these white people is wild
succession, some freud
Sunday night, instead of watching Succession as I normally do, I was in a car going down the FDR to visit a friend’s apartment. On the drive over, I was listened to a profile of the actor Jeremy Strong written by Michael Schulman. Usually, I find profiles to be a bleak, boring genre. Most famous people are not very compelling or interesting, but something in the nature of fame deforms writers and makes them delusional about the famous. Profiles feel like carefully calibrated projection that if successful has the effect of mass hypnosis. But Jeremy Strong is an actually interesting person, in that he seems totally nuts and without an ounce of chill. He’s either too intense or the intensity has all these misplaced emphases, but he comes off as a try-hard irritant in the profile, and I loved every moment of it. Jeremy Strong plays Kendall Roy on Succession, and, as the profile states, he’s perfectly cast.
Anyway, I watched Succession on Monday night after I had recovered from staying out too late and laughing too loudly in my friend’s apartment. Season 3 has been uneven, but for the most part much more enjoyable than the first two seasons. In the opening, there was suddenly a real and present threat to the status quo—Kendall’s explosive allegations of misconduct and the coverups in the cruise division of Waystar. Each scene in those first couple of episodes felt very charged. The characters were suddenly not just jerking about from scene to scene spouting gibberish and sometimes gesturing to the business. Instead, they were having real fucking conversations about things in-world. Every character had their own little angle. There were games inside of games inside of games, which wasn’t new in Succession, but for the first time I felt like there was a real concrete sense of what the game was being played over and what the stakes were if Kendall won or Logan won or Shiv or Roman won, or if Gerri won. The opening to season 3 had some of the finest writing about character motivations and the complexities why we do what we do that I’ve ever seen.
Even a character like Roman, who had always been a fan favorite, was given grown up storylines. Roman had always wanted to be a viable second option after Kendall, but it always felt like the writers and also Roman himself didn’t quite believe that. But in season 3, we see him really step into the role as a viable candidate. All that talk comes with action in some really great key moments in the season. Like, securing the terrible presidential candidate. Securing Mattson. Strategizing against Kendall. Roman was always the jester prince who occasionally peeled back the piss jokes to reveal a keen business mind. But those moments always felt a little odd. A little disjointed. But in season 3 we find him a new character almost. A new vigor, a new confidence. The sharp, terrifying wit becomes more than just a tool for comedic effect. It’s used in-world to make really fantastic plays against Shiv and other seasoned players. He maneuvers Gerri into the CEO slot, I mean, come on. It’s so good.
Shiv, I don’t know. I don’t think this show really knows what to do with Shiv. I mean, she is presented ostensibly as someone whose politics the mostly liberal audience would agree with, on some surface level. But I feel like the show makes her a liberal only in these little moments for comedic effect to highlight her outsiderness in her family. But otherwise, this once political operative floats by kind of apolitically. Then we have her arguing with Tom about whether or not they will have kids when he is maybe sent to prison. I understand that the stakes are quite different for Shiv from her siblings. And that her whole idea of love and intimacy is complicated by maternal and paternal abandonment and alienation. She’s a damaged character like her brothers, but I feel like she’s made to pay for it in this weird way where it results in narrative stasis. She left an external career to move into the company in hopes of her dad loving her, obviously, but she doesn’t seem to be very good at business. Yet she is supposed to be the smart one. Yet she cannot see that she is not good at business. The show has offered her no real material wins in this arena.
She does secure a crucial partner to prevent a no-confidence vote, jaded daughters unite, but then Logan angrily snaps at her and humiliates her in front of everyone because he feels, I guess, small that his daughter saved his company. Another reset. Shiv does, in the following episode, press him a little on his attitude about her, rewriting the record so to speak, but even that kind of peters out. And we accept it because Logan, yeah, of coure, yeah, but where does that leave Shiv? If her biggest win is just another way for the show to say Isn’t Logan terrible? Haha, fuck off. Like, is that interesting? Narratively? If that’s where it always goes? I don’t know. Her character feels very lost and muddled this season to me.
Tom and Greg, I mean, everyone loves Tom and Greg. This season has gone a long way in making both of the characters feel like real people. Their dynamic has always been a fun one to watch. But in this season, I do feel like the writing has really found its footing with these characters. Tom is living in a Russian novel in his head, and it’s been WONDERFUL watching him worry about being sent to prison. And the way Shiv kind of let him talk himself into putting his neck on the block for Logan—exquisite! And Greg finally sounding a little like Tom, a little like an operator! Amazing. Cannot get enough.
Anyway, I say all of that to say that season 3 has had some of the strongest writing yet. Some brilliant moments. This episode, in particular. That scene where Shiv and her mom are talking about their relationship, and it’s just so brutal and uncomfortable. Because Shiv quite literally says that her mom hurt her and made her feel abandoned and jettisoned and her mom says back that she felt abandoned by Shiv and that she only let her go to preserve her interests. They are both telling the truth, but Shiv can’t let herself be vulnerable enough to believe her mom and to forgive her. And her mom can’t let go of her own hurt feelings. And they’re just two hurt people hurting each other still over things that happened and can never be taken back.
That is good drama. That is the heart of good drama. Unresolvable conflict. Some of the best moments of drama are when a character behaves in an exceedingly cruel way for reasons that the audience understands but the character does not. When Logan is fucking brutal to Kendall at dinner, refusing to buy him out because he knows that’s what Kendall wants. Because Kendall has said it. That’s incredible. Because Logan thinks that the reason he doesn’t want to do it is because he’s not going to let Kendall win. But also he feels betrayed by Kendall. And Kendall of course only betrayed him because he felt betrayed when Logan tried to use him as a bear bait at the end of season two. It’s a reflection of the scene with Shiv and Lady Caroline. Two hurt people. But here, Kendall has lain his sword down. He doesn’t want to fight anymore. He doesn’t want to go on and on and on. And Logan instead of putting him out of his misery just keeps clubbing away until there’s nothing left but pulp. Because his feelings are hurt.
