‘Succession’ and the Last Gasps of Media Literacy

[NOTES: Spoilers for the final episode and season of ‘Succession’. Co-published with Geek Vibes Nation.]

Succession is not real life.

If you’ve spent time on Twitter over the past ten weeks, you will likely encounter at least one account tweeting those words. It’s a fairly obvious statement. Even with its real-world analogs and influences, Succession is a work of fiction, a potent dramedy about the trials and tribulations of the Roy media dynasty. People tweeting “Succession is not real life” are often responding to viewers’ intense live reactions. They lean towards mockery and criticism, as if art and entertainment aren’t supposed to induce passionate responses. The suggestion is that dispassionately watching Succession is correct, and anything else is infantile or even delusional.

While perusing the various live reactions to Succession’s searing, hilarious, note-perfect finale, I found myself repeating that same mantra: “Succession is not real life.” The context was markedly different, though. Instead of responding to passionate reactions, I was responding to criticisms about the Successions themes, specifically that it shouldn’t elicit empathy for objectively terrible characters. Here, the series fails because the Roys are compelling to watch, which is a tacit endorsement of their politics and philosophies, even though it explicitly details the corrosive effects of extreme wealth.

Another common online refrain regarding Succession is, “Are we watching the same show?” Objectively, yes. However, the reactions warranting the “Succession is not real life” mantra speak to a greater struggle in our evolving relationship with media. There appears to be a growing chasm in literacy and comprehension, reflecting either an inability or disinterest in fully engaging with it on its terms.

Succession and the New Fandom

A photo from the production of episode 410 of “Succession”. Photo: David M. Russell/HBO ©2023 HBO. All Rights Reserved.

Succession operates in an intriguing space and time within the television landscape. The series shares clear DNA markers with early 21st-century prestige dramas like Mad Men, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad. It has also amassed a passionate online following. Over four seasons, it has transformed from a below-the-line HBO series into a zeitgeist-capturing hit, inspiring countless memes, fancams, and intense declarations of support. While not a Game of Thrones-like behemoth, Succession, especially in its final season, felt like a weekend event where staying off Twitter was necessary if you couldn’t watch live. 

Of course, mainstream success immediately begets skepticism from those who aren’t watching or aren’t watching as closely as others. There is no reason why Succession should be immune. What is strange is the bafflement some have expressed at a common phenomenon since Hollywood prioritized intellectual property above all else. The only deviation between Succession’s fandom and other properties is genre. The most passionate fandoms often grow around projects within fantasy and science fiction spaces. The fanciful underpinnings of the MCU, DC, Game of Thrones, The Last of Us, Outlander, Interview with the Vampire, and others lend well to deeply involved audience identification. Succession doesn’t have that natural leaning. And yet, people have imagined Kendall and Stewy as a power couple and built digital shrines for Shiv and her husband, Tom Wambsgans (separately).

Succession’s prestige drama foundations and extremely online fanbase appear to have created cognitive dissonance. The thinking seems to be that the series should be incapable of inciting passionate fan reactions, and if it does, it’s indicative of a deeper audience malfunction or psychological defect. While not necessarily intuitive, Succession’s highly-engaged fanbase is responding within the expectations of the current moment. (it’s entirely possible that Twitter and TikTok would be filled with Don Draper and Walter White memes if their respective series had been released today.) Most people watching know that it’s fiction, and the enthusiasm of their engagement is valid as long as it doesn’t cause harm. Suggesting otherwise indicates a failure to appreciate entertainment as an active, not passive, experience.

Succession and the Rejection of Heroes and Villains

Kieran Culkin, Sarah Snook, and Jeremy Strong in Succession (Courtesy: HBO)

However one chooses to experience it, Succession invites varied readings. The premise is simple – the children of a billionaire tycoon jockey desperately to succeed him – but the series thrives in its intricate character work, digging into the motivations and idiosyncrasies driving each character. Every choice they make can be interpreted in different opposing or contradictory ways, each valid in its own right. They do require fundamental knowledge of Jesse Armstrong’s authorial intent. His message is straightforward: the Roys and their associates are terrible people whose incompetence would be hilarious if it weren’t so dangerous.

