Biweekly Binge: The Machiavellian Chakravyuh of Succession
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week it is Succession streaming on Hotstar
Bad decisions. Lives are made, broken, formed, harmed and lost in bad decisions. Jesse Armstrong's show Succession - on its second season run with finale to go (streaming on Hotstar in India) - is a show that holds disproportionate regard for bad decisions. The show's foundational element is a bad choice. It is relentless in following this rule, you'll never see a character make a good decision. Of course, to judge a decision or choice as good and bad, one needs context apart from several other things. But even objectively, no one in the show ever makes a good decision in all its nineteen episodes run so far. The thing to marvel here is how consistent the characters remain through this ill-fated conceit. Never does it feel out of place or out of character for someone to make that choice. If you've been watching the show, I swear on the heaven above and hell that is the Roy household, that there would have been several instances when you'd have flung something at the screen muttering some version of, "Don't do that!" or "Yeah, do the right thing. Not that!", to the character about to land himself or herself into a Machiavellian Chakravyuh. One episode, it could have been Roman (Keiran Culkin). Another episode, the patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox) himself. Tom (Mathew Macfadyen) or Greg (Nicholas Braun), or, as it usually is the case, both. In several instances, Kendall (Jeremy Strong).
But the deal is, bad decisions have consequences. Logan Roy and his family, including the cohorts, never face these consequences. The entitlement factor is dialled all the way up and the vainglorious coterie comes out of everything unscathed. What they use to illustrate and further your frustration with these hateful characters is one of my favourite undying, addictive devices used by Succession throughout its run. Here is how it goes. An episode ends with the odds stacked against the family and its conglomerate Waystar Royco. Everyone is on tenterhooks about how to, first, save oneself, and then, save the company. But the subsequent episode doesn't begin where the previous one left off. Suddenly, the episode is set in another part of the world where the family is having an event. Someone is having a bachelor party and the boys are at a fun, secret location. There is a plaque unveiling event in Scotland or a meet and greet for the media at the Roy household. The events so far sure cast a shadow but nothing feels amiss. Roman is still joking around, adding unknown variables to his equation with Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron), Connor (Alan Ruck) is the only man comfortable in a desert, and the phrase "too big to fail" gains new meaning. Nothing terrible, really, went down.
There is a lot of chatter about how Succession is, well, the successor, to Game of Thrones. It hasn't garnered that level of following or peaked in terms of filmmaking, yet, but it feels like that from the way the show is engaged with and analysed. Succession is almost exclusively written in the language of succinct millennial consumables. The dialogues are one of its treats, delivered only in metaphors, gloriously campy and witty to a fault. In fact, the dialogues sound like tweets expressly put together to receive as many retweets as possible. Like Tom asking, "Couple of times? Were there Easter eggs you didn't get the first time?" when the ATN host says he's read Mein Kampf a couple of times, or the entire Boar on the Floor sequence. In a way, it is also the anti-GoT in that what you want is not someone on the throne but nuclear annihilation. Maybe something we wish for the world now. Every single person is the bad guy. Maybe Shiv (Sarah Snook) has a moral centre that is least jittery, but she can adapt to gravitational fields.
Succession can be frustrating when it works like an algorithm, designed for today's audience, hyper knowledgeable about every hot take on every issue. The show basically recreates the most hated royal family and reconstructs events around them. Logan Roy is Donald Trump or Waystar Royco is America and related theories are there for you to google the hell out of. But one does wonder that if we are already witnessing an entitled superpower self-combust, do we really need another show to live through it all? A character, appearing barely for minutes, says the most discernible yet startling fact of our times. The Roy family runs ATN, the Fox News stand-in in the Succession universe. He says, "Who watches news? We get our news through comedy." About a murderer's row of talk show hosts and hundreds of writers working behind the scenes are bringing news to us, working hard to satirize a world that is already far ahead of any parody they can conjure over ten cups of coffee overnight. What Succession really tells us is apparent from its reception. That, like Tom, we are ready to swallow our own load. Like Roman, we get off on hearing the naked truth. That we have normalized this business of wealthy, white, entitled men (or their privileged equivalent in other parts of the world) getting away with everything and the only thing we can do is laugh. These men and women are shielded from decay and their inherent vice. When it comes to that, who do you root for? Only one. That lone protestor outside Logan Roy's childhood home in Dundee.