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Works righteousness, the American dream, & the twisty twistings of our twisted hearts
On the discourse around HBO's *Succession* & how easy it is to go for disdain over empathy
It’s May! I pray that some fresh springtime hope is winging its way in your direction. Today, I invite you to think with me about a great television show and how hard it is for us to see ourselves clearly.
HBO’s drama Succession brings us into the lives of the filthy rich Roy family. The series focuses on four adult siblings as they vie to lead the family company after their father.
Combining masterful acting with shades of of King Lear and Fox news, Succession is great television. If you haven’t watched—and don’t plan to—you only need to know two things to understand this piece. First, we love to talk about Succession as a hate watch. There’s nobody to root for. All the characters are astonishingly terrible people. Second, talk about Succession is full of judgment for the Roy siblings, deemed useless, talent-less “nepo-babies,” or, in the damning words of their father, “not serious people.” And yet, we continue to ask which of these characters will “win,” as if the game they’re playing weren’t, in itself, demonic and rigged. (The following may contain some spoilers for the show, but it won’t ruin any big plot points).
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The trailer for the fourth and final season of HBO’s Succession.
The upshot of water cooler conversation is that this show is not about our lives; it’s a voyeuristic pleasure.
Inasmuch as the show is about mammon, this is a little bit true. I will never be as rich as the Roys. I’ve never boarded a private jet and have no palaces or yachts. It’s easy for me to feel morally superior, watching the Roys throw money around like confetti. But even here, the claim that this show is not about me—it’s about those people, the bad people—doesn’t totally hold up. (I have a nice house in the suburbs, a nice plan for a summer vacation, and enough credit to Doordash dinner if I don’t feel like cooking tonight. And—oh!—how I’m tempted to believe that I’ve earned it, how I’m tempted to believe that I deserve even more.)
The show’s can’t-look-away-from-this-trainwreck genius is in the clever, brutal ways the characters take turns vivisecting one other with their words, daring one other not to flinch at the next cut, even as they live a constant paradox in which they are, at the same time, both flayed open and so ropy with scars that little can pierce their hardened skins to let their humanity peek through. They joust brother against brother against sister against husband against anyone who would dare peek into their window to glimpse the rich lives they lead. It’s very easy for us to see that the Roys are horrible people.
“Wisdom and goodness to the vile seem vile;
Filths savour but themselves...”
― William Shakespeare, King Lear
But which of us has not coveted? Or performed inhuman contortions as we seek affirmation? Which of us hasn’t reverted to our worst childhood behaviors, defaulting to the petulance or entitlement of a child? Or thrown a poisoned barb at a spouse or a coworker?
And yet, we watch the Roys, shaking our heads at all they do not deserve. It’s easy to see their ugliness; it’s more difficult to see how our reactions to the show are prone to leave intact the same illusion the Roy sibs cling to, the unreliable American Dream.
Who among us hasn’t assumed our people are the right people while “those people” are not? Who hasn’t gotten something we didn’t earn?
The sibs aren’t blank slates, ready to be evaluated based on their efforts alone. They’ve been subjected to a ceaseless torrent of manipulation and abuse. Their dad is the worst of patriarchs, preaching up-by-your-bootstraps self-uplift even as he maims his children by raising them in a gladiatorial ring. Their mom is a British rich lady, from the kind of old money that comes with castles. And the kids have been made—on both sides of the Atlantic—by the class system, made by money and whiteness and assumed privilege, even as they kid themselves that their dad’s game will be decided on their merits.
We’re hooked into the same caste system, so many of us pretending the same American dream. When we disdain the Roy sibs for their awfulness, we protect the myth of our own merit and fail to be pierced by Succession’s portrait of the ways we are hobbled in pursuit of a patriarchal American dream.
Who among us hasn’t hidden our grief beneath posturing and pretense? Who hasn’t been scarred, having grown up in the patriarchy? (If you know the Roy sibs, stop to consider how the sons, as sons, have been scarred; how the daughter, as a daughter, has been too.) Who is free of the difficulty of making meaning of our finite lives or of the mortality of our parents?
“Look how far you’ve come.”
“Well look at us both, right?”
—Marcia, then Willa, season 4, episode 4
Succession is about us. It’s about life in a world of sin, about the scars we all bear, and about the ways the works righteousness morality tale of the American Dream leaves us, like the Roys, unable to assess ourselves honestly and unable to extend empathy to our broken fellow humans.
Shiv (Sarah Snook), Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin), Image courtesy of HBO.
In his letter to his son, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about the American dream from the other side of the American caste system:
“This is the foundation of the Dream—its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works. There is some passing acknowledgment of the bad old days, which, by the way, were not so bad as to have any ongoing effect on our present. The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work. It must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind.”
Certainly the horrid Roys believe their inheritance is “just.” Does condemning them in their horribleness help us maintain that same belief about ourselves? Or is the show’s genius in helping us see why they are so broken and in the (miraculous?) ways that vestiges of their humanity manage to slip through along the way?
The ancient British monk, Pelagius, claimed that human beings are capable, that we can do good works. He taught that we’re able to do what we need to do, able to love God, able to merit salvation.
Saint Augustine reacted against Pelagius in horror, preaching that we’re so broken that we have no hope outside the healing grace of Jesus Christ.
“Why do you try to stand in your own strength and fail? Cast yourself upon God and have no fear. He will not shrink away and let you fall. Cast yourself upon him without fear, for he will welcome you and cure you of your ills.”
Pelagianism is the king—the patriarch, the CEO—of American heresies. We’ve been raised to believe that we’re able to do what we need to do and that any “possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works” (to quote again from Coates’s words, above). So conditioned, it’s almost impossible for us to see how broken we are and how broken the system is in which the game is played.
When Succession airs its final episode later this month, I’ll miss the Roys. Yes, they make me cringe, but I also feel tender toward them. This sinful world is a Pelagian empire, built on patriarchy, greed, white supremacy, and harm, all while it pretends to run a fair game. Succession is an exquisitely painful Augustinian parable that ought to drive us to our knees in praise of grace.
Grace & peace,
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