a child’s ability to trust and bond with others, including later sexual partners. When a mother is unloving, withholding, and even derisive, like Caroline, children may believe the problem isn’t with their mother, but them - that the reason the mother rejects them is that they are fundamentally unlovable, disgusting even. Roman, as the youngest boy in the family and recipient of emotional abuse from both his parents and his elder siblings, has grown up feeling love and mistreatment to be inseparable.

Adult Roman has grown into a classic exhibitionist–someone who wants people to pay attention to him and to be disgusted when they do, because he sees himself as repulsive and because that’s what connection felt like in his childhood.

Kendall: “We need to control the narrative!”

Roman: “Control the narrative.” You probably yell that when you cum. “Oh! Control the narrative! Oh! Control it… Control the narrative! Uhh…”

– Succession: Season 1, Episode 2

Roman constantly makes perverted jokes; meanwhile, there’s a disconnect between Roman’s sex talk and his ability to connect with romantic partners. We learn early on that Roman doesn’t have much sex. When Roman tries to sleep with his girlfriend Tabitha, he suggests she play dead because he needs the sex to be taboo or wrong in some way: And while Tabitha is uncomfortable with Roman’s desires, he eventually finds acceptance of his attachment style in Waystar Royco’s legal counsel-slash-fixer, Gerri.

Succession is full of Oedipal references, and a lot of the jokes are about Roman wanting to sleep with his mom. The show links this to Roman’s attraction to older women, like his father’s wife Marcia, and especially to Gerri, who feels like the closest thing the Roys have to a semi-maternal figure Gerri’s and Roman’s building attraction culminates in “special conference call” scenes where Roman enjoys being humiliated by Gerri. So what exactly makes this union (sort of) work?

Gerri: “You have a revolting problem in your head. This is why you will never be anything but a disgrace. You’re a rotten little nothing.”

– Succession: Season 2, Episode 5

PART 2: GERRI AND ROMAN - PLAYACTING TRAUMA

Fans and critics agree - the Gerri / Roman liaison is genuinely hot. So apart from the glaring dearth of older woman/younger man pairings on TV, what makes Gerri and Roman so compelling? The first factor is the natural chemistry between the actors playing the duo - Kieran Culkin and J. Smith-Cameron. The Gerri / Roman flirtation originated from the two actors goofing off on set. Kieran Culkin explained how their chemistry ended up written into the script.

Kieran Culkin: “I said something really like gross sexual to Gerri and she like rolled her eyes… in the end he was like oh these guys okay there’s a thing here”

Variety: Kieran Culkin & Dan Levy - Actors on Actors - Full Conversation

The second factor that makes their relationship interesting is the age gap. The older woman / younger man relationship is a rarity onscreen (and in life!), while the reverse is omnipresent. Logan, Roman’s father, is so disgusted by Roman’s sexual attraction to Gerri that – when he discovers it – this is the moment that essentially changes his mind about his plan to anoint Roman as his heir. Of course, Logan himself is engaged in an affair with a far larger age gap; but to Logan, dating a younger woman reinforces the status and power of dominant man, while dating a woman much older indicates the opposite – a desire to be dominated, and a weakness or perversity.

Logan Roy: “So, what is it, son? Are you scared of p*ssy?”

– Succession: Season 3, Episode 9

Logan’s views aren’t that far off from our general culture’s attitudes: when we do see older woman-younger man couplings on screen, they tend to follow the cougar trope. Roman and Gerri’s dalliance is humorous, but not at the expense of her age or his desperation. The key to the attraction for Roman is Gerri’s personal qualities (that are partly acquired through years of experience). Gerri has the assertiveness and the motherliness Roman yearns for, – plus she understands and knows how to satisfy Roman’s… needs.

Roman Roy: “I’ve always thought of you… And I mean this in the best possible way… As a stone-cold killer bitch.”

Gerri: “Who says you don’t know how to flirt?”

– Succession: Season 1, Episode 2

The Gerri-Roman relationship is satisfying to watch because it becomes therapeutic. Having his taboo desires met in a safe space seems to make Roman more confident and more ready to take on responsibility maturely at work too.

Gerri: How does this advance my personal position? You need to think about that 24/7.

– Succession: Season 3, Episode 4

Finally, factor three in their relationship - the power dynamic. It’s rare to see convincing, nuanced sexual power exchanges onscreen, and Succession dramatizes just how messy this one is. Roman is aggressively pursuing a woman whose career depends on his family’s employment and in the process, he’s crossing all kinds of boundaries (like trying to send her dick pics during a meeting). On the other hand - Gerri is confident and experienced; she knows how to keep him in line, and also, he wants her to humiliate him. So as inappropriate as it all gets (and what doesn’t on Succession), there is a general feeling of equality in their relationship.

Gerri: “You’re acting like an over-excited little boy.” “You know, technically, I’m your f*ckin’ boss.”

– Succession: Season 2, Episode 4

But lest any of us started to get too warm and fuzzy about this romance, the Season 3 finale destroys all the personal growth we’ve been seeing happen via their dynamic. In the moment of Roman’s greatest need – in the same scene where he’s just been screwed over by his father and his biological mother – he turns to his other maternal presence, Gerri, for help, and she reveals that her first priority is professional self-preservation. On one level, the line clarifies that all along Gerri was trying to keep their relationship professional and mutually advantageous, and to instruct Roman, as much as she could, in business – yet the result is, once again, Roman has misguidedly sought solace and understanding in a mother figure who turned out to be cold, selfish, and destined to reject him.

