Four seasons strong, thriving under the blinding weight of the Internet’s cannibalising attention, HBO’s Succession brings to life the power and allure of ambivalent storytelling—storytelling that confirms that we hate and love; that we love to hate and hate to love; that we love to love and hate to hate—it is all one inextricable messy ball of hair in our system.
By ambivalent I must clarify what I mean, what the author Garth Greenwell considers “not… indecisive wishy-washiness but… a condition of strongly held, competing commitments”. Competing commitments—to feel intensely about two different, opposing forces. It is not the same as a contradiction, but perhaps it could be. It is not the same as hypocrisy, but perhaps it could be.
Succession follows, in intensely shaky and invasive frames, the Roy family—a gruff patriarch with two sons, a daughter, and their media empire Waystar Royco—as they splinter and congeal, trying to get power and trying to get others to cede power.
The phrase “quiet luxury” slid into our algorithms as the show amassed a mass cultural following. Characters wear Altuzarra’s dull woollen blazers and pants in shades of monsoon evening skies that are worth my liver, perhaps more at around $2,700. A Loro Piana white shirt on the show costs $640. They walk barefoot between private jets. They wear money so lightly, so inconspicuously it is remarkable, it is disgusting, it is enviable. To have so much money means not to think of money—either to express its worth or to impress upon others its import. These are mascots of wealth who think of money the way we think of air.
The language of the lost
We have a ravenous eat-the-rich desire to watch moneyed people wade in the pigpen, and it is this desire that holds shows like The White Lotus, Dubai Bling, Selling Sunset, Beef, and even Succession in good stead. And perhaps it is true that we watch stories of people who wear their wealth with such ease because we can only experience wealth vicariously. We watch many such shows ironically. Many of these shows are made ironically. But irony is the weapon of the defeated, the language of the lost. That it has become the default tone of a lot of storytelling is an expression of that loss. However, not Succession.
For one, the show refuses to be a satire. That is because the ambivalent tone of the show allows you to marvel or smirk at the grotesque manoeuvres of the rich only to be suddenly moved by a show of hollowed-out dignity or to watch how someone trips over with a gracelessness that feels like an insult. You watch their small, petty decisions, pity their lack of confidence, watch their solitary lives in palatial homes. The vicarious pleasure quickly turns into pain. My stomach churns when they are in a board meeting. An anxiety bestowed upon make-believe people whom I mostly can’t stand.
- HBO’s Succession brings to life the power and allure of ambivalent storytelling.
- Succession follows the Roy family, a gruff patriarch with two sons, a daughter, and their media empire Waystar Royco.
- Succession’s thrilling class analysis is that a lack of clarity is a privilege. Once you cross a threshold of moneyed power, you don’t have to be articulate.
You see what I mean when I call Succession the pinnacle of ambivalent storytelling? It exists in order to question all our base desires—to rabidly hate someone, to deploy our Marxist anger, to reimagine storytelling as social re-engineering. To tell the story of the richest, the most arrogant, the most hurtful, acidic people and yet to have you care enough to want a soft ending for them.
The show does not give us that ending. By leaving us at sea, it laughs at us. See, it seems to say, you cared about these idiots, you are capable of intense ambivalence.
How about that? A show with barely any sex, rarely any violence, no beauty, and yet hailed as the finest artefact to come from streaming. Only because it clarifies something about us while never telling us what that is.
THIS AMBIVALENCE also comes from the language used. Every conversation in Succession is a minefield. Not just because of what is said, but what is unsaid. Not one character is articulate, no sentence ends in a full stop. It is an eternal ellipsis. They oh, hmm, umm, yeah through conversations. They stutter and stammer. Entire scenes go by without you knowing exactly what they are saying, only a hunch of what they are feeling.
Convenience over ideas
I have transcribed stretches of dialogue to see what each “umm, sure” means, what conflict is expressed by a reluctant “yeah,” what anxiety comes with every “cool”. This refusal of clarity is the refusal of conviction—these are people not with convictions but with interests. They don’t believe in ideas—Capitalism, Socialism, Democracy. In one of the finest episodes of Succession, where they call the elections in favour of a Trump-like guy, what comes to the surface are their respective interests—financial and personal, therefore political. Their beliefs are those of fiscal convenience.
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But the thing about values is that they don’t exist to make life easier. Their importance shows in moments when it is most difficult to embody them. That in Succession values and convictions are ex-post and not ex-ante is a writing masterclass. The characters don’t walk into conversations with a non-negotiable foundation but walk out with a negotiated basket of values. You don’t know what anyone wants till much later. They don’t know what they want, often. It is an airy existence, floating in pursuit of more and more and more.
The camera, too, which smoothly pans over glass and concrete, is agitated when characters speak, zooming in, quaking. It adds to the instability of the conversation. The rich don’t value clarity but only a slippery silence through which they push through their interests.
This is Succession’s most thrilling class analysis: that it is the lack of clarity that is a privilege. Once you cross a threshold of moneyed power, you don’t have to be articulate. You don’t aspire to language. Language aspires to you. It is not clarity but ambiguity that is a privilege.
Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online. He also authors a newsletter on culture at prathyush.substack.com.