The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Succession’ takes us behind the scenes of an anti-democratic conclave, and the sights are terrifying

Logan Roy (played by Brian Cox), center, sits at an event as his eldest son, Connor (Alan Ruck) stands to his left in "Succession." (Macall B. Polay/HBO)

This piece contains heavy spoilers for the sixth episode of the current season of “Succession.”

“Succession” creator Jesse Armstrong has often downplayed the influence of the Murdochs on his fictional plutocratic clan, the Roys. Similar to but not exactly like their real-life counterparts, the Roys comprise an octogenarian media mogul in ill health and his four adult children, the youngest three of whom have vied for years to be eventually handed control of the family company.

Armstrong, who once wrote a screenplay titled “Murdoch,” has insisted that for “Succession,” he and his writers have taken inspiration from a wide array of modern-day dynasties, including the Hearsts, the Redstones, the Mercers, the Maxwells (as in Robert and Ghislaine) and the Windsors.

But the hard-to-categorize HBO series (I’m currently going with “dramatic farce”) delivered the best episode of the season thus far — and one of its greatest installments ever — on Sunday by leaning hard into the Murdoch comparison.

The Roy family from HBO's "Succession" has a unique way of interacting with each other — and the outside world. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post, Photo: Jackie Lay/The Washington Post)

Mostly set at a secretive Republican gathering, “What It Takes,” the sixth episode of the third season, finds its well-connected, influential attendees choosing the next GOP presidential candidate, and thus quite possibly the next leader of the free world. And because Roy patriarch Logan (Brian Cox) owns a Fox News-like conservative cable network called ATN, the event is functionally an audition to see which of the contenders will most impress the habitually unimpressible kingmaker.

“It’s one of those things where, even if it isn’t real, there’s a reason it feels like it is,” says Logan’s assistant Kerry (Zoë Winters) in “What It Takes.” She’s referring to a rumor that a deputy attorney general has it in for Logan in the Department of Justice’s investigation into wrongdoings at his company, Waystar Royco. But the statement could just as well be about the episode itself, in particular the outsize power that Logan — and his real-life counterparts — wield on a global scale.

In ‘Succession’ Season 3, the Roys are more vulnerable than ever — to the public and one another

“What It Takes” is an exceptionally funny and chilling chapter of a show that specializes in those polarities. There’s a joke-machine velocity to the humor, which might only be fully appreciable upon a second viewing, given the speed of the dialogue and the resulting crosstalk. But it’s also a deeply tragic window into the impulses of the Roys, which are seldom not petty, fleeting or underconsidered. Theirs is a power no single individual or family should possess — not least because it’s one that’s utterly self-absolving of responsibility. And for once, Armstrong and his writers don’t shy away from the chaos and destruction in the larger world, beyond his realm, that a single glance by Logan can set into motion.

After ATN sinks the (unseen) president’s chances for reelection as part of a not especially thought-out retribution plan for the investigation into Waystar — such is the TV network’s impact — Logan is presented with four options for a successor. No one likes the most obvious choice, Vice President Dave Boyer (Reed Birney). Shiv (Sarah Snook), the sole Roy daughter, tries to sell her dad on Rick Salgado (Yul Vazquez), an old-school, National Review-subscribing conservative and the least objectionable choice to a center-left, lean-in feminist like herself. Logan’s firstborn, Connor (Alan Ruck), who’s been running a vanity campaign on a platform of abolishing taxes, pitches himself to a roomful of eyerolls. And so it’s Logan’s most feckless child, Roman (Kieran Culkin), who sells their father on his favored candidate: dark horse Jeryd Mencken (a shark-eyed Justin Kirk, distinguishing himself even on a season packed with notable guest stars).

An incredulous Shiv, who once wondered where she would get the actual news if her dad amassed even more media outlets, sums up the intellectually hollow but unmistakably hateful Mencken as a “YouTube provocateur” whose vibes are specious “aristo-populism … ‘rape is natural, it’s all red pill, baby.’” Midway through the episode, Mencken calls ATN the televisual equivalent of a “pudding cup at the nursing home at 5 p.m.” within Logan’s earshot — a seeming faux pas later revealed to be a preplanned negging.

Logan falls for it, hook, line and sinker. Seeking to prove his virility after suffering from a debilitating UTI in the previous episode, possibly through seducing Kerry — who’d be surprised if she became the latest Mrs. Roy by the end of the season? — Logan embraces Mencken as his candidate of choice, the latter’s winking nihilism the closest thing the 80-something can get at hand to a shot of youth. If ATN’s a pudding cup, Mencken’s a Monster Energy drink.

I don’t want to lose sight of how hilarious “What It Takes” is, almost flamboyantly so. The fears of Shiv’s husband, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), about his impending year behind bars as Waystar’s fall guy — a running gag this season and hardly mollified by his “prison consultant” — are at a fever pitch. And with former heir apparent Kendall (Jeremy Strong) currently out of the running, Shiv and Roman are at each other’s throats, giving us extended volleys between Snook and Culkin, the show’s most spirited sparring partners.

Contempt, the Roy family language, practically drips off the episode. Kendall refers to the summit’s itinerary as “burning books and measuring skulls.” Shiv tells Roman, quite correctly, “You just love the boot because you love to be kicked by it.” The Roys’ jokes are on the same scornful wavelength as Mencken’s, and they reinforce the allure of transgression, especially when trapped in an airless room full of human bow ties.

All of this is meant to evoke Rupert Murdoch’s eventual alliance with Donald Trump and his meme-loving base, of course. I have no idea if conclaves like the “ATN primary,” as one character calls the event, actually exist. But this depiction, however metonymic, certainly has an air of truth about it, partly because it underscores how terrifyingly powerful ATN actually is, and partly because no one with an ounce of conscience is at its helm, or even close to it.

Thus far on “Succession,” Waystar has largely been a MacGuffin — what the Roy children really want is their father’s love and approval, and the money and power that would come with being in charge seem pretty great, too. But Season 3 has made much more explicit the Frankenstein’s monster that Waystar is; the Roys can’t quite control the behemoth they’ve created.

In last week’s episode, when the network accidentally topples POTUS, Roman says, “It’s kind of nice to know that we can, like, puppet-master the whole American republic project and all, but” and never finishes the sentence. His vision for ATN — “Deep State conspiracy hour but with, like, a … wink” — is the inevitable dystopian outcome of a company run purely on greed and pitch-black cynicism, and other than the wink, it doesn’t seem too far a leap from the current programming. And as far as Logan is concerned, his TV exec mandates for a presidential candidate are that “they get it and they pop” — vague qualifications that depend on a single man’s personal tastes and whims, yet still underscore that it’s got nothing to do with vision, policy or leadership. With his weapons-grade apathy unexpectedly enabled by an overcompensating Logan, Roman becomes something he’s seldom been: terrifying.

That means the big loser of “What It Takes” is Shiv, who, as the sole voice of reason, is increasingly unheard. “Stop Chicken Little-ing us,” Roman tells her as Mencken increases in Logan’s estimation (echoing conservatives’ dismissal of liberals about Trump), as Shiv sputters on about abortion rights and union organizers. “I am genuinely concerned that we could slide into a Russian, Berlusconi, Brazilian f---pile,” she proclaims, to total indifference.

As it dawns on her how dangerous and unwieldy the company she wants to inherit actually is, Shiv no longer tries to make herself useful to her dad — and Logan’s ears turn deafer. The next day, when he forces her to take a family photo with a smirking Mencken and the most she can insist on is that she won’t be standing next to him, Logan sighs, “You win, Pinky.” She — and the country — has done anything but.

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