3. SEX AND POWER, LOVE AND HUMILIATION

There’s a saying that “Everything in human life is really about sex, except sex. Sex is about power”. In Succession, business negotiations are described in sexual terms. This creates a strange effect where the trash-talk ends up sounding like dirty talk, and the Roys’ constant business talk means they’re often describing being sexually dominated by family members. While it seems that sexual abuse hasn’t literally taken place in this family, emotional abuse has been the norm, and that’s what all this language points to – fundamentally, a denial of personhood, an assault on personal boundaries.

Kendall Roy: “Are you guys trying to f*ck me here?” – Succession: Season 3, Episode 4

Logan Roy: “I hear you bent for him and he f*cked you.” – Succession: Season 1, Episode 1

Shiv Roy: “We just walked in on mom and dad fucking us!” – Succession: Season 3, Episode 9

Roman Roy: “He’s like a s*x robot for Dad to f*ck. He’s like an old beaten dog” – Succession: Season 2, Episode 1

The sexual trash-talk also communicates the pure obscenity of wealth. There is something dirty about being as rich as the Roys are - there’s a reason we call it being “filthy rich”. And the Roys’ perverse, cruel, animalistic language reminds us just how distorted their moneyed world is.

Actual sex in Succession, meanwhile, is rarely about just sex, or love, but more often an instrument of power. For Logan, love is synonymous with domination, and the kids learn their father’s lesson: offering love to someone is an invitation for them to hurt you. That’s why we routinely see the siblings mistrust each others’ declarations of love. Of the four siblings, Roman is the one most overtly seeking love. He cares about his parents and says so. But in the Roy family, wanting love equals being a masochist, inviting people to take advantage of you. Logan actually makes fun of Roman for showing love towards him.

Logan Roy: “Ooh! I wuv my daddy”. Yeah. I never figured you for a faggot.”

Roman Roy: “Oh, wow.”

– Succession: Season 3 Episode 8

Caroline succinctly describes Logan’s approach to love: “Well, you could’ve had dogs.” “No, not with your father. He never saw anything he loved that he didn’t wanna kick it, just to see if it would still come back” (Season 3, Episode 8). And Roman is that beaten but still loving animal. Logan literally hits him. Connor says “You are one sick puppy” (Season 1, Episode 7). and Gerri reinforces the image: “You little slime puppy.” You’re a sick f*cking animal” (Season 2, Episodes 4,5). But still wanting love and wanting to put love first is what gives Roman the potential to be more than just his father’s miserable pet.

Roman Roy: “Guess I finally broke out of the cage. Can’t keep a good dog down, right, Ken?”

PART 4. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT

For all the Roys’ money, therapy, and rehabs, they’re stuck in their family’s past trauma and remain under their father’s thumb. Their arrested development comes out in their childish behavior, the constant sense that they’re kids pretending to play important grown-ups, the number of scenes that take place in childish settings, and the many references to children’s books and games. Fundamentally, the Roys are still trapped in childhood because they’re still fighting for the scarcest of resources - their father’s love.

Roman Roy: “What’s he doing playing with his f*cking legos?”

– Succession: Season 1 Episode 7

Succession’s plot is built around, well, succession - the question of who will fill Logan’s shoes at the company? But emotionally, the show is about a different kind of inheritance – the trauma and abuse the siblings get from their parents, (who probably inherited it from their own parents and which the siblings will probably hand down). So, by Season Three, it becomes clear that what matters isn’t who becomes CEO, but rather who can evade being the successor to the Roy parents’ pathology.

In the season, Roman is, for a time, kind of groomed to be CEO by his dad. And we start to see how Roman could potentially gloss over his performative weirdness and be accepted as the typical “asshole CEO,” in his father’s vein. He even puts himself so deeply into the role of uncaring rich asshole boss that he supports a neonazi presidential candidate. Then, as we saw, the lewd text meant for Gerri reignites his dad’s fears that Roman is just too weird and impulsive. In the finale, Logan again seems to offer this lifeline to Roman to make himself in Logan’s model. But a little later in the episode a shift occurs: the siblings’ strategy meeting in an empty lot during their mother’s wedding turns into an emotional conversation and an actual display of affection and support for each other. When they head to confront Logan, they’re a united front, for once, and it’s a great personal moment for Roman that he backs his siblings instead of caving to his dad - even though it ends up screwing him over in that situation. The fact that Roman is able to stand up to his father when supported emotionally by his siblings shows that his seeking love is his strength as a person, even though it’s a weakness in this world. So this is the best evidence yet that Roman could actually grow.

Logan Roy: “What have you got in your f*cking hand?”

Roman Roy: “What have I got? I don’t know, f*cking… love?”

– Succession: Season 3 Episode 9

The great irony of many stories about the rich is that people who have everything in the world still lack something as elementary as love. It’s when the Roys engage with common human experiences, like sex and love and family, that we see how tragic they really are. And it’s through Roman, who wears his heart and his pathologies on his sleeve, that we can understand and empathize with their twistedness.

Roman’s relationship with Gerri is its own kind of fantasy. And while the reality slam at the end of Season Three is a reenactment of his dysfunctional mothering, it was after he asked for help and stood up to his dad. So if he can continue to seek out love, in whatever form that takes for him, Roman just maybe still has a chance of escaping his childhood.

Roman Roy: “Maybe a couple of years under the wing of an older hen could see me crack out of the ol’ egg.”

– Succession: Season 3 Episode 1