How Succession Uses Humiliation as a Weapon
The series replaces sex and violence with abject personal horror, and we can't stop watching.Photo Courtesy of HBO TV Features Succession
There are many comparisons to be made between the medieval machinations of the Roy family on HBO’s Succession and those in Game of Thrones, but whereas the latter series attempted to shock with its graphic violence and sexposition, Succession creates a much deeper cringe factor by wielding pure humiliation. Game of Thrones dared us to watch its bloodshed, but Succession dares us to turn away from its casual destruction of a person’s sense of self.
Humiliation is the core currency here; Succession uses it in place of physical violence to wound its characters, and in some contexts it becomes sexualized. The fifth episode of its second season, “Tern Haven,” had every example of this rolled into one. The Roys venture to see the Pierce family in their sprawling liberal enclave to discuss the terms of a potential buyout, but this is not strictly business; in addition to $24 billion, the Pierces also want to “ensure the integrity of their news outlets” by testing the moral character of the Roys. As we know, of course, there isn’t much of that to be found.
There are a number of swirling plots in each of the Roy’s individual lives that lead up to that dynamite dinner scene, where each member of the family was roasted in their own way. It was effective in its extreme cringe because—like the trip to Hungary which led to Boar on the Floor—they are all trapped there. Every Roy has been tasked with one goal: don’t fuck this up. So immediately, they do. But the dinner was not the end, or even the peak of the humiliations of the episode (though it did bring so many of those threads together in incredibly uncomfortable ways).
The mortifications began, as they usually do, with Tom. He’s set up as the straw man for the Pierce’s concerns with ATN, which of course Tom was desperate to take over. Almost immediately he’s thrown under the bus, and even Shiv attacks him at the dinner table (which he futility calls her out on later). But then came the most amazing moment: when one of the Pierces casually looks up and says she didn’t realize “he” would stay on as the head of news (as if she’s not sitting right next to Tom). And Tom, who has been jovial and gracious in the ribbing thus far, meets the subsequent silence with an amazing deflection: “Ah look, here we are…the king of edible leaves, his majesty the spinach!” The zoom-pan to Roman’s reaction is priceless.
Roman, of course, embraces humiliation in a way even Tom doesn’t (yet). As our own Shane Ryan wrote in his Succession piece on the work of Britiain’s “New Cynics”: “I’d go so far as to say that like Roman Roy the writers are indulging in a kind of vicarious humiliation fetish.” It’s certainly a very British aesthetic, but the way “Tern Haven” doesn’t just doubles-down on Roman and Gerri’s humiliation game (her calling him sick and worthless, saying he has a revolting problem and that he’s a disgrace as he wanks off in her bathroom) is a new level. At dinner, Tabitha calls out Roman for their lack of a sex life, referring to them as “eunic besties,” which leads to an embarrassing attempt at intimacy later. Roman, thinking he’s turned on by the “wrongness” of a sexual encounter (rather than humiliation specifically), tells Tabitha during their roleplay that “you shouldn’t be turned on because dead women aren’t wet,” it spirals into one of Successions best and worst exchanges. “You wanted it to seem like I’m dead and you’re … raping me?” Tabitha asks, pushing him off her in disgust. “I think maybe the morgue is closing for the night.” And then Roman’s hilarious reply, almost lost as an aside: “I don’t want to get into a semantic argument.”
But the dinner had other casualties, like Marcia (who—after being a potential major power player in Season One—has had almost nothing to do this year now that Logan is back), turning on Logan publicly, drinking too much, and unable to hide her contempt for him in front of Nan Pierce. There was also Roman (again, of course) making up a book title and author to impress a snobby Pierce son. Naomi Pierce also tells Kendall that she can “just tell” that he’s in recovery, as she is as well, and then there was Connor spouting his usual political nonsense at the end of the table and being completely shut down over his ignorance.
Shiv, though, had the worst moment when she finally just exploded that Logan was naming her as the replacement. The ripple effect on her siblings was immediate, but it was only the beginning of Logan’s punishment of her for her transgression. Now, whether or not Logan ever really meant for Shiv to take over is hard to tell. I think it’s possible he wanted to test her, but also very likely that he wanted to bring her back into the fold and feel like he could control her more fully than when she was working on a liberal campaign. Or perhaps his masterplan all along was to go for Pierce and bring Shiv along to show them that the family was not exclusively conservative, which would appeal to them. And ultimately it did, so much so that in addition to the money they wanted to have Logan publicly name Shiv as the heir apparent. Note, though, that Kendall is always in the room and always close to Logan for these discussions. He’s still the Number One Boy …
In the end, Logan was willing to spike the entire deal just to not be told what to do, specifically in naming Shiv his ultimate replacement. It was a huge slap in the face to her to have to sit through that, and Sarah Snook was absolutely outstanding in the jittery way she processed the initial reveal afterwards with Tom, in constant motion around their room trying to figure out what that outburst would cost her. That is still a little unclear, but like Kendall, if she just goes through whatever humiliation Logan wants to punish her with and sees it through, she may get something out of it after all. Again, this is the only currency the show really deals in. Regarding the dinner, Tom put it best: “Jeepers fucking creepers, what a shit piñata. That was the most Roy thing I’ve ever seen. I feel like I got a quart of Roy injected straight into my eyeballs!”
And yet, there was still one more moment of personal degradation for us to suffer. Kendall, who seemed to be rebounding a little bit generally, was taken down a dark and familiar path when he and Naomi went to snort coke and get tanked on vodka. We’re waiting, really, for the other shoe to drop here: would he end up crashing the helicopter? Would he ruin the whole deal? Would Naomi OD? (Logan’s casual, “go easy this weekend, killer” line to Kendall was particularly horrendous). No, and in fact, the show set up what should have been a very traditional sex scene in the aftermath of the partying. Naomi and Kendall dislike each other but they have shared demons, they make out, they talk. When we see Kendall naked in bed and looking confused, we expect to see Naomi there as well, or some suggestion that they had been together. Instead, we see that Kendall shat himself in the night, a result of the drug use. He gets up, alone, and gathers his sheets up. What a total and complete shame and indignity. But Kendall just moves on. It’s just another one of these unending moments on Succession.
Naomi tells Kendall that “watching you people melt down is the most deeply satisfying activity on the planet Earth,” but the Pierces got their own dose of humility as well at the very end of the episode, where—for $25 billion—they were willing to set their principles and preferences aside to let Logan take over. “You can’t put a value on what we do,” Nan says harshly to Logan earlier on. But he did, and they accepted it because, as Logan says to the family: “Money wins.” It does, but at the cost of most of the characters’ pride and sense of self-worth (or even general sense of self). The show continues to illustrate how desperate people are to hang on to money and power, but also how desperate anyone can be for validation and even love. It reveals the depths that the Roys and those around them are willing to sink to in order to have these things, and yet, in doing so they forfeit so much else. It’s an astonishingly sad cycle that is also exceptionally addictive to watch exactly because of their privilege. They have everything but nothing to show for it. Still, these humiliation games may be as close as most of us will ever get to eating the rich, and there is—as Naomi says—something deeply satisfying about it.
Succession airs Sunday nights on HBO.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV