Thursday, June 20, 2024

Succession Drags Democracy Into The Mud

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Succession has not been particularly shy about its political influences, or the comparisons to be drawn between its fictional presidential race and America’s recent electoral history. ATN has always been an obvious Fox News stand-in, its biases and talking points ripped straight from recent and not-so-recent history. I was ready for this election episode to feel uncomfortable in its authenticity. Again, the influences could not have been more apparent.

Turns out preparation didn’t do much to help me feel any less disgusted or uncomfortable as Succession’s characters sold their souls for short-term gain, democracy be damned.

Greg looking pensive during a meeting from Succession

So here we are; ATN has prematurely called the election for Jeryd Mencken, giving him needed credibility to declare himself president despite wild uncertainty about the result of a key state. After an hour-long battle of wills between Roman and Shiv, with Ken occupying the wishy-washy middle, the revelation that Shiv has been dealing with Mattson plants Ken firmly on Roman’s side, and the two of them wield their authority to get Tom to call the election for Mencken.

An episode named “America Decides” saw America decide nothing, as Succession boiled a presidential election down to three angry, grieving, unreasonable siblings having a spat around a conference table.

Everyone knew this moment would arrive eventually. As I pointed out last week, Shiv was hardly doing much to conceal her backdoor dealing with Lukas Mattson. While I’m sure that, on a pretty prominent level, Shiv truly believes what she says about the threat Mencken poses to American democracy, it is just as evident that her desperation to keep him from winning was about protecting her and Mattson. Mencken has promised to help kill the deal, Jimenez would not. Simple as that.

On that same level, Ken’s sudden ability to toss aside his own moral misgivings about Mencken was largely due to his hurt from Shiv’s betrayal.

Besides calling out what an awful, absent father Ken is, last week’s argument with Rava also set up the moral quandary that Ken deals with as the election reaches the crucial point where ATN must decide whether to call it for Mencken or not. Succession puts Kendall somewhere in the middle of Roman and Shiv as he grapples between Mencken promising to tank the Mattson deal and the fear his wife and children have if the man becomes president. This inner turmoil sees Ken largely exist as a passive figure while Roman runs roughshod over ATN and Shiv tries to fight back.

It’s pretty clear that if Shiv had truly been on Ken’s side, or at least been honest about her intentions, she likely would have swayed Ken to oppose Roman. Instead, her deception drives him to Roman’s side of things. He tosses aside his morality in favor of greed, and does so because he’s hurt, not because he is actually as ruthless as Roman acts throughout this episode.

The problem is that Ken’s late turn toward Mencken still shorts him of the power he wants. Roman’s ruthlessness has made him the face of ATN, the one that Mencken will trust and go to if he does end up as president. The leverage is entirely on Roman’s side of the sibling dynamic now. Ken waited too long to make a move, and now he is the other brother to the possible president of the United States.

The flip side of that, of course, is that if Mencken loses, Roman and ATN lose big along with him. They may lose the fortune that comes with Mattson buying the company and find themselves taking over a diminished, devalued business that is already part of a dying cable news world. ATN stands to lose considerable credibility and reputation if Mencken ends up losing here. They could always sacrifice Tom, bu the network still suffers.

In typical Ken fashion, I’m sure he will waver over his decision as the Mencken-Jimenez battle continues and ATN faces severe, relentless scrutiny for their actions. Ultimately, though, he made his decision and will have to face the consequences.

Watching Succession position the Roy siblings along their moral and political lines in this episode was fascinating. Yes, Shiv was acting largely out of self-preservation, but there is also no question that she truly believes what she says. She has worked for liberal political campaigns since before Succession began, and has held those (often hypocritical) beliefs throughout the events of the show. She may violate her principles but there’s no question that she truly believes them.

On the other side, Roman believes in nothing. His worldview is pure cynicism. When he says that nothing about this election matters, he doesn’t consider or care about what it means for people besides himself. His world will not change, because he is among the influential class that is unaffected by the leaders in charge.

Funnily enough, both Shiv and Roman think their viewpoint was the same one Logan would have taken, and this disagreement also fuels their convictions. I have no idea what Logan would have done in this position. I don’t think Logan would have known until he was in the moment, either. Both Shiv and Roman tell themselves that they know for sure how their father would have acted and they refuse to consider otherwise. In the end, as with most things in Succession now, it all comes back to the ripple effect Logan’s death continues to have on his children.

While Roman has never been the most…morally exceptional person, his newfound ruthlessness is largely a product of his refusal to truly deal with his father’s death. Shiv has done more to face Logan’s death, but she is still deeply affected. And of course Kendall’s uncertainty and is largely a result of not knowing how to deal with his father’s demise.

The result, in the end, was three siblings who used their familial spat to spit all over the future of an entire country.

The sad truth hidden beneath Succession’s dark humor is that people like the Roys are so powerful that their personal spats come at the expense of thousands, or sometimes even millions, of people. What’s even worse is that they are so isolated from the average human existence that they do not know or care about the impact their power and personal feuds have on the larger world. They have lived lives so separated from the average person that they have no concept of how they affect the average person.

Which feeds into a larger point I think Succession wants to make, which is that perhaps no one should have the level of power and wealth that the Roy family does. It is a legitimate question whether it is even fair to ask the Roy children to consider the lives of millions when they are struggling so much with their own grief. Everyone should be allowed to grief. That their grief has such a ripple effect on the entire world is simply too much to ask of anyone, which is not a condemnation of the Roys so much as the system that moves so much based on their every word.

So here we are. We’ll see if Mencken ultimately prevails, but the damage has already been done. The grief of three people has made a mockery of American democracy, possibly put a fascist in charge, risked two different billion-dollar companies and the careers of everyone employed by them, and created an even deeper rift within their families. The Roys have done considerable damage to the legitimacy of an entire political system, and we haven’t even gotten to Logan’s actual funeral yet.

Most of the time, Succession is a fun, if brutally cynical, show to watch. Then sometimes episodes like this one hit, where you realize just how truly unfunny this all is.

Images Courtesy of HBO

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