Operating within that context, Succession allows for complicated portraits of its characters. Kendall is a drug-addicted aspiring tech bro who frequently undermines his occasional gasps of brilliance with his penchant for delusion. Roman is a sardonic and disaffected fascist in the making who can inspire pity upon seeing him break down at his father’s funeral. Shiv’s lionhearted feminism doesn’t stop her from strong-arming a sexual assault survivor into silence on her family company’s behalf. Tom may genuinely love Shiv, but his craven ambition is just as likely to win against it. 

Succession’s characters contain multitudes but are still terrible at their core. None exist within the hero-villain binary; they are far messier and more compelling outside that structure. That hasn’t stopped some from trying to fit them into it. For instance, some were shocked that Shiv effectively chose to be second-fiddle to Tom, the new Waystar CEO, rather than back Kendall’s bid to lead the company. For them, Shiv’s choice was a narrative betrayal, undercutting her ambitions and trapping her in a sexist nightmare by the writers. 

Shiv may be trapped like her mother, Caroline, but her choice tracks within the show’s context. Shiv’s airs of savvy maneuvering were always a smokescreen for her incompetence, insecurities, and desire for power. She was as ruthlessly competitive as her siblings (sans Connor) but often made sloppy mistakes that spoke to her inexperience in business. There are several interpretations of Shiv’s betrayal of Kendall. Perhaps she feared Kendall becoming Logan before her eyes or didn’t want to allow him to cut her out as he did earlier in the season. Maybe she figured that staying close to Tom was her best bet, where she could guide him from the sidelines, a modern-day Lady Macbeth. Whatever her reasons, none involved her being a winner or heroine. There are no real winners, regardless of who ruled Waystar Royco, which is the series’ point. 

Succession and the Follies of Moral Viewing

Matthew Macfadyen and Sarah Snook in Succession (Courtesy: HBO)

The instinct to define Succession’s complex characters by simplistic archetypes similarly misunderstands the series. If you view it outside its context, Succession may read like an implicit defense of its characters’ reprehensibility. For instance, one tweet expressed that the series’ problem was making its super-rich characters compelling instead of boring and justifying their behavior as a function of trauma. The series does indeed connect its characters’ difficult pasts with their present circumstances. It equally understands that the Roys’ evil tendencies are their own, often because they lack imagination and ingenuity. Connor doesn’t run for president because his family neglects him; he runs because he genuinely believes he’s entitled to it. (That, and he’s bored with being an aged playboy.) Roman cozies up to the fascist future president Jeryd Mencken because it’s politically expedient, not because his father physically abused him. 

Even if trauma was the direct cause of every action in Succession, the series doesn’t leverage it as an implicit or explicit defense. The Roys’ despicable nature is front-and-center at every turn, from Roman’s racist, ableist insults about Kendall’s children to Kendall physically accosting a pregnant Shiv after she refuses to vote for him. What Succession does very well is present its characters’ many messy dimensions simultaneously. It is incisive because it isn’t afraid of the nuances and maintains its guiding ethos that they are uniformly bad people. In that vein, Succession doesn’t work as an extension of a viewer’s moral compass. It asks its audience to understand the rules of its universe, similarities to real life aside, and respond within that context. In other words, let the characters of Succession suck and enjoy them anyway. 

Succession and What Comes Next

Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook, and Kieran Culkin in Succession (Courtesy: HBO)

Succession may not be real life, but the discourse surrounding it does reflect how we perceive art. It is an intriguing microcosm of the current media literacy conversation: audiences’ growing discomfort with nuanced storytelling, unintentional and deliberate text misreadings, and shifting engagement rules in the streaming and IP era. No piece of art or entertainment is above critique, and Succession warrants different interpretations: positive, negative, and everything in between. However, the foundation of those interpretations is fragmenting, weakening fruitful conversations around a compelling series.

Succession ends mere days after the official launch of Max, Warner Bros Discovery’s revamped streaming service that attempts to bridge HBO’s big-budget, narratively rich projects with Discovery’s accessible reality-driven series with notoriously low barriers to entry. Will Succession serve as a bridge to a revised framework where passionate interest and thoughtful critique co-exist with superficial but enjoyable consumption? Or does the series represent a final gasp for collective media literacy? If it is, it will result from the corrosive effects of extreme wealth.

Maybe Succession is real life after all.

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