It’s good stuff.
But, also, like. Is it enough? Is it interesting? Because this was also true at the end of season two, no? Like, this particular arrangement, Logan on one side. His children on the other, vying for his approval and affirmation? Various business-like miasma of doom loitering on the horizon? The show keeps resetting its stakes and drama, and basically playing out the same storyline season in and season out.
This is one of the things about television. You know. You’ve got to find new ways to recast the old players and scramble the board. It is a trait native to the form. I understand that. And, look, I was a Grey’s Anatomy superfan. I rewatch those first eight seasons constantly. I rewatch Law and Order all the time. Repetitiveness doesn’t get me. I find comfort in repetition. But this show’s deeply rooted circularity feels almost Freudian. There is never any release. There is never any catharsis. No sublimation into change or revelation or epiphany. It’s all just the same. Like a live-action adaptation of The Simpsons.
In Freud’s paper, “Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through,” he describes a phenomenon in which transference and repetition take the place of remembering: “the patient does not remember anything of what he has forgotten and repressed, but acts it out. He reproduces it not as a memory but as an action; he repeats it, without, of course, knowing that he is repeating it.” That is, when treatment attempts to excavate what has been repressed, the patient instead begins to act out the repressed behaviors with their doctor. Remembering, and therefore relief of repression, opens a channel to catharsis but also, paradoxically, exposes the mind to the thing it repressed out of self-preservation. Repetition is a kind of pseudo-memory. Freud says, “the repetition is a transference of the forgotten past not only on to the doctor but also on to all the other aspects of the current situation.”
With Succession, the opening premise of the show was Logan Roy is looking for a successor and which of his children will it be? The first season opened with Logan almost dying and then entering into a state of fragility while his kids made moves and tried to outflank each other only for the season to end with him deciding that he would be in charge still.
Ditto season two, except, the trial regarding cruises. And now season 3 with the merger and Kendall’s FBI reindeer games. The show has no catharsis because that would mean relieving the pressure of its opening premise and stepping into something potentially uncomfortable or messy. Instead, we ride the circuit of known knowns, gently repurposing the few emotional stakes we have in lieu of actually letting those stakes mature or develop.
We aren’t watching the show to figure out which one of them he will pick. We are now watching the show to see to what extent these people will degrade themselves in pursuit of the love of someone who is abject. The audience understands that Logan is abject. The audience understands that his children are also kind of abject in their way. And what we have is a drama that is fundamentally about terrible people behaving terribly for the love of someone terrible. But is that interesting? Is it? I mean, I don’t know.
Are there stakes in this show? Are there motives? Maybe that’s why so many of the episodes have felt weirdly disjointed and oddly paced. That episode where they go to talk to Adrian Brody on his compound? Who even was that character? The stuff about the DOJ just going away? What was the point? Then dropping Kendall’s birthday in there for fun? I mean, where is the continuity. The build? It feels maybe a little too much like life in its formlessness. It’s funny. As reality TV has become more scripted and structured, a show like Succession has taken on the formlessness of life. Reality TV is fake, and fiction has the shapelessness of life. It’s bleak out here.
I guess it is a perfect modern show. It does not need an engine. It simply is powered by its own vibes. It’s getting a little boring, to me, personally. I don’t know that I care about any of them. No matter how stylishly the show is shot or how winking and knowing its tone or how self-referential it becomes. I just don’t care. This show has spent three seasons basically tracing all the knowns of its world, introducing nothing. It’s spent three seasons just kind of treading water, with the exceptions flashes of true brilliance. Truly great writing. Lines of dialogue emblazoned across the cultural consciousness. It rules the zeitgeist. Adam McKay rises again. Etc.
As I watched the last scenes of last night’s episode, I just kept thinking, “Yeah, that’s fine. I guess? But do we care? It’s just going to restart next season anyway.” I feel a little cheated. It really did seem like at the start of this season that the writers were going to make big promises and follow through. That there would be consequences. Not in a moralistic, I want to see the wealthy punished, etc. way. But in a real, narrative storytelling sense. It feels like constant edging, like we’re kicking the can down the road every episode, and promising that finally the big emotional questions of the show will come to a head. But they never do. But I will watch next week’s episode.
More and more, I feel like Succession’s real genre is neither comedy nor drama. The genre is kind of this: a show that has nothing revelatory or interesting to say about the way we live and feel, whose sole function is mere mimesis. The show can tell us nothing new or interesting about the world because it has nothing to say about the world that we do not already know. It has pioneered the genre of existing stylishly despite having no real compelling reason to exist. It is in this way a perfect emanation of late capitalism, no? There is money. There is a director. There are actors. There is a little voice on the page, a little spark in the camera. And therefore, eureka, television.
I don’t think that things necessarily need to justify their existence. I mean, if you enjoy something, that is enough. Surely. But the more I watch Succession, the more I feel like, what is the point to all of this. We are just watching. And sometimes we feel as we watch. But mostly, we are just watching. But does it tell us something that we do not already know? Does it reveal anything? Does it force us to see anew something we missed? Does it refine or deepen our feeling for what it is to be alive? Or is it just, I don’t know, shadows dancing on the wall?
I guess I’m just tired of being told to fuck off, lol.